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Lyrical Legacies - Karnataka Art

In Karnataka, is in other parts of India, a very thin line divides ‘art’ and ‘craft’. And this is manifest in every home where even the common articles of daily use, including an earthen pot for that matter, resemble a work of art.

The vast range of the State’s arts and crafts that now embellish royal homes of the past, elite bungalows and even ordinary hutments, bear testimony to the skill, aesthetic sensibilities and sense of the craftsperson’s decorative abilities. Many a craft tradition in Karnataka has been handed down from father to son and this continuity has helped to cradle a vast variety of handicrafts with their high degrees of perfection.

The State’s craftsmen received much patronage from the royalty in the past. But, today, the government has set up many agencies and even design centres towards encouraging craft families to continue to make handicrafts and help to market their ware. This has helped keep many craft traditions alive so that their practitioners can cater not only to the local population but also to the many tourists who visit Karnataka.

Karnataka has come to occupy pride of place in the field of wood carving. The State’s relatively good forest cover provides enough raw material for its craftsmen who continue to employ age-old techniques to carve, inlay, veneer, paint and lacquer articles in wood. Their skill is manifest in the ancient temples where wood has been used extensively, as also in the intricate fixtures they make for present-day needs in architecture and furniture making. The lintels and doors of some old homes in the hilly region and the temple cars in villages and towns are literally overflowing with hundreds of intricately carved images of gods and goddesses. Rosewood articles are a favourite with the well-to-do buyers and no tourist leaves the State without carrying with him or her a beautifully carved rosewood elephant, at least.

Craftsmen in the city of Mysore have specialized in wood inlay work making exquisite articles depicting landscapes, pastoral scenes, elephant herds, birds etc. Some of the finest examples of the elaborate inlay work done by master artisans can be seen in the Maharaja’s palace in Mysore and in the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan in Srirangapattna.

Ivory carving was yet another popular craft. In recent years, however because of the ban imposed on the ivory trade, the craft has received a set back. But you can still find articles carved very intricately without floral tracery surrounding the figures, mostly of gods with Krishna being featured in several aspects. Some of Mysore’s masterpieces in ivory are now preserved in the Heritage Museum in Russia and in the South Kensington Museum, London.

Metalware is yet another craft that engages many families. Metalware in Karnataka has a rich and ancient tradition and the objects serve both religious and secular needs. The temple town of Udupi is famous for its small images and ritual objects, while Karkala, an ancient Jain centre, is well-known for its Jain icons. Mangalore in the west coast boasts of domestic articles made of bell-metal while Nagamangala near Mysore is celebrated as a centre for bronze casting. The bronze makers of Nagamangala have, for centuries, displayed a climax of delicate and graceful workmanship especially in delineating, in the most charming manner, the anatomy of the human body.

And then there are the stone carvers, shilpis, of Karnataka. Some of them have won the master crafts man awards at the national level while others have been commissioned to carve stone idols for Hindu temples abroad, especially in the USA. Karnataka has a village called Shivarapattana in the district of Kolar, where every fourth house is a sculptor’s studio. The stone carvers are skilled craftsmen, and like the marble fabricators of Jaipur in Rajasthan, have descended from generations and feel proud that they belong to a long line of hereditary sculptors.

The very mention of Mysore spells the fragrance of sandalwood. This soft material is used extensively to produce charming art pieces. The range of objects and designs are varied and the gudigar families of Shimoga, Uttara Kannada and Mysore districts specialize in this craft. Sandalwood lends itself to extremely delicate carving that is needed to embellish the figures of gods and goddesses. Krishna images are very popular among the devout, while many prefer to buy utility articles made in sandalwood which include lamp shades, caskets, trays, jewel boxes, combs and even walking sticks with rosewood handles.

Enter any Kannada home and your eyes will focus on the innumerable dolls that are displayed in a glass-covered shelf in the drawing room. Dolls are favourites among women and children alike and every family has a large collection. These are symmetrically arranged on wooden platforms, decorated and displayed during the nine day Dusshera festival when visitors are treated to delicious snacks and the celebrated Mysore coffee. Kinnal and Gokak in north Karnataka and Channapatna on the Bangalore/Mysore highway are important centres for doll-making. Most of the dolls made are painted with vegetable dyes while the Channapatna ones are lacquered.

