Nagina, a small town in the Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh may seem nondescript at first glance, but look deeper and anyone would be able to see the rich cultural impact it has had on the art and craft traditions of India.
The wood work traditions in Nagina, Bijnor find a mention as far back as 1881 when The Imperial Gazetteer of India, a historical reference work was first published in 1881 under the aegis of the British Empire. “Nagina is celebrated for the excellent workmanship of its carved ebony wares, such as walking-sticks trays, boxes, which are frequently inlaid with ivory. Large quantities of small glass phials are blown here and exported to Haridwar for the pilgrims who carry Ganges water in them.”
The small town even finds a mention in Ain-i-Akbari, a 16th century detailed constitution of the Akbar Empire. Given such rich history and a past, it is unfortunate that so many of us are not even aware of the arts and crafts traditions of Nagina which found patronage even from the Mughal emperors. The evolution of the art and craft traditions has been an organic one and has also been inspired by the flora of the region. The geographical proximity to the Shivalik range meant that the raw material, wood was always naturally available in abundance to act as a canvas for these handicraft traditions.
There is an interesting story about the origins of woodcarving in Nagina. Originally the craftsmen used to carve on the steel section of guns. After the 1857 uprising against the British manufacture of arms was prohibited. The metal workers transferred their skills to carving on a hard wood and they chose ebony. Their style of carving retained the precision originally needed for carving on metal.
Another form of craft which is widely practiced in this region is Tarkashi or the metal inlay work. In this technique, fine wire like strips of brass, copper or silver is inlaid into wood. Typically, dark colored and seasoned sheesham wood is used as its high oil content allows the inlaid metal to be held securely. The patterns are usually geometric forms or floras of Mughal inspiration.
A small pocket of craftsmen in Nagina and Bijnor specialize in carving ornamental combs and trinket boxes from ebony. The combs are made in pairs, male and female. The male combs, raja ki kangi, have teeth on one side and the female combs, rani ki kangi, have teeth on both the sides.
On our field visit, we met many artisans who have been practicing this craft for generations. Two such artisans we met were Tasleem Ahmad and Mohd. Yusuf. Tasleem Ahmad, 28 years of age started doing Jaali work at age 14. His father Late Mohd. Asgar was a national awardee. He has six brothers, all of whom are involved in this craft of making Jaali work items. We saw beautiful jaali work separators on display while interacting with him. The last six generations in his family have been practicing this craft. When I heard that, a rough back of the envelope calculation got triggered in my mind and I realized that some of his family members may very well have been the artisans during the Mughal period.
Mohd. Yusuf, 60, is amongst the oldest people doing the carving in Nagina. He is quite famous for his carved wooden jewellery boxes with ivory work. His skill sets were taught to him by his father who was taught his father and so on for about five generations.
We met many such artisans like them. One common point which seemed particularly alarming to us was the fact that most of these artisans seemed to be amongst the last generation in their family who were inclined to be in this profession. All their sons and daughters were pursuing education and looking for a different set of employment opportunities.
Market realities have also ensured evolution in the kind of products which are now being produced. There has been a distinctive shift towards furniture for mass consumption and smaller, more unique items such as Ebony combs which required much more intricate work are slowly not finding many buyers.
The story of Nagina is not a unique one. This small town in Bijnor could well be a proxy for the scores and scores of small towns and villages which may be nameless and yet are rich treasure troves of our cultural roots and traditions. Equally important are the artisans who are still upholding the traditional reservoir of knowledge and skills which Nagina embodies. A pertinent question which Nagina threw up for us, and I would like to ask all you readers is, how can our urban sensibilities make space for these languishing art forms and give them space in our daily life? Can we move beyond endorsing mass machine made goods to actually appreciate and provide patronage to these glorious art forms? And if these art forms do end up becoming extinct, is our aesthetic sense to blame?
1. Ranjan, Aditi, Handmade in India; Crafts of India