Gujarat’s Artisanal Woodcraft

The Cultured Traveler –A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.

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Indian Woodcraft has evolved with Indian culture and now uses the latest techniques and innovations. While the artisan’s imagination still weaves traditional patterns and styles on the products, the methods have changed. Let’s explore the beautiful world of woodcraft in Gujarat, India.

Lacquered Work

The art of making objects out of wood decorated with lacquer has been practiced in India for centuries. In Kutch, this craft is executed by the Vadha community, a traditionally semi-nomadic group of lathe-turners and carpenters. The lacquered woodwork of northern Kutch, Gujarat, stands apart from other styles across the state, yet shares similarities in motifs and techniques to parts of Rajasthan and Sindh. Artists travel around the local villages, carrying their lathe with them. They set up wherever their services were required for making farm implements, kitchen utensils, toys, and containers while taking orders for pillars, door frames, chests, cradles, and more. For the largest specimens, they would use a combination of the lathe and handwork. The community is now settled in Nirona village in Kutch, where artisans reside and produce a variety of traditional arts.

Kaleidoscopic Affect

After making a piece, the artisan works to smooth its wooden surface and then lacquers it with colored shellac, conventionally in hues of red, green, yellow, and black. The lacquering process is quite meticulous. Certeria lacta, an insect indigenous to Kutch as well as other parts of India, survives on the sap of native plants and Babul trees, secretes a protective resin called lac. Once collected, this resin is heated and mixed with groundnut oil and colored dyes to form a thick, opaque, decorative wood coating known as lacquer. Chemical pigments have now replaced the vegetable colors of the past. The process involves turning the object on the lathe while pouring the lacquer onto it. The natural heat and friction created in the process set the vibrant colors. The first color applied is the base color, upon which the artisan engraves the design with a chisel and returns it to the lathe to apply a second color. The subsequent color is immediately rubbed off, but absorbed by the engraved portions to create beautiful multi-layered pieces. Today, for the sake of time, all the colors are applied at once and then the product is engraved. Another beautiful lacquer technique is marbling, where the artist applies bands of colors next to one another. Then the piece is quickly turned on the lathe while an oil rag is rubbed across horizontally. The friction causes the lac to melt and merge with one another creating a stunning kaleidoscopic effect.

Simple Tools

Gujarat’s Artisanal Woodcraft

Turned lacquer wood is made using simple tools – a self-made lathe, a string attached to a bow, and sticks of colored lac. Each lathe is demarcated by two sharp iron rods which are bent towards each other at ninety-degree angles and fixed in the ground. The distance between them depends upon the length of wood the artisan is turning because the wood must be held firmly between the rod’s pointed ends. The artisan begins by carving the wood into the desired shape and then applies lac on the wood to create colored patterns on it. The first color is a base upon which the artisan adds other layers of colors. The wood is spun quickly by pulling a string, and the friction causes the lac to melt onto the wood. Turned lacquer wood products serve both functional and decorative processes.

Sankheda Exemplifies Artisanal Skill

Heavily embellished hand-made Sankheda furniture is a common feature of most Gujarati households. The vibrant, colorful pieces are designed by craftsmen from the Kharadi community of Gujarat. Named after the town it originates from, Sankheda furniture is made in Sankheda, located about 45 km from Vadodara in Eastern Gujarat.The craft was established in the mid 18th century. According to folklore a saint from Champaner was escaping invaders and had taken refuge in the hut of a simple woodcutter in the village. The woodcutter cared for the saint for 10 years after which he disappeared. That night the saint appeared in the woodcutter’s dream and blessed him with the skills of a carpenter and the knowledge of applying lacquer. The next morning the woodcutter had transformed into a talented wood craftsman who introduced Sankheda furniture.

Sankheda is essentially wooden furniture patiently turned on the lathe that is then lacquered and decorated with hand-painted motifs. The artisans usually use teak wood due to its durability. Pieces of teak wood are cut into the required sizes and shapes on a lathe. They are shaved and smoothed before a coat of primer is applied. Designs, which vary from a lattice of geometrical shapes to floral motifs, are painted onto the surfaces with a squirrel-hair brush. The piece is then burnished at the lathe with the pressure of an akik stone. Next, the lacquer is applied through heat and friction and finally polished with a Kewda leaf. The patterns change color once heated and coated with lacquer. Finally, the artisan assembles the pieces into the intended article. Floral and geometrical patterns are painted on the wood and an agate stone is used to furnish it.

Each piece is painted by hand in colors like maroon, vermilion, green, and brown, often picked out with gold or silver. Patterns range from floral and peacock motifs and abstract drawings to delicate lace-like forms. A brush made from very fine squirrel’s hair is typically used for painting. Products include the very popular furniture sets, swings, cradles, bajotha (low stools), kitchen utensils, home temples, dandiya sticks, toys, and more.

Sadeli’s Intricate Patterns

The craft of Sadeli bears close similarities to the Persian form of marquetry called ‘Khatam’ and is said to have come to Gujarat through the Parsis from Iran. It’s a technique where highly skilled carpenters, fabricate intricate geometric or floral patterns on teak or other locally available wood. The intricate designs add a unique aesthetic to a variety of objects such as doors, windows, cupboards, and bedposts. More recently, the craft of Sadeli has been applied to also make jewelry boxes, lamp posts, and photo frames.

With artisans cutting wood and other materials into minuscule bits, the craft requires meticulous accuracy for composing and sealing those pieces back into a patchwork composition for the required surface. Sometimes craftsmen may apply as many as 250 pieces in one square inch of a wooden surface. The craft became popular in the 1800s when India exported various articles to Britain.

Carved Wood Work

The Meghwals of Northern Kutch, exceptionally in the areas of Ludiya and Navavas, are adept as carpenters and craftsmen. They forge daily use objects, furniture, and architectural elements with a combination of hand tools. Then they carve geometric and floral shallow relief designs onto the surfaces, utilizing a variety of tools and chisels. The motifs are similar to those found in the local needlework and the clay work that adorns their homes. The carved wood tradition is passed on from one generation to the next. They make traditional furniture, bajoths, boxes, and coasters among others specialties. Nearly every household in the neighboring Gandhi Nu Gam, a cluster of Ludiya, is engaged in the craft form.

Pick up a piece of history and art the next time you are looking for ways to refresh the look of your home. It keeps an ancient craft alive, while also giving you one-of-a-kind objects.

Suman Bajpai is a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 14 books on different subjects and translated around 160 books from English to Hindi.