Beautiful and breathtaking

bidri craft

I am at a crafts emporium near the Lepakshi Gunfoundry, Hyderabad, gazing enraptured at the exquisite display of bidriware before me.

Awesome : Bidri works of art.

There are plates, bowls, vases, ashtrays, trinket boxes, animal figures, jewellery and what have you. The articles have a shiny black metal background decorated with gleaming silver inlay work. In fact, it is the contrast between the black surface and the shiny silver inlay that makes them look so unusual and dramatic. No wonder Bidriware is an important export handicraft of India and is considered a symbol of wealth.

 Bidri craft is said to have originated in Bidar, in the 14th century, during the rule of the Bahmani sultans. Hence the name. There are several versions about how this art was created. According to one, Sultan Ahmad Shah Wali had invited Abdullah bin Kaisar, a craftsman from Iran, to come to India along with a few other artisans and decorate the royal palaces and courts with metal craft already popular in Iran. Kaiser is said to have joined hands with local craftsmen and their joint effort was responsible for the creation of this unique form of art.

Another version states that Abdullah bin Kaisar had himself migrated to Bidar in the 11th century and made friends with a local goldsmith and their joint efforts gave birth to bidri. According to a third version, the craft was created under the patronage of the Hindu kings of Bidar who used the crafted articles to offer flowers to their household deities. Whoever might have been originally responsible, the craft eventually created is undoubtedly breathtakingly beautiful.

I am keen to know the process of creating bidriware and I’m told that for that I must visit Bidar, 75 miles north-west of Hyderabad.

The name ‘Bidar’ was derived from ‘bidiru’, which means bamboo. Apparently, the place used to be full of bamboo groves once upon a time. We drive past historical monuments belonging to different periods — Tughlaq, Bahmani, Adil Shahi, Mughal and others. Apart from the impressive fort, there are tombs, darwazas and mosques galore which I promise to visit another time. My destination is different today as I am here primarily to visit the home of this striking handicraft. As we alight from the car and wind our way through the cobbled lanes, we come across the housing colonies of the craftsmen where they live and work. One of them comes forward to show us and explain how it is done.

Briefly speaking, bidriware is manufactured from an alloy of copper and zinc (the ratio being 1:16). The zinc content gives the alloy a deep black colour. First of all, the mould for the article is constructed with a mixture of soil, resin and castor oil. The molten metal is then poured into it and the cast piece is created, later smoothened by filling.

This cast is then coated with a strong solution of copper sulphate for a black coating which is temporary. On this the designs are etched freehand with a metal stylus. The craftsman then uses small chisels to engrave the design over the freehand etching. After that fine silver wire and flattened strips of silver are carefully hammered into the grooves. The article is then filed, buffed and smoothed, during which the temporary black coating comes off and the metal looks a silvery white.

It is now time for the final blackening process. This requires a special soil which is found within the Bidar fort. This soil is mixed with ammonium chloride and water to form a paste which is rubbed on the heated surface of the article. Surprisingly, this paste blackens only the main body and has no effect on the silver inlay work. Once the paste is washed off we have the shiny silver design resplendent against the black surface. Finally oil is applied to the finished product to deepen the matte black coating, polished gently with cloth and it is ready for display.

Bidri designs usually consist of traditional patterns like stars, creepers, plants and flowers, the Persian Rose and sometimes lines from the Quran in Arabic script. But now we also have a lot of contemporary designs done by modern artists, some of them quite strikingly beautiful.

 Although Bidar and Hyderabad are the most vibrant centres for bidriware, similar work is also done in other parts of our country. Purnia in Bihar, Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh and Murshidabad in West Bengal are some of them. We also have the Gharki, a less sophisticated variation of Bidri, done near Purnia.

 Our guide asks me if I know about Bidri embroidery and I have to admit that I don’t. It is a specialised style of embroidery that also originated in Persia more than seven centuries ago and is now special to Bidar. It is done on black cloth using silver-coloured thread. The motifs and stitches used in Bidri embroidery are similar to those used in Zardosi.

We amble across the lane to take a look. Bidri embroidery requires the use of crochet hooks, metal stars, sequins and glass pieces, among other things. It also needs teamwork. We see a group of workers busy with the embroidery, using both hands, sitting cross-legged around a wooden frame on which the fabric is fixed. I am told that the embroidery patterns are mostly taken from the motifs inside the Bidar Fort and also the beautiful frescos found in the Ajanta Caves.

But, over the years, the embroidery has now absorbed a large range of modern designs as well. Like Bidri metal craft, Bidri embroidery has a large market too, especially abroad. We get to see several striking sherwanis, salwar-kurta sets, tops and scarves with exquisite Bidri embroidery.

It is now time to return. The sky is a mass of red and gold. We get into the car once again, the rays of the setting sun showing us the way.

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