Bidar in north Karnataka, closer to Hyderabad than Bangalore, is a famous centre for bidriware—a well-developed craft which include the use of a metal plate of an alloy made of zinc, copper, tin and lead. This craft had its origins during the rule of the Bahamani kings. Bidri articles include articles like ornamental jugs, bowls, plates pen holders, candle sticks and even paper knives.

Some of Karnataka’s folk arts and age-old rituals have given rise to many traditional handicrafts. The worship of spirits—the bhuta cult—in the coastal districts has encouraged the making of huge wooden idols, some of whom are kept outside villages as guardians of the inhabitants. Some others adorn temples. Likewise, the art of puppetry has encouraged many wood carvers and painters to produce a variety of puppets. In addition to puppets made of wood, Karnataka also makes leather puppets though the latter are more extensively used and made in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

And the story of Karnataka’s arts and crafts is never complete without a reference to the traditional Mysore paintings. The art dates back to the Ajanta times and to the reign of the Vijayanagar kings. It was a ruler with an artistic vision—Mummadri Krishnaraja Wadiyar—who revived the art of painting. The delicate lines, the graceful delineation of figures nad the discreet use of bright vegetable colours and lustrous gold leaf, make the traditional paintings of Mysore very elegant and attractive. Many senior traditional painters have now started schools to teach this art to the younger generation. In fact Chitrakala Parishat in Bangalore, which has a fantastic collection of old paintings, has also started a school headed by the living doyen of traditional painting: Subramanya Raju.


The very word silk has a touch of class about it. Sensuous and romantic, it has fascinated man for many centuries. In Karnataka, as in other parts of India where silk is fancied, it is, in fact, a way of life. It has also become an inseparable part of the Kannada culture and tradition. No ritual in complete without the participants wearing silk in some form or another.

‘Mysore silk’ is famous and Karnataka has contributed a great deal to the progress of India’s silk industry. And it has helped the country to overtake Japan after China in the production of mulberry silk. A silent revolution is under way—thanks to a massive Rs. 555 core National Sericulture Project. Aided by the World Bank and the Swiss Development Corporation, the project is already four years old and aims to increase silk production upto 15,500 tonnes per annum. Karnataka’s 200-year-old silk industry owes its origin to Tipu Sultan who ruled Mysore with his capital at Srirangapatana. Tipu showed a very personal interest in sericulture and his letter of 27. September, 1786 addressed to the Commander of Srirangapatana Fort reveals this.

He informed him that Burhanuddin and Kashturi Ranga who had been sent by him to Bengal toobtain silk worms were expected to return home soon, and that after their arrival, care should be taken rear the silk worms in his kingdom. This concern was shown despite the fact that a that time Tipu was in the midst of a war against the Marathas and the Nizam. Tipu sultan established 21 centres in his dominions to rear the silk worm and obtained these not only from Murshidabad in Bengal but also from Muscat. He imported French canons by exporting Mysore’s silk yarn and fabrics to France and by the turn of the 19th century, the silk industry in Mysore was there to stay.

Silk’s strange links with the battle field did not end with Tipu. The industry received yet another boost during World War II when parachute manufacturers needed large quantities of the fabric. As China, the largest producer, was then under Japanese occupation where else could the Allies go looking for silk except India and more especially Mysore? Necessity compelled the British to encourage silk production not only in the then Mysore State (now Karnataka) but also in the nieighbouring regions. When the war ended the demand for silk fell but, with the setting up of the Central Silk Board in 1949, the industry made enormous progress, with Karnataka alone contributing 75 per cent of mulberry silk to the notion’s production. In the days of yore, Karnataka’s silk weavers used vegetable dyes made from a variety of tree barks. Crouching in front of their traditional looms in their small homes in Bangalore’s Cubbonpet and in Doddaballapur, Molakalmuru and Melkote and other places, they worked from dawn to dusk, weaving with gay abandon. They never committed their designs to paper but were guided only by instinct and memory. They were attracted and influenced by the innumerable motifs of animals and birds, trees and flowers that filled the environment in which they lived. Today, their children and grandchildren use chemical dyes and power looms, though many still prefer the use of the handloom. Despite mechanization, efforts are now being made to keep the art and craft of handloom weaving alive and to make the weaver aware of the intrinsic value and grace of his own craftsmanship and the imperative need to preserve it. Such efforts have saved many weaving silks from dying.

