Thirubuvanam, Tamil Nadu, India...
Traditionally this craft was developed to produce clothing hooks, rolling pins, spinning tops, show pieces, bed-posts and wooden poles used in occasions like marriage. But later seeing an increase in its appeal, craftsmen also created popular children’s toys like toy-cars (about 10-15 types), small kitchen play set and tricycles. Over the years, the versatility of the craft and increase in resources led to the creation of many domestic products like bowls, jewellery, furniture and ‘kumkum’ (vermilion) boxes. The domestic utility products are sold in the main ‘Budni market’ while the toys are sold in smaller shops lining the highway.
Before the Indian independence, lacquer work was a flourishing craft that received patronage from the Nawab of Sehore. At the time only about two or three families were practicing the craft but with the Nawab’s encouragement the numbers grew to include many more. By adding more techniques and creating new products, the craftsmen have greatly increased the attractiveness of the craft.
Around sixty years ago the craftsmen switched from manual production to diesel power and presently diesel has been replaced by electric power a much cleaner energy source. But this energy efficiency doesn’t just stop here, as the craftsmen have found ingenious ways to run all their electrical appliances (lathe machine, cutting machine and other utility appliances like ceiling fans) through a single electric motor. One can also witness a similar resourceful thinking in their toys wherein different parts are connected to rotate together with a single effort.
The characteristic features of lacquer work are the use of bold solid colours with a glossy finish and a soft, delicate texture. The material used is versatile and can be combined with other materials like clay, silver and gold. Lac is both simple and flexible to work with, a factor which also challenges the craftsmen’s concentration and skill.
The wood material used in the craft is ‘Dudhi’ wood and is sourced from the forest areas that lie in an 80 km radius of Budhni Ghat.
Objects finished with Lac, a resinous substance secreted by the lac insect, was common in India for centuries. Due to the abundance in its availability, Lac was commonly used in utility objects that were exchanged amongst relatives or bartered within the larger community. To increase its saleability these products were made to high quality, giving it a crisp, smooth and clean finish. The need for embellishment without changes in functionality led to the use of Lac, as it improves not only the colour but also adds strength and durability.
It is believed that the lacquer and woodwork crafts were practiced by the ‘Lodhis’ and ‘Vishwakarma’ communities for more than 300 years. Initially practiced by a few families, the patronage of the Nawab of Sheore greatly increased the craft to include almost 80 – 100 families. The ‘Ahirs’ and ‘Gond’ tribes living in surrounding forests also supported the craft by providing wood to the craftsman. Presently the wood is sourced from government controlled wood cutting mills, where wood is bought in bulk. The government has taken measures to ensure that the forests resources are controlled and protected. This has aided in the survival of the craft. In Budni of Bhopal, the people have been following woodcraft as a means of livelihood for several years. The lack of agricultural land has increased the importance of this craft.
Lacquered objects have a unique vibrancy to them. The colours used are bright, solid and sometimes muted to suit different tastes. The four main colours used are yellow, green, red and silver -“ grey, which are also mixed to create different shades. The lac is applied using a method of woodturning creating different patterns like loops and waves.
After being coated with several layers of different coloured lac, a fine point stylus is used to carve out patterns in a process called ‘etching’. The commonly used designs have clean finishes in solid lac colours. Floral patterned designs mainly consist of yellow and red flowers in a panelled green surface, while designs like hunting or rural scenes are also to be seen.
The influx of cheap plastic and rising prices of wood left the craftsmen with low returns on their expertise and hard work. They then decided to create products which would be valued for their craftsmanship and not the amount of wood used in them. Today, the craftsmen try to incorporate the bright fluorescent colours of plastic in their lacquer products, to keep the customer interested. Still the market for these products is declining and this has caused the younger generation of craftsman families to move to better career opportunities. The biggest problem the craftsmen face is the fluctuating and scarce availability of electricity in the village, which causes delays leading to a decline in production capacity.
Lac paste – This is made by boiling wax, Chandrak and dye together. It is cooled and shaped to form colourful ‘Pattis’ (strips).
Wood – ‘Sagwan’ (Teak) was used earlier but since the availability dwindled, the craftsmen shifted to locally available ‘Dudhi’ wood (Calabash). The wood is soft in texture and is non -“ fibrous, making it an ideal work surface for shaping and polishing. The wood is bought in units called Chatti, where in 3 Chattis of wood are priced for Rs. 990. The damp wood obtained is dried out before it can be used.
Colours – Artificial colours or acrylic paints are used to create lac pastes. These come in bright colours like pink, green, red, yellow, blue, black and are obtained from Indore and Hoshangabad.
Chapdi – This is a type of wax and is boiled with Chandrak, a varnishing agent and dye to create a lac paste. It is sourced from Maharashtra.
Chandrak – This is a natural varnishing agent used to prepare the lac paste.
Kewda oil – This is used with Kewda leaves to add shine to the products.
Kewda patta – This is used in the above mentioned varnishing process.
The left over wood materials and shavings are used as fuel source.
Lathe machine – This machine is used for cutting, sanding, drilling or shaping the wooden blocks. Various tools are applied to the rotating wooden piece to create an object that has symmetry about an axis of rotation.
Chisels – These sharp beveled tools are used to cut and shape the rotating wooden blocks to get a desired shape.
Gauges – These are used to measure the thickness of different parts of the wooden block to achieve desired results.
Kulhadi – A wood chopping axe, used to break down blocks of wood.
Aari – This is a ‘saw’ used in cutting blocks of wood to a desired workable size.
Curved blade – This is used as a wood carving tool while working on the lathe.
Mathni – This is a wood polishing tool.
Sandpaper – This is used in polishing the soft wood products while they are being shaped on the lathe machine.
‘Vishwakarma Jayanti’ is celebrated as a holiday on the seventh day after ‘Basant Panchami’, though it is not a government recognized holiday.
Wood lacquering is a process where blocks of wood are shaped to a desired form and coloured with Lac, a resinous substance derived from the secretions of Lac insect. This abundantly available material is mixed with dyes and wax to create a paste which adds glossy colour to the final product and makes it waterproof.
The lacquered objects are mainly created out of Dudhi wood found in the Budhni Ghat areas. As the naturally occurring ‘Dudhi’ wood is damp, it is left to dry before being cut into desired workable sizes.
These wood pieces are set on the lathe with one end of the wood piece being fixed and the other side being open. Wood carving tools like the chisel are used to gouge out hollows in the open end of the rotating wood piece as well as create curves on its outer body. As ‘Dudhi’ wood is soft and pliable in nature, this process is a fast one, where the artist’s skill and dexterity is required. After the object has taken its final shape, it is polished with sandpaper and set for lacquering.
Small pieces of coloured lacquer are prepared by mixing acrylic dyes, Chandrak and Chapdi (wax). In this process Chapdi and Chandrak are boiled with acrylic dyes to create a lacquer paste, which is cooled and shaped into ‘Pattis’ (strips). These coloured Pattis are pressed against the rotating wood piece to add the desired lac colour. The heat caused by friction between the lac strip and rotating wood causes the lac to melt and stick to the wood surface. A piece of bamboo is held against the log where lacquer has been rubbed to make it uniform and a piece of wet cloth is applied to the wood while it is still rotating. Once the coloured lacquer is dried after application on the wood, it is polished with Kewda oil and leaf to get a smooth and shiny finish.
List of craftsmen.
Interview Artisan Group
Lacquweware in Asia, today and yesterday. Edited by monica kopplin