Owls of Natungram

Painted Owl, Natungram, West Bengal. Courtesy: Sushmit.

In eastern India, especially West Bengal, owls or pencha are considered auspicious. It is the dedicated vahana (vehicle) of Goddess Lakshmi, the bestower of wealth. Out of many delightful toys that are carved by the wood artisans of Natungram, Burdwan District, the owl forms one of the iconic images of rural West Bengal.

The artisans chose different sizes of cylindrical logs or branches according to their requirement. Then, the desired shape is chiseled out and finished with a sand paper. The surface is then painted with bright colours transforming into Radha-Krishna, raja-ranis, village belles and of course, the owls.

The owls are found in various sizes. For a more sophisticated urban clientele, the surfaces of few are left plain with just a coat of wood varnish. Even though this particular craft is an age old tradition and had been catering to rural  fairs or melas for a long time, there is a sort of modernity in the way the wood artisans handle a log, transforming it in just few quick chops. Their minimalist approach is just precise in what they intend to portray.

Wooden Owl, Natungram, West Bengal. Private Collection.



Ranjan, Aditi and M.P. Ranjan, eds. Crafts of India: Handmade in India. New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporations, COHANDS, 2007.

Sen, Prabhas. Living Traditions of India: Crafts of West Bengal. Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1994.



Owls of Natungram

Amidst fragrant jasmine blossoms: Syrian Wood Intarsia

Pen-stand amidst frankincense. Syria.
Pen-stand amidst frankincense. Syria. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Syria has always been a nurturing cradle of civilizations from time immemorial. Its prosperous cities of Damascus and Aleppo are no strangers to the pages of history, either as a centre stage for major world events or an important point in ancient trade routes. Waves of ideas and inspiration arrived here transforming the Syrian way of life into a unique and multi-faceted culture and its hospitality ever welcoming and warm. Whenever, I ask my Syrian friends about home, a blanket of nostalgia would surround them. With a smile they would talk about the old streets of Damascus, with its air filled with the sweet fragrance of jasmine and freshly baked breads glazed with olive oil and zataar, people relaxing in old coffee houses, the hamams and souks selling almost everything one needs. A picture worth living.

The city of Damascus is famous for its crafts, to a level that it has literally stamped its name on many of them. The famed blades of ‘Damascus steel’ with markings of flowing water were forged here, with wootz or iron ingots bought in from India. The inlay work in metal with intricate foliate patterns and calligraphy came to be known as damascening work, which later travelled to India and played an influential role in surface ornamentation of Mughal arms-armours and decorative arts. In India this elaborate work in gold that decorated the surfaces of many exclusive articles, came to be known as tehnishan or tehbuland (true damascening) and koftgari (false damascening). The luxurious damask (again owing its name to the city), woven in silk or brocaded, is also a product of the gifted weavers of this city. Another important craft which the city is attributed to and the main focus of this entry is wood intarsia, known far and wide among art connoisseurs.

Inlaying wooden objects using techniques of intarsia and marquetry with various shades of wood, mother of pearl, bone or ivory, and plastics (commonly used today) is an age old tradition in Syria. The earliest examples are found in the artefacts recovered from the tombs of the Pharaohs in Egypt. In fact, Syria and Egypt not only were the originators of this craft but also retained its own unique style and characteristics. It is from here, that the craft travelled westwards to Spain and Italy and eastwards to India via Iran.[i]

Jewelry box, Syria.
Jewelry box, Syria. Courtesy: Sushmit.

A host of products were made ranging from boxes of varying sizes and shapes, rehls (Qur’an stands), pen stands, mirror frames, tables and furniture. The surface is entirely covered with a strict geometric design and layout, with rhombuses and elaborate arabesque. Although, bigger artefacts do display intricate floral and foliate design, with cypress trees and vines (eslimi). Two types of process can be applied owing to the nature of the product. For a rather cheaper souvenir market, a faster process of marquetry is applied wherein rods of different coloured wood and plastic are arrange into a singular bundle with a pre-conceived design and glue together. Then it is cut using a motor saw into thin slices or veneers which are glued to surface of the wood. After which the prepared surface is rubbed with a sand paper and applied a coat of varnish. The other method a more time intensive process is generally used for expensive furniture and trunks. This involves each perfectly calibrated piece of wood, mother of pearl or bone to be delicately inserted individually into the design that is carved out on the surface that is to be ornamented.

