Lac-coated dolls of Eastern India

Lac-coated dolls, Nabarangpur, Odisha. Courtesy: Sushmit.

In many parts of India, dolls in the form of bride and groom or king and queen (Raja-Rani), are popular and also used during specific festivals. The search for everlasting conjugal bliss is expressed through these dolls where they are worshipped and sometimes an entire wedding for them is enacted. All of it in the hope that the serene orchestrated relationship of the dolls is replicated in real life.

Nabarangpur and Balasore districts of Odisha are famous for the creation of these dolls. Artisans from the Sankhari community residing here manufacture these dolls out of fine clay and coat them with lacquer collected from the local forests. Their form is kept simple with just a basic indication of limbs and other features. The detailing is done by the use of lac, which adds the eyes, jewellery and garb to these dolls. In Balasore district, these lac-coated dolls are called jaukandhei. They are again in the form of a couple and are believed to be a hybrid of a similar custom practiced by the tribes residing in Mayurbhanj.

lac 2
Jaukandhei dolls. Balasore, Odisha. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Lac is an insect resin that is collected from the trees growing on the local forests. In olden days, it was sufficient, but today with diminishing interests of the craftsmen towards it caused by low returns, it is slowly on a decline. Now lac has to be also sourced from outside. The artisans still continue this crafts and other than these dolls, toys in the form of parrots, bulls and elephants are also made for children to play with. The famous lacquered boxes, lakho-pedi, which comprises a square shaped structure of a box with a lid, all made of bamboo, with the entire surface covered with lacquer in bright shades of orange, chrome and black. The designs are an echo of the floor decorations or alpona with floral sprays and geometric arrangements. These are sold in village fairs as well as during major events such as the Ratha Yatra fesitival.

lac 3
Lac-coated dolls. Nabarangpur, Odisha. Courtesy: Sushmit.

Similar dolls are made in West Bengal coated with shellac (a processed form of natural lacquer). In olden days they were made by the Nuri community of Ilambazar in Birbhum. Due to shortage of raw materials and a decline in the demand, the craft almost vanished. But due to the personal endeavour of Rabindranath Tagore, the craft caught the fancy of the students of Shantineketan. Today, the craft production has shifted to Panchrol and Kharui Bazaar in Medinipur East district, adopted by the conch shell workers[1]. Dolls made here too share the same minimalist approach of depicting the subject. Votive dolls of goddesses such as Shashthi, Durga and Manasa are created as well as other toys for children.

Goddess Shashthi, shellac coated doll. West Bengal. Courtesy: Sushmit.

[1] Tarapada Santra. Folk Arts of West Bengal and the Artist Community. Trans. Shankar Sen. (New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2011), 104-107.

Lac-coated dolls of Eastern India

Lacquered Jicaras of Mexico

Lacquered jicara, Unknown Artist. Contemporary, Mexico. Private Collection.

Dried rinds of gourds have been used by many cultures around the world as a versatile utilitarian vessel; for storing food articles and condiments, as drinking bowls,as well as resonators for musical instruments. These gourd vessels are immensely popular in Mexico, but here, the love for colours and artistry has translated these humble vessels into objects full of life and expression. This art of lacquering gourd vessels traces its history to an ancient time, even before the arrival of the Spaniards. Although, the technique and style have absorbed many new ideas since then, but the vibrancy and vigour of these lacquered or painted vessels is unmistakably true to the soul of Mexico.

Gourds or the fruits of the calabash tree, as said earlier, are used for making vessels from time immemorial. The local and popular term used for these gourds is jicara (a corruption of the Nahuatl word, xicalli). The dried rinds of these gourds are used as vessels, perforated ones as strainers and even as a protective head cover. The surface is elaborately worked upon, for instance, the vessels from Oaxaca and Tabasco are incised with intricate figurative and geometric designs. But the popular form of surface decoration is lacquer work, done by the gifted artists from the coastal states of Guerrero, Michoacán and Chiapas.[i]

The process of preparing these vessels is a long one, involving numerous days or even months. The first step is to choose the gourd, as they are found in different shapes and sizes, and let it dry out. Then they are cut into halves and soaked in water. This will make the inside rot, which will be scooped out and discarded. The prepared outer surface will be then applied a coat of oil from toasted seeds of chia (salvia hispanica)[ii] or aje, an oil extracted from an insect called scale bug, mixed with powdered earth, tierra. After which two more coats are applied of ground mineral paste and left until the surface hardens. The harden surface is painted with various floral and figurative motifs. A final coat of oil is then applied to seal the lacquer, making it heat and water resistant.[iii]

Lacquered jicara, Unknown Artist, Contemporary, Mexico. Private collection.

The surfaces are brought to life by artists, depicting gamboling rabbits, deer, tigers, birds perched in branches with plethora of blossoming flowers and motifs inherited from the colonial past. Today, the use commercially available colours have replaced natural pigments and the use of gold and silver has resulted in dreamlike effects.

I would like to thank my dearest friend, Snorre Westgaard, for introducing me to this craft. I would also like to extend my appreciation to Humana People to People India, for letting me see their collection and write on them.  I also thank my friend, Rafael Sequeira, eminent archaeologist, for helping me with the local terminology related to this art.


[i]Chloë Sayer. Arts and Crafts of Mexico.(London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 84.

[ii]Ibid, 84-85.

[iii]Ibid, 85.

Lacquered Jicaras of Mexico

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