Since 2000 I have returned to India every year from my home in Denmark to follow the development of India’s contemporary art scene as well to locate the remnants of the country’s traditional papermaking. While visiting the Kochi Muziris Biennale, the DelhiArt Fair 2018–19, and exhibitions in Ahmedabad in 2020, I noticed a growing interest in using handmade paper as an artistic means of expression amongIndian artists. I am not referring to artists buying handmade paper to draw and paint on, but to artists who use pulp, their own produced paper, or manipulate pulp and paper in untraditional ways as an artistic statement.
In an attempt to gain insights into the use of handmade paper as an artistic means of expression in India, I sent a questionnaire to eight artists working in India today: Anupam Chakraborty, Jenny Pinto, Kulu Ojha, Neeta Premchand, Radha Pandey, Ravikumar Kashi, Shantamani Muddaiah, and Sudipta Das.1
For the Oral Histories issue of Hand Papermaking, I present an excerpt from my research: the complete questionnaire answers by artist Sudipta Das. Born in 1985 in Assam, Sudipta Das completed her BFA in 2009 and MFA in 2011, in painting from Kala Bhavan, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, India.2 She is a visiting artist fellow at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University in 2020–21. Das is a mixed-media visual artist, exploring narratives on human migration and socio-political issues through the use of paper.
1. where and from whom did you learn to make paper?
My first encounter with paper was in Santiniketan while pursuing my education in Kala Bhavan. From that period until now, I have received encouragement and advice from my professors at the university. Although they did not provide me with specialised training, their understanding and guidance have helped me immensely to work with paper as a medium. I have also received specialised training in papermaking from Puli Paper Mill in Taiwan and from Chang Song in Korea. These trainings have helped me to evolve my practice of papermaking.
2. why did you choose to work with paper—what is it you find interesting about paper? My encounter with the contextualised use of paper as a medium for my work started as a solution to the technical difficulty I was facing during my education in Santiniketan. As I started working with memories, personal histories and the layered presence of history in our identity, I was collecting historical evidence and other documents which have carried history through photography. It is from this desire to use those photographic images that I started working with paper. Soon I found that paper is one of the best mediums for my expression as its fragility and its ability to absorb tints of colours can be contextualised with the histories of fragmentation and the layers of memory that I worked with. It is from this aspect that paper becomes an important way for me to express and contextualise my personal histories of migration and the anxieties of being an immigrant.
3. do you consider yourself a hand papermaker or a paper artist, and do you feel there is a difference?
Yes, I feel there is a difference between a hand papermaker and a paper artist. Such a difference exists because of our historical perspective of seeing papermaking as a craft. This has led to the various papermakers and the papermaking community as producers of the utilitarian object for artists as opposing to using the techniques as a medium of expression. About me . . . I don’t really oppose to anyone calling me a paper artist as I primarily work with paper, but I believe that such categorisation just as the basis of mediums are shallow and constricting without the understanding of how paper or papermaking becomes a medium of expression. I would rather call myself a visual artist as that is the periphery that I primarily engage with. For me using paper is not a compulsion but a medium for my artistic expression. If needed, I might change the medium, but not what I want to express.
4. do you teach others papermaking?
I do. I have engaged with various projects to teach school children and others on invitation by few organisations.
5. have you studied the history of paper in India or abroad? what were your impressions, in India and in other countries?
I have studied the history of papermaking in India and abroad independently as part of various projects. Currently as a project for which I have received the Greenshield award, I’m visiting and documenting various centres of papermaking such as the Jungshi handmade paper factory in Thimpu, the studios of the Kagzis3 at Sanganer and Jaipur, banana fibre manufacturers in Assam and the Lokta paper manufacturers at Katmandu. As mentioned before I also visited Puli paper mill in Taiwan and Chang Song, which is a traditional papermaking place in South Korea. In these visits I was overwhelmed with the traditional skills and knowledge that had existed through the aberrations and oblivion of history. These visits also showed me how we can create a more ecological, sustainable world through these papermaking traditions where elements from nature were treated in an organic manner to produce paper. I have imbibed these techniques in my work.
