People | The Deckle Queen

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The Deckle Queen
Text by Roopa Barua and Photographs by Nilesh Acharekar
Published: Volume 17, Issue 8, August, 2009

The paper from the Daulatabad paper mill, handcrafted by kagziis, upholds a 500-year-old paper-making tradition. Roopa Barua profiles the Bombay Paperie and its owner, Neeta Premchand, who has single- handedly restored the mill to its former glory

The story goes that three Chinese prisoners of war were brought to Samarkhand in the 8th century AD after the battle of Kangli in West Turkestan. They taught their captors the Chinese art of making paper from linen waste. Paper absorbed a greater amount of calligraphy and decoration than traditional vellum or hide. The paper-making craft quickly spread through West Asia and by the 14th century, the Islamic conquerors brought paper to India.

Factories for paper-making were set up by Sultan Zainul Abedin of Kashmir in 1417-1467 AD. The industry continued to flourish and paper was being sent as gifts and exported to all corners of the Islamic Empires along with Indian saffron, musk, rosewater and Kashmiri shawls. Six other centres manufactured lush silken paper in India: Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Sialkot, Daulatabad, Kanpur and Faizabad. The Daulatabadi paper known for its stoutness and glossiness was patronised by Emperor Jehangir for making miniatures.

As the British came to India, this paper making craft was gradually annihilated. With the paper mills in England churning out machine-made paper, shiploads of paper was imported from Britain. All the Indian paper mills vanished and the craft of handmade paper in India was completely destroyed.

Legacy: n. something handed down by a predecessor
Heritage: n. (as modifier) of special value and worthy of preservation.

Walking in through the huge glass doors of the Bombay Paperie, I get my first glimpse of Neeta Premchand. A paper historian, I was told, she has travelled the world looking for the origins of paper. She has also single- handedly kept the Daulatabadi paper mill alive. Wearing a silk pastel kurta and blue-green beads, Premchand steps forward to welcome me. She is surprised at my interest in the Paperie. “I am a little cautious,” she says, “I don’t want my store to be the flavour du jour, I don’t want to be ‘discovered’. All I am hoping to do this to save a piece of our history. We all use paper but we never stop to think for a moment where it came from or how it was made. I hope when people come in here, they will take a moment to reflect and think about the origin of paper.”

After reading how paper is made in Nepal from water hyacinths, Premchand spent four summers in Japan learning the technique of paper making by hand. “Paper is respected, people who make it are revered in Japan,’’ she says. Following the paper trail, she published her book, Of the Deckle Edge in 1995 documenting the paper history of India. In the past century, paper was being made from gunny bags, cotton waste and other recyclable materials. Local grass was also used. “Looking at paper in the sunlight, studying the weave and patterns, I can tell you which region it is from,” she says holding a couple of different sheets against the window. After Independence, the Government of India passed an Act which let machine made paper from cotton pulp be classified as ‘handmade paper’. This decimated the true handmade paper industry. In 1998, on one of her numerous trips through the now defunct mills, she visited Daulatabad to discover that two of the older kagziis or papermakers knew the technique of making paper for Mughal miniatures. Standing in a mill that was in complete shambles, she knew that if she did not save this craft, “another link to our past would be closed forever.” She placed her first order and asked the kagziis to ship the handmade paper to Mumbai. She then called her husband, told him that she had just ordered bales of handmade paper and wanted a retail space from where she could sell. He set her up in the second floor of his office building – a former East India Company structure. Thus was born the Bombay Paperie.

With paper in a wide range of Pantene colours neatly stacked in piles, the Bombay Paperie stands in a heritage building opposite the Bombay Stock Exchange. Juxtaposed against the nervous energy of the stock exchange, the Paperie is an oasis of calm. The tall ceilin gs with exposed beams, the original Burmese teak floors, the armoires, chests and antique tables instantly transfer visitors to a more indulgent era. The Paperie stocks notepads, cards, gift bags, baubles and yes, delicate paper flowers too. What really draws the eye is the beautiful block printed paper – ream upon ream of rainbow- hued paper with paisleys, butis and flower motifs. On sheets that feel like soft cotton, the block prints take on an intensity all their own.

How do block prints fit into the Bombay Paperie? When Premchand visited the refugees from the Godhra riots, they refused all monetary help from her. ‘Give us work,’ they said. Not knowing what to do, she told them that they could start block printing her paper. “That is all I could offer them.” The handmade paper would be shipped from Daulatabad to Mumbai, sorted and then sent to Ahmedabad for printing. It would then be brought back to Mumbai to be sold off at the Paperie.

Now the block printed gift wrap with the deckle edge - a proud testimony to its handmade origin, is the most sought after item at the store. Premchand has just returned from Samarkhand in modern day Uzbekistan. She is on a constant journey, trailing the history of the papermakers and documenting their craft. Her next stop: The Indian North East. With close proximity to China, the North-Eastern states historically made their paper according to Chinese techniques. The only region in India that perhaps has the key to the original Chinese blueprint, she thinks. So she will travel again. A pilgrim’s progress surely.


  1. My advice to the youth: Be conscious of your past for it provides the foundation and sustenance for your future, much like the roots that support and nourish a tree as we wait for the fruit.
  2. I am sure it will not be easy to compete against the new ‘hand made’ paper. But as we seek a discerning market that recognises the genuine article and supports our ethos, I have no doubt that we will survive. In any case, given that our paper is so labour intensive, we just could not cope with a huge demand. And as we move from fast food to slow food, I hope we will also move from cheap imitation to the authentic object.
  3. What inspires me: Nature, in all its exuberance! Fields full of wild flowers, trees heavy with fruit, endless fields of green, yellow and brown, a breathtaking sunset, the full moon over the lucky we are to be given so much, and all we are asked for in return is respect.
  4. No, I have no grandiose image of myself – I merely feel grateful that I am able to follow my dream and save a little bit of my world for my grandchildren.
  5. The only question I ask myself all the time is whether I was right to specifically support the one mill that in my eyes, as a paper historian, was important, or should I have also tried to do something about all the other mills that were also dying out and have now disappeared.... But I just did not have the nerve to take on such a huge responsibility.

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