The craft produces a wide range of products due to its versatility like toys, pipes, masks, doors, bangle-stands, window frames, wooden memorials, flower vases, bedposts and cradle posts etc. Small decorative and ceremonial stools used in marriages are also made. The smaller items are made more often and are in much demand.
The craft has been functional for nearly a century. It was once practiced to entertain the likes of the Baghelkhandi kings and gained popularity amongst the masses. Soon it became a profitable profession and flourished.
Sir George Watt in his famous dictionary of 1908, 'Commercial products of India' has described the uses of Lac. In his observations he talks of how Lac entered into the agricultural, commercial, artistic, manufacturing, domestic and sacred feelings and enterprises of the people of India. "This craft provided substantial income to the communities living in the agricultural and forest tracts. The labor was also aptly divided as every village had its carpenter, turner and shoemaker etc. who used Lac in some form or the other. Lacquer ware is used by the rich and the poor, its versatility spans across the various sections of society. The tribal people collect Lacquer from the forest and smear it on carved bowls.-
Pure Lac used on wood gives it sheen but when mixed with color, it brings out vibrant, sleek shades. Lacquered wood is used to make a variety of objects like toys and canes to even bedsteads. Lac in India is different from that of the rest of the places because it is obtained from resin produced by insects rather than the sap of the Khus tree.
The Lacquer industry can be divided into three categories based on the scale of production:
- Independent workshop units : Family members, including children work on the craft and the whole set up is complete with a few lathe machines (hand operated or motor driven). They work in their homes or small workshops constructed nearby. They market their goods in the local Bazaar on their own or cater to bigger traders.
- Small scale enterprises : Around 4-10 lathes are set up in the artisans' house. The master craftsmen hire other artisans who are paid on 'piece' basis. This setup forms the enterprise, which sells their products to the exporters. The profit margin for the artisans is less as they work through agents who are usually government agencies, which levy heavy taxes and commissions.
- Medium scale industries: Run by exporters in large cities with large profits. They employ artisans to craft products of desired quality. There is a strict focus on quality to bring about a mandatory flawlessness. These industries are open to new ideas and designs.
Myths & Legends
Lac makes its appearance in texts as ancient as the Vedas. The Lakshataru or the Lac tree is a well known feature. It appears in the story of the notorious Lac palace built by the Kauravas to execute a plot to eliminate Pandavas in an episode from the epic Mahabharata.
One of the oldest written veda has A small chapter is devoted to the Lac insect in Atharva Veda. Ayurveda stresses the importance of Lac in medical therapies. In recent history lacquer and woodwork crafts are believed to be practiced for more than 300 years. The traditional craftsmen are called 'Vishwakarmas', meaning creators of a universe of structures. In recorded history of India, Lac was first mentioned in 'Ain-i-Akbari' by Abul Fazl in 1590 AD. Lacquer ware flourished in the subcontinent due to the Mughal court and patronage.
This craft is practiced in many parts of India today, the notable places being Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. The commonality of the craft led it to being used for most utilitarian objects, which were used for bartering and sharing with relatives or the community. Since the purpose was such, the products were of high quality, made with a precise finish in view. This has substantially led to the clean, smooth and compact look of the products. The process adds liveliness and colors to the objects as well as makes them more durable. India is one of the largest producers and principal exporter of Lac. The need for embellishment without diversion in functionality led to the wide demand of Lacquer ware. Lac is also widely used in food processing, textile, leather, cosmetics, varnish and printing industries. Being biodegradable and eco-friendly it gained further acceptance.
Hand-Lacquered objects have a distinct look to them, making them stand apart from that varnished with acrylic or oil paints. Four main colors are used in the process - yellow, green, red and silver grey. These are also mixed to make various other shades. Traditional designs along with the ones put down by various government organizations, which bring in designers to aid the craft are being used.
The influx of cheap plastic and rising prices of wood has left the craftsmen with low returns on their expertise and hard work. The craftsmen tried to incorporate the bright fluorescent colors of plastic in their Lacquer products to keep the customer interested. This led to a crucial decision of creating products which would be valued for their craftsmanship and not the amount of raw material used in them, as was the case in the earlier days. Owing to no change in the designs of the products over the years, the craft has reached a point of stagnation. Fresh inputs from young designers are required to meet the new demands and specifications of the export market.