Generations ago, Kashmiri artisans, known for their skills in carpentry and woodcarving, from the northern tip of India migrated south 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, lead you to busy workshops where artisans are sawing, sanding, and cutting wood into frames, boxes, decorative items, and more.
Sitting on terraces, overlooking these alleys, they 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; wood that is dried in the forest is collected by the government and sold to wood-based businesses.
Many of the these artisans come from families of woodcarvers. Even the owners of the workshops are young men, handed down a business from their grandfathers. Each company or workshop has anywhere from 50 to 200 artisans, working for them. Some are on-staff; but the majority are employed as orders come in, depending on the demand.
Wood 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 recent years, 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.
The wood is stored in open air warehouses, where it’s sorted and stacked according to the variety (sheesham, teak, mango, sandal). Before it’s carved, it’s sanded and prepped. Once the shape is carved, the artisans sit at a pedal-powered machine, spinning the block of wood, making smaller, more precisions incisions.
Once 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.
Although the art used to be taught in schools decades ago, wood carving and craftsmanship is a trade that’s passed down now primarily.
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. 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 that requires a layer 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. Asked if he’d like to see any changes in his work today?
“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 its legacy forward. While the workshops are brimming 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.