Knots of IdentityLocation - Rajkot
As I arrive into Bikaner, I cant but be mesmerised by the many magnificent buildings made of reddish pink sandstone that sparkle through the barren wilderness, around it.
Constructed in red sandstone with elaborately detailed facades, Rampuria haveli is one of the several examples of the fine architecture patronised by wealthy merchants hundreds of years ago.
The harsh sun, typical of Rajasthan, only makes the warm colours shine brighter, bringing every inch and groove of the architecture in Bikaner in focus, rendering it even more stunning.
Old Bikaner city has a charm of its own with several small lanes randomly intersecting to create an intricate maze. In these very lanes I set out, in my search to unearth more on the famed Usta Art of Rajasthan.
It was during the Mughal era when a patronage of Maharaja Rai Singh came to Bikaner from Iran, among whom were also a few artists. These artists were supposed to decorate Junagarh Fort in Bikaner.
This vibrant art work was initially done on walls, ceilings and paintings but over time it has also been rendered on wooden furniture, marble, glass, camel leather, artifacts, etc.
The unique gold embossing and magnificent Usta paintings of that period can still be seen on the pillars, ceilings, walls of havelis, and palaces inside Junagadh Fort today, particularly in Anup Mahal.
Modern Bikaner is the result of the foresight of its most eminent ruler Ganga Singh whose reformative zeal set the pace of Bikaner’s transformation from a principality to a premier princely state. Hence his portrait can be seen on numerous places including Usta artifacts.
Centuries back while there were several families involved in this art form, the skill and knowledge were also passed down from generation to generation. This particular handwritten sheet of paper is over 150 years old and holds the names of 20 generations of Usta artists.
The handful of artists left in Bikaner have been taught by Hisam-ud-din Usta who was the last formally trained miniature painter in the Bikaner School style/tradition and then became a celebrated artist in Naqqashi and Manoti (embossed and unembossed floral patterns).
Hisam-Ud-Din’s work was greatly recognised and he was given the national award of master craftsperson in 1967 and was also a recipient of the Padma Shri award in 1986. Here is his famous painting of Mira.
Jamil Usta, grandson of Hisam-ud-din Usta and lecturer at a college continues to practice the Usta art as a hobby and recounts the history of this age old tradition.
With over 40 years of experience, Altaf Usta sits everyday for 8 hours in the same position and concentrates on creating these striking miniature paintings
The making of this art form is indeed a backbreaking one, involving hours and hours of patience. The designs are first made on paper which is traced on the surface using indigo or black coal powder.
Sand from a ground earthen pot which is sometimes mixed with glue and jaggery is then used to create the required paste for embossing.
Embossing the surface is literally what gives Usta Art that lift that sets it apart from other art forms involving miniature paintings. The multidimensional look converts the staid piece of wood to a stunning piece of craftsmanship
The embossed surface is then painted upon in vibrant colours. While now more commercially available colours are used, the work initially would use naturally available vegetable dyes to bring in the vibrancy
The absence of foliage in the arid landscape gave birth to the vivid green floral patterns along with deep/carmine red hues.Shades of blue also felt its presence due to lack of water around.
The most popular gesso compositions at Bikaner is the taarabandi, a star-studded sky and naqqashi, a pattern of minute flowers and motifs. These delicate forms lend the craft a unique sense of elegance and grandeur
Gold leaf is used extensively in this art form, especially in temples and palaces. Ajmal Hussain Usta started learning the art at the age of 13 and continues to do so for people who can afford this expensive art form
The artists come with practiced skill over years and years, helping out parents and grandparents, learning the skills of the trade slowly and imbibing the perseverance needed to create this art form. Thin brushes made out of squirrel hair ar eused to paint deftly on these delicate surfaces.
This particular piece will take Ajmal Hussain Usta over a month to complete, even though he sits and labours at it from dawn to dusk
Mohammed Ismail Usta, who has been practicing the art for over 60 years, mentioned that the real beauty and charm of Usta art can be seen on the pieces of camel leather.
Water was a scarce commodity in the desert area of Bikaner, precious enough to be carried around in pouches of camel leather often embossed with Usta art. Then grew the need to perform the art on light and portable products which can carry oil, water, or fragrances.
Even though the dominant colours in Usta are red, green and blue, the gold embossing and gold plating is what makes the painting so distinctive, particularly in the detailing of the entwining creepers, flowers, leaves and tiny figurines.
In the dry and barren lands of Rajasthan, the use of vibrant colours in food, art and culture is a regular feature. The incorporation of Gold in this particular art form, sets Sunehri (golden) Munawwati Nakkashi (embossed in floral motifs) stand out in a league of its own
Costs and level of hardwork involved to then create this luxurious Usta art, which doesn’t find many takers is now slowly leading the younger generation of artists to find alternate career paths. Will this art form find it’s lustre again only time will tell
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