Carved in Wood - A Cultural History of Mysore Wood Inlay Artisans
The people that we work with never cease to me leave me absolutely awestruck. Not only are they dedicated to their craft for generations together, but they are also custodians of our cultural history. As I write this, I’m thinking of how it was supposed to be an exposition of the history of the Mysore Wood Inlay community. Today, I defer to one of its members.
In our conversations with Mr. Ashok Kumar of Mysore, we discovered the true past of the community - a past which is alive, pulsing with energy, and refined through generations of learning and teaching. We were expecting a line traced back to the origins of the community, and perhaps stories from his life. Instead, we were gifted with a tapestry of woven history - a vibrant picture of the past of not just the community, but the art of wood inlay itself.
Ashok Kumar was a student of his uncle, L. Nagaraj from 1990. Under his tutelage, Kumar learnt the art for about 10 years, before opening his own shop in 2000. Independently, he explored themed pieces of wood inlay. He says, “I tried themes like Mysore Aramane, Mysore Jatka-Gaadi, Chikka Gadiyaara, Dodda Gadiyaara, Victoria Terminus (now CST), Bombay local train, Double-decker buses, Vada paav etc. Theme based designs were specifically popular among tourists visiting Mysore who looked to take back souvenirs. Currently, theme-based designs are not made anywhere else in Mysore except for my workshop.” His work has been recognized not just in India, but across the world. He has sent his designs to exhibitions internationally, including Cyprus, Ireland, and a host of other countries.
His unique vision sets him apart in the community. Apart from his own work, Mr Kumar tries to help others in Mysore better their approach to the craft, with a focus on marketing and interventions to make the profession more sustainable.
What follows is the story of his community, in his words.
“To my knowledge, wood inlay is an art form that originated in Persia. It is rumoured that when the Taj Mahal was built, Shah Jahan brought many inlay artists from Persia and employed them to work on marble. After the construction was completed, these artists migrated with their families to different parts of India.
It is also rumoured that the Maharaja of Mysore invited many of these artisans to work on the Mysore Aramane (erstwhile Mysore Palace). The Aramane burned down due to an accident but another one was built which we know by the name Amba Vilas Hall. All rosewood doors in this hall have ivory inlays in them. These artisans were Shia Muslims who had migrated to Mysore. They were a large community, and the Maharaja was quite fond of them.
The gifts given by Mysore Maharajas to other kings can be found in many museums in India (for example, Salar Jung Museum - Hyderabad, Telangana) and most of these gifts are Inlay arts. The Maharaja was evidently very fond of the art form and decided to encourage its growth and research. So he introduced a wood inlay visual arts course in an institute called Chamraja Technical Institute, where a lot of artisans were trained.
There was a man named Shaukath Ali from this community, who went to J.J school of Arts (Bombay) in 1940 to learn the art in detail. Upon returning to Mysore, he did a lot of research to come up with innovations. In his time, the art was mainly restricted to the royal family or nobility. Shaukath Ali thought about simplifying the art, increasing its relevance among commoners and infusing it in their lives. He started by making small art panels - elephant, one lady, a village scene - which sold for 2-3 rupees in that time. He also made powder boxes with some artwork on it. He continued to make such things and kept simplifying the art to increase its relevance in the common man’s life.
At that time, only Ivory was used for inlays and rosewood was the primary base. Shaukath Ali started researching naturally coloured types of wood with different shades that could replace and be a better alternative to Ivory. This created a scope to produce depth and contrast in the art. He started seeing early success and generated large sales very quickly. He even started a gift shop of sorts where tourists from different parts of the world could take back souvenirs from Mysore. Since many people could afford what he was selling, the art started reaching more households, which made him expand his production and make bigger panels of art.
Around 1960 itself, Shaukath Ali foresaw the shortage of rosewood that could come up. A bullock cart of rosewood logs cost around 75 rupees back then (my father bought rosewood for 75-80 rupees a cart in 1968). So Shaukath looked for alternatives to rosewood and arrived at a solution. He started cutting out wood art from the rosewood panels and pressing it onto plywood. He kept making and trying new things. Today, the designs we see might be different but all methods used to create this art have originated from his experiments. This is like any song by Purandaradasa, everyone can sing it in different ragas but the lyrics remain the same.
Post-Independence, when the British continued to maintain transactions with Indians, there was a cigarette brand named ‘Elephant’ in England that was shutting down due to low sales and tough competition. Shaukath Ali offered this company a wooden cigarette box with elephant inlay art on it for the packaging of cigarettes. The company accepted this proposal and within no time, people started buying from this company just to collect the boxes. This marked the beginning of commercial exports of locally produced wooden inlay art. In 1962, Shaukath Ali was given a national award by Indira Gandhi. Shaukath Ali had very few but very close disciples who still live in Mysore. Among those disciples is my uncle L. Nagaraj, my father L. Srikantha and another man named Krishna. Many people (including myself) have learned from my father and about 70-75 people have learned from my uncle.”
Today, wood inlay artisans from Mysore do face difficulties, but they believe in the strength of their community. It is this strength that learnt to love and respect. Mr. Kumar believes that through proper channelizing of skills and marketing efforts, the demand for their work can be revitalized, making them prosperous, as well as sustainable.
In our work, we come across individuals like Mr. Kumar, who are reservoirs of knowledge and history in themselves. At such times, we like to take a step back and appreciate the position that we are in. To learn so much about a community that opens itself up so beautifully, to be welcomed into their history is a privilege that few others have had in the field. By the time he was done talking, we were dumbstruck, awed by the stories that came from him. We wanted to present them to you in their raw form, without any dilution, so that we may do him justice. At Shrenis, we believe that things coming directly from the source are purest, and must not be coloured by us. We hope you enjoyed the story of the Mysore wood inlay community. Stay tuned for many such conversations across clusters and professions coming up on the Shreni Blog.
Written by Shivani L
Translations provided by Abdul M.M.