Today’s Reference Collection highlight, “Off the Deckle Edge: A Paper-Making Journey through India” by Neeta Premchand (REF.PA.0406), provides insight into a world that is fast disappearing. Here, Premchand takes us to the villages of India where traditional hand paper-making is still practiced. As she introduces, “let us pause briefly to think about it, visit the simple villages which sometimes know no other craft, listen to the men and women who have for generations spent their lives making the looms, weaving the mats and treading the pulp to make the simple sheets of paper that we take so much for granted.”
Premchand’s story begins in Kalpi, where she meets up with Munnalal Khaddari, the author of a rare 1928 title on papermaking. Though well into his nineties, Khaddari is brimming with eagerness to tell of his experiences. Next, is the village of Sanganer, where she learns of the unusual use of hand-made paper to create a mosquito repellent called ‘Good Night’. It seems that this paper provides the best medium to contain the required chemicals.
The title continues in a diary-like prose as Premchand winds her way through the villages of Junnar, Aurangaband, Wardha, Pune, Ahmedabad and Pondicherry. Along the way, she shares her stories of ancient techniques, modern improvisations (such as the use of chhapris made of nylon rather than the traditional grass), and family histories dating back 400 years.
|a kagzi’s wife covers a plaster wall with sheets to dry|
One gem contained within these anecdotes is the story of a unique drying technique sometimes employed by the kagzi (paper-maker). Here, as Premchand explains, “The pressed sheets would be carefully separated and combed with a stiff brush onto lime-plastered walls. When dry, they would be peeled of the wall and scraped with a pumice stone to remove any grit.”
Throughout the title, Premchand includes snippets of paper-making techniques born from each village. Interspersed sections cover the materials, vocabulary, equipment, processes, and history of traditional Indian paper-making. Here, readers can explore raw materials such as raddi (waste paper), sunn(hemp), bhurja patra (Indian birch), and sabai grasses. They also learn about traditional equipment including the chhapri, or flexible grass mat with its wooden frame, the sacha. The chhapri, rarely found in India today, was the single most important piece of equipment needed by traditional Indian paper-makers.
|the loom used to weave the chhapri|
Also included are seven full-page paper specimens, as well as 107 photographs accompanying Premchand’s accounts of the people and culture of India. The title concludes with a bibliography and glossary of terms.
With its flowing narrative style, the title provides a steady balance of anecdotal treasures and detailed instruction. For anyone interested in the history and practices of traditional Indian paper-making, this title would be highly recommended.
The Reference Collection is one of three collections at The Center for Book Arts. The other two include the Fine Arts Collection (composed of artists’ books and prints) and the Archives (containing Exhibition Catalogs and the Center’s ephemera). All three collections can be viewed on-line via the Center’s website or in person by appointment. Note that the Reference Library is currently being cataloged, with roughly 85% completed.
-Sarah McCarthy, Librarian