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Bidriware – Brilliance by Contrast

The intricate and exquisite Bidriware was developed during the medieval times. Today items of Bidriwork are popular in India as well as abroad.

As you wind through the cobble-stoned lanes of Bidar, 75 miles north-west of Hyderabad, you will be bedazzled by the wealth of traditional and colourful artifacts that festoon the once fabulously rich township of he Bahmani and Baridi dynasties. Amidst the embers of this famous historic settlement flourishers the conspicuously striking handicraft of Bidriware, splendiferous in beauty and design and scintillating in exquisite craftsmanship.

I was six months ago when I visited the town in the state of Karanataka, that I first encountered bidriware. Captivated, I would potter in the market daily, examining the intricacies of the craft, enthusiastically. On one such occasion I learnt two very interesting, though conflicting, accounts regarding the origin of bidriwork.

Abdullah-bin-Khaiser, an expert in bidriware, according to one version, migrated to Bidar in the 11th century and joined hands with an equally proficient goldsmith familier with the secrets of the trade. Together they gave impetus to the craft, as a result, bidri became an integral part of goldsmity.

Another popular tale recounts that one of the hindu kings of Bidar innovated the crafts of bidriware, using the articles thus decorated to hold flowers and other offerings in honour of his household Gods. Later, under the patronage of he aesthetically conscious Mohammedan rulers, indigenous manufacturers were extended both co-operation and encouragement and in course of time Bidriwork reached its zenith in perfection, design and finesse.

It is said that Akbar, the famous Mughal Emperor was so fond of this art that he personally supervised the work in is Royal Armoury.

The traditional art of damascening in silver or Koftgari work, as Bidri is popularly known, entails encrusting one metal into another in the form of a wire. It is akin to the ancient art of inlying gold and silver in copper and steel which was practiced in Persia and Arbia at one time. It is believed that the know-how was brought to India from these countries but took an altogether different form which has become the speciality of Bidar from where it derives its name.

The origin of the technical aspect of bidriware is not definitely known. It appears that like other Persian articles of metal with scripts and designs produced by inlaying gold and silver, this particular type of work was probably developed by experimenting with various alloys to guarantee brilliance by contrast. The resultant ingredient was an alloy of zinc and copper combined with other non-ferrous metals.

The new alloy, thus produced, is of a brittle nature but does not rust or corrode and has the additional advantage of allowing a better polish. At the local factory I was fascinated to find that each bidri utensil had to pass through a long complicated process of casting, polishing, engraving, inlaying and blackening of the alloy before the final product was ready for the market. The casting is done in moulds of red clay, a mixture of wax and resin covering the mould with a coating of red clay superimposed on it. This whole process is supported by stops, which may not be necessary in case of smaller articles. The product is then roughly polished on a lathe. Power driven lathes are harnessed for shaping and finishing the vessels at the Common Faculty Centre, Hyderabad. The design is first drawn freehand and later engraved with a sharp chisel in varying depths. Silver wire or pieces of the sheets are then embedded on the chased patterns by hammering. The highly intricate designs are however introduced at the time of the crafting itself. An explosive combination of chemicals varying from common salt, saltpeter, copper sulphate and salammonac when applied to the surface of the vessel transforms the colour of the metal to jet black. The final polishing with sandpaper, charcoal and coconut sets the shimmering silver in sharp relief to its satiny black background.

Bidri work boats of versatility, design originally and fine craftsmanship. Gold inlay work is now rare but was at one time as popular as silver. At present, only silver is used to make the craft more vibrant. Slight variations in Bidri craftsmanship are the Taikashi or the brass metalwire inlay work, the Taihnishan and the Zamisshan in which the design is deeply cut and the Zar Buland which rather resembles the encrusted ware of Tanjore, where white designs are cut on the red and yellow ground of copper or brass vessels. Still another type of ornamentation is the Aftabi and Mumabatkari in which the patterns are wrought at slightly raised levels over the surface of the vessel, so as to look overlaid. Often, more than one style is used on the same article though a combination of Taikashi and Taihnishan is more common.

Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh was once the stronghold of Taikashi decorations, where it was commonly engraved on wooden footwear. Nowadays, Taikashi work is more appreciated as part of furniture ornamentation specially in places like Jaipur and Delhi. At Trivandrum in Kerala, attractive panels depict whole scenes in this style.

As bidriware catapulted into prominence as a prime contender in the national arena, the craft spread to the neighbouring states of Purnia in Bihar, Lucknow in U.P. and Murshidabad in Bengal where industries sprang up overnight to churn out bidri products trying to keep pace with the shooting market demands. At all these places the craft is in the hands of Muslim artisans noted for their high prowess and skill. The designs are mostly conventional ranging from creepers, flowers and sometimes human figures, requiring a high degree of skill and artistic talent.

