The East Indian state of Odisha is a treasure trove of artworks and handicrafts. It is blessed with abundant mountains and mineral resources, and 1/4th of the state’s population are indigenous mountain tribes. This time, I went around visiting the workshops of the artisans.
Cuttack, a major city in Orissa, is located around 30 km North of Bhubaneshwar and is famous for its silver filigree. Silver filigree, known as Tarakasi in the local language, is called silver wire work in Japan.
The calm rivers, Mahanadi and Kathajodi. Cuttack is on a sandbank that is caught between large rivers to the North and South. Until the capital was moved to Bhubaneshwar in 1948, this vicinity as a whole was growing as the metropolis. It is said that technique of silver filigree was introduced and established during the period of the Islamic Mughal Empire’s rule.
I was able to meet a silver filigree artisan through the introduction of Mudra Foundation, an NPO based in Bhubaneshwar.
Watching the evening sky gradually darken, I headed towards Cuttack. My meeting was at 6 in the evening. Anan, the artisan’s son, was kind enough to meet us at the Chandi temple. I am told that the road from here is so narrow that only bikes can enter, and am asked to get on the back of the bike. He says it is close by.
The older city is complicated; we cross cattle and people on narrow roads, with mounds of garbage on vacant land. The house was to the left as soon as we entered the alley, escaping the commotion. The houses were close together in the crowded residential area. It was a colourful house painted primarily light blue. It seems that his father was using the innermost room as a workshop. Having placed a desk in the space of about 3 Tatami mats, he was sitting with his legs folded.
The Artisan’s name was Garesh Saha. His calm and extremely gentle eyes were impressive. He says he has been doing this for over 46 years and now has 20 apprentices.
The origin of silver filigree can be traced back to ancient Egypt, 2500 BCE. Silver is drawn into a wire and the wire is shaped into objects. Instead of casting by means of a mould, using hands and tools to shape fine silver wire little by little is the skill of silver filigree.
I ask if I can take a picture of what he’s going to show us today. I got an OK, and he made something for us. “Watch as I make a flower shape.”
It is said that the process originally starts with melting a lump of silver and shaping it into a linear wire. At this time, since there was already a long, narrow flat wire, he used that to make it and show us.
First, he lights the flame to heat the silver, which he shapes as he goes along. He bends it placing curves at regular intervals.
Using the tip of the narrow pliers shown above, he makes the shape of the flower, stretches the wire out, and then applies the flame. Using pliers to connect the gaps by pinching them together, he then completes the shape of the flower.
When he has made the shape of the flower, he places a circle at the centre. Dipping it in water with a white solid like quicklime (the chemical he mentioned was probably borax) mixed into it, he places a plate on the outline and binds it, applying the flame to make it harden. The plate is removed afterwards and the form of the flower is completed. It has been 15 minutes so far.
Holding an air pipe like a bent straw in his mouth , he applies the fire coming out of the burner. His technique made the movements look fluid. Moreover, I was surprised by the nimbleness and accuracy with which he bent the petals in order at equal distances.
After he showed us his current creation, there were many more things that were made in the design similar to lace mesh. They were all manually done. “Your eyes are amazing. They are too delicate for us to see” I said, and Mr. Garesh smiled pleasantly.
“We live in impoverished circumstances. It is getting difficult to make a living from Indian traditional crafts.” I asked if he liked this work and if he enjoyed doing it. “Long ago, when I started, I used to enjoy it as something like a hobby, But now I make silver jewellery for my livelihood. I guess I can’t say that I enjoy it. This work is cheap in spite of it taking a lot of time.”
To illustrate, I had him tell me the time that each respective design took till now. For reference, I will list the artisan’s selling price and the market rate. ***
◆ Flower brooch, made to order from Dubai (picture at the beginning of the article, left) : 12 hours, artisan’s selling price Rs. 1500, Dubai market rate Rs. 5000
◆ Pendant head shaped like a hat (picture above, rightmost) : 7 hours, artisan’s selling price Rs. 600 Indian market rate 3 to 5 times
◆ Leaf pendant head (picture above, second from right) : 3 hours, artisan’s selling price Rs. 150, Indian market rate 3 to 5 times
(When this article was written, 1 INR was approximately 1.7 JPY.)
In addition to the time mentioned above, each takes its own time for the finishing. When I said I wanted to purchase around 3 of them as samples, he said “It’ll take about 30 minutes, is that alright?” and did the finishing right there.
Silver, polished till it sparkles. Staining my eyes, I look closely at the art created by his hands. An excessively condensed volume of information on manual skill. The technique and history that has been transmitted in the region for over 500 years shows through.
The designs he painted were traditional motifs like the peacock bird, flowers, or classical patterns such as vines made into motifs.
Proposing designs that one thinks people might want in modern times where trends change quickly, and branding them in a way that differentiates handcrafted and machine-made commodities is a talent different from craft.
Although the handcrafted ornaments fascinate people with their fine technique, they are being forced to compete in the same market arena as items like cheap jewellery, and crude machine-made silver filigree.
Finally, when I asked, “Can you collaborate with jewellery designers from abroad?”, he said “Welcome!”
Images | Text : Yoko Kobayashi (translated by Aumurto Chaudhury)
Cuttack / Silver Filigree
Name : Mr. Garesh Saha
Landmark : Maa Cuttack Chandi Temple
※ We have placed the samples of the hat-shaped and leaf pendant heads in our Bengaluru office. People who wish to see the originals may please enquire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information provided by Mudra Foundation