The usage of Pietra dura for a long duration was architectural, used on floors and walls, columns, altars, tombs with both geometric and figurative designs. In the Italian Renaissance this technique again was used for images. The Florentines, who most fully developed the form, however, regarded it as 'painting in stone'.
By the early part of the 17th century, smaller objects were widely diffused throughout Europe, and as far East to the court of the Mughals in India, where the form was imitated and reinterpreted in a native style; its most sumptuous expression is found in the Taj Mahal. In Mughal India, pietra dura was known as Parchinkari or Pachchikari, literally 'inlay' or 'driven-in' work.
Due to the Taj Mahal being one of the major tourist attractions, there is a flourishing industry of Pietra Dura artefacts in Agra ranging from tabletops, medallions, elephants and other animal forms, jewellery boxes and other decorative items. .The patterns and the designs are more Persian than Roman or Medician.
The art form is fully alive and thriving in the streets of Agra with a lot of products being exported abroad and some sold in the local areas. along with Gokulpura, an area in Agra is lined with shops selling stone inlay work products. The owners posses a lot of karkhanas or have a lot of karigars working for them.
Mughal art was an extraordinary blend of materials and techniques by the skilled craftsmen and artisans.
Some argue that the inlay art is Italian in origin and Indian artisans accomplished adapted it to their needs, gave it an indigenous touch and used the technique to carve out traditional Indian motifs that are today the crown of Indian art. Some believed it is developed slowly in India as we can observe the differences found in the inlay work of the buildings of Akbar to Jahangir and then Shah Jahan.
A continuous development in Inlay art can be seen in Jahangiri Mahal to Akbar's Tomb and then in Tomb of Salim Chisti and Itmad-ud- Daulah's tomb. The tomb of Itmad-ud -Daulah supplies a link between two important phases, namely those of Akbar and of Shahjahan. It is the first notable building in white marble with its rich ornamentation in pietra-dura that provides the impression of a miniature precious object magnified into a piece of architecture. It represents the transition from the red sandstone phase of Akbar's buildings with their direct simplicity and robustness of structural design to that of sumptuous marble with all the changes.
'Pachchikari', stone inlay work as known in Mughal vocabulary bore an exemplary testimony to the intricate and exquisite taste of these prolific commissioners of monuments in India, with Agra being an important centre. Ranging from the floral and calligraphic inlaid patterns on the walls and arches of Taj Mahal, the magnificent floral panel created in white marble inlaid on red sandstone drapes the main gateway of Sikandra, the tomb of Akbar. Wall panels of the tomb provide a variety of geometric panels created in red sandstone and white marble with yellow sandstone and black stones.
Excellent multi-colored stone decorations on marble pillars in the Diwan-e-Aam and Musamman Burj in the Agra Fort are examples of remarkable inlay work in marble. Finished in white marble with profuse, delicate and intricate stylised inlay work, the graves of Nur Jahan's mother and father at Itmad Ud Daula are probably the most profusely ornamented building of the Mughals.
This intricate craft continues to create magic through the development of various products by the craftsmen who diligently work in the streets of Agra. The beauty of craftsmanship and human skill unfailingly affects the onlooker. The high tourist demand for stone inlay products is a significant driving force. Driven by the tourist market's need for souvenirs, the craftsmen have an incentive to go on.
Where Muslim artisans, the task of carving stone products, do the task of stone inlay finishing and polishing is shared between Muslim and Hindu craftsmen. There is a spirit of co-operation and respect for the work of each other, benefitting both the groups. Thus a syncretic relationship between the two communities and their work is interrelated in an interesting manner.
The craft is passed on from generation to generation and is like a family legacy. It at the same time generates employment avenues to a good number of people with the development of marble products, the task of inlaying, marketing and selling.
Myths & Legends
The arabesques and geometric patterns of Islamic art are often said to arise from the Islamic view of the world. To Muslims, these forms, taken together, constitute an infinite pattern that extends beyond the visible material world. To many in the Islamic world, they concretely symbolize the infinite, and therefore centralized, nature of the creation of Allah and convey spirituality without the figurative iconography of the art of other religions. Artists who believe only Allah can produce perfection, although this theory is disputed, may intentionally introduce mistakes in repetitions as a show of humility. Repeating geometric forms are often accompanied by calligraphy.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art cites four main shapes or "repeat units" most common in Islamic art: circles, squares, stars and multisided polygons. Shapes helped illustrate stories from the Koran and Islamic myths. The mosaic known as "God's spider web" weaves a circular pattern of complex interlinking stars that echoes the fortuitous spider's web that camouflaged the Prophet Mohammad's hiding spot in less than a day, miraculously helping him evade bloodthirsty pursuers. This is a prime example of Mohammad's story told in Islamic art without bowing to idolatry and violating the Koran.