Syrian marquetry and intarsia is a pride of the nation, often gifted to guests and friends as a small of token of their rich culture. Its beauty and intricacy is admired all over, although with the ongoing conflict and displacement of people among who are also craftsmen practicing this ancient craft, the future appears dark. Skill once lost can never be replaced, so one can only hope for a faster peace process in this god gifted country.

In Iran, this craft came to be known as khatam-kari or hatam-bandi, which was employed for the elaborate qalamdans (pen boxes) and other boxes with central cartouches displaying princes in leisure or engaged in chauganbazee (game of polo). From here, this craft migrated to India, believed to have been brought by the Parsis. The Pettigaras of Surat are engaged in making the most exquisite boxes called the Petigara pettis with surface decorated with marquetry technique locally called sadeli. The craft of inlaying wood is also practiced in Hoshiarpur in Punjab and Mysore in Karnataka.

Box, wood intarsia with mother of pearl. MId 20th century, Egypt. Collection of Snorre Westgaard.
Box, wood intarsia with mother of pearl. Mid 20th century, Egypt. Collection of Snorre Westgaard.

I dedicate this entry to my dearest friend, Mudar, for making me see and experience his beautiful country through his eyes. I also pray that this state of unrest, a maddening nightmare, that has engulfed Syria and its people come to a sooner end.


[i] Johannes Kalter. “Urban Handicrafts” in The Arts and Crafts of Syria, Collection Antoine Touma and Linden-Museum Stuttgart. (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1992), 72.

Other References: (For Indian Marquetry)

Chattopadhyay, Kamaladevi. The Glory of Indian Handicrafts. New Delhi: Clarion Books, 1985.

Jaffer, Amin. Luxury Goods from India: The Art of the Indian Cabinet-Maker. New Delhi: Timeless Books, 2002.

Ranjan, Aditi and M.P. Ranjan, eds. Crafts of India: Handmade in India. New Delhi: Council of Handicraft Development Corporations, COHANDS, 2007.

Saraf, D N. Indian Crafts: Development and Potential. New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., 1982.

Amidst fragrant jasmine blossoms: Syrian Wood Intarsia

Mirrors and Peacocks: Embroidery of Haryana


Embroidered backless cholis with narrow petias. Hissar (Haryana). Collection of Namita Malik.

Unlike the phulkaris and baghs of Punjab, which maintained a highly controlled geometric format, the similar technique in Haryana with lesser rigidity, created  motifs that were full of life and spontaneity.

With a wide distribution of the Jat and Bishnoi community apart from the main territory of Haryana, the embroidery shares similarities with the ones done by the above communities residing in the western districts of Rajasthan as well, namely, Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Barmer. Women from Hissar, Sirsa, Rohtak and Karnal, embroidered on a narrow coarse woollen or cotton cloth (khaddar) with floss silk threads with delightful motifs of frolicking peacocks and peahens, jewellery and vegetation. Dyed cotton threads were also used extensively. A splendid late 19th century cotton skirt from Hissar which is embroidered with dense repeats of wheat motifs in golden yellow floss silk can be seen in Rosemary Crill’s book on Indian embroideries.[i] The shishedar or chemas phulkari which used inserts of mirrors within highly stylised floral and figurative embroidery was also very popular. The mirrors were earlier made and obtained from Karnal.[ii]  Although, the use of mirrors was not restricted to only shawls and odhanis (head cover) but extended to embellish skirts and cholis.

[i]Rosemary Crill. Indian Embroidery. (New Delhi: Prakash Books, 1999), 124-125.

[ii]Neelam Grewal. The Needle Lore: Traditional Embroideries of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.  (New Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1988), 58-59.

Embroidered Shawl/Odhani, Hissar (Haryana). Collection of Namita Malik.
Mirrors and Peacocks: Embroidery of Haryana

A soft spot to recline on…my new namda!

