Smooth marble leaves rough edges

Craft in peril


Different stages of inlay work.

As if there is no end to his miseries, Mudassar has also been suffering from breathing ailments because of  inhaling the stone dust all his life. “We begin at an early age and the exposure is such that we absorb the skill as by osmosis!” states Mudassar. Though he was sent to the US by the Indian government for attending workshops in Miami, New York and Washington his condition has never improved.

In this art also known as pietra dura (marble inlay), beautiful floral and geometric patterns are created using various semi-precious stones like Lapis Lazuli (Afghanistan), Malachite (South Africa), Turquoise (Iran), Coral (Italy, Japan), Tiger Eye (India, Germany), Red Onyx (Germany), Blood Stone (Italy), Jasper (Japan) and many other stones. Then these stones are inlaid in Indian marble, black marble, Indian green marble (Baroda Green) and so on.

The customers who buy the wonderful marble inlay items that he has been creating might well be oblivious of the fact that he has also been suffering from breathing disorders owing to inhalation of the dust powder of various stones. This dust also causes cancer.

Mudassar’s workplace, a very small room in a ghetto, has an almost one inch thick layer of dust on his walls. Not only this, after risking one’s life almost, the business is down, especially after the 26/11 attack as the flow of international tourists has almost come down by about 70 per cent, according to Mudassar.

A substantial part of marble inlay work consists of making souvenirs, decorative plates, candle holders, photo frames, chess sets, ashtrays, coasters, pen holders, boxes, jewellery boxes and so on.

Iqbal Ahmed, another pietra dura expert at Nai ki Mandi in Agra, shilpguru and a national award winner, 57, started learning the work in his childhood from his father Hafiz Ahmed. Hafiz was a descendant of the marble inlay experts who had worked to give the Taj the place that it enjoys today. He grudges that the glorious art of marble inlay work is on oxygen and almost in its last throes. “The time is not far away the pachchikari art will be totally lost,” piques Iqbal.

According to Syed Ikhtiyar Jafri, an activist from Mirza Ghalib Research Institute, Agra, “Fifteen years ago there were around 10,000 marble inlay artists working in Agra but today there are hardly 2,000.”

Once finished, the inlay work is a connoisseur’s delight for a lifetime. Big chunk of marble inlay work consists of patterns similar to the Persian designs of the Mughals while some are imitations to suit to the taste of the urban clientele.

Experts like Martand Khosla differ so far as the origins of the inlay work are concerned. Some believe that the marble inlay work originated during the European Renaissance in Florence, Italy, while Iqbal refutes stating examples of many buildings with inlay work in India like — the Gaumukh Jain temple in Ranakpur, the Qila-e-Quvah in Purana Quila in Delhi and Ashrafi Mahal in Mandu — got completed before the advent of the Europeans.

Augustine De Bordeaux, a European traveller, visited India during the time of Emperor Jahangir and presented his marble inlay work. He played an important part in promoting the art. 

Whatever the facts about the origins of this work, it is without doubt that today Agra is the only place in the world where it is still carried on and it must not be allowed to perish, emphasises Martand.

Hafiz Ahmed, another national award winner and shilpguru from Resham Katra, Agra, feels that the ministry of culture must at any cost patronise the marble inlay workers today so that the art doesn’t die out. “Rewarding some and sending a few craftsmen to India Festivals abroad is not going to redress the wrongs done to theses artists,” he add.

The Mughal craftsmen used marble variously — in slabs to face their buildings, in sculpture, to carve pools and mimbar (place from where an imam communicates in Friday prayers), floral motifs, chevrons, water pools, pillars, brackets, niches and havelis (mansions). They also used it in mosaic using red sandstone and coloured marble embedded in cement. Jaalies (intricate open patterns) were actually fitted for proper ventilation and light.

How do these pachchikars go about his marble inlay work? “We take flower patterns from Persian or Italian books. While in the past, we used to take original flowers, press them into books and used the flattened flowers as our designs,” informs Iqbal. However, it’s not as simple rather it’s really cumbersome and demanding. It has six stages before an artifact is completed.

The art of marble inlay work begins by careful planning of designs and setting the colour patterns, according to Iqbal. The craftsmen use the tools that are much the same during the Mughal period. A floral or geometrical motif is cut out on a brass sheet. After placing it on marble, it is drawn and then the marble is carved out. A careful selection of various shades of semiprecious stones is done to give the right gradation and shading to the flowers and other motifs.

The selected stones are then shaped with the help of specially made emery grinding wheels made of corrund lacquer powder and other ingredients. After all the stones are shaped, a different group of artisans inlay the stone motifs in marble. The marble articles are then hand polished with the help of a traditional polishing powder applied on the surface with a soft muslin cloth. The whole process calls for sharp, dexterous hands, patience and high accuracy.

After all this labour, the inimitable design that comes out hardly fetches any profit to its creator who always languishes for want of survival and patronage to his work. The artifacts that are sold at Rs 30,000 per piece at the emporia, hardly fetch one thousand to the artists. Mudassar showed a beautifully finished plate to us that would be bought by the distributors for Rs 500 only but later would be sold at any price between Rs 5000 and Rs 10,000.

This is sheer exploitation of the pachchikars and it’s time the ministry of culture swings into action lest the skill is lost forever. Mudassar fears that it may be so.

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