The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 21, 2003
'Art and Soul

Kaghaz ki kahani
B.N. Goswamy

The tools and technique of making paper leaf depicted in a volume illustrating crafts and trades, Kashmir, mid-19th century
The tools and technique of making paper leaf depicted in a volume illustrating crafts and trades, Kashmir, mid-19th century

IT was a South Indian manuscript — a magnificent illustrated copy of one of the books of the Bhagavata Purana — in the Binney collection in San Diego that sent me on a long hunt some time back. Very few high-quality paintings on paper from that region are known, and this manuscript, owing to the sheer delicacy of workmanship in it, simply took one's breath away. I got very interested in knowing more about it, therefore, with a view to eventually publishing it. By the look of it, it appeared to be a 'late' work, from the 19th century perhaps, but it bore no date. One started looking for other indications. And then, together with my colleague at that museum, Caron Smith, I discovered, that the 'mill-made' paper on which it was written bore a watermark, a crest which was evidently the manufacturer's logo and below it, the words, water-marked in bold characters, "G. Magnani". Armed with this information, we started investigating watermarks on paper, hoping to find some indication of the date or period, at least of the paper on which the text was written and the paintings done.

A long search ensued, at the end of which we discovered that the mark belonged to one of the oldest, still extant, paper mills in the European world, located in Italy. We were on to something, we knew. But what this 'paper chase' led to, the crowded lanes of information on the history of paper-making that one had to thread one's way through, is another matter. This note is to share with the readers the delight of learning some of the things that I did in the course of this chase.

The rains in poetry and painting
September 7, 2003
The way of the brush
August 24, 2003
Passion for collecting textiles
August 10, 2003

Dazzling images from Amir Hamza’s life
July 27, 2003

Recording intellectual journey of man
July 13, 2003

A dynasty of artists
June 29, 2003
Controversy dogs IIAS again
June 15, 2003
To study, conserve & restore
June 1, 2003
Images from the Mexican cultural tapestry
May 18, 2003

When cultural property is a casualty of war
May 4, 2003

North-eastern lights
April 20, 2003

The horrors of war
April 6, 2003

Masks, make-up & entertainment
March 23, 2003

That paper — as we know that material — came from China, is all too well established. The name of its inventor, Ts'ai Lun, who was an official at the Imperial court, has survived; so has the precise year — AD 105 — in which he announced and presented this wonderful invention to the Emperor. One also knows that the Chinese kept the secret of paper-making to themselves for several centuries, and that it was only in the middle of the 8th century that Samarqand emerged as a major centre of paper production. But I was not aware that the Arabic word for paper — kaghaz — was also derived from the Chinese gu-zhi and underwent several transformations, through Sogdian and Uighur and Turkish tongues, before it turned into the Arabic kaghaz. Again, I had always thought that the Arabs got paper from China through trade but I discovered that they learnt the art of paper-making from Chinese prisoners of war whom they brought back after the hard-fought battle of Atlakh, near Talas, in AD 751. It was after they learnt that technique, and improved upon it, that great centres of paper production were founded at Samarqand from where eventually paper travelled westwards and southwards.

Nearly 400 years went by before the first centre of paper manufacture was founded in Europe. And that owed itself to the Arabs again, for it was the Moors who brought the technology to Spain in the 12th century. Paper had come to be known in Europe before that century, but it was on papyrus and parchment that writing was customarily done. Papyrus, from which the word ‘paper’ is obviously drawn, is a tall, aquatic plant of the sedge family that was known since ancient times to the natives of the Nile valley in Egypt, and that gave its name to the material on which to write, prepared as it was from thin strips of the pith of the plant laid together, soaked, pressed, and finally dried. Parchment was made from the wetted, stretched and scraped skins of sheep and goats. Together these two formed the traditional, time-honoured materials on which to write. But I was not aware that initially there was some resistance to the use of paper in Europe. One account that I read mentioned that in the context of the fierce Cross-versus-the-Crescent rivalry that prevailed then, early paper was disfavoured by the Christian world, it being "a manifestation of Muslim culture". There is mention, in fact, of a decree of the year 1221 by which the Holy Roman Emperor declared all official documents written on paper, as different from parchment or papyrus, to be "invalid". But things were to change soon, very soon. And paper became the material proper for all writing in Europe and, of course, for printing, when the celebrated German Gutenberg invented the movable type in the 15th century. Reams of paper started being used. (I did not know, incidentally, that the word "ream" came from Old French reime, which came from the Spanish resma, which in turn derived rather naturally from the Arabic rizmah, meaning ‘bale or bundle’.)

And in India? Views vary somewhat about the time when paper came to our land. In one view, Khurasani paper was introduced at the time of the first Muslim conquest of Sind in the 8th century; in others, it was not till the 14th century that it started coming into general use, gradually replacing all those surfaces on which early writing was done: from hard materials like stone, metal, wood and shell, to softer ones such as birch-bark (bhurja-patra), palm-leaf (tada-patra), and cotton (kurpasaka). The transition to the new material seems to have been remarkably smooth and the use and manufacture of paper spread very rapidly, and major centers of production sprang up everywhere: in Kashmir, for instance, at Sialkot in the Punjab, Sanganer in Rajasthan, Daulatabad in the Deccan. Zafarabad in Uttar Pradesh produced enough paper for it to earn the sobriquet of kaghazi shahar, the 'city of paper'.

Further refinement

At each centre of production — typical once again of how things happen here — there were refinements, and several sub-varieties of paper seem to have been turned out, some of these named after the patrons whose personal preferences they reflected. At Daulatabad alone, for instance, they speak of papers called Bahadur Khani, Sahib Khani, Murad Shahi, Qasim Begi.... There was also a paper called Sharbati, but who knows whether the name referred to its light brown colour, or to some princess or courtesan who had eyes of that hue.