Wood Carving: The History & Story…
Wood carving is one of the oldest craft forms known to mankind, found in various parts across the world. It was present in people’s daily lives in form of temples, sculptures, and various beautifully carved objects. The small town of Nagina, present in the Bijnor district of Uttar Pradesh has created and cultivated beautiful handcrafted wood, from existing wood carving practices, intricately carved for utility and aesthetics. They were commercialized and downsized to make them accessible and an easy travel companion for sales. The craft in Nagina is traced back to the Mughal Era, to Aurangazeb, originally made for his soldiers, embellishing their guns and weapons with floral designs for aesthetics. He invaded the village of Nagina due to its rich forest and fuelwood, bringing in skilled workers in metal and food, leaving space for the cultivation and creation of small intricate designs.
The history of the wood crafts industry of Nagina is about 500 years old. The town is mostly inhabited by Multani people who originally hailed from Pakistan. The curious wooden items manufactured by these people have been admired and encouraged since the Mughal period. Hence, the craft existed before Auragazeb but the art flourished under his rule, as people of Nagina continued making guns and weapons with beautiful designs on them for his soldiers, giving them time and space to cultivate their craft form and spread it to other parts, creating a small economy from their craft. It went through an evolutionary transformation under his rule, establishing the wood carving technique as a craft form. This town, known throughout the world as ‘wood crafts city,’ produces wooden handicrafts of international standard.
The Decline & Environment…
Strongly believed that the decline of Nagina Craft Traditions is rooted in eroded skills and not market demand, it directly ties to physical realities – leading to erosion of skills. The immense deforestation, forest erosion, and damage to natural forests due to urbanisation and gentrification leads to loss of raw materials and therefore practice, leading the tradition to have experienced a steady decline. Most of Nagina was washed away by the 19th century to create space for agriculture, severely declining their budding culture. Before Nagina’s wood carving technique was flourishing in small downsized craft products, their sculpture making and temple carving was already established in Uttar Pradesh. The making of sculpture in wood has been extremely widely practised but doesn’t survive undamaged as well as the other main materials like stone and bronze, as it is vulnerable to decay, insect damage, and fire. It, therefore, forms an important hidden element in the art history of many cultures. Hence, created products too were damaged, leaving the community to grapple with its imminent decline.
Young Artisans & Struggle for Survival…
To reiterate, the culture and demand for these products haven’t vanished. Nagina’s work is still popular throughout the country and world. The industry is grappling with the lack of raw materials and the materialistic survival of the craft. There is yet a community that practices this intricate wood carving technique to keep alive and retain a strong ancient tradition and its many evolutions. Like Asha Ram, a young boy, many started practising woodcraft along with farming to share the burden of the family’s income. As time flew by, woodcraft became his passion and tools were his weapons in creating masterpieces. He chased his dreams under the guidance of Master Artist Abdul Salam by carving some intricate designs. Further, he passed his learnings to his son and created a team of 50 specialized artisan woodcarvers. Often restricted by economic restraints, they are coerced into other occupations, yet they come back to this craft form with their passion and love for it, to keep alive the culture and tradition of this artform.
Products & Sustainability
Further challenges to raw materials and transport availability, the craft went into survival mode, creating smaller products. Nagina, being a small town, faced difficulties transporting their products and therefore they started to create smaller products like combs, games, boxes to store spices, and jewellery. By doing so, the artisans were able to carry the products from one town to another, bringing about a fresh break from the mechanised world, humanizing making and selling the woodcraft that carries with them a culture fighting to survive.
The artisans had nuanced experience and skill in making Ivory and very special Ebony and Sandalwood products, using the readily available natural materials in the Nagina forest. The banning of Ivory and scarcity of Ebody & Sandalwood led to the usage of Sheesham wood because the low relief work was done best on Sheesham and available in abundance locally. Today Teakwood, Walnut and Rosewood are also used as per the requirement. Rohila, Sal, Babul are used for bold work. Other most commonly used woods are Mango, Tun, Neem, Sal, Jamun and Rohira etc.
Artisans started producing vintage games series with a modern touch using the vintage aesthetics to bring a fresh break from smartphones, which strained the eyes and led to losing the idea of playing collectively creating a barrier between children and the outside world. The ornate boxes and weapons of the old times no longer being relevant in the contemporary world, they produce sustainable and simple products to accommodate the needs of today. These games also eliminate the use of plastic games which are not eco friendly.
The story of Nagina wood carving & craft isn’t a new story, nor is an old one, and like many declining crafts of India, it floats between greatness and survival; finding its own footing in the world, creating its own small economy that goes unnoticed by most. Yet it is an important, intricate and thriving craft form, being kept alive by a community of artisans whose love and passion for it won’t let them yield without a fight, the least we can do is support them.
Authors: Arpita Sk & Ishita Mittal
Arpita Sk is a 3rd-year student studying at Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, majoring in Literary Studies and Sociology. Summer Intern at Kala Chaupal Trust. Ishita Mittal is a 3rd-year student at Jindal School of Art and Architecture, majoring in Bachelor of Architecture. Summer Intern at Shop Chaupal- to learn about India’s Art and Culture.