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A Luring Legacy – Madhya Pradesh Crafts

All over the State of Madhya Pradesh, craftsmen spend their days in a whirl of precious activities. The materials that are used may have changed and the articles that are produced may be on a wider utilitarian range, but a long heritage of tradition continues to add a highly distinctive, individualistic touch to the crafts of Madhya Pradesh. Thousands of craftsmen practice hand printing, generally with vegetable dyes that hold fast and true, at a string of hand printing centres—Jawad, Bhairongarh, Mandsaur, Umedpura, Burhanpur, Bhopal,Indore, Gotampura, Sohawal, Tarapur and many more.

Garments, bedspreads, table cloths and curtain material are produced at Umedpura and Tarapur in nandana prints that were once in vogue amongst the villagers of the legendary Nimar plain. From Bhairongarh come printed quilt covers in attractive colours and designs, lungis, odhanis, jajams (floor coverings), bedspreads and table cloths. Tie and dye chunaries are the speciality of Tarapur and Mandsaur.

Textile weaving in Madhya Pradesh is as refined as the hand printing craft. Soft, subtle shades in delicate weaves come off the looms in Chanderi, near Gwalior. Here, silk is used as the warp and cotton for the weft to produce the famous Chanderi sarees. Some sarees have gold checks and these combined with the traditional rich gold border along with two gold bands on the pallav, give each saree a special touch.

Maheshwari sarees are woven at Maheshwar. The Maheshwari craftsmen have perfected the art of weaving a wide variety of checks. Madhya Pradesh’s craftsmen are equally adept at producing tassar silk handloom fabrics.

Skilled craftsmanship is also on display in a variety of zari (gold and silver threads) embroidered articles. There are zari wall hangings, handbags, sarees and splendid brocade borders. Even though the number of zari workers—mostly women—has dwindled in recent years, Bhopal remains an important centre for this specialized embroidery.

In the princely fort city of Gwalior, steeped in history and legend, carpet weaving made a late debut in 1902, but the fine quality of weaving in imaginative designs soon earned Gwalior’s carpet industry an excellent reputation. More than a thousand looms are in operation in and around the city.

Gwalior is much more than a carpet weaving centre. It is, in fact, a veritable Mecca of crafts. In the shadow of the imposing old fort, craftsmen hew and chisel marvelously delicate stone jails (perforated screens). And in the narrow, teeming lanes and by lanes of the old city, work craftsmen who still savour memories of a glorious, not too distant past when their crafts were renowned even far beyond the borders of India.

The craftsmen at Gwalior produce striking papier mache articles, coloured lacquerware, glass beads, wood, shell and white metal jewellery, terracotta figures and containers, rag dolls and toys. Gwalior’s Batto Bai dolls, named after an enter praising craftswoman, measure some four to five feet in height. Made of bamboo, paper and rags, these dolls are extremely popular.

However, these crafts are not the monopoly of Gwalior alone. Coloured lacquerware, for instance, is also produced at a number of other centres such as Ratlam, Rewa, Sheopur and Bhopal. Rag dolls are crafted at Khandwa, Indore and Burhanpur. Striking papier mache articles are made at Indore, Ujjain and a few more centres. In addition to crafts that are common to a number of specialized centres, there are others which are the monopoly of a particular area and there are still others where craftsmen in a specific centre lend to their work a highly distinctive touch.

Take for example terracotta. Even though this craft is practiced all over Madhya Pradesh, the terracottas of Bastar stand apart, both for their variety and workmanship. The terracotta craftsmen of Bastar make terracotta figures of the gods, of humans and of animals, along with utilitarian articles such as pots and containers.

Besides, the Maria and Abujmaria women of Bastar design a wide, colourful range of jewellery from glass beads which they buy at the weekly markets (haats). Bell metal casting in the cireperude (lost wax) process has also long been practiced in Bastar and at a few other places such as Datia and Sagar. Tribal deities, votive lamps, some items of tribal jewellery are amongst the bell metal articles that are produced through the cireperdue process. The wood carvers of Bastar are reputed to be an exceptionally gifted lot, adept at bringing wood to life in a number of forms—ritualistic, religious and aesthetically appealing articles.

