When I was a kid, I had a great penchant for learning Punjabi and once even tried learning it using a language guidebook. That fascination never went away, even though the state eluded me for long as I kept heading to the Himalayas. This time I was thrust right into the countryside; and visited Anandpur Sahib before reaching Hoshiarpur.
Hoshiarpur lies in the north-east part of the colourful Indian state of Punjab and is famously known as the “city of mangoes”. It shares boundaries with two districts of Himachal Pradesh and is situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the lower Shivaliks.
The funnily named ‘Dabbi Bazar’ has the most incredible treasures in store. Although its just a narrow lane, it is full of beautiful and exquisite wood art on display.
The wood inlay craft originated here around three hundred years ago and ivory was used until it was banned in 1989. Due to the seasonal nature of agriculture, farmers in their off season experimented with this art and in due course of time became masters at it. They created various products such as inlaid tables, chairs, screens, chest boxes, corners, chess boards, jewellery boxes, trays, elephants and trolleys and other items of use in everyday life. The artists became so skilful that many of them were recognized by the kings and were subsequently awarded by the Govt of India.
Wood of Shisham tree which is of a very high quality is usually used in this art of Hoshiarpur. Teak and rosewood are also used in some products.
I let my eyes wander to be amazed with the carvings and various paintings and then was ushered to the workshops when the shopkeepers realised that I was really interested in knowing more.
In simple words, inlay is a technique of inserting pieces of contrasting colours into hollowed out spaces to form a design. It involves engraving foliage patterns, usually simple, everyday designs inlaid with acrylic, plastic, bronze and camel bone.
The first step is the tracing of designs. For tracing, first the pattern to be inlaid is drawn on a piece of paper. This pattern can be of floral or geometrical designs or traditional motifs. After that, the drawn pattern is traced on both, the wood and acrylic sheet, using ink.
After the patterns have been drawn, the wood is ready for the second step called etching which is done with the aid of sharp knives and chisels. This leads to the creation of grooves or gaps in the wood. Mostly, the grooves of 2-3mm depth are created and the piece is made ready for inlay.
The next and most crucial of all the steps is setting and subsequently pasting of acrylic pieces inside the gaps made in the wood. After creating grooves in the wood, the artisan cuts the acrylic sheet with sharp knives on the traced patterns. Now these small pieces of acrylic are set in the grooves inside the wood and each piece is carefully glued to the wood. The piece to be inlaid is smoothened with sandpaper and polished in lac. Ideally the piece is covered with two or three layers of lac and is given a matte or glazed finish as per the client’s requirement which is the final stage of finishing.
The procedure of wood inlay or Bharai (in hindi) is not written down anywhere but is passed from one generation to another. This art is on the wane for lack of awareness.
There was one particular table that had caught my fancy; the final selling price was purported to be Rs. 3000 and I had quoted my buying price at Rs. 2000. After seeing the painstaking and time consuming work, I was immensely moved and a deal was struck for Rs. 2600 over chai and samosa and Punjabi love.
The wood products of Hoshiarpur keep popping up in the news courtesy of auctions by reputed houses even though the sale and purchase of ivory in any form has been banned by most governments across the world. The Albert Hall museum in Jaipur also houses some rare ivory inlay treasures of Hoshiarpur from the 19th Century.
This trip was in association with Punjab Tourism. I have memories to keep; as I gaze at the fine details of the twelve kilo table that I somehow carried in my hands to Jaipur.
Have you been in awe of any kind of art you saw recently?
How to reach Hoshiarpur :
By Air : Amritsar, the nearest airport is 125 Kilometres away.
By Rail : Direct trains from Delhi to Hoshiarpur
By Road : Hoshiarpur has excellent road connectivity with Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir ; it can be accessed via NH1 from Delhi.