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Artistic expressions in wood

Walnut wood carving is slowly fading into oblivion. But there are a few artistes who are striving to keep the tradition alive. Like Gulam Mohammad

KASHMIR'S SOFT-toned, elegant walnut wood furniture has long been a favourite with furniture lovers. Today, Chennai has become one among the favourite places to hold exhibitions of Kashmir's finely chiselled walnut wood furniture and artefacts.

The motifs of the alluring Chinar leaf, Persian roses, lotuses and leafy vines are so typical of Islamic art forms. The number of craftspersons practising the art has dwindled over the years following political unrest in the valley — from more than 40,000 to just about 6,000.

Yet, some craftspersons, such as Gulam Mohammad, carry on with their hereditary vocation, working in family units to carve out a tradition, believed to have thrived under Badshah Zainubuddin.

Standing amidst sofa sets and kidney shaped tables, finely carved Dutch-inspired side boards, bars and the traditional `nests' of tables, Gulam Mohammad sounded thoughtful and full of hope, as excerpts from an interview revealed:

The `bareek' work for which walnut wood furniture is so famous, seems to be fast disappearing. Why?

Intricate `bareek' work is still being done, but bolder motifs are taking over slowly since they take less time. Also `bareek' work is very expensive.

There also seems to be a slight shift in tradition, both in form and motifs.

The basic motifs are the Persian gulab, chinar leaf, lotus, vines, roses and so on. But customers' tastes are changing. Now, dragons too have become part of our craft language. The kidney shaped table is a new concept as well, as are computer tables, less densely carved serving plates, bowls etc. We try to follow traditional motifs, though we are open to customers' suggestions.

How badly have the work of the craftspersons and sales been affected by the troubled times in Kashmir?

No youngster wants to learn the craft any more. Most practising craftsmen are well past their thirties. As for sales, it is marginal in Srinagar, which is why we have to come this far to sell our wares. We work at home in a family unit. I am both carpenter and carver.

Is the State Government offering support?

We get the wood at subsidised rates. Special schemes are offered to train new craftspersons. But very few come forward to learn the craft.

Have the exhibitions you have held in Chennai been successful?

Yes, we sell a lot and also get many orders. Our work is appreciated and people are aware of the special strengths of walnut wood, which has no joints and which needs no varnishing. Also in the exhibition sponsored by Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan, there are no middle men and we get the money directly.

A furniture exhibition-cum-sale is currently on at Silver Jubilee Hall, 236, Avvai Shanmugham Road, Gopalapuram.

PUSHPA CHARI

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