A wood carver’s duty


Our ancestral village home in Marwar, Rajasthan, is a lovely light blue house that’s over a century old. Whenever we are able to come here, once in a couple of years, the visit begins with at least half a day of rigorous cleaning. We wash and sweep to reclaim the house from the layers of dust that have flown in from the hem of the nearby Aravali hills. We clear out the cobwebs, and guide out the bats dazzled by the light flowing in from the unexpectedly open windows and doors.

Once all of that is done, I’m drawn to wander the village lanes. I could stroll endlessly there, admiring the soulful old buildings whose pastel facades shine bright in the sun.

The joyful colors belie how quiet it is. Most of the houses are empty. Their families have packed up decades ago and moved to cities. I stop in the shade of an old neem tree. Its leafy branches sway in the occasional hot breeze. One of them knocks a nearby window, its shutter long closed. It will open again only when the hinges give way to the weight of time. On the wall of a neighboring house, the hands of a clock etched into the stone eternally point at 4.

I wish I could hear the stories of these abandoned homes. Adorned with art  – intricate carvings on doors, window panes and shutters, balcony railings, ornamental screens – they in fact speak through visual tales. These stories of beauty are slowly falling apart, the mastery fading into oblivion… Or, cut out of context, they are sold for high prices in antique shops across the world.

Admiring the brilliant touches artisans of the past have left on these buildings, I wonder if there is still someone who could tell me about this art.

Asking around a bit, I find Gulab Mistry, or Gulab jii as he is respectfully addressed. He is 89 years old, and the last one of his generation of architects and carpenters in the village. I receive a warm welcome into his home.

Gulab jii recounts his story with a warm spark in his eyes. It’s even brighter than the glint of his golden earrings. He tells how he began working at the age of twelve, learning from his father on the job alongside going to school. He started by making wooden water mills which bulls would rotate. In his youth he also spent over ten years in a temple construction, silver-plating wood carvings at the Navlakha Parshwanath Jain Mandir.

Gulab jii and his son are now the only ones left in the village who still know traditional wood carving. Lack of demand is killing the craft. “Nowadays people order machine-made things. The young generation doesn’t get a chance to try their hand at this art. It takes a long time to learn it,” Gulab jii explains.

If someone showed up, willing to learn the craft, would Gulab jii impart his skills and knowledge? Yes, he’d be happy to teach and mentor new generation to keep the legacy going.

Vaastu shastra, an ancient science of how the laws of nature affect human dwellings, governs every step and detail in building a home. Gulab jii explains that for each section of a carved door, the dimensions and designs would be carefully determined according to vaastu. So would the tools used on different types of wood. “Walnut wood is the best for carving work”, he adds.

“The carved and ornate entrance door is not only considered auspicious but its artistic richness also signifies the economic status of the owner”, write Omacanda Hāṇḍā and Madhu Jain in a study of Indian wood handicraft. In our village, rich floral motifs are the most common decorative elements — flowers that bloom even while the heat of the summer parches the surrounding landscape. They are accompanied by geometrical designs. The ornamentation reflects Mughal influence, as do the cusped and pointed arches in the interior of homes.

“If someone now ordered hand-carved doors, what would it cost?” I ask. “Do not ask about the cost, ask about the time it takes,” he responds thoughtfully. It would take him about three months to create a pair of exquisite doors.

According to Gulab jii, his art adorns an astonishing number of over 400 houses in the village. He completed the last carving work for a village home some 40 years ago. How does he feel about the old houses breaking down? Gulab jii feels bad. Working with his hands, he put his inner feelings into everything he created. But he also notes: “The law of change is the only constant.” This means adapting to new technology and still putting one’s heart into the work, while not being so attached to the product.

Yet, Gulab jii says that people who take interest in the old craft make him happy. “It is my duty to talk about my art.”

Maria Jain is a Helsinki-based explorer inspired by stories of arts & crafts and their intimate connection with cultural preservation, livelihoods and building enriching and meaningful futures. She has co-founded Kantha (www.kantha.fi), a web store dedicated to products that celebrate the artisanship of India, her second home.