Generations ago, Kashmiri artisans, known for their skills in carpentry and woodcarving, migrated southward from the northern tip of India in search of work. They set up workshops in Saharanpur and a bustling community of wood artisans emerged.
Today narrow alleys in Saharanpur, a small city about 200 km outside of Delhi near Shivalik hills, leads you to busy workshops where artisans are sawing, sanding, and cutting wood into frames, boxes, decorative items, and more. The smell of sawdust permeates the neighborhood. Stacks of wood are perched against old brick structures in makeshift warehouses. Sitting on terraces, overlooking these alleys, artisans chat amongst themselves as they transform the materials into works of art.
Two types of wood are quite popular with the artisans: sheesham, or more commonly known as rosewood, and mango. While sheesham is stronger, harder, and a denser wood, mango is more malleable and softer. Sheesham wood is local, from the state of Uttar Pradesh; dried wood from the forest is collected by the government and sold to wood-based businesses.
Given the concentration of wood workshops in the city, carpentry has become a way of life. But with the recent push for mechanization, this trade is at a critical point: will a new generation of young men follow in their father's footsteps?
It's been a generational craft. Even the owners of the workshops are young men, who have take over the reins of the business from their fathers and grandfathers. Each company, or workshop, has anywhere from 50 to 200 artisans, working for them. Some are full-time staff, others are contractors, brought in on a daily basis, according to the needs of the business. Over 10,000 artisan units exist in the city, employing nearly 50,000 individuals. The government even provides a small subsidy to support the trade and the state government has set up the Wood Craft Design and Development Society to voice concerns in the industry.
One business owner who now runs a successful workshop in Saharanpur, overseeing 150 artisans, started as a wood carver in the 1970s, earning about 200 Rs a month, or $4. Today his artisans get paid more than that each day for their efforts.
Mohammad Ayub is one of those men. A local, he’s been working as an artisan for over 20 years in the same workshop, specializing in brass inlay (that is, when wooden tables, boxes, and bowls are accentuated with brass and metal) It’s detailed painstaking work requiring layers of metal to be embedded into the wood and filed down.
“I learned how to do this as a young man at the age of 11 or so. A gentleman who lived in the same neighborhood as me taught me,” he says in Hindi. Asked if he’d like to see any changes in his work, he responds:
“I want more work. I wish there was more work.” He smiles.
He has a daughter and son. Will they take up this line? He hesitates.
Wood-carving may not carry forward its legacy. While the workshops are bustling with activity, today’s youth in Saharanpur prefer to drive rickshaws than do their father’s or grandfather’s work.
“It pays more, it’s easier and it’s in demand. People need transport; people will always need transport,” the workshop owner says.
Yet, carving in the subcontinent has an incredible heritage. Archeologists have dug up remains that date back to the 3rd and 4th century, indicating that wooden carvings have been a permanent fixture of Indian history. In more modern history, such as Mughal times, wooden doors became a popular medium for artisans (and their sponsors) to make into elaborate centerpieces, intricately carved-- a sign of wealth, power, and artistry. Today’s artisans are working on smaller palates, but still producing as ornate pieces. Saharanpur specializes in carving and jigsaw cutting, which allow for more complexity in the design.
The process is time-consuming -- anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks, depending on the size of the piece. The wood is stored in open air warehouses, where it’s sorted and stacked according to the variety (sheesham, teak, mango, sandal). First, it's sanded and prepped. Once the shape is carved, the artisans sit at jigsaw cutter and spin the wood, making smaller, more precisions incisions.
When the carving is complete, it’s whitewashed and then painted or stained, accordingly. Often brass and other metal touches are added to produce a contrast against the wood. The results are magnificent: check out our latest wood collections!
While the new design tests the skills of the artisans, it fuses elements from around the world: the modernity of design, the craftsmanship of Saharanpur, and a technique borrowed from East Asia.
Sheesham wood, a local favorite, is used in many of the pieces and complemented by brass accents procured from nearby Moradabad, the mecca for all things brass in India, or glass, as in our Trellis trays, which is placed in between the wood designs.
A melding of heritage and contemporary aesthetics, our trays, wood blocks, and photo frames keep Mela Artisans’ mission alive: to sustain withering techniques by infusing a certain freshness in the designs.
Hopefully with this approach, more wood carvers will remain relevant in years to come.