Gesso Painting / Usta Kaam of Bikaner, Rajasthan

Gesso Painting / Usta Kaam of Bikaner, Rajasthan

Languishing Craft

This ornate craft represents a magnificent combination of two craft forms: (1) the skill of making products - from saddles to water bottles known as kupi out of camel leather and (2) of ornamenting these products. Nakashi is an ornate lacquer work on an embossed surface, in which gold leaf and/or paint is used for decoration and designing, in adjunct with other colours and other kinds of decorative ornamentation akin to minakari are used. The art of nakashi is supposed to have been brought to India by Mughal emperors who brought Usta artists (those who do the delicate and meticulous nakashi work).The Junagarh Fort in Bikaner stands testimony to the enchanting artworks created by these artists: the Anup Mahal in the fort is resplendent with golden lacquer work, spun into delicate floral and bird and animal designs. The Chandra Mahal and the Karan Mahal also depict examples of nakashi work. Since the critical requirement for nakashi work is a clean and smooth surface as a base, walls, pillars and ceilings are decorated with these glowing golden motifs, often set against detailing in radiant colours. During the time of the British in India, nakashi work on camel leather became popular. Camel hide was light and unbreakable, and camel-hide saddles and bags (especially as containers for water, since they were easy to transport without breaking) became common bases for nakashi work in this desert kingdom and adjoining areas. These water bottles/containers called kupis - ornately decorated with nakashi work, much in the style of the tradition of ornately decorated camel-leather saddles - were popular in Rajasthan, particularly in Bikaner. Their utilitarian value, quite apart from the exquisite artistic tradition they represent, has meant that they continue to be made till today. Nakashi work can only be done on a smooth and clean surface. After a smooth surface has been prepared (in this case, the body of the kupi bottle), the design or pattern is made. The design-making process is known as akbara. The designs are first made on paper. The outlines of the patterns are punched on the paper with pins thrust along the tracery of the designs. The design is then traced on the paper using indigo or black coal power, which filters through the pin-holes on the paper and traces the outlines of the intended design on the leather. The manouat is done over the akbara, and creates an 'embossed effect' on the desired pattern. According to Kamladevi Chattopadhyaya, the portion to be ornamented is raised by repeatedly applying a special preparation of shell powder mixed with glue and a kind of wood apple. Alternatively, sand from a ground earthen pot is mixed with glue and jaggery to create the required paste. The embossed surface is then painted upon. Usually a colour called paveri is applied first. Then, a colour made from sindur and rogan is applied. Bat is then applied to the areas where gold is to be patched. At a particular consistency of bat, gold is patched over the surface having bat. Detailing follows - this is done by inking (sihayi) with a sable-hair brush. The remaining surface is filled with different colours. As a particular surface rises it is painted in gold and other colours while the base is coloured black or red to make the shapes at the top stand out. The motifs in nakashi work are linked closely with the Mughal origin of this craft in India. In depiction, they closely follow a style of Mughal miniature paintings - especially court paintings - whose hallmarks include acute detailing, intricate designing, a superbly deft use of colour and line in a small space, and a very ornate effect, shot through with gold work. The patterns created are also distinctly Mughal, and are closely allied with relief detailing in the ornate aspects of Mughal architecture.

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