Today wood has become scarce and extremely expensive. Gone are the days when wood was available in plenty. Temples, houses, were built in wood. Indiscriminate cutting of forests without proper management of forestry wealth has led to this situation. In Rajasthan there are a remarkable group of people Bisnois, who are great environmentalists and for last 200 years have been creating a haven in the desert conditions of Rajasthan. They do not cut trees, they do not uproot grass or plants by their roots, and they do not kill animals. The first time I came across them was when I was driving from Jodhpur to Barmer. We were driving across sand dunes; suddenly as we went up a height I spotted a green area to my left. I thought I was seeing a mirage and when I asked my companion, if he saw a lush green valley to the left. He said very casually, Oh! It is a Bisnoi village and began to tell me about them. I asked him to take me to the village, which he did and I had the most extraordinary experience. We arrived at the village and were warmly greeted. The women were delighted that they had a visitor, who was a woman and therefore they could look after her. As they took me into the village to their home. I came across a doe lying in the path feeding her young. Deer roamed in the village like pet animals. The women laughed at the look of amazement on my face. They said, "we live with nature. We live with these animals, so they trust us for they know we will never harm them". I felt as though I was in the hermitage that Shakuntala, Kalidasa's heroine, grew up in, where animals lived with the inhabitants in close harmony with nature.
If we had more Bisnoi communities in India, who lived in close affinity with nature, we would not have such ecological imbalances. May be it is for the youth to recreate once again a society living in harmony with nature.
Wood was an essential part of the habitat. It provided the pillars, the roof beams, the door frames and the doors and windows. In fact, in the ancient treatise the Matsya Purana mentions that every home should have a door-frame in carved wood as a sign of welcome to visitors. This tradition of carved wooden frames and carved wooden balconies supported by brackets of animals, birds and human forms, is a part of the architectural design of homes, palaces and temples, as well as other community places built all over India.
Each region developed its own style of wooden structures and carvings. These were influenced by local traditions and materials available locally.
Assam, which has extensive forests with a variety of wood available in them, has a rich tradition of wood-carving. The places of worship, known as namghars, were constructed of wood. These carries large carvings of mythical figures such as the half-man, half-eagle garuda, the vahana of Vishnu, and Hanuman the monkey-god, magar, crocodile, the vahana of Ganga, the singha or the lion, the vahana of Devi, besides these the carvers created a simhasana, lion's seat, on which the celestial image was placed. The simhasana is still produced in Nowgong district, though in smaller size, for use in worship at homes.
In Bengal, rural houses made of clay walls and thatched roofs had large pillars and beams of wood, carved in intricate patterns.
In Orissa, wood-carving developed under a dual influence: the influence of Bengal and that of south India. This can be seen in temple carvings and in the carvings of rathas for religious processions.
In Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the tradition of wood-carving finds its best expression in the rathams, carved chariots, used by temples for taking out the deities in procession on festive days. The large rathas are miniature temples on wheels. They carved panels depicting gods and goddesses, and mythological tales, as well as carved panels and large brackets with patterns of youli, sardul, gaja and hamsa. These are based on the classical carving styles of the area.
Karnataka has a number of woodcarving centers, which specialize in a variety of techniques, sandalwood-carving being one of the most important. Originally, the deities-Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Ganesha, Kartikaya and others-were created in sandalwood. Later, sandalwood boxes came to be the speciality of Mysore. Large boxes covered with mythological scenes are an important product of Mysore city, Kumta and Sagar.
Another interesting form, which is to be found in south Kanara, is the life-size, woodcarving of Bhuta figures. These are made from single wood pieces and have a strong primitive character. Temples in the midst of the forest are surrounded by large pillar-like forms carved in wood representing a number of deities. The Kerala style has possibly evolved out of this tradition. This tradition is still very popular as the Bootha's are considered powerful representatives of the other world of the Bhootas and Pretas, who were under the control of Shiva. In the rural areas caste, class or religion makes no difference. Everyone propitiates the Bhoota.
Wood-carving which was originally used for decoration of homes and temples, exists even today to meet the requirements of the religious institutions, as well as to caster to the growing demand for wood-carved furniture and panels.
Andhra Pradesh has a tradition of manufacturing woodcarving for religious centers. The Tirupathi dolls of red wood were made primarily for sale to pilgrims.
Kerala had one of the richest traditions in woodcarving. Here the houses carried carved pilasters, pillars and beams. Almost every house had a carved family temple. Intricate patters are inscribed on the ceilings, pillars and brackets. Temples were among the best preservers of the woodcarving styles of Kerala. Unfortunately this tradition had died out and the wood-carvers work on sandalwood, as well as on rosewood for decorative items, furniture and wooden chests.