In the crowded marketplace of Murshidabad one can see stalls saging with elegant flower vases, tumblers, plates, trays, cups, saucers in vivid bidri designs typical of the polished ware of Bidar. It is an amusing sight to watch the enthusiastic shopowners vying with each other in extolling the virtues of their wares to the confused costumers. A modification of bidriwork is to be seen in Lucknow’s Zar Buland, where the ornamental designs are raised above the surface and chased. Sometimes, gilt silver is used to cover the patterns. Large, delicate designs in silver in the form of flowers, leaves and even fish are encrusted all over the base metal.

The fish emblem can be traced back to the kings of Oudh who delighted in parading their ‘dignity of fish’, Mahi Muratib, in the vanguard of all state processions. This consisted of the privilege of carrying an emblem of fish made of metal and borne upon a pole with two circular gilt bells attached to it. This mark of distinction was formerly bestowed only on nobles of the highest order and the last occasion on which an Emperor of Delhi exercised this privilege was when Shah Alam bestowed the dignity on the English official Lord Lake. The firsh motto later became a noble design in art and architecture and bidri manufacturers adopted it as a natural culmination of bidri craft.

If you have visited Bellori, a village four miles from the civil station of Purnia, you will find the local craftsmen, the Kansaris, busily engaged in moulding and turning bidri vessels. The remaining work of engraving and polishing is undertaken by the skilled Sonar. Here, a popular variant of bidri is the gharki, in which the patterns are plain and inferior both in beauty and adroitness. While the Bidar craftsmanship shows a preponderance of floral decorations in a more or less naturalistic style, the design of the Purnia region is strictly conventional and has a vibrant Chinese character. In fact, local customs are so deeply entrenched in the minds of people that bidri art has never really been allowed to die. To cite an instance, at the time of the marriage of a girl, it is a custom in Hyderabad to present a complete set of bidri utensils to the bridegroom, ranging from bedlegs to a spittoon. No dowry is considered complete without it. This necessitates the father of the girl to begin his collection years before his daughter’s marriage considering the prevailing high prices of bidri articles.

Traditionally, the nobles used huq-qas or the hubble-bubble of various sizes and multifarious shapes and designs varying from that of a ball, bell, cone, coconut or fruits like mangoes. The aftaba or the water jugs, and the sailabchi or the wash basins were at one time very popular both in the zenana and the gentlemen’s living-room. Womenfolk from noble families particularly favoured the ugaldan (spittoon) surahi, cosmetic boxes, dibyas, gulab-posh, pandaans, and elaichi-daans for offering paan and supari, in quaint rectangular, oval, round, square, fish or leaf shapes. In households, weights known as the mir-e-farsh were used to keep the bed-sheets unruffled. These were often in enchanting aftabi workmanship with exotic lotus designs on them.

It is believed that the earliest craftsman turning out bidriware probably migrate from Iran and were patronized by the Deccan rulers from the 15th century onwards. The bidri technique was usually handed down from generation to generation, and in the course of time local Muslims and Hindus of he Lingayat sect took to the trade. Thereafter, hindus forms like the ‘Swastika’ and the ‘lotus’ stole their way into the designs. Highly conventionalized patterns such as the Asharfi-ki-booti, stars, vine creepers and stylized poppy plants with flowers, the Persian Rose and bowls with passages from the Quran in Arabic script were in vogue. The most striking is the Phooljadi, a pattern in small diagonal squares filled in by small flowers resembling the sprinkling of a sparkler.

The Salarjung Museum in Hyderabad has in its collection a beautiful farshi huqqa designed in the Zar Buland technique with numerous lion’s heads. Circular flowers with five petals in between decorative creepers are a mixture of Persian and European influence. Some of the other antique pieces are on display at the National Museum New Delhi, Hyderabad Museum and the Prince of Wales Museum at Bombay. Others are being preserved under the auspices of some well known families of Hyderabad.

With the passage of time and the advent of a new age bidri articles changed their shapes and decorative motifs. Cigar boxes, cigarette cases, ash trays, cuff links, match box covers, fruit bowls and other necessities of daily use began to find favour with the purchaser. A careful combination of old Persian motifs together with designs adopted from the Bidar. For, Ajanta frescoes and Persian florals typify modern day bidriware. Folk type motifs have also found their way into it.

To cater to the needs of the foreign market, simplified designs such as clubs, hearts, spades, simple floral designs and geometric patterns have been adopted.

As a further impetus to this flourishing industry as a major foreign exchange earner and an upcoming Cottage Industry product, the government has offered a helping hand by opening co-operative workshops in the heart of the city of Hyderabad. The Andhra Pradesh government is also undertaking direct measures for its protection, perpetuation and further enhancement.

Bidri is yet another proof of the sea like character of Indian art and craft to absorb and assimilate the latest in craftsmanship in keeping pace with the developments in this extraordinary field.

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