Perhaps the greatest number of craftsmen and workers—more than 150,00—in Madhya Pradesh are engaged in crafting the most beautiful of bamboo ware. Leather toys too, generally wild animals, are a speciality of Madhya Pradesh. At Bhedaghat, situated in picturesque surroundings on the banks of the Narmada river, craftsmen, their fingers hardened by constant use, fashion decorative items from the soft marble rocks in the area. And in places such as Indore, Bhopal, Ujjain and Alirajpur, craftsmen work patiently on wood carvings. There are carved furniture, door jambs, boxes, panels and figures in various sizes.

Tribal designs and motifs are an interesting feature shared by a large number of crafts in Madhya Pradesh—from fabrics to papier mache, wood, bamboo and bell metal articles. But perhaps the greatest appeal of the crafts of Madhya Pradesh lies in their strength of tradition and the beauty, sometimes subtle, sometimes stunning, that permeates each craft and inspires the craftsmen to refine their skills.


Shopping for handicrafts in Madhya Pradesh is a classic experience which epitomizes far more than the delights of hunting for objects of beauty, followed by the pleasure of finally selecting a piece to purchase and take home to admire. Almost everywhere in the State, there is a dual choice—between old bazaars where shops ‘specialize’ in offering certain items, and modern streamlined shopping centres which tend to stock a ‘cosmopolitan’ range of goods.

The older shopping centres in Madhya Pradesh have retained the lingering ambience of a bygone age. There is a hustle and bustle in the teeming bazaars and narrow by lanes, but once inside a shop, the trader or shopkeeper displays an abundance of courtesy without a mite of impatience as one goes through the wares haggling and bargaining. In Bhopal for instance, the Chowk, which forms the heart of the old city, is a fascinating shopping centre. Old mosques and havelis around the area provide reminders of a splendid past while the shops in the narrow alleyways are a feast of traditional crafts which entice the shopper. There are delicately embroidered cushions and velvet purses, exquisite silver jewellery, exotic zari borders…

And if one is in a hurry, and has time only for a quick shopping spree, one heads towards the modern, streamlined shopping centre at the New Market in TT Nagar. The Madhya Pradesh State Emporium with its range of handicrafts at fixed prices is situated here.

The city of Indore with handicrafts from all over the State is a virtual nucleus for shoppers. Its oldest market, the Maharaj Tukuganj Cloth Market, popularly known as MT Market, has a range of fabrics that could warm the heart of a princess. The famous Maheshwari sarees with their distinctive borders can be found here, as can the prized Chanderi sarees. Brocades and zari work in a host of designs charm the senses. There are lungis, odhanis in traditional designs…

Jail Road and the Top Khana rank as the second oldest markets in Indore. Smocking done at nearby Mhow can be found here, along with an assortment of handicrafts of Madhya Pradesh ranging from the odd tribal memento to utilitarian papier mache articles, terracotta pieces, wood carving… The range is truly imposing.

The old market at Rajwara has a predominance of traditional fabrics, while the Bara Sarafa and the Chotta Sarafa offer an impressive array of jewellery in designs perfected at a time when goldsmiths and silversmiths were patronized exclusively by clients who had an eye for rare beauty. The Madhya Pradesh State Emporium is located on M.G. Road.

In the holy city of Ujjain, near Indore, beautifully carved objects such as penholders, glasses, plates, images of gods and goddesses are carved in stone with delicate hues ranging from pale green to a rich, creamy brown. These can be bought, along with papier mache articles, lacquerware, and beadwork from the numerous stalls and shops outside the Mahakal Temple and in the small main bazaar at Ujjain.

Perhaps the oldest bazaars in Madhya Pradesh are in Gwalior. In the lanes near the Chowk at Bara, shopkeepers claim a line-age that dates back several centuries. Chanderi sarees can be found here, along with choice fabrics with a traditional weave. The shops near Rajwara and Laskar, particularly at Patankar Bazaar, offer a mix of arts and crafts that are native to Gwalior, such as dolls, lacquerware, hand woven carpets, wall hangings in the Gwalior style of painting, jewellery and crafts from other centres in Madhya Pradesh.

Objects in the delicate jail-work of Gwalior can be obtained from several masons who work on the roadside leading to the Parade Ground. The Madhya Pradesh State Emporium which houses a large range of handicrafts is located in Patankar Bazaar and is an ideal place to shop at if you are in a hurry.

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