A little bit of god

In India, craftspersons follow a tradition of anonymity in which the creators consciously transcend self-identity and situate themselves in an ongoing discourse that is larger than life

Dressed impeccably in a green kurta, white pyjama and a skull cap so typical of the muslim community, master Mohammad Tughlaq, an octogenarian, was known more for his eccentricities than for the national award he won as a master engraver in this craft cluster in Moradabad. Documenting the craft of making intricately engraved brass vessels that Moradabad is known world over for required not just manoeuvring narrow, suffocating and stifling lanes, but also trying to persuade Tughlaq sahab, the master engraver with aeons of experience, for an interview. The metal works of Moradabad are worthless but for the fine engraving upon them. But once persuaded, Tughlaq sahab, transformed into a man of divine passion, speaking incessantly about the craft he had devoted his life to, giving a fascinating insight into the Moradabad brassware.

Moradabad was established by Murad, the son of emperor Shahjahan; hence the name Moradabad. It is India’s largest exporter of handicraft, with 29 per cent of the craftspeople from India residing in this cluster alone. Every house in this cluster echoes with the sound of metal casting, chiselling or engraving. Each household specialises in at least one of the many stages of brassware production — moulding and casting or dhalai, finishing and polishing or chilai, engraving or nakashi and enamelling or rang bharai. Together these karkhanas create what is known world over as the brassware of Moradabad, a craft which is presumed to be 500 years old. The craftspeople here trace their lineage to the camaraderie in Iran and Persia.

The process of metal casting with a visit to the foundry can be a visual treat with shades of greys, but with soaring temperatures and smoke and no breathing space, one can feel dizzy within minutes. It is a miracle that human beings can work and survive here, pouring molten metal with naked hands to cast it in different shapes and sizes. Their bodies tend to be scarred with burns. Their charred black faces seemed to be inhaling all the noxious gases, abandoning the chimneys to their namesake. Is it from these black holes that the world renowned Moradabad brassware emerges like a phoenix?

Once with his works, Tughlaq sahab would transform into a child, yearning to show all his creations — fine engravings, describing each of the motifs with a specific name and meaning.

“Here, take a magnifying class and look at this motif. While I was engraving it, only I knew what the motif was; those watching could not see what was being engraved (the design was so fine). This is black (oxidised silver) so you can tell what is engraved here. Had the base been white you wouldn’t be able to. Now look here — four lions are sitting. This one here is angoori patta (grape leaf), there are thorns and leaves. But I have also used mehmari here”.

Naqqashi requires a fine control on the thapi or the mallet which are fine pointed chisels. The thapi is gently hammered to make fine strokes on the surface. Almost always, the motifs are drawn from memory. Shallow engraving is called sada kalam and deep engraving is called khudai or sia kalam. For instance, marori is a pattern made in khudai, its intricate and chased depressions are later filled with coloured lac. As he explained all this, he would point towards his eyes. “My eyes burned out making all this. Now I can hardly see what I have made. All my work is in my mind and it all comes back when I touch one of these.” He would caress the silver chest for which he was awarded the national award by the government of India. The tiger was attacking the deer in a corner of the box, while another was resting under the deep foliage of a tree. The anxious deer were running hither-thither amidst the deep jungle he had engraved. It took him 11 years to complete this engraving upon the chest.

Each motif merged into the other creating a continuous flow of design; one emerging from the other; nothing claiming more space than it deserved, each balancing and complementing the other — the flow. Yes, it was a river continuously flowing towards the unknown. “Islamic arts”, explained Tughlaq sahab, “are generally abstract, give the impression of infinity, represent the one amongst the many and depict the soul rather than the body.”

From P1

His art, he said, is a rendition of his perceptions as an artist, but still within the bounds of islam. His words sounded as though he was in prayer. It took Tughlaq sahab 11 years to make the silver chest. He did not quote its price. It was priceless, was what he said. “It doesn’t even belong to me. It belongs to Allah”, he said

According to Tughlaq sahab the divine source never dies, it is inexhaustible. He had an unquestioned belief in the unknown, unseen source, which never dries, which is forever full.

