BRITISH GAZETTEERS of the Raj era, those marvellously accurate records of the minutiae of Indian life, mention the presence of "thousands of rosewood inlay workers" in Mysore during the 19th Century. With their "wondrous and unparalleled" skills of inlaying finely etched ivory motifs on rosewood surfaces, they literally captured a panorama of India, its festivals, flora and fauna.
Today, Mysore still boasts of some 4,000 rosewood inlay craftspersons and though plastic and multi-coloured wood have replaced ivory as inlay material, the craft continues to flourish. Hindus and Muslims work in perfect harmony to meld together typical Islamic floral and vine motifs with stories from the Ramayana.
Recently in Chennai were mastercraftspersons, A. Chandrasekhar and Arif from Mysore, whose rosewood inlay dinner table sets, sofa sets, coffee, corner and occasional tables, cupboards and jhoolas form part of the ongoing "Rosewood Inlay Furniture Exhibition-cum-Sale" at Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan, Avvai Shanmugam Salai, Gopalapuram.
Depicting Dusshera processions and wedding tableaux complete with shehnai players and `doli', vibrant hunting scenes, pastoral images and forest life, the furniture items and artefacts captivate the onlooker with their richness and flamboyant charm.
Teamwork is at the core of this craft, with the process comprising seven stages: designing and drawing, carpentry, handcutting and shaping of motifs, scooping the exact pattern on the rosewood surface, fixing and inlaying followed by sand papering, polishing, engraving the details and the final finish.
Arif does the basic inlay work and polishing while Chandrasekhar engraves the details. It's a job of passion and precision, which has won them VTI's Award of Excellence in Crafts for being part of a team of mastercraftsman M. Subramanyamachari's prize-winning entry.
Excerpts from an interview with the craftsmen:
You are not `paramparic' craftsmen. What made you take up the craft?
Chandrasekhar and Arif: We both wanted to work on this craft. It is more than a job for us. We trained under M.Subramanyamachari and have worked in his unit for 25 years.
And you all work together as a team?
Arif: Yes, seven or eight of us work on one piece. I do the inlay work and polishing while Chandrasekhar works as an engraver and does the detailing. We make everything as a team, whether it is a furniture piece or icons of gods.
Is there any conceptual change in the inlay work designs or in the rosewood items themselves?
Arif: We execute whatever design or format given to us. Earlier, we used to work with ivory and deer horn but now we do inlay work with plastic and different naturally coloured wood, which makes the piece very colourful. For this exhibition, we have made many puja mandapams, jewellery boxes and other artefacts.
Are your children learning this craft?
Chandrasekhar and Arif: Right now, our children are studying. But, we would like them to learn this craft.
How is the response to your work?
Chandrasekhar and Arif: Our unit supplies to VTI, Poompuhar, Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan and we take part in many exhibitions. Our sales are always good. And we make a good living at our unit.
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