It is said that the catalyst for this craft is the Solomonic throne. Shah Jahan's jharokha was based on the bejeweled throne of King Solomon on which he sat and administered justice. King Solomon made a great throne, which was fashioned off ivory and covered with gold. It was set with rubies, sapphires, emeralds and other precious stones that shone with the most brilliant, the most dazzling, the most fascinating hues and colors. It had been adorned with replicas of growling lions and winged birds. These motifs patronized the witnesses and kept them from lying. To the Mughals, King Solomon epitomized great power driven by wisdom and justice. Imagery, symbolic of these, is inlaid in the niche behind Shah Jahan's jharokha in Delhi. The light is a mystical symbol in Islam, the symbol of Divine unity and presence of God. It reminds that only God is real all other is illusion.
Pietra-dura is an Italian word, meaning 'hard stone'. It signifies the technique of inlaying of pieces of coloured stones resulting into some images representing a decorative art.
This Italian art appearing in Rome in 16th century, reached Florence to attain a classical artistic form. From 1630 onwards pietra-dura appeared on moveable, small objects as decorative panels, with bird and flower motifs, suitable for cabinet fronts and tabletops. Some of these soon reached the Mughals in the form of presents. This highly specialized technique was soon reinterpreted and imitated in what we know as the 'Mughal style' with its most splendid expression- the Taj Mahal.
With time, this marvellous art was mastered to great perfection by the artisans of the Mughal Empire,
In Mughal India, pietra-dura was known as Parchin-kari, literally 'inlay' or 'driven-in' work.
The intricate craft of marble inlay continues to be practised in compact, congested areas of Agra. They are karigars, or skilled labourers, who continue to live around the Taj Mahal in slum colonies in the Nai Ki Mandi, Taj Ganj, Gokulpura and other small areas, and do precious inlay work on the artefacts, statues, tables, stools, boxes, trays, patters and other decorative items to be sold to tourists.
The entire lanes are occupied with houses of the craftsmen, karkhanas where they stay as well as work.
The outstanding aesthetic distinctiveness of Mughal style is visible excellently in the products developed by the skilled craftsmen of Pachikari. A vivid range of beautiful colours and combinations can be seen throughout in the works under them. Islamic art follows a tradition of almost avoiding figural representations and this makes it unlike most other cultures anywhere in the world.
They used abstract, geometrical or vegetal (arabesques) themes with enormous complexity and gave a unique place to calligraphy and epigraphy in their design of objects, all of which were executed in many styles. The Mughal monuments built during the period of different emperors having inlay work is an indigenous art and, moreover, developed form of mosaic, which has been further divided into two styles.
The first style was different geometrical shapes of stones of different colours were assembled and arranged in such a way to form a pattern on a plaster surface or on a stone slab. The other style was the inlaid style in which thin pieces of semi-precious stones were laid in sockets specially prepared in a sand stone or marble slab The major styles of design motifs and patterns used are:
GEOMETRIC : Geometric motifs are commonly used in Pachikari. Geometric patterns and ornamentation is assumed to express the abstract and infinite nature of Allah who is supposed to be formless and unexpressed in human language.
FLORAL : Floral motifs are the most widely used design language in Pachikari, with a variety of flowers, blossoms, leaves, jaal, botanical details etc. the deeply felt love for florals amongst Mughals was the idea of paradise as a garden.
ARABESQUE : A form of abstracted nature, the arabesque motifs is widely used in Pachikari products. Inspired from natural plants and flowers, curved leaves, stalks and blossoms, the abstract motifs are repeated and mirrored.
CALLIGRAPHY : Calligraphy plays an integral part of the design vocabulary as the written word hold great importance in Islamic culture.
The craft being a family legacy, for some has become. They feel the craft is not able to provide them enough livelihoods despite the time and hard work put in. This marvellous craft is not able to get recognition amongst the localities and there is hardly any demand in the local market.
Another aspect is the technological advancement, which bears implications on the making process. There are ways in which the support of technology has been beneficial to this practice, but certainly within limits. With the introduction of electric grinders the work gets done faster but due to electricity shortage the manual grinders still need to be used extensively.
The process is highly labour intensive and time consuming with a series of steps involved. In order to cater to the export market, the artisans are engaged in mass production, making lots of things which have to look the same, the essence of each piece being unique is lost.The use of Pachikari on large-scale objects and constructions is now treated as a tradition of the past with hardly any people investing in these.