Sericulture’s growth in Karnataka has gone on paralled with the ‘green revolution’ and the progress achieved has transformed the lifestyle of many farming families. Karnataka has six lakh families engaged in this industry who, together, produced 7,147 tonnes of raw silk in 1992-1993. Mulberry is cultivated in 16 lakh hectares in the State which prides itself in having 49 cocoon markets and five sericulture exchanges protecting the interests of the silkworm rearers. The cocoon market in Ramangaram near Bangalore is the biggest in Asia. The Central Silk Board has taken several steps to provide adequate research support to all those 4engaged in the silk industry. In Mysore city, there is the Central Sericulture Research and Training Institute for mulberry sericulture. In additon, the Central Silk Technological Research Institute (CSTRI) has been established in Bangalore to tackle the problem of silk reeling, processing and finishing. Channapatna, an hour’s journey by road from Bangalore, in well-known for its spun silk and has a large modern mechanized plant. Channapatna silk is spun like cotton from the left over waste after the silk yarn is reeled. It is used for weaving furnishing fabrics and carpets. Most weavers in Karnataka belong to the Devanga community and are believed to be descendents of the weavers who flourished under the Vijayanagara kings. “The word Devanga is significant—dev meaning god and anga meaning body. Our ancestors wove angavastrams, the fabric used to drape temple idols,” says Dasappa, a veteran weaver in Bangalore. He bestows much praise on the skill of the weavers In Banaras and Kancheepuram who depend entirely on Karnataka for their raw material.


Famous over the years for its fabulous silks, both handwoven and mill-made, sandalwood articles and agarbattis, incense sticks, Karnataka also offers in the two cities of Bangalore and Mysore innumerable other ware, especially for the discerning tourist. These include excellent rosewood articles, some of them inlaid in ivory and metal, in addition to the intricately carved images of gods and goddesses, delicately carved caskets and jewel box4es in sandalwood. Bangalore and Mysore are synonymous with silk, as the centres producing this fabric, in a variety of colours and designs, are located in areas close to these cities. A mind-boggling variety of silk saris and fabrics are available in the well-stocked shops on Kempedowda Road and Mahatma Gandhi Road in Bangalore. Deepam Silks International and Vijayalakshmi Silks and Saris, both on Mahatma Gandhi Road are very popular. In addition, there is the Government Silk Emporium run by the Karnataka Silk Industries Corporation on Mahatma Gandhi Road. In Mysore, these soft-as-a-sigh silk products are available in many exclusive shops on Sayaji Road, Devaraj Urs Road and in the Sales Emporium attached to the Government Silk Factory on Manatody Road.

In both Bangalore and Mysore, one can go to the Kaveri handicrafts Emporium for an handicrafts Emporium for an endless variety of handicrafts. The Mysore outfit is not as well stocked as its counterpart in Bangalore, but there are many private shops in the city to cater to the tourist. Noted handicrafts establishments in Bangalore include, also, the Cottage Industries Emporium on Mahatma Gandhi Road and Natesan’s Antiques also on the same road. The latter has for sale some superb works of Indian art and craftsmanship. Overseas visitors must make sure that the antiques they buy are exportable.

Traditional jewellery, both custom-made and ready-to-wear, are available in plenty in the jewellery shops located on Avenue Road in Bangalore and on Devaraja Urs and Ashoka Road in Mysore. For a staggering variety of handicrafts, not only of Karnataka but from all other Indian States as well, the place to go to in Mysore city in the Handicrafts Sales Emporium in the Hotel Dashratha Complex located opposite the Mysore Zoo. Those who are interested in the traditional Coorg jewellery would do well to visit Sharada Jewellers on Devaraj Urs Road in Mysore.

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