IMG_25rgyrs02 copy
Namda, felted rug, Kashmir. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Almost three years back, I fell in love with a namda created by a very close friend, who sells delightful products in Kashmiri tradition under the name of ‘Raffughar’. This Christmas when my friend finally decided to shift base to Delhi, I felt like a little boy, whose good behaviour was going to be rewarded by Santa himself. I got my rug and I am glad it didn’t fit into a stocking hanging on the mantel.

For readers, who are wondering what namdas are, they are traditional felted rugs that are made in and around Srinagar and Anantnag. Sheep wool is enmeshed with soap water under a lot of pressure and the resultant surface of these rugs is then reinforced by zalakdozi embroidery[1](embroidery in wool done with a hook called ara kunj, which appears like chain-stitch on the surface) depicting delicate multi-coloured floral and figurative patterns. These rugs are not only cheaper but also provide effective insulation in the cold northern weather, making them very popular.

The rug I acquired is made entirely of sheep wool with motifs in the natural breed colour. The robust motifs that occupy the field of the rug echo a faint influence of its distant cousin in Kyrgyzstan, the shyrdak rug. It is not surprising to see this unintentional reflection, as the tradition might have travelled back and forth, with felted rugs being made extensively in Iran and Central Asia. Here, they are called namads. They survived as a parallel tradition alongside carpets and kilims with their own share of importance. The more humble ones were used as base for expensive carpets,although the finer ones with embroidery formed a prominent item of décor. Scholar Hadi Maktabi has compiled numerous accounts of travellers in the post Safavid era about palaces in Iran being decorated with namads and carpets. He also illuminates a fine felted rug called takiyanamad, which was folded into four and was quite often seen under reclining princes in Persian paintings.[2]I will definitely be reclining in mine, but it is advised not to fold felted rugs as they tear and much care is to be taken to keep them from the reach of moths.

[1]Neelam Grewal. The Needle Lore: Traditional Embroideries of Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. (New Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1988), 12-15.

[2]Hadi Maktabi, ‘Under the Peacock Throne: Carpets, Felts and Silks in Persian Painting, 1736-1834’ in Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World, Vol. 26, ed. Gülru Necipoğlu. (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 318-322.

IMG_2508 copy
Namda, felted rug, Kashmir. Courtesy: Sushmit.
A soft spot to recline on…my new namda!

Painted Tales: Kalamkari paintings of Srikalahasti

Detail of a Kalamkari Painting. Courtesy: Sushmit .

One of the exquisite examples of hand painted textiles of India comes from the temple town of Srikalahasti in Chittoor District, Andhra Pradesh. In the last century it sailed through murky waters, barely surviving with the help of patronage provided by temples and rich landlords. After Independence attempts were made to revive it to its former glory, which met with difficulties in the beginning but today these attempts paid off. The craft not only continues but also gaining immense popularity with demands from the fast emerging urban community.

The word, kalamkari, literally means working with a kalam (pen). The Srikalahasti style unlike the other kalamkari traditions heavily emphasises on the importance of the kalam and the entire painting is done free hand by an artisan using it. The process is painstakingly long, but to describe it in a simpler way, it begins with the preparation of the base cloth, which is soaked in a mixture of cow dung and bleach for hours and washed to get a uniform off-white colour.  After that,it is again soaked in a myrobolam and buffalo milk solution which would prevent the colours from smudging. Then it is washed again. Over this prepared cloth, stories are then outlined using a charcoal, made from burnt tamarind twigs, which are further darkened by a fermented jaggery-iron mixture or an alum mordant. The areas to be filled with colour are all done by hand using only vegetable colours. After that it is dried, washed and colour fixed using an alum solution.

The themes of the kalamkari paintings of this style are predominantly religious in nature, illustrating episodes of the great epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana. Various Hindu gods and goddesses along with their incarnations are also frequently painted. In the recent years, Biblical themes and life scenes of Sakyamuni are also seen, which is an attempt to reach out to a larger demographic.



Anand, Mulk Raj, ed. Homage to Kalamkari. Marg Publication, Volume XXXI Number 4, April 1979.

Ramani, Shakuntala. Kalamkari and Traditional Design Heritage of India. New Delhi: Wisdom Tree, 2007.

Varadarajan, Lotika. South Indian Traditions of Kalamkari. Bombay: The Perennial Press, 1982.

