The city of Lord Shiva may be most famous for its opulent sarees, but it is also home to several other forms of traditional crafts. Kalpana Sunder goes on a hunt
It is a pesky, one-winged parrot that leads me to Varanasi. I have been to this holy city several times, looking for solace. But this journey is different. I am on a hunt, looking for a replacement for a bright green lacquered wooden parrot that was a child’s favourite toy. Caught in sibling crossfire, the poor bird lost a wing. And I have now made it my mission to find another one and also meet the craftsmen who keep alive the traditional art of wooden toy-making, and my search leads me to uncover many more handicraft secrets of this city, known mostly for silk-weaving and carpet-making.
A local guides me to Kashmiri Ganj and Khojwa Bazar and I lose myself in rows of shops selling brightly painted wooden toys and small workshops where artisans are busy manufacturing them. An elephant, a pair of pecking birds, Lord Ganesha and Lord Krishna, kitchen sets, bangles, rattles… history, mythology and art emanate from every little toy.
My quest for information about the history of the craft takes me to a small artisan’s workshop. I watch him transform a small piece of wood into a flute player with the most basic tools, and then carve it with tremendous care and finesse, as his children play with the tools around him. “I make about 20 to 30 small pieces every day. The money is enough to run my family,” the artisan says with a smile. Cartons of eggs are stacked at the back of the workshop – it turns into a food stallin the evening. Another artisan adds that woodcarving in Varanasi traces its roots to the Mughal period, when their ancestors used to craft items out of ivory. But when ivory was banned in the country, they shifted to wood.
Toy-making in Varanasi is a cottage industry, where blocks of local wood are heated to remove all moisture – a time-consuming process – cut into the many desired shapes and finally smoothened with sandpaper and hammer. Some artisans carve these toys, while there are separate artisan families whose job is to paint the toys and send them to different parts of the country. It’s mostly the womenfolk who paint the toys with fine brushes. Lacquering them for a smooth finish is done by men.
Practised by around 3,000 artisans, the craft of wooden toy-making is passed on from one generation to another. While earlier, craftsmen used sal and sheesham wood, these days they prefer local varieties like gulhar and lighter ones like eucalyptus and ghurkun. I finally find my parrot, but it leads me to the art of jewellery making and other local handicrafts in this city. As I walk through the narrow alleys and meandering lanes lined with old havelis with wrought iron grills and decorated doorways, small shops selling spicy kachoris and marigold-coloured jalebis draw me in. Monkeys swing from balconies and pigeons roost in cornices as I navigate around cows, scooters and overladen carts to reach the home of old-time Varanasi resident Raman Shankar Pandya, a jeweller by profession. Clad in a pristine white kurta-pyjama and sitting on the floor of his ancient haveli, he traces the history of jewellery-making in the city.
Pandya, whose forefathers migrated to the city from Gujarat, still works on a small scale, selling painstakingly crafted precious jewellery to the discerning buyer. Like Aladdin’s treasure trove, he takes out one item after another, offering me a splendid window into several craft traditions such as intricate jewellery boxes with gold, silver, copper and precious stones woven into them, and wooden walking sticks, with their stone-encrusted tops and metal lattices woven into their bodies. The showstopper is the exquisite pink minakari jewellery. Unlike the red, green and blue of Jaipur, where the white enamel is left stark, Varanasi’s craftsmen delicately add a touch of pink to the white enamel. My favourite is an intricately engraved pink bangle with elephant heads in shades of rose and green, costing several lakhs. So the next time you are in this historic city, skip the beaten path, and uncover the rich art and craft traditions here.
The author is a travel writer and the views expressed in the article are her own