Here, Tipu's legacy lives on

Last Updated : 11 January 2011, 02:29 IST
Last Updated : 11 January 2011, 02:29 IST

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The city of Mysore is home to some 1,500 artisans engaged in the craft of wood inlay and marquetry, the majority of them working in factories in Mandi Mohalla, the city’s largest craft pocket. Mysore is one of the very few places left in the world, where there is a large community of craftspersons practising this craft, using techniques that have been handed down over centuries.

Wood inlay is an ancient craft, in which a solid body of a material, like a rosewood plank is scooped out to receive sections of natural, multihued wood pieces, to form a decorative surface pattern. In marquetry, pieces of wood are assembled and then pressed onto a frame, like a jigsaw puzzle. A three-dimensional effect is created by the artist craftsperson, when portraits, landscapes, exotic birds and animals are reproduced in their natural colours.

“My products are mainly birds, animals and flowers in the relief marquetry style,” says craftsperson Mahboob Khan. “We sell to larger wholesalers who market through Cauvery and other emporia. Our sales have been badly hit by the recession and is just picking up,” he added.

The main markets today for inlay products are the Indian diasporas, mainly in the US and Europe.

Large units of furniture, like dining tables and chairs, chests, swings, mantapas (pavilions) and large wall plaques carved in inlaid dark rosewood, find pride of place in large mansions. Common themes are Geetopadesha, Dasara procession and Omar Khayyam. Iskcon temples all over the world are major buyers of panels depicting the Krishna theme. Islamic calligraphy is also popular.

“The export market for wood inlay items is around Rs four crore today,” says Devaramani, Deputy Director of the Handicraft Marketing and Service Extension Centre. “Domestic sales are much larger,” the deputy director adds.

Exhibitions and government emporia cater to domestic tourists and buyers, where smaller panels and plaques with images of Hindu gods and goddesses like Gajalakshmi and Ganesha are sold. There is clearly a need for new design development and intervention.

Devaramani says a wood seasoning plant has been started in Mysore to provide seasoned raw material right through the year. Also wood inlay is one of the five crafts of Mysore selected for registration at the Geographical Index Registry, a concept similar to the registration of patents.

Yusuf Ali’s workshop, Tipu’s legacy

In the 18th century Tipu Sultan, had, among other crafts, patronised the craft of wood inlay. The family of Mirza Zainulla Abidi who had migrated to Srirangapatna from Persia during his reign, brought the craft to this region.

After the demise of Tipu, artisan activity shifted to Mysore, which became the royal city of the Wodeyars. Abidi’s son Yusuf Ali opened the first inlay workshop, Yusuf Ali and Sons, in 1870 in Mandi Mohalla and trained a number of artisans, mainly from the Muslim community, in the intricate skills of inlay.

With the patronage of the Mysore Palace, the workshop started producing decorative embellishments to objects like musical instruments, photo frames, rose wood doors and furniture for the palace and rich local patrons. The fine doors inlaid with ivory at the Mysore Palace are attributed to their workmanship.

The now defunct Elephant Cigarette Co. placed bulk orders for rosewood cigarette boxes with an ivory inlay motif of wild elephants and palm trees, which provided sustained business for inlay artisans.

The Chamarajendra Technical Institute was specifically created in 1914 to provide formal training in traditional arts and crafts like wood inlay which, up to that time, had been entirely family based. Inlay artistes like Mir Shaukat took the art of pictorial marquetry to another level, incorporating contemporary themes, his works becoming collectors’ items.
Contemporary marquetry artist R Puttaraju, a graduate of Chamarajendra Technical Institute, is a contemporary marquetry artiste, who pioneered the relief technique in wood collage.

Hailing from the village of Mulloor near Kollegal, Puttaraju was inspired by the art in the St. Francis Assisi Church at Kollegal and began to sketch Biblical stories. The German priest, father Handy Kohrt, recognised his talent, took him to Mysore with him and had him admitted at the Chamarajendra Technical Institute, where he learnt painting and the art of wood inlay and marquetry. He experimented  widely with wood collage, being the first to make human portraits in this medium. Marquetry is much less flexible than painting, where instead of oils, modulations of colour can only be produced by contrasting selected pieces of wood.

In 1968 he created a panel “submission with devotion”, the first ever relief work in wood collage, for which he won the prestigious first prize at the Mysore Dasara Exhibition. Puttaraju then moved on to Chennai where he worked as an assistant art director and ran an inlay unit that supplied products to VTI.

Inspired by Ravi Varma, Puttaraju started making wood collage paintings based on his work, mainly portraits. “Ravi Varma is an icon when it comes to the Indian art scene. It was challenging for me to base my works on the art of such a great master. His 100th birth century in 2006 was a milestone, that provided an opportunity and inspiration,” says R Puttaraju.

Some of Puttaraju’s notable works in this series  are the portraits of Chamarajendra Wodeyar, Krishna Raja Wodeyar, Ravi Varma himself, Mohini Rukmangada, Kadambari, Yashoda Krishna and the Mysore stables.
Puttaraju was honoured with Rotary Ramsons Kala Pratishtana Award in June 2005. In 2008, he received the coveted Rajyotsava Award from the State government.

Published 10 January 2011, 11:12 IST

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