The art of making Kashmiri walnut wood furniture with intricate carvings, is no more than 300 years old. The crafting, chiselling and engravings may have drawn inspiration from the Valley’s Khatumband and Pinjra woodcraft artisans of the 15th and 16th centuries, but the forms and shapes reflect Colonial sensibilities.
Chairs, sideboards, settees, mirror frames and tables carry a whiff of Edwardian lifestyles while jhoolas, trolleys, coffee tables and lamp shades reflect changing tastes and contemporary lifestyles.
Carrying the tradition forward are families and groups of traditional artisans who work from their homes in Srinagar and market their products in distant parts of the country.
Ghulam Mohammad Butt is one such artisan, who is based in Chennai. His family works in the Valley, crafting delicately done furniture and artefacts.
“Raw walnut wood cannot be taken out of the Valley,” says Butt, “so we can work only in Srinagar.”
A carpenter and carver by vocation, he specialises in floral and vine motifs, birds and animals and geometric patterns on furniture forms, artefacts, doors and interiors.
“Only when a walnut tree ceases to bear fruit is it allowed to be cut down by Government authorities,” explains Butt. “After a tree is chopped, the logs are kept for about two years at home so that they dry completely. Then, we begin the carpentry work to make the required product.” The work on a walnut chair is three pronged, consisting of carpentry, carving and polishing. Butt specialises in carving and polishing, which he learnt by watching his father and uncles. The motifs are drawn from the Indo-Islamic lexicon of floral motifs, though diagrams also form part of his design repertoire.
“It takes me a month to make a coffee table,” says Butt as he scoops out minute amounts of wood to shape a motif, using sculpting iron tools, also fashioned by him. Once the entire surface is carved, he uses a mascal or carved scimitar-like tool to polish the surface. The final surface polishing is done using mansion surface polish with the help of a stone to achieve the shining effect. Is the craft languishing? According to Butt, the craft will disappear in 35-40 years unless the Government sets up more training centres and gives more incentives to the artisans. Today, only those aged 50 and above are engaged in this craft, while the educated younger generation is looking at other avenues of employment.
Ghulam Mohammad Butt’s walnut furniture and artefacts can be viewed at the Indian Crafts Mela on at Sri Sankara Hall, TTK Road, Alwarpet, till August 31. The mela which also showcases a variety of handicrafts and handlooms from other parts of India.