Pallo latke gori ko pallo latke…The music of this famous Rajasthani folk song filled the air at the Crafts Museum in New Delhi where I went one Monday afternoon. Sitting in the verandah were rows of people who had displayed their work. What work it was too! My heart soared looking at all the things that they had crafted.
It was all so beautiful that I could not help but talk to the artisans who had created them. That is when I met Shyamala, the bidri maker. She sat in a corner with the pallu of her sari over her head, fanning herself to get some relief from the searing heat. There was no customer with her at that time, so I took the opportunity for a little chitchat with her.
After introducing myself I began asking Shyamala about the kind of work she did. She seemed a little bored at first. I told her that my purpose was to tell other children about this traditional art and explain to them how she creates such beautiful pieces. She was delighted on hearing that and began to talk to me in earnest.
Bidri is the art of engraving and inlay, passed down to Indian craftsmen about 400 years ago from Persia. Though it is derived from Persian art, Bidri is an Indian innovation. The basic material used is an alloy of zinc in place of the copper used by the Persians. Bidri takes its name from its original home, Bidar a town in Karnataka. Lucknow, Purnea and Murshidabad are other important centres.
The beauty of Bidriware lies in the striking contrast between the black base and metal inlaid. The whole process requires a lot of hard work. The metal inlaid is silver. However, the black base is not originally black. Initially it is cast with an alloy of zinc, copper and other metals, which do not react with iron. Beautiful designs are engraved with a chisel. A silver wire is put in the grooves and polishing is done with a buffing machine.
This product is then dipped into a solution, prepared from the soil of the fort of Bidar. This soil has special oxidising properties. It reacts with some metals. Silver is not affected by this magic soil treatment but zinc alloy turns shiny black. This contrast of silver and black makes the articles look beautiful and shiny.
Shyamala works eight to nine hours a day along with her children and grandchildren. Depending on the kind of workmanship, the number of articles varies. “Yeh kaam hamare khandaan mein bahut pehle se chala aa raha hai ,” (This work has been going on in our family for a long time now) she said.
Her mode of earning is purely through the exhibitions and fairs, which she visits. When she gets a letter from an organisation inviting her to participate in the fair it has organised, she packs her pitara (treasure chest) and sets off. “Ghar ki yaad to aati hai par kya kare, kaam to karna hi hai,” she says (I miss home but what can I do, I have to work).
Although the money derived from the sale of bidriware is not much, Shyamala will not think of an alternative means of livelihood. She is happy to be continuing the family tradition.
Tired after a month of staying in another town, among new people, Shyamala waits to get back to her home. She will spend time with her family, making new and beautiful bidri articles and there await another letter.