It was not just him but most artists working on the metal crafts of Uttar Pradesh said something similar; they worked for the god — one could see a ‘little bit of god’ in each of their works.

“Being a muslim means the one who has willingly submitted to the commandments of Allah. Allah is the one and only, without any shape or gender. Allah is the creator and as an artist I cannot compete with that great creator. Islam says, fine! You have made man and woman, you have copied the god, now try putting life into them, make them move. If you can’t do that then don’t copy Allah. Allah is the creator and sustainers of the universe and everybody and everything in it. Allah is the owner of life and death. The purpose of life for a human being is to acknowledge the supreme authority of Allah, to worship Allah, not to compete with Allah. We are, therefore, prohibited from making human figures or animals.”

That explained the wide use of geometrical design or the arabesque in islamic art.

Tughlaq sahab’s art was abstract, limitless and tranquil, adhering the dictums of islam. But one could see elephants and deers as well, to which he would smilingly say, “Well! So I have sinned and I will also be punished for it. If you err then you will have to suffer too. I will go to hell.”

It is only Allah and his creation (craft) that matters. The unique and distinct ‘Self’ or ‘I-ness’ is simply insignificant here. As the renowned art historian Ananda Coomeraswamy explained, such cultural practices follow a tradition of anonymity in which the creators self-consciously transcend self-identity or their authorial presence. The creator searches not for the unique or the novel but to situate himself in an on-going discourse that is larger than himself, and to which he willfully submits. In such cultures, the craftsperson confers his authorship to a divine being or to a self, higher than himself. He willfully becomes only the medium of manifestation rather than the source of the manifestation. In some sense, the author surrenders his authorship.

Documenting the craft communities of Uttar Pradesh, one is struck by what binds them all together, irrespective of their religion and caste. They all share a common source of inspiration. They all draw their creativity from a common fountain — god. Without their god, their work had no relevance, significance or even a patron. Their gods defined the form, the motifs, the colours and the features of their work.

According to Stella Kramrisch, the traditions of the Indian craftspeople are the means and ways by which they put their professional activity into form and practice their knowledge of the principle. The principle is the source and origin of their calling and is known by the name of Brahma or Vishwakarma — the sum total of creative consciousness. The Indian craftspeople conceive of their art, neither as their own nor as the accumulated skill of ages, but as originating in the divine skill of Lord Vishwakarma himself. Therefore, neither the word “artist”, “artisan”, nor “craftsperson” are appropriate translations of shilpin (a literal translation of ‘craftsperson’ in Hindi); for the arts and crafts in India partake in the nature of rites whose technical performance had magical power. Here the principle that is the Vishwakarma is manifested through the craftsperson in the artefact.

The myth of the descent of the craftspeople from the principle, has its counterpart in the myth of the fall of the craftspeople from the principle. This is told in the Brahmavaivarta Purana.

Vishwakarma, cursed by an apsara descended on earth was born to a brahman woman and became an unparalleled architect. He had nine illegitimate sons, by a sudra woman- the garland-maker, blacksmith, potter, metalworker, conch-shell carver, weaver, architect, painter and goldsmith. All were expert in their crafts, but the last three became ‘unholy’ to offer sacrifices because one had stolen gold from a brahman, the other had failed to carry out the order of a brahman and in the painter’s case a pictorial composition was not laid out according to the rules.

While their art is connected to religion, the craftspeople are connected with the spiritual, the divine. The idol maker from Ayodhya, Suresh Soni explains the difference. “What we make becomes sacred. Many pundits and sadhus say we are sinners since we crush beneath our feet the same mud the idols of god are made with; that we deform the idols by melting the old idols. But that is what they believe. We only make the idols. They become sacred after they are worshiped as idols, not before. We create. It is god’s will that we create. We sin for the god”.

