Bidri Art: Legacy of Medieval Alchemists

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    The majestic Bidar Fort, situated in the Bidar countryside in Karnataka, is a reminder of the glory days of the mighty Bahmani Sultanate, which ruled the Deccan between the 14th and 16th century CE. But, quite literally, buried in the soil of this grand royal capital is the secret of the exquisite Bidriware inlay work that is appreciated across India and even overseas.

    This extremely delicate craft inlays silver, gold or copper on blackened metal, a polished look achieved by artisans who bring a little bit of alchemy to their traditional craft. The craft is an artistic blend of Persian, Turkish and Islamic cultures mixed with local influences, which gives it its unique style.

    It is believed that Sultan Ahmed Shah Bahmani (r. 1422 – 1436 CE) brought in Abdullah Bin Kaiser, a famous craftsman from Iran, to decorate the royal palaces and courts in Bidar. The Sultan then brought in an equally talented local goldsmith, who created ‘Bidriware’. During the reign of Sultan Ahmed Shah Bahmani, the settlement of Bidar grew into a great centre for artisans and culture.

    For generations, Bidri work has been practiced by artisans in Bidar and later in Hyderabad, where they continue this crafts legacy.

    Inspiration for the Craft

    The Bahmanis were the first Islamic dynasty of the Deccan. When they established their base here in 1347 CE, they heralded a new era of cultural influences that gave rise to a unique style – Deccani. This was reflected in the architecture, crafts and arts of the time.

    The first capital of the Bahmanis was Gulbarga (in present-day Karnataka), after which they moved to Bidar in the early 15th century CE. It was in Bidar that the arts really prospered under their patronage. You can see it in the impressive Bidar Fort, which boasts over 30 monuments including beautiful madrasas, mosques, pavilions and archways. Bidar fort was built by Ahmad Shah Wali Bahman and renovated in the 15th century CE by Sultan Ahmad Shah I when he shifted his capital from Gulbarga to Bidar. Bidriware appears to have borrowed its delicate designs from the motifs on the spectacular buildings inside the Bidar Fort and elsewhere in the region.

    These geometric and floral motifs can be seen on intricate wood carvings on pillars and coloured tile work in the Rangeen Mahal built by Ali Barid Shah, the third ruler of the Barid Shahi dynasty. The interior of the Rangeen Mahal also has remarkable mother-of-pearl inlay work with Persian calligraphy. It is easy to see how it was an inspiration for Bidri art. Verses from the Quran, used as embellishments on Bidriware, can be seen on the frescoes of Islamic calligraphy on the madrasa of Mahamud Gawan, a vazir or Prime Minister in the Bahmani Sultanate who was from Persia.

    The designs and patterns of Bidri art also seem to be inspired by wall paintings inside the Bahmani tombs of Ashtur on the outskirts of Bidar, particularly those inside the tomb of Sultan Ahmad Wali Shah, the walls of which create an illusion of being draped in Persian carpets. The edges of the arches in the tombs have engraved designs on black stone, which are reminiscent of the engraving process used in Bidriware.

    Chaukhandi, the tomb of Hazrat Khalil-Ullah, spiritual advisor of Sultan Ahmed Shah, is a crown-shaped monument embellished in magnificent Persian calligraphy and carvings on black stone, which are also similar to the art of Bidri.

    Bidriware: The Process

    Technically known as ‘encrusted metalware’, the making of Bidriware is a skillful but time-consuming process. The first step involves the moulding of metal into the shape of the object being made, say, a vase or a box. The object is then smoothened and patterns are etched on it with chisels. These engravings can take time depending on the intricacy of the designs.

    After this, pure silver sheets or wires are used for inlaying. This is then smoothened and buffed. Bidriware’s signature black color is introduced in the final stage. Bidri workers tell us that they still use the highly acidic soil available only within the Bidar Fort to ensure the oxidisation of Bidriware. This gives the products their distinctive black colour. Each of these processes is done by hand.

    The material used in Bidriware is unique. An alloy of 90 per cent zinc and 10 per cent copper is used for the base. A mould of the desired shape is created from the Bidar soil, which is made malleable by adding castor oil and resin. The molten alloy is then poured into this mould to obtain a cast piece. The article is then smoothened by filing and copper sulphate is applied to the surface for a temporary black coating, on which the designs are etched, free-hand.

