No shine in it for artisans

No shine in it for artisans

LIVELIHOODS

No shine  in it for artisans

Rasheed Ahmed Qadri dunked a dull grey vase into a vessel full of brown, boiling mud and stirred.

About a minute later, he lifted a glossy black vase out of the bubbling concoction, a vase delicately decorated with designs in silver of the brightest bright. Perhaps I had had a surfeit of Harry Potter but my only thought was, “It’s like magic.”

Fifty-six year old Rasheed Qadri is a national and state award-winning artisan from Bidar and he had just shown us the penultimate step in producing Bidri ware.


The craft is named after the city, where it has been practised for at least 400 years. According to Qadri, the craft was brought to Bidar by a craftsman named Abdullah-bin-Kaiser who produced shell inlay in stone, and silver and gold inlay in iron objects like guns and cannon. Although Kaiser was reluctant to share the secrets of his craft, some Shetty families eventually managed to learn his techniques and began working on zinc instead.

According to information at the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, the craft first came to Ajmer from Iran in the 12th century. In the 1400s, craftsperson Abdullah-bin-Kaiser moved from Ajmer to Bijapur. During the coronation of Allauddin, the tenth Bahmani ruler, Kaiser presented him with some bidri articles. Deeply impressed, Allauddin invited Kaiser to move to Bidar from Bijapur. In fact, it was he who later christened the craft bidri.

Silver inlay work
Bidri is essentially an inlay of silver (or sometimes gold) on objects made of a zinc-copper alloy. A bidri piece begins life as an unprepossessing, leaden-grey item that is cast using a mould made of mud. The artisan first evens out its rough surface and gives it a temporary black coating. This done, experienced hands set to work on it, using small chisels to deftly incise intricate designs onto the metal surface.

I marvelled at how the chisel moved smoothly and ceaselessly over the surface – no wiggles where the tool did not obey, no lines that went awry, no pauses to wonder what to do next. Majeed Qadri, Rasheed’s brother and also an artisan, smiled at my wonderment: “We have so much practice, we don’t need rulers to draw. It just comes.”

The design that emerges depends entirely on the creativity of the artist – leaves, lines, checks, circles, flowers, swirls…One pattern, I noticed, looked exactly like the parapet atop the mosque in the Bidar Fort!

The next stage in the process is the inlay, where the craftsperson carefully and painstakingly hammers a thin silver wire into the grooves of the engraved design. Another round of buffing and smoothening follows, and the temporary black coating is removed so that the item looks uniformly grey once again.

And then comes the penultimate step that seemed to me almost alchemy. What gives bidri its allure is the contrast of the silver inlay against the gleaming black patina of the base. According to Rasheed Qadri, this finish requires a special soil that is available only in Bidar. Not just any place in Bidar, but only in Bidar Fort, from the depths of old buildings there “that have seen neither sunlight nor rain for hundreds of years.”

This special ingredient is mixed with a little bit of ammonium chloride and heated in a vessel. In goes the grey ware, out comes bidri ware. A final polish with some oil and another lustrous bidri article takes its place on the shelf, ready to be sold. I later learnt that the chemistry behind bidri is still not completely understood. In the 1950s, Indian researchers found that the necessary ingredient from the Fort’s soil was probably potassium nitrate, a compound found in “well-urinated soil”.

Later, scientists G Martin and Susan la Niece from the British Museum tried to replicate bidri’s manufacturing process and concluded that the glossy black patina was probably due to the copper in the alloy. But the exact nature of the coating remained elusive since none of the compounds they identified in the patina were actually black. More recently, researchers at Imperial College in London found that the black patina was a mere three micrometres (or three millionths of a metre) thick. However, they concluded, “there is still a mystery surrounding the deep black colour of the patina and the compound causing it.”

Till the fort’s soil lasts...
The Qadris themselves did not know why the Fort’s soil blackened the zinc-copper alloy but not the silver inlay. But says Majeed, “The day the Fort’s soil is exhausted is the day Bidri work comes to an end.”

The art and craft of Bidri is usually passed on from father to son, and occasionally, to daughters. One hereditary craftsman I met, Ramesh, told me his entire family, including his mother and wife, worked on bidri. At Rasheed Qadri’s workshop, I met two young women whose deft hands chiselled and engraved even as we chatted. Shahida Begum, a 30-something widow, says her entire family used to work on bidri. But she herself learned the craft from Qadri. “It’s convenient,” she says. “I can do all my housework because I can work from home. I don’t have to roam about in the sun. And I enjoy it.”

Her colleague, Taslima, also began learning Bidri because she wanted to. But these women are the exception. Very few join the profession though many leave it. Bidar, the main centre of production, has a mere 200-odd bidri artisans left. Another handful operates in Hyderabad. Several skilled craftspersons work instead as masons, carpenters or labourers so they can earn better. Both the Qadris have not taught their children the craft either.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but there’s not much money in it,” says Majeed. Rasheed agrees, “We get appreciation, but not much money.” Adding to their woes is the rising cost of raw materials. The price of silver has increased threefold in six years. But artisans say that if they increase the prices of their products, customers baulk at buying.

Even though Bidri has the coveted GI (Geographical Indication) tag, it seems it may well die out before the Fort’s supply of soil dries up. The Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation provides some assistance in the form of a small subsidy on raw materials.

Its Bidri Ware Craft Centre in Bidar’s Bidri Colony also runs two buffing machines, charging but nominally for them. But artisans feel what they really need is some intensive help in marketing. Qadri even has an idea for one way of promoting the craft: put it in the school syllabus. “If people know about the craft and understand it, they will buy it.”

I think he has a point. Knowing about the craft – the hard work involved, its long history, the unusual manufacturing process including the dash of fort soil, and the mystery over the patina – has certainly helped me appreciate the unique art of bidri. 

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