Tucked away in a village near Jaipur is
the world's largest centre of hand-made paper!
The variety that one finds in India is not
just about different types of people and culture. There is surprise and
variety in the number of economic activities too! Whole specialised
craft-based businesses exist tucked away in pockets across the land. Each
of these will narrate a fascinating tale.
When the Uzbek, Ghiasuddin Babur finally
defeated Ibrahim Lodi at Panipat in 1456, he was in addition to being a
conqueror, a man with a vision for a grand empire. His hordes were not all
armed soldiers. Bringing up the rear was a team of scholars, craftsmen,
designers and theologists. Among these were a few papermakers drawn from
Turkey. Their charter was to produce paper and parchments for the Moghul
court. [Not to be asserted, but was this the moment paper was introduced
India, as an alternative to the traditional palm leaf and fabric?].
Fast forward to Akbar's times. The small
band of paper-makers had developed into a guild, restricted to those born
into the clan. They had adapted the surname, Kagzi, after 'kagaz' meaning paper. And spread to Sialkot [now in Pakistan], Gujarat, Maharashtra and
Of these the only surviving settlement of
Kagzis today is at Sanganer, in the outskirts of Jaipur. Sanganer is
blessed with water and open spaces, that are essential for paper making.
From here the Kagzis enjoyed patronage of the royal court of Sawai Man
Singh and his successors. And all seemed well.
By the eighteenth century, storm clouds
gathered over the Kagzis. The advent of the Europeans, brought in their
wake industrial produce of the west, among which was low-priced mill-made
Salimuddin Kagzi, now 65, recalls the
trials of his father Janab Allahbux Kagzi. "From a prosperous village
Sanganer, became a starving village. India was overwhelmed by 'modernity'
and cost-effective products. Add to that the decline of royal grandeur.
There was no market for hand-made paper."
At this point we see the hand of , who
else, Mahatma Gandhi! [Wonder what aspect of India's life he did not
touch!]. Allahbux met Gandhi in 1937 and sought counsel. He in turn
persuaded the textile mill-owners of Ahmedabad to extend business. For
several decades thereafter, Sanganer supplied packaging materials for
textiles. It was not anything to raise them to prosperity, but it kept the
Kagzis of Sanganer and their skills alive. No such luck for Kagzis
elsewhere. Salim Kagzi believes, they have all closed shop and the
Sanganer settlement alone survives.
It is difficult to resist a digression
here. India today is at a similar juncture today. With its doors open to
globalisation, there is a steady stream of low-priced products from
overseas. There is widespread closure of small businesses. And a rising
level of discontent. Let us hope there is a happy ending to all this as
there was to the plight of Kagzis.
Hope arrived in the late sixties with a
world awakening to the perils of polluting industries while at same time
realising the pleasures of hand-made objects. Slowly, Sanganer revived and
arrived at the moment it understood that it was on to a great opportunity.
What the world wanted from them was many usable hand made objects made of
paper. From the obvious, letter pads and books, Sanganer began to produce
gift boxes, desk accessories, mobiles, decorative objects etc. The
conversion activity generated jobs and added to their pricing power. The
Kagzi streak of enterprise was in flow again.
Today there are about 10 hand-made paper
industries in Sanganer, all owned by Kagzis. Of these the largest is Salim
Kagzi's Handmade Paper and Board Industries, which singly and exclusively
manufactures for the world's markets, paper products worth Rs.10 crores
annually. Salim employs 600 people. Together, all Sanganer paper makers
are the largest producers in the world.
A unique clan.
Except for the electric motors used for
pulping, calendaring and peripheral activities, all production is manual.
No chemicals whatsoever are used. All colouring is organic. Decorative
effects are produced by inclusions such as petals, grass clippings and the
like. Paper is dried under the sun. The water let out from the industries
is benign. The input is cotton cut waste from garment industries. And the
output goes to every advanced economy in the world.
Kagzis are more wholesome than just
business people. They preserve a remarkable heritage that grew out of the
interactions of Turks with India. Over time, this heritage has become
unique to India, worth a sociologist's attention. Though Kagzis are
Muslims, they are fully integrated with the larger society. Allahbux was a
member of the Congress party and worked with Gandhiji in the freedom
movement. Son Salim is active in conducting the annual Ram Lila event,
which is entirely Hindu in content!
The wealthy Kagzis are austere and
unostentatious! They live a frugal life. Their marriages are simple, group
affairs where, everyone rich and poor contribute an equal sum of the order
of Rs.5000 and share the same wedding feast.
They are also quaint! Kagzis marry only
among themselves! Though there are about 3000 of them in Sanganer, there
can't be much choice for young people. Don't they marry among the larger
Says Salim: "No! You see, we may be
Muslims, but we are, above all Kagzis!!"