    Bidri work is of two kinds. One, where silver wire is used to fill in the intricate designs engraved onto the metal, using a sharp chisel and a hammer. In the second kind, silver sheets are carefully inlaid. The inlay work using silver wires is known as Tarkashi, while inlaying with metal sheets is called Taihnishan. The most intricate designs are called Mehtabi Kaam, where the surfaces are reversible. The design is cut out in sheet metal and inlaid. Munnavat Kari is the name given to embossed design work. The objects are then smoothened by buffing until they acquire a perfect sheen. The surface is then polished with coconut oil to deepen the black coating.

    The magic of the Bidar soil, which gives Bidri art its unique flair, has spawned many theories. It is said that this special soil is collected from specific parts of the Bidar Fort, and has not been exposed to sunlight or rain for years, giving it its oxidising properties. Some artisans also believe that the part of the fort from where the soil is brought was once a mine and, therefore, metal extracts in the soil make it unique.

    The quality of the Bidar soil is crucial and it is even tasted by artisans for testing. The soil is then mixed with ammonium chloride and made into a paste called Navasaram, which is rubbed onto the article. This gives the base metal its striking black colour, leaving the silver inlay work untouched and glistening.

    Traditional designs like flowers, known as Asharfi ki booti, leaves, creepers and vines, geometric designs, and stylised poppy plants with flowers are well known in Bidriware. There is a great demand from across the world for patterns like Persian roses and calligraphy of passages from the Quran in the Arabic script.

    Traditional Bidriware products include hookahs, Aftaba (floral) vases, Surahi (wine containers), Muqabas (containers with dome-shaped lids), bedposts and Mir-e-farsh (weights to hold down floor coverings). Modern products include key chains, office stationery, figurines, ashtrays, jewellery boxes and even USB drive covers.

    Mohammad Shafiuddin has been practicing Bidri art for around 30 years, a craft passed on to him by his grandparents. He says there is no dearth of demand for the art but the painstaking process has deterred the younger generation from learning this art form.

    Bidri Art: How It Travelled

    Bidar remained under the Barid Shahi dynasty until 1619. Aurangzeb (r. 1658 – 1707 CE) was appointed as the Prince of Deccan by his father, Emperor Shah Jahan and the Bidar region fell to the Mughals when he laid siege to the city and captured its fort in 1656 CE. Sidi Marjan, the governor of the fortress defended it with 1,000 cavalry and 4,000 infantry but was defeated by Aurangzeb’s army. Bidar was captured by the Mughals and it remained in Mughal control till the middle of the 18th century.

    The Mughal influence is seen in some of the designs in the fort, especially in the ‘Mughal poppy flower motif’ said to be the most beautiful and most popular motif used in Bidri work.

    From the early 18th century to the mid-20th century, the Bidri industry flourished under the Asaf Jahi rulers in the princely state of Hyderabad. Many artisans from Bidar migrated to Hyderabad, which was the new capital of the Deccan. However, the 19th century saw a decline in the standards of the craft, deteriorating quality of inlay work, and repetitive shapes and patterns in Bidriware.

    Click here to find our Jewel Box

    Today, barely 150 artisans practice the art in Bidar, mostly in the quarters made in the Bidri colony (a neighbourhood where the artisans of Bidri art are based), while there are only 20-25 artisans in Hyderabad. There are a few cooperatives, government and non-government groups working towards the revival of this craft form.

    One of these initiatives is the digital platform, Peepul Tree, which brings you stunning pieces of Bidri art embellished with the delicate motifs seen on the Bidar Fort, the Rangeen Mahal in particular. Available also are beautiful silver inlay boxes and bangles, which come from award-winning artisans, Mohammad Kareemuddin and Mohammad Shafiuddin, who are taking a family legacy in this medieval craft forward.

    Bidri is a lasting legacy of the Bahamani era. You can now own this exclusive piece of artwork on Peepul Tree.

    If you enjoyed this article, you will love LHI Circle - your Digital Gateway to the Best of India's history and heritage. You can enjoy our virtual tours to the must-see sites across India, meet leading historians and best-selling authors, and enjoy tours of the top museums across the world. Join LHI Circle here

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