The black metal magic

The black metal magic

Metal & mettle In Bidar, divine fusions and nature inspire Bidriware magic. Unique traditions and strange ways are what make the art exotic, writes Hema Narayanan

There is magic in the Black Metal Art that is created by the artists of Bidar. They call the art Bidriware. Walking past the homes of Bidri Colony in Bidar, I saw artists immersed deep in metals, trying to create something beautiful with sheer skill and passion. Bidriware has been practised from as long as the 14th century CE, having originated during the rule of Bahamani sultans in the township of Bidar, then a part of
erstwhile Hyderabad state. Undoubtedly breathtaking, but equally painstaking, the craft is characterised by intricate geometric and floral designs, inlaid with gold, silver or brass on to a matte-black or glossy surface. Artists convert an alloy of zinc and copper into blackened metal, inlaid with thin sheets of pure silver. This craft is kind of a Damascene work and its striking inlay work makes it a wonderful export handicraft of India.
Prized as a symbol of wealth, Bidri is famous for its sleek, smooth and dark coloured artefacts, with precise and eye-catching designs. Over the years, Bidri Colony has evolved. From what started off as a handicraft, for producing exquisite Bidriware for nawabs and noblemen, the art has attained global fame today.
Fusions of heritage
Bidri art is a true portrayal of the Iranian and Indian heritages coming together.
Local craftsmen believe that a few centuries ago, a nobleman, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti brought the craft to Ajmer (in India) from Iran and Iraq. An Iranian craftsman, Abdullah-bin-Khaiser, later brought it to Bijapur in Karnataka. Impressed with his work in Bijapur, Bahamani Sultan invited him to work on decorating their royal palaces and courts in Bidar. According to some accounts, Khaiser joined hands with the local craftsmen and created Bidriware. Though Iran is the actual home of this craft, the sultans and local people nurtured it further. After creating many artistic treasures, when the Iranian craftsmen’s contract was over, the sultan asked them to stay back in India and teach the koftgari work (which later came to be known as Bidriware) to his artisans.
There is a particular type of soil found only in Bidar and in parts of Bidar Fort, which has a large role to play in the distinct nature of Bidriware. It has unique and special chemical properties that help in making the moulds for their objects. It can convert silver, zinc metals to a black metal by following a process.
What is more stunning is the method adopted to identify this soil. With no particular tools or scientific processes in place to isolate it, the artisans say that they actually taste the soil (even today), for a characteristic sharp taste, to determine if it is the desired kind of soil! Heard of wine tasters and tea tasters, but soil tasters? That’s a first.
Mystery of black patina
The mystery of the black patina has not yet been fully solved, though it’s a subject for many ongoing researches. How the ancient craftsmen developed such intricate chemical procedures is difficult to imagine. Bidriware, a Damascene technology, is more than a complex process. They casually use principles of Chemistry, which people think is the forte of the literati.
Bidriware is a result of six stages of production with four different kinds of artisans working on it – moulder, designer, engraver and inlay artist. After getting a smooth surface of the mould, a solution of copper sulphate is poured on the article to darken it temporarily, for engraving. A few engraving tools are used to cut the intricate, but delicate tapestry of the design, into the metal. Then comes the inlay work of silver, brass or gold. Many women work as inlayers.
Here comes the magical role of the Bidar soil. Mixed with ammonium chloride and water, this soil is made into a paste. Small articles are directly dipped into the paste, while large articles are heated and the paste is rubbed on their surface.
It is incredible, how the paste has no effect on silver, but it renders the zinc alloy body into a deep characteristic black patina. Finally, the paste is rinsed off and the inlay design stands out dramatically. The shiny silver is resplendent against the black surface.
Contemporary twist to Bidri
With time and the advent of new age, the modern twist to Bidriware is appealing. The earlier Bidri designs and motifs had
asharfi-ki-booti, stars, vine creepers, poppy plants with flowers, Persian roses and passages from the Quran in Arabic script. Today, articles of daily use, like vases, cigar boxes, candle stands, letter openers, ash trays, cuff links, key chains, fruit bowls, hookah pipes, to name a few, find favour with the buyers.
Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties. Few Indian designers have taken up lacquer work; stone inlay and Bidri work from traditional Indian handicraft and adapted them to create mesmerising artwork. A selective combination of old Persian motifs along with folk motifs and designs adopted from Ajanta frescoes signifies contemporary Bidriware.
In fact, we met an award winning artisan, Abdul Hakeem, who desired that we see their art and demonstrated it so vividly. It seemed like a story was unfolding…
Speaking to Hakeem, a state award winner and an artist of national merit, I could see the immense pride he had in being able to create Bidriware. He wished more people came to their village and saw how they infuse life into this art and learnt Bidriware themselves, so it could last for a longer time. If there were to be more thrust from the tourism department or the government, he feels that this art would achieve a higher status in India and globally, even though it has improved significantly over the years. The infrastructure they use to etch, carve or mould is still very basic and any support in getting improvised tools would enable them to produce magical art work in a shorter period of time.
Walking out of the Bidri village, I could not stop but think of what Leo Tolstoy once said: Art is not a handicraft. It is the transmission of feeling, the artist has experienced.
It was indeed the transmission of the feelings of these Indian master karigars
of Bidar, their great ability and prowess, to assimilate a craft of foreign origin into India’s heritage.

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