Art fades, fragrance breathes

Hands on Tools: Sculptor chiseling an idol on sandalwood at the training centre.

A sandalwood creation reflects the purity and opulence of the fragrant wood from which it is crafted and also the exquisite handiwork of the artisan who created the piece. It is an epitome of virtuous divinity. Meticulous carving done exclusively by hands to the most intricate detail makes it a timeless masterpiece. Sculpting an aesthetic figure from a log of wood insists upon finesse, years of practice and perseverance of a craftsperson.

The centuries-old tradition of sandalwood craft is nurtured by the Gudigar family in the state. Way back, the proficient clan had migrated from Goa to the Malnad region of Karnataka, where sandalwood was in abundance. Blessed with immense talent, they partook in building temples and palaces and were patronised by the erstwhile Mysore Wadiyars. In due course, they also made mantapas, basingas (headgear) during the wedding season, clay Ganesha idols at the time of festival and several other utility and decorative commodities. Some of their sandalwood specialities include distinct combs like the oil comb and lice comb that were shaped by cutting out wood with a saw. Eventually, our government registered the artisans through Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation (KSHDC).

Concentration of these craftspeople led to establishing craft complexes with common facility centres in Sagar, Sirsi, Soraba and Kumta as well as in Mysuru and Channapatna. The artisans are provided with wood at subsidised prices. Finished products are procured from them and marketed nationwide as well as across the globe.

At present, there are about 600 registered and 330 unregistered artisans in the Malnad region. For the most part, they fabricate idols of gods, besides mantapas, jewellery boxes, padukas, pens, prayer beads, garlands and other items. “Garlands are in high demand and are made by women,” states Jagadish, a KSHDC project officer at Sirsi.

More recently, in light of changing choices, contemporary articles such as bookmarks, pen holders, paper cutters, paperweights, keychains, mobile stands, light-weight wall panels and the like are also being designed.

There is a scarce availability of sandalwood and this has affected the artisans as they can no longer rely entirely on their dexterity for livelihood. Gudigars, who have been committed to this occupation since ages, are gradually venturing into other pursuits. “There is less work at present. Many artisans go for door carving. The younger generation is stepping into other spheres,” says Lokesh Kumar who hails from Gudigar family and has been in this field for the past 25 years and is ailing with poor eyesight due to persistent concentration on minute features.

“Nowadays, artisans function on a part-time basis and follow this more as a hobby. Shivani woodcraft is yet another option for artisans which is well in demand too,” claims Srinivas Shetty. Due to the scarcity of the raw material, variations have been made in conventional designs wherever permissible. “Like for instance, for segments of the idol that are not seen (base and inner parts) different woods are used. Earlier, the idols were made entirely with sandalwood,” states Jagadish.

A new venture

To preserve and promote the authenticity of the craft, a training centre for traditional wood and stone carving was set up in Sagar in 2011. The centre is known as Shilpa Gurukula. With a training centre, hostel, administration block, exhibition and seminar halls, staff quarters and a guest house within the campus, the Gurukula aspires to abide by the ancient guru-shishya philosophy. It offers a two-year certificate course for the unemployed youth interested in art.

The selected candidates are granted free boarding and lodging and equipped with toolkits and raw materials. The curriculum comprises drawing skills initially, and carving and practical tasks later on. Students are taught to draw creepers. Gradually, they learn to make animal drawings, god faces, full figures and symmetry, one by one.

Simultaneously, they have to refer and examine the figures in temples, which enhance their observational and artistic skills furthermore. On Saturdays, they have projector classes where rough strokes, ideas of figures and other techniques and tricks needed to assimilate the art form are presented.

“Apart from practical classes, students are well-versed with selected portions of Shilpa Shastra in theory. Once in three months, exams are conducted. We also enlighten them on Chola, Chalukya and Hoysala styles of depiction,” mentions the instructor, Mahesh Jogi. About 80 students have been trained so far and are practising in different parts of the state. Over 40 students are currently enrolled in the Gurukula.

“Gurukula is doing well. Down the line, we aspire to make it a degree course. In 2018, the institute has won the SKOCH award. The demand for sandalwood craft has always been there and we need to tap the potential,” states Mohammed Salauddin, general manager of Cauvery State Emporium. No matter what, we do look forward to better times for sandalwood craft as its glory is unmatched and timeless.

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Art fades, fragrance breathes

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