Finesse in woodcraft

Made in GUjarat

Finesse in woodcraft

A mere three-hour journey from Ahmedabad is all it takes, said my friend-hostess. She was trying to persuade me to postpone my return by a day in order visit Sankheda. The town in Chhota Udepur district of Gujarat is famed for its wooden lacquer work. I finally gave in. 

Actually, I did not have to go to Sankheda for an introduction to Sankheda craft. And that is probably also true for the average Indian. The richly colourful lacquered woodwork of Sankheda is widely known, given how the products are seen in homes across India. Known as Sankheda furniture and craft after the town where they are made, they are widely exported too; so they find a presence in houses around the world, including the US, Africa, Europe, South East Asia etc.

The furniture range includes sofa sets, chairs, swings, tables, cupboards, stools, room dividers, walkers, pedestals, puja mandirs etc. A child’s cradle is also a popular product, and in fact, the more ornate ones are treasured as heirlooms, hold sentimental value, and are passed on from one generation to another.

Strength & beauty

The motifs are all painstakingly handpainted. You will see floral motifs or a lattice of geometrical shapes. Tiny wooden bells are a characteristic feature in many products. Some of these pieces are highly ornate. They are all as beautiful as they are sturdy and durable. 

The glossy furniture with patterns in a palette of distinctive colours like gold, yellow, red/brown, orange, and silver — with blue, purple and green being used in modern times — not only adorns residences, but is also in demand during ritual celebrations and weddings (for chairs for the bride and groom). They are also used as pedestals on which a god’s idol is placed. Gujarat’s royalty was also fond of gifting Sankheda products to their visiting guests. Many homes which prefer the ethnic theme for their interior decor go for Sankheda products. Sankheda furniture is quite an eye-catcher — whether in homes, offices, restaurants or celebratory events.

While several traditional Indian crafts are gradually dying out owing to the lack of demand, low awareness among the public and inadequate marketing, Sankheda is a heartening good-news story with the craft flourishing, thanks to high demand, good returns, quality packing and modern marketing methods.

The craftsmen who fashion these beautiful products belong to the Kharadi community. We found that many of them were fairly articulate and at the bigger centres, they appeared market-savvy too. Definitely, they were all in touch with market trends. They revealed a strong sense of community identity and significantly, most of the craftsmen we met expressed confidence that their next generation would carry on the tradition. And this, even while they were aware of the need for good education.

So, we found many youngsters who were not only educated, but also knowledgeable about their craft. In fact, in some families, the younger, English-knowing members take charge of the interactions with foreign clients and the occasional journalist. The community worships Krishna and other gods, while Vishwakarma, the Indian god of architects, is a favourite.

Labour involved

A high degree of skill, long hours of hard work with concentration and a great deal of aesthetic sense are called for in creating these products. Sankheda furniture uses teakwood. Teakwood pieces that will make up the piece of furniture are separately dealt with. Each piece is first cut to the required size and shaped on a lathe and smoothened out, after which a solvent is applied and the piece is left to dry. Designs are painstakingly hand-painted on the pieces. The geometric precision with which the craftsmen do this is admirable.

The pieces are then polished at the lathe with the pressure of an akik stone. This treatment is followed by applying lacquer and subjecting it to heat from coals. Leaves of the kewda tree are used for further polishing and finishing. More drying follows. The pieces have to be assembled into furniture; they are subject to drilling to create joints. Then they are assembled for sale.

There are differences in the way the furniture is made by some craftsmen. Also, the use of synthetic colours and melamine coating may be noticed here and there.

The beginnings

We heard a charming tale of how this craft originated. About one-and-a-half centuries ago, Sankheda’s carpenters lived in penury. One day, a mendicant sadhu from the Araavali hills came here seeking alms. Despite their poverty, they extended to him whatever help was within their means. The holy man was pleased and in return taught them how to upgrade from their ordinary carpentry job by creating lac or natural resin using the secretion of insects, polishing wood and painting designs. That is the whole process by which Sankheda furniture acquires its unique appearance and quality. And the word ‘Sankheda’ is said to be derived from the word Sanghedu, which is the Gujarati term for lathe.

The gloss, pretty designs and completely ethnic look are what attract many customers to Sankheda furniture. However, one should not expose this furniture to direct sunlight as the colours will fade and the shiny look may turn dull. Oil and water are also a no-no. Cleaning with a soft, dry cloth is ideal, we were told.

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