Communication is such a ubiquitous part of everyday life. From Snapchatting to texting to taking notes in class, the written word is not, as some say, dying out. Instead, it is simply taking on new forms.
The complexity of our language distinguishes the human race as a species, and so studying how and why we communicate helps probe larger questions about humanity. One fascinating aspect of this quest will be presented in a lecture and demonstration by papermaker and artist Radha Pandey in the Aula on April 11.
Pandey specializes in what is known as Islamic-world papermaking. Her lecture at Vassar will focus more specifically on traditional Indian handmade paper, comparing traditions between India and elsewhere in East Asia and explaining the techniques, their effect on literacy and the influence of the British.
So what exactly is Islamic-world papermaking? According to Vassar Muslim Student Union President Farah Aziz ’16, paper and text are extremely important in Islam. She explained, “Islam has a special appreciation for the arts with respect to poetry, calligraphy, storytelling, etc…. Calligraphy [especially] is appreciated and respected for its ability to function as both artwork and as a powerful mode of communication.”
This tradition is not actually where the story begins, though. As Pandey explained in an emailed statement, “Islamic-world papermaking is the link between papermaking in the East (Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam) and papermaking in the West (Europe and the U.S.).”
Papermaking was invented in China in 105 A.D., but ideas traveled west in an unexpected way. “The arrival of papermaking in Samarkand from China,” Pandey continued, “is said to have been the result of Chinese prisoners of war that traded this very important and then obscure knowledge of making paper in exchange for their lives.”
Samarkand, in present-day Uzbekistan, was an important city for scholars as well as Silk Road traders, and so the production and use of paper, connected to the traditions so vital to Islam that Aziz described, flourished there. With time, the innovation spread throughout the Islamic world, hence “Islamic-world” papermaking.
However, as Pandey points out, the term can be misleading. “This type of papermaking does not have much to do with Islam as a religious practice, but rather as a cultural phenomenon … Just as Western papermaking is not called Christian papermaking despite being used in the production of bibles, it is unfair to call this tradition ‘Islamic’ papermaking and have a religious tag affiliated with its definition.”
And so, once again, we look to history. The main Islamic invasion of India took place around the 13th century C.E., and along with it came the art of papermaking. About simultaneously, the Islamic powers and their skills in paper crafting were spreading to Spain, and from there, papermaking spread to Europe. “The mechanization of the papermaking process led to what we know today as Western papermaking,” she continued. “This happily coincided with the invention of printing and there was an explosion of literacy and learning.”
In India, though, papermaking stuck around, and religious manuscripts thrived alongside printed books for years. Then the British descended. In the West, print material had turned to propaganda, including famous events such as Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses. In India, however, the British undermined traditional handwritten texts, using European-style printed materials for colonial purposes.
“The Portuguese brought printing to India in the 1500s, and books in print were seen as evangelical tools.” Pandey continued. “In 1757, when the last opposition to British rule fell in Bengal, the East India Company took hold and print became an indispensable tool in the colonization effort, and was used to serve the new government.”
Though Pandey is very knowledgeable about the formal background of papermaking, her interest in the handicraft is also deeply emotional. Her personal history with paper, much like the history of papermaking itself, has roots in East Asia.
“When I was about five, and living in Delhi, my mother came back after a visit to Japan. She brought back a small pack of origami papers for me, and I was hooked … It wasn’t white, opaque and smooth. It had a texture, fibers. It was translucent … It was beautiful and I was obsessed,” wrote Pandey.
Pandey pursued her passion at various institutions throughout India and the United States, studying and working with everything from traditional papermaking to graphic design to stop-motion animation of wire frames embedded in paper.
Associate Professor of Religion and Director of Asian Studies Michael Walsh, who organized Pandey’s visit to Vassar, expressed his departments’ interest in her lecture, saying, “We spend so much of our time with texts. Here is someone who makes paper, the material that texts are made of … Handicrafts, or any crafts for that matter, can teach us much about the values and aesthetics of another culture. Humans make their world in many respects, quite literally.”
Walsh expanded on the reasons for inviting Pandey, explaining, “[H]er perspective on Islamic-world papermaking seemed important given how little there is in our College curriculum on Islam.” The Religion Department, however, is adding an Islam scholar to its faculty in the fall.
Pandey’s talk is quite specialized, but it will help broaden our comprehension of seemingly foreign cultures. Just as evolving forms of communication make the world smaller every day, in the end, Pandey hopes to demonstrate how universal papermaking, the original mass form of communication, is. “Papermaking is an important cornerstone in every tradition and culture,” she expressed. “The invention of paper and transmission of that knowledge played a vital role in the way we imbibed and disseminated knowledge and information, and that is relevant today in giving us a better understanding of who we are as a culture and society.”