6. do you use mainly local plants/fibres in your paper production or do you import fibres from abroad? In some of my works, I have made paper from Banana fibre and from waste materials. In other works I have bought papers from abroad; especially Hanji paper from South Korea. It depends on the need and the demand of the work I’m making.
7. what do you know about the kagzi tradition in India, and does it inform your papermaking practice?
For me the Kagzi tradition in India speaks not only about a traditional papermaking practice, but also about multi-culturalism and Indo-Islamic history. As a tradition that came from the Arab world, it was adapted and well received in the Indian subcontinent. I also feel that the Kagzi tradition can show us pathways into making paper that is ecologically more beneficial. 8. how is papermaking received in india today? Well, hand papermaking has remained in darkness and oblivion for a long period. The onslaught of synthetic mediums and the superiority of canvas work over paper that was present in the art world until recent times aided its decline. But nowadays through the consciousness and the practice of contemporary artists, papermaking has been revealed to be a viable medium for artistic expression. It is now receiving more attention than before.
9. why do you think papermaking and the scribal arts in India have been less able to rise from their roots than the textile tradition?
I feel that earlier we have not understood and paid attention to the amazing traditional skills present around us. This lack of imagination and will has led to stagnation to these practices. Nowadays several attempts to experiment with these papermaking techniques by artists as well as a growing research interest have been instrumental in making these practices dynamic again.
10. do you think the Khadi and village industries commission will change its approach as the market grows for exported paper?
Yes, I believe that the Khadi and Village Industries Commission should change its approach due to the growing market of exported paper. It should not only encourage the traditional process of papermaking but also inspire them to make it a viable alternative to chemically treated paper through collaborations with artists and researchers. It can be India’s contribution to the solution of ecological distress caused by factory made, chemically treated paper.
11. do you think they should spearhead the revival of more traditional paper for use by conservators and artists?
I think the revival has already started through the hands of artists who are using these papers more and engaging in papermaking, through curators and galleries who are showing this kind of work more and more and researchers who have shown great interest in these techniques.
12. how do you envision the development of handmade paper and paper art in India’s future?
I believe that it is through artists and researchers that handmade paper will become an alternative to the environmentally harmful chemically treated paper. It needs to be recognized by the administrative machinery in India to make it happen.
13. are you in contact with other papermakers or paper artists in India or abroad?
From India I know artists like Ravi Kumar Kashi and Anupam Chakraborty.
1. A summary of all eight artists’ answers is available online at annevilsboll.blogspot.com. The research in its full length will be included in a forthcoming book documenting four decades of articles and studies by Anne Vilsboell on handmade paper as an artistic means of expression, actions in paper, and Vilsboell’s concept of paperism including historical, geographical, biological, chemical, psychological, aesthetical, and cultural aspects.
2. Kala Bhavan is the institute of fine arts of Visva-Bharati University. It was founded in 1919 by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
3. The term Kagzi in Urdu means a manufacturer of paper, from the word kagaz (paper).
Sudipta Das, Land of Exile, 2019, 10 x 168 x 168
inches, hanji paper, lokta paper, pigments. All photos
courtesy of the artist and Gallery Latitude 28, New
Delhi, India. below: Sudipta Das, in her studio.
Sudipta Das, Soaring to Nowhere, 2018, 72 x 66 x 40 inches, mixed media with hanji paper, approximately 200 pieces.
Sudipta Das, Shelter IV (from Shelter Series), 2019, 12 x 12 x 2 inches, hanji
paper, lokta paper, and watercolor on board.
Sudipta Das, Shelter X (from Shelter Series), 2019, 12 x 12 x 2 inches, hanji
paper, lokta paper, and watercolor on board.