The unpretentious tin hut located on the outskirts of Yellapur in Uttara Kannada district doesn't give a hint of the exquisite craft being created inside. A series of intricate wooden sculptures are lined up inside contrasting the modest exteriors. One can see works of art at different stages of making while the artisans are busy giving shape to their imagination.
Welcome to Bikku Gudigar Kalakendra established by the Bikku Gudigars, known for their wood carving legacy. This family of Gudigar community has taken the fame of the traditional art of wood carving to a new level by becoming the preferred carvers for initiatives at national and international levels. In recent times, this workshop's popularity reached its peak when it got an international carving assignment.
True to their distinction as temple artisans, the family members have made wooden sculptures to many of the structures of religious and spiritual importance across the country.
The art of wood carving, which is rooted in Uttara Kannada and Shivamogga districts, has a rich legacy. The thick forest that covers a major part of Uttara Kannada district led to the establishment of wood based industries in the region. The first sawmill was started at Kannigeri in 1845 near Yellapur. The availability of raw material and favourable atmosphere helped the craft to flourish in the region, with the Gudigars excelling in the art of wood craftsmanship.
Folk researcher Jyotsna Kamat describes the art, history and tradition of Gudigars in an article published in 2006. The word gudi means temple in Kannada, and the Gudigars are known to be temple artisans. Jyotsna states that the Gudigar families migrated to Shivamogga and Canara coast from Goa, after the Portuguese invasion, and were employed by the kings of Kannada dynasties. Keladi rulers in Shivamogga, particularly Keladi Dodda Sankanna Nayaka, promoted this craft and encouraged artisans to excel. The Gudigars claim Kshatriya heritage and they worship Lord Vishwakarma. Vitthal Shet and Samba Shet are two earliest-known master artisans of the community.
The community is concentrated mainly in Kumta, Yellapur, Sirsi and Honnavar towns of Uttara Kannada district. Some well-known sculptors like Jade Manjunathappa and K G Shantappa who introduced the concept of Gitopadesha on sandalwood and sandalwood garlands respectively, hail from Sagar and Sorab taluks of Shivamogga. Ashok Gudigar from Sorab, Devidas Shet from Honnavar, Raju Gudigar from Sirsi are some other eminent Gudigars who excelled in their art.
It is estimated that around 140 families are engaged in the craft in Uttara Kannada currently. While Lord Ganesha is the favourite theme, the Gudigars are also adept at making idols of Trimurti, Lakshmi and Saraswati. The Holy Cross and the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ are the most sought-after themes with the Catholic community. Sandalwood jewellery boxes are also in great demand.
To preserve and promote this tradition, Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation (KSHDC) started a two-year certificate course in stone and wood carving art in 2011. Apart from encouraging the younger generation to continue the tradition by nurturing their skills, the course also aims to make Gudigar women self-reliant. Gudigar women are experts in making garlands, coronets and trinkets.
KSHDC has established Srigandha Sankeerna (Sandalwood Complex) in many places including Sirsi to support the artisans. Here registered artisans can buy sandalwood at subsidised rates. KSHDC purchases this raw material from the Forest Department. With the depletion of natural resources, the department is finding it difficult to supply required quantity of sandalwood. Hence, the craftspersons have now shifted to other premium woods like shivani (Gmelina arborea), jack and rosewood. KSHDC sells the products made by these artisans at its outlets.
Showing the way
In spite of all these efforts and the availability of talent, the artisans are struggling to cope with changing times and preferences. Youngsters are gradually shifting to jobs that have better prospects. Under these circumstances, the efforts of Bikku Gudigar family assumes significance. Interestingly, all the members of the family are involved in this occupation in one way or the other. While one brother is a master carver and sculptor, the other one is a fine artist and the elder one manages marketing and related aspects. Women and children in the family also join hands in the work.
Formed in 1989, Bikku Gudigar Kalakendra has been encouraging talented artisans, both young and old , by giving them assignments on a regular basis. Through this, the centre is creating livelihood opportunities, nurturing talents and in turn, preserving the art. Currently, the Kalakendra is managed by brothers, Santhosh Gudigar and Arun Gudigar. The number of people employed here depends on the work at hand. Right now, around 20 artisans work here. Though formal training is not imparted at the centre, the artisans feel that the space offers a favourable atmosphere for them to learn and explore.
Festival seasons like Dasara and Ganesha Chaturthi are the most busy periods for these artisans. They start making clay idols months before the Ganesha festival and it is the only time when they make clay idols. Otherwise, they do only wood carvings. They do all types of carvings, including sculptures of deities, and mantapas and chariots for temples. They are specialised in sandalwood carvings, while they also carve on teak wood. They are sought after during annual temple festivals to decorate the temple and the deity.
"Carving is in our blood. We learnt the basics of carving, from holding the chisel to making the sketches, from our father. While we want to keep up with the tradition, we also want to explore new designs to stay relevant. The urge to do something new has made us innovative. We make use of electronic gadgets to finalise the designs," say the Gudigar brothers. Such constructive initiatives are bringing the Gudigar tradition on the revival path.