WALNUT WOOD CARVING IS A UNIQUE FORM OF HANDICRAFT FROM KASHMIR.
Kashmir is a place where walnut trees are still abundantly available. These trees grow at an altitude of 5500-7500 feet
above the sea level. This is the main reason why Kashmir holds this beautiful craft of walnut wood carving for so long.
Let’s have a little peek into history…
It was back in the 15th century…I know what you are thinking “such an ancient thing and I’ve never heard of it
even once!! Believe me, this was exactly what I thought when I came across this one. The thing is…No, I’ll first finish the history and get back to this.
So, it was back in the 15th century, when the valley was under the rule of Zainul Abideen, who was, just like any other rulers, an art enthusiast. These rulers out there go to any extent for art. Sometimes it sounds crazy to hear that they spend loads of gold on a single piece of artwork.
In fact, that is an advantage for the skilled artisans. It makes their lives much easier. They get respect and love and multiple opportunities for showcasing their talent. And also they make their living through this and support their families. So yeah, I appreciate their enthusiasm for good. But I entertain none like the one who did the worst with the artisans of the Taj Mahal!
So, this Emperor, Zainul Abideen, was highly fond of palaces and furniture and other luxury items. He made his
Rajdhani a beautiful place that had so many eye wandering buildings. This is when, Sheikh Hamza Makhdoom enters, introducing this new art of walnut wood carving to the Kashmiris.
Shah Zainul Abideen was a ruler who considered the prosperity and flourishing of the state. As someone who is fond of art and art forms, he could foresee the heights that this new craft will conquer. Hamza did a very good job taking the responsibility of spreading the craft and reaching out to traders from across the world.
USAGE OF WALNUT WOOD
The people of the valley embraced this art and Kashmir filled up with buildings furnished and decorated with the
products of walnut wood carving. Shah Zainul Abideen made his palaces and forts fill with walnut wood carving
craft. At that time this craft was only used for building purposes.
USE IN MODERN DAYS
Fast forward to the recent centuries, this handicraft is done on several things like bowls, trays, cigarette boxes, wall plaques, table lamps, screens, Bedsteads, large and small furniture, and what not! I believe it would be nice to add some of those walnut wood carving masterpiece buildings that have survived till now and stand as the pride of those times.
There are shrines and mausoleums etc. that have survived. The shrines of Noor-ud-din-Wali, Charar-e-Sharif are one of them. Then there is the Naqshbandi mosque and the shrine of Nund Rishi too without much structural damage caused.
WALNUT WOOD CARVING OF KASHMIR
The art of walnut wood carving is unique to Kashmir due to the high abundance of walnut trees. The local Kashmiris call the trees by the name Doon Kul. I like to use local names for everything to get used to the names but I’m not sure it goes well with everyone. So I’m just going to have to go with the English names instead.
THE ROLE OF THE GOVERNMENT
Kashmir is the place where walnut trees are still growing in such a thick quantity. Walnut carving is protected
under the (GI) of the TRIPS agreement. ‘Kashmir walnut wood carving’ is the 182nd item of the GI Act 1999 of
the Government of India. The registration of this item is confirmed by the Controller General of Patents Designs
and Trademark. That’s obviously a good thing because otherwise, we know the corporates are going to have
their dirty games there. They’ll go around exploiting the local people for the goods and mostly they will not pay justifiable remuneration for their works.
THE AGING PROCESS
Even though these are the highlights there are some more things that add up to this. Kashmir is undoubtedly the place with abundant growth of walnut trees but…that is a big but. The trees required for this craft are cut when they are 300 years old. This doesn’t go well with the cultivation time of the walnut farms and 300 years means more than 3 generations people!! So the people who tend to lose their legacies lose their artistic roots too. I can make it simpler to understand. If you are left with an ancestral legacy that you don’t prefer to hold onto then you are either going to sell it or do it half-heartedly and ruin it! This happens a lot with these walnut trees.
COST OF WOOD
Another matter is the scary high price of this wood. It’s 4000 per plank people! 4000 can you believe it? Even if you believe it, can you afford it? So this explains why you or I haven’t heard of (I earlier left this untold in the history section) this beautiful handicraft all these times. Now the only thing we can do is to get to know more about these trees. When we learn about new things make sure we keep our hearts open. And here we start with the raw material itself.
THE WALNUT WOOD
As the name of the craft itself suggests, the raw material used for it is the walnut wood. I’ve already mentioned
before that the trees are only considered mature enough for the craft when they are a 300-year-old. Now you
have to know that the wood can be taken from the trunk as well as the roots. Then there are branches too. The
branches have a lighter color than the roots and the trunk. The roots are the darkest part and also the
This is the local way of determining the strength of the wood. As the roots are the strongest the
demand for them increases and hence the price too goes up. The wood from these trees have closed grains.
They are hard, they are durable and so the products will definitely last longer.
Another thing you need to know about this wood is it’s even texture. It might amaze you that after carving the
wood doesn’t need to be highly polished for the finishing. It has got a natural lustre that is wonderful and looks
very satisfying to the eyes. Also the even texture of the walnut wood helps in carving new designs onto it.
I’ve already mentioned the abundance of Doon Kul in Kashmir. Let’s see what are the varieties of Doon Kul.
- Wantu/Vont Dun
The wood cut from the trees cannot be directly used in crafting the masterpieces. They need to be seasoned for at least 1-4 years before putting into work.