In Ayodhya, which is known for its metal casting, Suresh Soni is known as the murtikar, an idol maker. His profession has become his name. He says, “We make idols using the same metals used to make vessels. But our metal becomes sacred.” Of course, he does not use metal the same way the thatheras (craftspeople who makes vessels) do. He uses panchadhatu — an alloy of gold(Au), silver(Ag), copper(Cu), iron(Fe) and lead(Pb).

Ayodhya being the birthplace of Lord Ram, idols of Ram as a child, popularly known as Ram Lalla or Laddu Gopal, are a rage here. The devotees prefer taking Ram Lalla as souvenirs from this place. Showing one of the Laddu Gopals made by him, Suresh Soni explained, “This is a childhood form of Lord Ram. In Ayodhya too, if you visit the birthplace of Lord Ram, you will find the idol of Laddu Gopal also called Ram Lalla. Those who do not make a temple in their house, worship only Laddu Gopal. They carry the idol wherever they go”.

In Mathura, a similar looking idol is called Laddu Gopal. “Laddu Gopal’s hand is depicted stealing butter held in an open palm. Whereas Ram Lalla is shown holding a laddu and thus has closed fingers.” That is the difference between the two — Laddu Gopal and Ram Lalla, though the names are easily interchanged by the uninitiated. Since Lord Ram was wheatish, his idols are also wheatish and not fair. idols those of Sita, Lakshman and Hanuman are yellowish in colour.

While the priests and sadhus, demand the idols with round faces, the householders associate round faces with Nepali and Tibetan race. They prefer the idols to be with long face and sharp features. “We end up making more round faced idols since there are some 9,000 temples here,” says Suresh Soni, kneading mud to make the mould. Ideally, the face of an idol is nine inches long and the depth of the head is three inches. The formula is simple — the nose is as long as the length of the forehead. The distance from the nose to the ear is also the same as the length of the nose, which implies every feature measures the same and is ‘proportionate’.

“Face and the body must look proportionate. With experience I can now close my eyes and make an idol”.

Unlike Tughlaq sahab’s work, Suresh Soni’s craft is more mechanical. The creativity, however, lies in making the moulds. The lost wax process of casting is followed in Ayodhya, which means for every idol a new mould is made in mud. The mould is broken during every cast, therefore, each idol is unique. It is similar, but not the same as another idol. That the idol will achieve the form and the shape its creator wants, is assumed. There is unquestioned faith that the molten metal will take the form Suresh Soni wants. He doesn’t attribute it to his skill; or expertise he has gained over years of experience. He attributes it to god. “When I close my eyes I see the image. I can’t control the process. I may attempt to control the elements, but elements have their own will, which is god’s will. The final work is the work of god”.

Painting gives idols the final form, defining its gender and identity. “Otherwise there is very little that differentiates one god from the other. They are all the same,” explains Suresh Soni.

Reciting a verse from a certain sacred text of which he could not remember the name of, he explains the significance of the imprint of a foot drawn upon Lord Ram’s idols. “Mahrishi Bhrigu, after being insulted at Brahma lok and Shivlok, goes to Vaikunth Dham. On seeing Lord Vishnu asleep, Maharish Bhrigu, on purpose, pushed him with his feet. Lord Vishnu woke up, but instead of being angry with Maharishi Bhrigu apologised: “Sorry, I hope you were not hurt.” And so the figure of Bhrigu lata is drawn upon the idols of Ram and Krishna, both avatars of Vishnu. That’s the way to identify their idols”.

If two idols are made of the same colour, in brass, it will be impossible to tell the difference between Ram and Lakshman. “Ram”, explained Suresh Soni, “is one inch taller than Lakshman”.

But, who can buy a god?

“God cannot be sold. We do not quote the price. We receive dakshina, which is usually in the form of coconut, clothes and money. We only charge for the material cost, not for our craftsmanship,” says Suresh Soni.

This article pays homage to the national award winning

craftsperson, Master Muhmmad Tughlaq who passed away last year at his home in Moradabad


(The writer is a documentary filmmaker with a specialisation in developmental issues and communication strategies)

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