Kashmir, however, had a distinctive tradition of its own bearing the impress of Central Asian designs. The wooden mosques and places of pilgrimage maintained the rich woodcarving and wood-turning tradition. Houses were also lined with wood, with ceilings worked in geometrical patterns, and lattice-work windows made up of pieces of wood locally known as pinjara, cage work. This led to intricate patterns, which became a speciality of the area.
Gujarat has a distinctive and rich tradition of woodcarving. Even today, in old towns there are houses with carved facades. Long beams carry intricate patterns, and balconies just out with carved and perforated patterns on the jangla, the ledge. Stylized animals or human forms worked as carved brackets to support the balconies. The wooden havelis of Gujarat have intricately carved exterior and interiors with carved and painted ceiling. Each region had distinctive styles of carving and often it was the carpenter who carved and did the woodwork. With the adoption of modern styles of architecture, the tradition of wood-caved panels as part of architectural design became extinct by the beginning of the last century. Instead, the wood-carves began carving furniture and making things for everyday use and for decoration of the home.
Sankheda in Gujarat is an important center for the manufacture of lathe-worked lacquered furniture. The surface is painted with design on a colored background. Tin is used to give a silver-like effect, and an alloy for gold painting. Over this a veneer of lac is put so that the colors glow through it. Traditional furniture items made are bedposts and cradles, which used to be presented to a bride at the time of her marriage. A variety of toys are also made, some to be hung above the cradle of the new-born boy, who looks up in wonder at the colorful spheres. Another traditional item is the square-frame walker, which helps the young child to take his first hesitant steps. Over the years the demand for Sankheda furniture has grown in India and abroad. People, who want to give an Indian look to their home, buy Sankheda lacquer ware. This has led not only to an increase in the number of practicing craftsmen, but also led to a great deal of prosperity.
In Punjab, old havelis had carved doors and windows, today, wood carving and wood inlay continue to be practiced in Hoshiarpur. The workers of Hoshiarpur specialize in inlaying intricate design based on floral motifs. This is a continuation of the Mughal tradition of decorative designs. In Jullundhur, lacquer-turned furniture is made, the technique is special. Layers of different colored lacquer are placed one on top of the other. The pieces are then engraved with thin needles, so as to bring out the different colors. Intricate patterns are worked for singardhans, toilet-boxes, and for pirdhis, low stools.
Saharanpur of Uttar Pradesh has a flourishing woodcarving and wood-inlay center, where craftsmen specialize in making screens and rooms-dividers, which carry carved and trellis patterns worked with fret-saws. The designs are prepared on pieces, which are then fitted into a frame. This produces a lace-like effect. Sometimes the perforated pieces are also inlaid with bone to pick up details.
Nagina is another important woodcarving center of U.P. Originally the craftsmen used to carve on the steel section of guns. After the 1857 uprising against the British manufacture of arms was prohibited. The metal workers transferred their skills to carving on a hard wood and they chose ebony. Their style of carving retained the precision originally needed for carving on metal. One of the most beautiful objects made by them are combs.
Mainpuri was an important center for tarkashi, metal wire inlay. Originally, the workers specialized in khadaons, wooden slippers, and boxes. It was because of the pioneering work done by Leila Shiveshwerkar in the late fifties that the skill was transferred to furniture items. A number of craftsmen of Manipuri were brought to Varanasi where she developed a range of furniture designs with inlay work. She carried out research in motifs, different types of woods and finish, and successfully popularized the use of tarkashi furniture. Today a number of centers of tarkashi work have come up in Delhi and Jaipur.
In recent years, the awareness of materials and traditional techniques has grown amongst the manufactures as well as buyers of wooden-carved furniture.
Owing to a growing demand, a number of craftsmen have starting manufacturing carved wooden articles. The puppeteers of Rajasthan, who originally used to carve their own puppets, are now working on wooden sculptures. Many of them are imitations of old wood-carving, whereas some of them are new expressions based on the puppetry tradition, thus highlighting the strength and originally of the puppet-carvers. A number of new centers have come up in Rajasthan, Gujarat, as well as Andhra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Surat has a tradition of marquetry-work, which is locally called sadeli. This was acquired by them from West Asia. In this technique different material such as ivory, ebony, sandalwood, metal, having varying textures and colors are used. These materials are made into strips with their width shaped into triangles, square and circles. These are attached together with gum so as to make a geometrical pattern. They are then cut across with a saw into thin pieces, which are then pasted on a wooden background, creating intricate geometrical designs. Originally, this technique was used for decorating the doors of palaces; today is applied to boxes.