Detail of a Kalamkari Painting. Courtesy: Sushmit.
Painted Tales: Kalamkari paintings of Srikalahasti

A solace to the soul: The story of dhabla

A contemporary dhabla. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Reading a book or just soaking the warm sun-rays although a rare delight in the capital’s winter weather can be a moment to look for. Wrapped up in a coarse shawl called dhabla predominantly a man’s shawl can be cosy and slowly becoming quite popular. The dhabla is traditional shawl/blanket, the width of the blanket versions are wider which is achieved joining two lengths at the centre. These are all woven in a loom with the patterns achieved by an extra weft supplement. Most of these dhablos display intricate woven patterns which almost appear like embroidery. Weaving such a dhabla can be a very time intensive process requiring a great deal of skill. The Ahir dhabla comprises multi-coloured geometric patterns which can stretch the entire field of the product.

The weavers (vankars) of these exquisite shawls are basically from a migrant community of Meghwals from Rajasthan who are now settled and operate from a small village of Bhujodi, Gujarat. The main task of weaving is generally done by men, although women also join in the other related work.[1]A variety of products such as shawls, furnishings, stoles and shoulder cloths (khes) are made for their traditional clientele who are from various nomadic communities with rigid specifications in terms of design and pattern. The nomadic nature of its clientele finds it multi functional, used either as a shawl or wrapper and also transforms as a blanket at night, keeping the baggage lighter.

[1]Archana Shah.Shifting Sands, Kutch: A Land in Transition. (Ahmedabad: Bandhej Books, 2012), 157-158.

A solace to the soul: The story of dhabla

Indian Embroidery: The Kathipo style of Saurashtra

The Kathipo style of embroidery derives its name from the practitioners of this embroidery, the Kathis of Saurashtra. Their style formed one of the most prominent and oldest among embroidery traditions in Saurashtra.[i] An array of household articles such as torans (door hangings) and chaklas (festive wall hangings, large or small, generally in square format) were embroidered using heer or hir (floss silk threads) predominantly depicting geometric and figurative patterns. However, the Kathis stopped the practice of embroidery during the start of the last century.[ii] During this time, the Kathi landlords started employing members from the Mahajan merchant communities. This change played an instrumental role in the future of Kathi style, with Mahajans canonizing various Kathi motifs leading to a consolidated style.[iii] A prominent motif, kaliphul (an eight pointed star) quite often occupied the central position. The style of embroidery was also adopted by other groups, especially the Gohilvadi Rabaris.

The Mahajans preferred a machine made cloth as a base, over which they embroidered using heer or hir (floss silk) mainly in red or violet shades (almost monochromatic with few sprinkles of yellow, white and green). Most of the embroidery consisted of long herringbone stitch (khajuri-no tanko), with fairly regular geometric format comprising chess board and geometric patterns. The stitches were executed in both horizontal and vertical direction which gave a pleasing illusion of double shades (similar to phulkaris of Punjab). A typical Mahajan output will have a crenellated border (kangra) surmounted by a peacock foot-print (morpagala), followed by bands of lozenges and mirrors. The central portion consists of chequered borders (daria or adadia, also known as dana bhat) with the final field divided into four (chokhand) or nine quadrants (navakhanda).[iv]

The images below are from the author’s own collection, relatively later works, although one can see published examples of older examples in the form of torans[v] and chakla[vi] in various books.


[i] J. M. Nanavati, M. P. Vora and M. A. Dhaky. The Embroidery and Beadwork of Kutch and Saurashtra. (Gujarat: Department of Archaeology, 1966), 17-19.

[ii] Judy Frater. Threads of Identity: Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris. (Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 1995), 94.

[iii] J.M. Nanavati, 21.

[iv] Ibid., 22.

[v] Rosemary Crill. Indian Embroidery. (New Delhi: Prakash Book Depot, 1999), 95.

[vi] John Gillow and Nicholas Barnard. Indian Textiles. (New Delhi: Om Books International, 2008), 73.

Embroidered Toran. Courtesy: Sushmit.
Embroidered chakla. Courtesy: Sushmit
Indian Embroidery: The Kathipo style of Saurashtra