Visiting a Few of Rajasthan’s Impressively Talented Furniture Craftsmen and Learning about their Art
By Cindy-Lou Dale
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
After agriculture, craft is the second-largest employer to India’s 1.3-billion people. In Jaipur alone, there are 4000 sari makers, 35000 marble workers, 1000 bangle makers and about half as many furniture craftsmen. Any person worth their shopping salt knows that Jaipur’s Bupa Bazaar to be the mecca for traditional artisan produce. I was here to collect a piece of furniture I’d commissioned from a stall holder the previous week.
The truest picture of India is experienced in the markets, shops, and bazaars of Jaipur – India’s artisan capital.
The pink city was always intended as a place where commerce would flourish — where leathermakers, weavers, furniture builders, and jewelers create custom pieces for the rich merchants passing through on their way to other outposts in the Mogul empire.
Jungles full of Wood
The existence of immense jungles in parts of Rajasthan generated opportunities for its craftsmen, and go some way in explaining why Jodhpur, which sits on the edge of the Thar desert, became the unlikely woodworking hub to India’s much-acclaimed furniture industry. After all, it’s a city rich with magnificent palaces and forts, whose legacy in art heavily influenced the work of the wood craftsmen.
Standing away from the bustle, I watched as metalsmiths work their wares at a communal polishing machine. The air filled with dust as marble workers drilled away at stone, creating elephants or deities commissioned by temples from around the country.
In an adjoining street, artisans were carving motifs into wood, across the way folk were making intricate leather sandals, and nearby a father and son hand-stitched wedding garments.
The artisan that caught my eye was using a large metal nail and a wooden plank to chisel the shape of an elephant from a circular slice from a Mango tree trunk.
Turning a corner, I happened upon a lane filled exclusively with brass workers sitting barefoot on the floor of their workshops – which are open to the street. These are the artisans, the people who learned from their fathers, and their fathers’ fathers, who’s craft that would be their livelihood, and that of their children.
I arrived at Sunil’s stall and was given directions to his workshop. I was assured that he and my commissioned piece were waiting for me.
Furniture making has been practiced in India since 1336 AD and was considered more of an art than a trade.
Craftsmen were held in high esteem by royalty as they were able to preserve legends and folklore in their woodwork. Through the centuries, the amalgamation of European sensibilities and Indian craftsmanship became known as Anglo-Indian furniture which paved the way to Mughal style, Goanese, Indo-Dutch style and the use of ebony and ivory – like Chippendale and Sheraton.
Then, in the 18th century British-styled furniture made teak the wood of choice for furniture manufacture.
India Makes it By Hand
India is almost unique in the world for the number and diversity of things that it still makes by hand – it’s the way of life, rather than an exception to it. Here you’ll experience the distinct thrill of realizing that not only can you have something especially made for you, often within hours, but you can speak directly to the person who’s going to make it. Meeting your maker, so to speak.
I entered Sanil’s dusty workshop, a shabby-looking shed in the outskirts of Jodhpur.
Here are some of the best craftsmen in the world – all quietly chiseling away at their respective inventions.
Shards of dim sunlight filter through tall windows, caressing the shoulders of the gifted artisans who are upholding centuries-old traditions, continuing ancient practices taught to them by their forefathers.
The results are distinctive and unique – all glorious masterpieces that would grace any room.
Each piece bespoke, with meticulous and elaborate designs. From dazzling ethnic pieces, inlayed with floral patterns and latticework, fit for the interiors of a New York City loft apartment, to lustrous hardwood furniture that would work in any modern Dubai hotel.
Squatting near an open doorway sits master carpenter, Sunil Shaikh, bronzing the hand-carved scrolls on a repurposed antique dresser.
It’s been painted exactly as I asked – colonial khaki shades: a mustard-colored frame, ten olive green mango wood drawers and a deep, terracotta-colored top, all polished up with black wax. He tilted the piece of furniture this way, then that, examining it closely in the shadowy light.
He retouched an edge adding just a dab more bronze, then inspected it again. Outside, a camel, tiered to a wooden flat-bed cart, patiently waits for its load, which would deliver my piece for onward transit to Italy.
When he saw me Sunil, a tenth-generation carpenter, straightened up. He placed the palms of his hands together in front of his chest and bowed his head in greeting – namaste. We exchanged pleasantries then started speaking about his work.
He explains that most of India’s modern furniture is made from Mango, Rosewood and Acacia, then adds, pointing around the cavernous room that most of the furniture is salvaged from inside crumbling Indian palaces and mansion houses, which he and his team restore, recycle or upcycle to make new pieces.
Lavish items like charpais (string beds), almaris (cupboards) jhulas (swings) and conventional round tables with swollen legs, are seeing a revival. He demonstrates this by introducing me to an old, damaged table and explains that after new parts for the tabletop and legs are cut to size, they are marked for carving; then specialist hand tools are used to engrave complex detail.
finished pieces are united on what could pass as an assembly line – each craftsman adding his specialism. Completed, the item is then sanded, stained, painted in distinctive styles (often inspired by Mughal artwork), sometimes aged, and always polished.
He claimed that craftsmen use only the best of India’s hardwoods – Sheesham, Mango and Acacia are amongst his favourites. The colors, the textures, the tone, and grain of each piece is as unique as the skill that goes into creating it. The craftsmanship does down to the hinges and hardware, sourced from another local craftsman, who also uses ancient techniques.
Despite the development of modern production technologies which need little to no human intervention, India’s artisans uphold traditional methods – ways of using the humblest of tools to develop ethnic, hand-carved, and timeless pieces of furniture.
Sunil leaned across my bespoke chest of drawers, closely inspecting the ‘aging’ process, then steps back and takes a wide-angle look at his work. What he has done is taken an already beautiful chest of drawers and turned it into something that looks like a genuine and much-loved antique, something that’s been around for some time.
This is a one-off piece, there’s nothing in the world that looks anything like this, and it will live for generations… and cost no more than its cheap retail store equivalent, but this piece I’ll bequest to my grandchildren.
Sunil smiles broadly, snaking his head from side-to-side. “I think she is ready for the Aunty. I’ll get the camel man.”