Doon Kul is massively cut and piled in a one-over-one fashion. This facilitates the airflow through the gaps which in return supports seasoning. The wood is dated in order to avoid miscalculations. This process can actually be seen at any local wood mills. It is said that when this seasoning takes place in the shade, it is better but few artisans don’t take care of that and as a result, it affects the wood quality. Like I said earlier, the seasoning takes a lot of years (1-4) and after that, the real thing starts…the carving step.
Naqqashi means art in English. The Naqqash or master carver collects the seasoned wood from the provider and gets into work. I’ll make it as simple as possible. The naqqash draws the pattern on the wooden plank with a pencil or delicately carves the pattern onto the wood with a sharp tool. Now he works on carving with a chisel tool and a wooden mallet. It is done in a way so that the pattern protrudes out of the surface of the wood. Using the tools the areas that don’t need to stand out are removed. This requires a lot of experience and skill and passion along with the traditional techniques.
The other necessary tools are:
- Chisels/wathlavun (of various size and shape)
- measuring tape/phet gaz
- L-Scales/khari hat(gives parallel and perpendicular lines)
- Wooden scale/khat chhal
The style of carving varies according to naqqash’s idea of the product. There are 5 main styles ofcarving identified so far
Worked as layers up to seven. Gives a three-dimensional effect to the motifs or patterns.
e.g.: a jungle with layers of flora, intertwined, rabbits hopping from bushes, birds flying
- Open or Latticework/Jalidahr:-
Worked on screens. A type of see-through jali work is used.
e.g.: Chinar leaf motifs and Mogul jali pattern
- Deep carving/Vibravet: Dragon and Lotus motifs are carved with greater depth.
This work is raised as the motifs are raised from the surface by 5 inches at most.
- Semi carving/Padri:-
There will be a central motif and thin panels along the rim of the plank.
- Shallow carving/Sadikaam:-
The artisan simply chases through motifs/patterns of the carved lines with a pencil. This gives depth to the designs.
• The motifs used in walnut wood carving are mostly repeated patterns. These naqqashs traditionally learn from their masters. They come from the nature of Kashmir and the beauty it holds.
- Chinar leaves
- Vine leaves
- Branches of grapes
Kashmir’s special wood carving, Khatam-Band is wholly composed of geometrical patterns carved on the borders or covering the complete space. Another interesting motif used in wood carving comes from the Kashmiri embroidered shawl and Kani shawls. The Dragon motifs that are used there are carved as deep reliefs turns out into an excellent artwork. These traditional motifs are followed by generations the most recent of these artifacts have seen to be having contemporary designs as well as Arabian design. The fact that the artisans are experimenting on this treasured art is an appreciable step and it will also increase the reach of the products.
After carving, the art pieces are polished slightly with wax or lacquer. The inbuilt sheen of the walnut wood enhances the look of the product. In Fact, the piece looks attractive even without the polishing because of the natural luster the wood has got, but for the preservation of the wood and durability reasons, it has to be done anyways.
The finished product will never fail to make our eyes go big with its delicate intricate and excellent craftsmanship. These art pieces are high in demand in the export markets. Now I am going to let you know something really breath-taking.
The price…every hard work needs to get paid and no matter how much we pay for these amazing pieces of art it will never be more. So the price ranges from 50000 rupees to 400000 rupees and still to go depending on the product and the type of Naqqashi being used.
That is all I have in my knowledge about this artifact. And as a matter of fact, for this art to grow and prosper trees are cut. Yes, the TREES are CUT! Now before you start whining, being an environmentalist spare a little more time and read ahead.
For the many trees that are cut, new trees are planted once in a while.
Even though the art went through a phase of getting erased due to this tree planting and maintaining issue, things are much better now as there are supports and offers coming in from various places. And I can’t fail to mention those passionate artisans who held on to the art even when it was hard to go on.
They have to work hard before a masterpiece gets ready as a product but due to the downfall in demands, they get absolutely nothing from this art. It takes two days to several weeks to finish a single piece depending on its intricacy. But still, they said they wanted this art to remain on the Earth and they’ll strive for that.
I’ve mentioned earlier, these trees are cultivated for the sole purpose of obtaining wood and of course the fruit. I am sure you all are walnut lovers…I am one too!
WALNUT WOOD AND FOREST
So what I am implying is that asking this art to clear out because it entertains deforestation is not a brilliant move. And
come on we are talking about Kashmir where there are fewer chances of forest clearance and all because every
family there owns a farm. It is as if a necessity to have farms and maintain them. Also, Kashmir has so far not reported having any environmental hazards. The glacier melting thing is an aftereffect of us being insensitive not their love for art and tradition. So let’s appreciate this art and the artists over there for good.
This writing is actually a post-study article that I’ve written after going through the available information on the Walnut wood carving of Kashmir. I have tried to bring in every information possible about this art that was dying and now as a result of the will power and dedication of the Kashmiri naqqashs the art is back to life. There are many support systems coming forward for the uplifting of this art. The Indian Government and the Kashmir Government are honoring the master artisans of Kashmir who
struggled along with the art.
A WAY FORWARD
This rebirth or healing has done a lot to the art like the artisans are ready to experiment with new horizons with this art. They are inventing new ways of implementing this art into the contemporary design culture. The traditional recurrent motifs are now getting improvised to modern lifestyle designs and products. With the help of this article, the readers will be able to get the
information on walnut wood carving that is barely mentioned anywhere and gets attention. Through this I’ve tried to put forward the importance of embracing and protecting the culture and tradition with love and passion and also the relevance of the uplifting of arts like this as the current situation calls for the need for indigenous marketing.