Once used by royalty, the Bidriware metalcraft has seen a decline in connoisseurs, worsened by the pandemic that has gripped the world.

 Exports hit declining interest Karnatakas Bidriware artisans struggle to earn a livingWikipedia/ Randhirreddy
Features Art Wednesday, March 03, 2021 - 13:40

Karnataka Tourism’s tagline ‘One State, Many Worlds’ encapsulates the essence of the state. With a varied topography, the state also sees variations in culture, arts and crafts. The southern state is celebrated for its wide range of handicrafts that have thrived through the centuries, sustained by renewed efforts to preserve them. Be it the toys of Koppal, sandalwood carvings of Mysuru or the Bidri metal handicraft of Bidar, the royals of the region patronised these crafts, which later found connoisseurs abroad as well. The artefacts earned huge revenues from export and are valued owing to the use of precious metals like silver.

However, Bidri art is sadly on the decline, with the COVID-19 pandemic having adversely affected business and put the artisans in a tough spot. Two Bidri artisans speak to TNM and share the stories of the art’s origin, processing and how they’re struggling to sustain their businesses.

History

Bidri art or Bidriware derives its name from the city of its origin, Bidar, located in the north-eastern part of Karnataka. The craft has an interesting journey that dates back to 500 years. Persian in origin, Bidriware is, however, an indigenous innovation.

“Elders say that 500-600 years ago people from Iran had arrived in Bidar to construct tombs and while working with local artisans, they trained them in the metal craft. The local artisans added their own intricacies to the craft, and the Bahmani king liked it and encouraged it, which is how the art form flourished,” explains Khwaja, a Bidri artisan. He said that the craft was passed from one generation to another over the years and spread far and wide.

Bidriware processing

Khwaja, who has been in the business for 25 years now, said that Bidriware goes through an 8-stage process before it attains its final shape. He says, “We mix zinc and copper to form an alloy of the two. For every kilogram of zinc, we use 60 gm of copper for it to get the perfect black hue. Any inconsistency in the amount of copper can create an imbalance.”

The alloy is then melted in a furnace and poured into an earthen mould, polished, and then silver patterns are carved on the object. “We then dip it in a chemical solution,” adds Khwaja, “to enhance the black of the alloy so that the silver inlay shines brighter.”

Speciality

Ask what makes Bidriware special, and 60-year-old Rauf is quick to reply that it’s the intricate engravings and inlaying. He also points out that it is also the soil of Bidar that makes the art unique. “The soil is important for the art to assume form. The soil is brought from Bidar fort, no other soil will work as perfectly as this one. We taste the soil to determine if it’s fit for use or not,” says the artisan who has been in the business for 52 years.

Generations may pass but Bidriware will not spoil. Even if the sheen is lost, a good rub with coconut oil will rid the metalwork of its impurities and it will look as good as new, says Rauf.

Bidriware can be likened to wine. The artisans say that the older the Bidriware, the higher price it gets sold at.

The pandemic effect

Referring to the COVID-19 pandemic that hit globally, the two artisans say that their business was hit adversely because the major share of their earnings comes from foreign sales. Foreigners buy their art because they value antiques and can afford it, remarks Rauf.

Khwaja believes that the decline in the sale of Bidriware has been very gradual. “When we were kids, many people from foreign countries would come and buy the artefacts, willing to pay the price for the same. Over the last two decades though, this has changed. I rarely receive orders from abroad through my website. With the pandemic, things are looking very bleak, I have lost nearly 90% of my business. It’s a struggle but we’re managing to get by,” he says.

Rauf though believes that if the artisan’s work is good, his business will grow and that artisans can sustain themselves. “Before the pandemic, we used to export our products to European countries and to government handicraft stores like Cauvery Emporium (Karnataka government-run handicraft units). Our business is starting to regain its footing but it’s not as good as it was before the lockdown. We get orders for small items like mirrors or vases because most people have moved to gifting compact home décor items that are cheaper than Bidriware,” he shares.

Fewer artisans

The two artisans, meanwhile, observe that the number of craftsmen creating Bidriware has decreased. Why? The reasons are varied. Lack of business security forces artisans to venture into other fields. Khwaja further opines that the government’s lack of promotion of Bidriware has also resulted in artisans branching out.

“This is the last generation that will create Bidriware, I think,” Khwaja says, adding that there are only 150-160 artisans today in the community.

“We were initiated into the business by our fathers and grandfathers; most artisans are inter-generational. The government needs to create more schemes and promote them proactively for Bidriware to sustain. Artisans also need to survive and with the minimal orders we receive, it is difficult. Depending on the situation, the art may sustain or it may die down,” he says.

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