Zahruddin Usta—Stone Carver Extraordinaire

On a recent visit to Bikaner I dropped in at the comparatively new Prachina Museum, located in one of the palaces at the Junagarh Fort. A historical museum, it traces Bikaner’s cultural history with exhibits ranging from art to royal fashion and armor. Sitting by the entrance of the museum was a young man with his son, selling some beautifully carved birds and fishes out of pink sandstone.  

The carvings reminded me of the work of Zahruddin Usta, a craftsman with a national award, who I had met at the Junagarh Fort many years ago. I asked if they knew the famous Zahruddin and was astounded to learn they were his son and grandson and the carvings that they were selling, were all made by Zahroodin, who had passed away almost a decade ago. I also found out that the Museum allowed his son to sell his father’s exquisite works of art during the weekends, when he was free from his job. With stone cutting a mechanised task these days, the son had chosen to take up a job as a builder’s helper. No doubt his knowledge of stones and stone cutting, must make him very useful assistant. Saddened that the craft had died with Zahruddin, I bought four of his exquisitely carved paper weights. This is his story. 

Zahruddin was first spotted by me in the courtyard of Bikaner’s Junagarh Fort, repairing a stone balustrade—these stairs were really special and his job was to replace one part that was missing from one of the staircases. A bespectacled and grey-bearded man, he was squatting on the floor, hard at work—his foot held the stone firmly, while his hands worked skillfully on fashioning the stone to match the other stone carving.

As I stood in the sun watching, Zahroodin looked up squinting through his glasses, against the sun's rays. Happy to talk about his work, in which he obviously took enormous pride, he offered to take me to his workshop, located within the Fort premises. Among the few pieces that he had ready, were some exquisite carved stone fishes that he had created as paper weights—larger than the ones I have bought. They would have certainly found a ready market, if shown in the right places. Somewhat diffidently, he also showed me the National Craftsman’s Award won by him in1984/85.

It was 350 years ago that a family of stone-cutters left their home town in Multan, to take up employment in the royal courts of Raja Rai Singh of Bikaner. They were experts in their field, and thanks to royal patronage, there was always plenty of work. Junagarh Fort, the stronghold of the Bikaner rulers was being rebuilt. New palaces were being added for rulers with new ideas, and skilled hands were in great demand. 

Having seen his work, it became apparent that Zahroodin was a real master in his craft, and it was not surprising to find that he had earlier, won the Jaipur State Award, as well as the Udaipur’s Maharana Sanjay Singh Award. Somewhat amazed to find that a National Awardee, was working on items like stone pieces on staircases, I asked him why he did not look for more creative work. His answer was an eye-opener.

From as far back as Zahroodin could remember, his family had been involved in creating carved pieces at the Junagarh Fort. His father, also known as a highly skilled craftsman, was responsible for much of the newer work done during the British era. The young Zahroodin remembers coming with him to the Fort every morning—a period when everything appeared wonderful to his young eyes.  It was on these days spent with his father, that he learnt a lesson that stood him in good stead throughout his life.

His father taught him that for an artisan, the most important thing is to take pride in one’s work, no matter how ordinary the job may be. Sometimes the job of work entrusted, would consist of new designs, providing the carver with a chance to create, while on other occasions, the task would involve repair on stairs or some of the intricate jalis. Whatever the assignment, his father approached his work with the same zeal and dedication. Zahroodin began carving from the young age of seven. His father noting his interest, creativity and talent, encouraged him to try out more and more difficult designs as he grew older.

Zahroodin and his wife Sugra, lived in the ‘Ustaon Ka Mohalla’, or craftsman’s village—were everyone is an artisan, and involved in some craft or the other. His family members were the only stone-carvers in the area—an indication of the future of this craft. His sons Mohammed Anis and Aklaq Ahmed, also learnt the art, but had their sights fixed on some other craft. They had learnt  the art of wall painting and gilding, anticipating that stone-carving would probably die out in the not-so-distant future.

As a National Awardee, Zahroodin was part of a delegation of special craftsmen from India, who demonstrated their skills, at Festivals held in Australia, and Denmark. He says that while his skill and dexterity drew many admiring eyes, visitors were interested in seeing how he worked with his hands. Zahroodin laughs as he says, “We learnt to use the tools that God has given us, and not depend on man-made machines.”  It was indeed a different world that Zahroodin had lived in.

Shona Adhikari