Bengaluru: There is an invisible aura around Bidriware. Its hallowed status is enhanced by the history of its evolution in the royal houses across South Asia.
For more than five centuries, Bidriware objects have been must have pieces of adornment among the royalties and nobilities from Mughal emperors, Rajput kings and Nawabs of Bengal to Bahmani, Adil Shahi and Vijayanagara Sultans (yes, the Vijayanagara kings loved to call themselves sultans!).
In the pre-modern era, the Nizams of Hyderabad have been the biggest patrons of this magical craft, not only collecting the artefacts such as hookahs (sheesha), vases, vanity boxes, ewers and pitchers, but also relocating several artisans to Hyderabad.
However, despite the early 20th century migration of artisans and losing patronage, Karnataka’s northern town of Bidar continues to remain a hub of Bidriware.
With all of the kingdoms and fiefdoms gone, ancient Bidriware items along with the other surviving royal antique pieces are a collector’s treasure now, gracing the leading museums across the world.
The ‘starkly contrasting’ black and silver ornament continues to adorn the living rooms of many art connoisseurs in India and across different parts of the world. It’s black sheen and the delicately encrusted silver foliate and geometric motifs mesmerising the eyes!
Cast in an alloy of copper and zinc, with silver and gold wires or sheets inlaid or overlaid, a Bidriware artefact is so graceful in its appearance that an indulgent heart longs to feel and touch it, if not wear it!
Although, the yearning for wearing it can also be fulfilled now, as the younger generation of Bidri artisans in their desperate attempt to make the craft sellable has repurposed the tradition, crafting some exquisite wearable Bidri items such as earrings, bracelets, cufflinks, necklaces etc. This way they have also made this once collector’s item accessible and affordable to common men and women.
However, the traditional expression of the art-form continues to find patrons, even as the newer expressions in wearable forms give the craft a new lease of life.
Though, the Bidri metal craft has its origins in medieval Persia, Bidriware in its distinct Indian form blossomed in the capital of the early 15th century Bahmani Empire.
The Bahmanis were renowned for their exquisite sensibilities for art and architecture, hence it is no surprise that a complex and intricate craft such as the Bidri metal craft originated in their royal atelier.
But, that is not the craft’s only connection to the Bahmani Empire.
Bidar’s early 15th century citadel built by Sultan Ahmed Shah Wali Bahman, the sprawling Bidar Fort, has historically had a magical effect on Bidriware. The soil inside the fort still has its alchemy on the art-form, giving the Bidriware its distinct blackness.
According to the local craftsmen, the ancient soil of the Bidar Fort has certain properties that when used in a specific mixture of water and a pinch of aluminium floride, turns the zinc-copper alloy black, while not having any effect on the inlaid gold or silver. This distinct blackness helps the inlaid or overlaid silver or gold work to stand out, giving it an aura no other artefact has.
There is one more thing that the fort’s soil has its transformative effect on - the spirit of the Bidri artisans.
Having grown up on a steady doze of local legends surrounding the soil, the Bird masters taste the soil to test the distinct composition of the soil - their tongues working as the ancestral guardians of the soil’s authenticity!
Despite the spell Bidriware has on art aficionados and connoisseurs of craft, the craft has seen a steady decline over the last few decades with only a few masters working their magic.
Currently, Bidar has around 150 registered artisans, but only a handful of artisans in town have the depth of knowledge and the deftness of skills required to be called a master.
Amidst this general decline, one family seems to be thriving. Balancing the ancient with the modern, the Siddiquis of Kusum Gali near the historic Chaubara are carrying forward their centuries old ancestral tradition with some aplomb.
Led by the multi-award winning master craftsman MA Rauf Siddiqui, the Siddiquis are taking the craft of yore to the future.
Modernising the techniques, motifs and methods, the family has several generations involved in the craft, adopting modern softwares such as Autocad to come up with now patterns and using digital media to reach new frontiers.
“Our attempt is not to survive through this decline but to reinvent the craft and repurpose it. Every age has its new demands and tastes and as artisans it is important to adopt new ways and adapt to changing times while balancing the essence of traditions with the demands of modernity,” said MA Rauf, winner of Shilpi Guru, Rajyotsava and the National Award of India.
Even as the 65-year-old Rauf safeguards the traditions, his children MA Bari and MA Basit are reaching out to the new world with their fresh ideas, adapting the ancient designs to the modern sensibilities.
Both college graduates, armed with degrees in science and commerce respectively, Bari and Basit are using the mix of ancient knowledge and modern education to magical effect.
“We have a website and social media pages, which we use as modes of communication as well as platforms to display our work. We also get our orders through the Internet, many from our international patrons. There is a steady demand for the traditional objects, but a lot of our orders constitute paperweight, statutes of a whirling dervish and other modern decorative items,” said MA Bari, who assists his father in continuing their family tradition.
Bari says, he learnt the craft by watching his father work and despite his college degree in science he is keen on working the alchemy of Bidriware.
Young or old, skilled or unskilled, Bidar’s artisans all swear by one thing in unison - the soil of Bidar Fort.
For centuries, the 800-year-old Fort has had a mesmerising effect not the inhabitants of Bidar, but more so on the artisans who have seen the soil literally transform not just the colour of the metal they work with but also their fortunes.
But, these days they are finding the massive walls of the fort insurmountable as the authorities have placed restrictions fearing damage to the heritage structure.
However, the craft community has found ways to skirt the restrictions to lay their hands on the magical soil of Bidar Fort, without which they believe the magic of Bidriware is non-existent!
— Shafaat Shahbandari is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist. He is the founder of Thousand Shades of India, an alternative media platform that celebrates the diversity of India.