What is so special about Bidri Craft?
The striking contrast of intricate silver work on shining black surface of some unknown metal made me stop, while I was window-shopping in a handicraft fair of Puduchery, 2-3 years ago. I looked at their banner. Traditional Bidri Craft of Karnataka! I touched the artifacts and found their surface extremely smooth; thought that artisans might have drawn these patterns with silver colour. “But, No! these are inlay works with super-thin sheets of pure silver.” – The shop-owner said. Unbelievable! I was awestruck by the perfection. “And this shining black colour results from a chemical reaction with a special soil, that we can identify by taste” – He added. What! Tasting soil! I was dying to witness the making of Bidri craft. Another addition to my bucket-list!
I wished to have all those elegant-looking Bidri artifacts of that shop, but restricted myself to this small ear-ring. More to come from Bidri Colony of Bidar, the actual artisan hub.
How did we get to Bidri Colony?
Bidar is a small town of north-eastern Karnataka, but it takes only 2.5 hours by train from Hyderabad, the state capital of Telengana. Therefore we clubbed our visit to Bidar with our Telengana trip in December 2021.
Bahmani Sultanate was a familiar name to us due to school text books, but knew very little details about them. Almost 700 years ago, Bidar became the capital of those Bahmani Sultans and Bidri craft was originated along with. Later Bidar & Bidri craft were under the rule of Bidri Shahi sultans for more than hundred years. Their fort, tombs and madrasa are still there, deserted and ruined; under the protection of archaeology department. After visiting those remains of lost glory, we requested our auto-driver to take us to Bidri colony, where past is still alive!
Making of Bidri Craft: A Photo-Story
Bidri colony looked similar to any other sub-urban neighbourhood of India. Probably, people were working behind their doors and we had no idea which door to be knocked. We asked the locals about the house of Lakshmi Amma, a 67 years’ old president award winning Bidri artist whose name we found in internet.
She told us about the 4 stages of making of Bidri Craft – 1. Casting, 2. Engraving, 3. Inlaying, 4. Colouring.
“You have missed the first stage of the process as we did it yesterday” – She told us. First stage means the making of the body of the art objects. The metal they use for that is an alloy of copper & zinc. We found some zinc stored in corner of the room.
The molten alloy is poured in mould and when it gets solidified, hence obtained the desired shape. Small objects like bangles, lockets, ear-rings are usually set immobile in a heated lac.
After filing the body, a temporary coating of copper sulphate is applied to get a grayish black surface colour; otherwise it will get difficult to do silver inlaying on silver-coloured surface. Now the artisans made a rough sketch of the desired pattern on the surface by etching with metal stylus.
Another old man was sitting just opposite to Lakshmi Amma. He was engraving over those freehand etching on some lockets with the help of a chisel.
I was trying to understand how he had to maintain equal pressure in every stroke, so that a uniform groove would be formed. And also the groove should be made as per the thickness of the silver wire so that it can fit properly. Here are some lockets on whose engraving are done.
Here are 3 steps of engraving with final product displayed on same type of art objects.
Lakshmi Amma was embedding silver wire inside the grooves on some bangles with the help of nail and hammer.
She introduced this type of work as ‘Tarkashi’. ‘Tar’ means wire. We found her creating little stars on the bangles. She had to cut the wire each time after pasting the wire for 2-3 millimetres.
“It is easier and less time taking when we make designs other than Phooljhadi (star work), where frequent cutting is not required.” – Said the old artisan. Her family members showed us a sample made by her.
There is another kind of inlay work where silver sheet is used instead of wire. This is called ‘Teh Nashin’. Lakshmi Amma is expert in Tarkashi, especially in star work. Therefore no sample of sheet work was kept in their stock. Hence, I am showing you a picture of ‘Teh Nashin’ from Wikipedia.
‘Mehatabi’ is the reverse colour-combination of ‘Teh Nashin’, where the background of the design is inlaid with silver sheet so that the designs appear to be in black.
I held a bangle in my hand and found the surface much rough because of the inlaying of wire, especially for the star work where overlapping of wire had been done.
A guy smoothening few flower vases in a machine.
A lady of her family rubbing the smoothened objects with kerosene.
But the grayish black coating got disappeared after being smoothened. Silver inlay work on silver surface! And obviously the intricate work of silver became invisible to our eyes!
Now comes the role of that special soil, which is used for the final black ‘colouring’.
It looked like any other soil. They said – “It has a sour taste. We can check it by touching the soil in our tongue.” They collect the soil from some place of Bidar Fort. I did not ask which place. It is their trade secret. Meanwhile, a guy was crushing a chunk of ammonium chloride which was going to be mixed with that soil.
The lady mixed the soil with crushed ammonium chloride, poured water on the mixture and made a solution.
The solution was heated and when it reached the boiling point, those entirely silver coloured objects were immersed in that soil solution one by one. And then….magic happened!
The moment parts the object came in contact of the solution, the silver coloured alloy of copper & zinc turned into black immediately. Shining dark black! Meanwhile the silver remained unchanged resulting an impressive contrast of black and silver.
After thorough cleaning with water and drying by cloth the object is almost ready to be sold. Polishing with some cream was yet to be done for the better shine of silver.
We wished to buy one of those flower vases made in front of our eyes. It is a memorable souvenir for us. We usually like to collect art objects directly from artist’s place; but never before bought anything that we witnessed to be formed.
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Bidri Craft – Past & Present
What Wikipedia says about the history of Bidri Craft is:
The origin of bidriware is usually attributed to the Bahamani sultans who ruled Bidar in the 14th–15th centuries. Bidriware techniques and style are influenced by Persian art. It was first brought to India by noted Sufi Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan Chisti in the form of utensils. The art form developed in the kingdom that was a mix of Turkish, Persian and Arabic influences which were intermingled with the local styles and thus a unique style of its own was born. Abdullah bin Kaiser, a craftsman from Iran was invited by the Sultan Ahmed Shah Bahmani to work on decorating the royal palaces and courts. According to some accounts, Kaiser worked with local craftsmen and the partnership resulted in bidriware under the rule of Ahmed Shah and his son Second Alauddin Bahmani. Along with local artisans, the art spread far and wide and was handed over to generations as time passed.
Traditionally Bidri work was used to be done on limited items like flower vases, Umar Quyam (wine decanters), hookah (water pipe), jewellery box etc.
Now artists are trying to diversify their work by innovating new designs and patterns to survive in present day market. When we visited Lakshmi Amma’s place, nothing new was left in their stock. They had already sent all the products they made earlier to the market of Bidri. Here are some pictures taken from their catalogue portraying modern designs they usually make.
If you wish to visit her house or buy any Bidri Craft from Lakshmi Amma and her family, you may contact Vishal Kumar (9900381956), one of her family members.
Apart from the market of Bidar, today you will get to see many shops selling Bidri art objects in Hyderabad. People often think it as a product of Hyderabad (Telengana). Even it is practiced in areas far away like Purnia (Bihar), Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) and Murshidabad (West Bengal) also.
The silver inlay work on the black pottery of Nizamabad(Uttar Pradesh) had been influenced by Bidri craft and mostly they look similar, in spite of their material difference.
Hope this 700 years’ old cultural heritage of India will keep its glory as it is in coming days.
Wander with Reshmi & Saikat