Metal craft with a twist

Mettle on metal: From the traditional vases to the present-dayjewellery and wall pieces, Bidriware has a wide range of products catering to the needs of diverse people. photos by author, dh

Bidriware is an ancient craft that showcases a fusion of Persian, Arabic and local craftsmanship. It is also a testimony to the rich culture and heritage of Bidar. The intricate silver motifs gleaming against the lustrous black metal creates a strikingly beautiful contrast that aptly makes for a prized possession of a craft enthusiast. Viewing an array of artistic Bidri vases, animal figures, hookahs, wall frames, boxes, jewellery and other utility and decorative items is indeed a feast for the eyes. 

Bidriware items are made in the Bidri colony of Bidar and the legacy is carried on chiefly as a family tradition. There is a common facility centre equipped with machines and tools where the artisans work. Fabricating a Bidri piece happens in several stages and is a meticulous process. The creation of a masterpiece calls for the skill, compliance and perseverance of an artisan. For each piece, the mould has to be prepared anew into which the molten metal (zinc and copper) is poured and a cast is made. The cast is temporarily blackened and motifs are sketched on it freehand and etchings are made with chisel and hammer. Then, pure silver wire or sheet is inlaid and hammered into those engravings. The article is then smoothed out and buffed. The final stage is that of blackening and is the most fascinating. When rinsed in a solution (a special type of soil and ammonium chloride in water), like magic, just the metal portion gets oxidised and blackened, and the silver retains its sheen.

Intricate motifs

The intricate silver motifs gleam against the lustrous black metal to create a striking contrast. The main ingredient of the solution is a special soil with natural oxidising properties, procured from old Bidar fort. It takes a day’s time for an artisan to make a small piece like a keychain. A medium-sized flower vase can take 2-3 days to complete.

The origin of Bidri dates back to around 14th century during the Bahamani rule and was introduced from Iran. “The black Bidri is the novelty of Bidar and is a testimony to its rich culture and heritage. The earliest known craftsman was Abdullah bin Kaiser who worked with his students to develop this art. Bidri works are heavily influenced by typical Islamic features of the time. At present, the craft lingers in Bidar and Hyderabad,” states Bidri art researcher Rehaman Patel.

Bidriware is known for its sturdiness and corrosion-proof nature, There are five main types in Bidri work — Tarkashi, Tehnishan, Mahtabi, Zarnishan and Zarbuland.

Down the line, the number of artisans has declined owing to socio-economic factors. In order to conserve and promote this unique craft, various measures have been undertaken by the State government. First and foremost, to protect the authenticity, Bidriware has been imparted the Geographical Indications (GI) tag. The registered artisans are provided with housing facility, health insurance and other benefits with the objective of empowering them. Skill development training has been granted to the interested candidates by the central government. The master craftsmen registered under the development commissioner (handicrafts) have trained 30 artisans in 2016-17. Toolkits are given to the trainees after training, while raw material is supplied at subsidised prices. To recognise the skill of the artisans, state and national awards are given. In addition, expert artisans Shah Rashid Ahmed Quadri and Abdul Rouff have been honoured with Shilp Guru title, a national award for craftspersons.

In recent times, considerable efforts have been made to popularise the art form. In 2011, the Karnataka tableau at the Republic Day parade in New Delhi featured Bidriware. “The event was a great platform to showcase the craft,” states Rashid who has trained many artisans. Participation in national level exhibitions has made Bidriware famous across the nation.

Cauvery Karnataka State Arts and Crafts Emporium in Bengaluru is the extensive and authentic showroom for marketing the merchandise and also the official quality controller of the products. “They organise exhibitions and also get us big orders,” says Rashid. The Engineering Export Promotion Council has contributed in spreading global awareness about Bidri. “We have been sent to several foreign countries. We give live demonstrations and so far, the response has been good. I feel Bidri is more popular abroad than in India,” claims Rashid.

That apart, efforts like altering the classical design, cutting down the use of silver, making the piece lighter, etc have been implemented to make it more economical for the buyer. Adapting Bidriware into contemporary items such as USB drive covers, office stationery, lamp shades, candle stands, jewellery, wall pieces and even wall tiles has resulted in more demand for this metal craft. National Institute of Fashion Technology and National Institute of Design are also studying Bidri patterns.

Challenges ahead

Despite all these efforts, the artisans face several challenges. They feel that the middlemen, to whom they generally sell their ware, don’t do a fair trade as it is an open market with no standard pricing policy. Speaking in this context, Rehaman Patel relates, “Artisans, especially the younger generation, should get trained in marketing. Nowadays, online marketing through the internet is also possible. Direct marketing will help these artisans immensely.”

Another issue faced by them is that of quality. “Owing to the painstaking manufacturing process, there can be quality concerns at any stage,” claims Rashid. Also, the cost of a Bidri piece is quite high although there is a government rebate. “The use of pure silver and the manufacturing process make the products expensive,” says Mainak Mandal, manager of Cauvery State Emporium. “Phool jari design is relatively simpler to make and the quantity of silver needed is also less, hence it is prevailing,” articulates Rehaman Patel.

There are about 250 registered artisans and 100 unregistered ones working in the field. Based on expertise, their wages can range from Rs 200 to 400 per day which is not adequate because the prices of raw materials have gone up as also the cost of living. “The work is intricate and necessitates patience, so many artisans quit,” observes Rashid. A few women have also made a name in this sphere. One such person is Shahida Begum, who comes from a family of Bidriware artisans. Her father, brother and three sisters are all committed to this field. “I’ve been making Bidriware for the last 22 years. When we get an order, we supply the product in due time. But our children don’t want to continue with this work as the remuneration is not encouraging,” she says.

Yet another crunch the artisans have been facing lately is the non-availability of soil. The path of revival for Bidriware seems long and arduous. Supporting artisans through skill development and good marketing schemes will go a long way in boosting this elegant metal craft. In any event, we hope that Bidriware — the pride of Bidar — never ceases to sparkle.

 

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