In the number of ornate handicrafts in India, one stands out with its distinct black color. It is a metal inlay artform where slender floral gold or silver patterns are set against a black hookah or vase. One might have seen this work on jewelry, paan boxes, and bowls too. This is the damascened metal handicraft of ‘Bidri’. The name is derived from a town in North Karnataka where the art took root and flourished in the 15th Century. It has survived and evolved over 600 years and is now recognized worldwide with the Geographical Indication (GI) tag.
The beginnings of Bidri art
The earliest existing documentation of the Bidri art is done on a hookah in a miniature painting from the 17th century. It is said to have been in practice much earlier under the patronage of Ahmed Shah Al Wali, a Baihmani ruler who ruled Bidar in the 15th Century. There are many theories on how it entered Bidar. One says it traveled to the Baihmani dynasty through Iran. Another says damascening (inlaying one metal into another) was brought into India through the possessions of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, the first Sufi saint who entered Ajmer (Rajasthan, India) to spread Islam. The art of damascening evolved from there on and in the process of experimenting gave rise to the black alloy that now characterizes Bidri art.
Through the changing political landscape of Bidar, Bidri art underwent its own transformation. It was recognized by the Mughals and the British and spread throughout India and evolved into its own distinct styles. In the late 17th Century, Bidar was conquered by the Mughals. This was when Mughal motifs and scriptures were introduced into Bidri art, the most characteristic one being the poppy flower motif. It was done on hookahs, cutlery, furniture, candelabras, and various storage containers that belonged to the upper social classes. In the 19th century, the production of Bidri art spread to Hyderabad and North India, namely, Purnea, Lucknow, and Murshidabad.
In the 19th Century, Bidri art began to include European motifs with the growing power of the British and the French. It was used to decorate European objects like vases and walking sticks. In 1851, Bidri art traveled to the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, London. It was very well received and became very popular among commoners and art enthusiasts alike. Bidri had reached Europe at the start of the Arts and Crafts Movement. The time was right for the judicious, hand-made Bidri articles to make their mark against the monotonous and common machine-made objects. Thus, the European demand for Bidri led to the opening of newer centers for production in Aurangabad, Patna, Jaipur, Surat, Bombay, and Kashmir whose wares were sold by Liberty and Co. till 1881.
This glory was short-lived as the royal patronage for Bidri under the Mughals became obsolete after the fall of the Mughal empire in the 19th Century. The newer Bidri centers shut down and the art was confined to Bidar and Hyderabad, where the artisans enjoyed the brief patronage of the Nizam. After the Independence struggle in 1947, the Government of India set up the Artisan training Institute with incentives for descendants of artisan guilds to learn their traditional crafts. The handicrafts continued to be sold under the All India Handicrafts board. The art was presented as a Tableau in the Republic Day parade in 2011 at Raj Path, New Delhi.
Making of Bidriware
Bidriware is primarily made of 90% Copper and 10% Zinc and the inlay work is made of pure silver or gold. In addition to these metals, Ammonium Chloride and the soil from the Bidar fort are used to impart the characteristic black color to the Zinc alloy. The tools used by the artisans to craft the detailed designs are often simple like a compass and ruler. They use specially designed chisels for precise engraving work. The process of making Bidriware is long and generally operates like an assembly line where one artisan is specialized in one part of the process.
The process starts by preparing a clay mould of the article. Upon the setting of this mould, the Zinc alloy is poured into it and cooled. It is also buffed and filed to smooth out the bumps in the moulding process. The mould is dabbed with Copper Sulphate to impart a temporary black color to the surface of the article. This helps differentiate the engraved pattern that reveals the natural silver color of the Zinc alloy. A senior artisan traces out the pattern directly on the article or from a piece of paper using his specialized chisel. He hammers in a sheet or wire of pure silver onto the engraved spaces and buffs the piece again to remove the black coating and to smoothen the surface. The article is then dipped into a paste made of Ammonium chloride, water, and the soil of the Bidar fort for 10-15 minutes to give the characteristic black color. The silver or gold remains unreactive creating a contrasting pattern on the dark surface.
Styles and Patterns
Over the years, Bidri art has incorporated the lifestyle, religion, and nature of its surroundings. When it entered India, Bidriware was ornamented by a five-petaled Persian flower pattern. It also depicted complex geometric patterns that show Egyptian origins. As it evolved, it incorporated the Islamic religious script and motifs into the ornamentation. It also showcased a number of animals like peacocks, fish, turtles, and lions’ heads. With the rising control of colonial powers, French patterns made their way into Bidri art as well. This art could be recognized based on how the silver was inlaid with respect to the black surface: Zarnishan (low relief), Tehnishan (flush finish), and Zarbuland (high relief). Based on these characteristics, one could discern where the object was made.
In addition to preserving its legacy through these years, Bidri art has continued to inspire fashion designers like Alexander McQueen, Rohit Bal, Ankur, and Priyanka Modi. It also inspired revivalist Gaurang Shah to adapt the Bidri patterns onto a Jamdani sari. One of the top Bidriwork artisans today is Abdul Rauff. He has been felicitated by the President of India and has continued to give a contemporary touch to Bidri artifacts. He has also exhibited the art at international exhibitions. Bidri art remains alive to this day due to the hard-working artisan groups that practice it in Bidar and Hyderabad.