Wizardry in woodwork

Wizardry in woodwork

craft of punjab

Wizardry in woodwork

Punjab lies in the foothills of the sub-Himalayas, and this has given it abundant forest wealth. An outcome of this has been its evolved woodcraft traditions. One of these is the intricate inlay work of Hoshiarpur.

Such has been its finesse that connoisseurs have described it as poetry in wood. As the term suggests, this is fundamentally a technique of inserting a contrasting material (shell, bone, pearl, stone, ivory, metal etc) into a carved depression of a base surface, with the purpose of beautifying the object.

The history of this craft in the region goes back centuries, to the times of the Lion of Punjab, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who was a patron of the arts. During his reign, artisans were invited to the kingdom to impart training as well as to create objects of exclusive beauty. The Maharaja’s Golden Throne, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Britain, is an example.

Natural resource

Hoshiarpur area was rich in sheesham wood, a timber with lovely dark tones. This hardwood was primarily used in construction and for furniture, usually for doors, windows, chairs and bedposts. The latter were never minimalist in design, especially the wada darwaza, or the entrance doorway, which has always been considered a status symbol; affluence making them more ornate.

Illustration of over a century-old elaborately carved doors and windows are still visible in havelis of the region. Among the many master craftspersons who settled in the kingdom were those with expertise in the art of inlay.

With Hoshiarpur having a well-established woodcarving tradition, it was only natural for its craftspersons to explore options using timber as the base. Wood inlay was what took their fancy. This handicraft would not have taken birth, though, if its neighbour, Amritsar, did not have a bustling ivory-carving industry. What is the connection? Quite the same when an offshoot takes roots and begins thriving on its own!

The holy city of Amritsar, around 125 km away from the forested lands of Hoshiarpur, has been a renowned centre for the production of ivory chess sets. Even today, it continues to be a leading exporter, the only difference being ivory has been replaced by a variety of other materials.

Back then, when craftsmen of Amritsar chipped away to carve chess men, a lot of waste ivory would get collected. Woodcarvers of the region saw an opportunity in this. They began buying the ivory chips and experimenting with the art of inlaying them in the wood they were carving. What started off as mere trials went on to become an industry that produced stunning handcrafted products. With heavy Persian influence in arts of the region, how could inlay designs not be along the same lines? Thus, geometric floral patterns dominated the motifs.

Hoshiarpur is known for its splendid range of utilitarian items. This was not the case when the craft originated here. It was with the coming of British rule in the region that the gradual shift took place. The Englishmen saw profit in this venture and encouraged craftspersons to add household items as well as those appealing to European sensibilities — like dressing tables, beds, chests, photo frames etc — to their repertoire. The craft cluster became an organised sector, and as overseas demand grew for ivory-inlay products, so did the variety of items produced.

Everyday essentials like bowls, plates, napkin holders and jewellery boxes were turned out regularly by craftspersons. Till a few decades ago, ivory was the material of use. Ever since its ban, acrylic has been used for filling. The wood of choice remains seasoned sheesham.

The process of inlay essentially involves getting the wood ready to the desired shape and tracing the pattern on the wood as well as the acrylic sheet. The pattern sketched on the wood is then engraved to a depth of 2 mm - 3 mm.

The next step is the most tedious: cutting the pattern traced on the acrylic sheet and adjusting its chips into the grooves with an adhesive. The penultimate stage sees a sealant being filled around the chips to cover any gaps. Following that, the product is lightly sandpapered and readied for a lacquer polish. In case of items that need to be detergent-washed frequently — such as bowls, plates and rolling pin — they are immersed in water for nearly a fortnight so their resistance to getting warped is checked.

Ditch haggling

It’s Dabbi Bazaar in Hoshiarpur that will ensure your eyes will wander as you walk the narrow street lined with shops that sell delicately designed wood inlay products. Though customers bargain, it’s best to give the craftsperson the price he quotes. He deserves it for keeping a craft alive. Its result is poetically beautiful, but the process is painstaking.

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