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A craft struggles to survive — Amid the sights and sounds of Sawantwadi

P. Devarajan

A craftsman works on a wooden rocking horse at Sawantwadi in Maharashtra.

SAWANTWADI (Maharashtra)

FIVE red-tiled roof shops in Chitarli gully and Sawantwadi Lacquerwares run by Rani Satvashiladevi Bhonsle in Sawantwadi town in the Konkan region of Maharashtra are together trying to keep going the famed Sawantwadi woodcraft tradition.

The citizenry is aware of the importance of Chitarli gully, making it easy for an outsider to spot the sloped, 50-foot stretch with five shops in a row on one side sharing roofs and walls. Masks made of papier-mâché, coloured wooden cooking sets for kids and fruit sets for home decoration are the main items on display at the shops, which rarely have a busy clientele.

At the top end of Chitarli gully, 56-year-old Ramdas Chitari runs a shop with most of the items bought from outside. With demand strong for cooking and fruit sets, Chitari and his son make these items from softwood called Pangara. "I am a small player and mostly outsource my supplies," Chitari admits and passes us on to Shivnath Pandurang Kanekar, a big player, with two factories some two km away from Sawantwadi turning out cooking and fruit sets.

Kanekar buys Pangara wood costing about Rs 7,000 to Rs 8,000 per cubic metre and keeps them in the open for an entire monsoon season. The wet wood is left untouched for a year before the artisans take over, carving mangoes and other items for the fruit set.

A coating of shado (a paste of white mud) is applied five times to the raw wood items along with turmeric powder and then sand-papered to rub off the bumps. Then come the water colouring and the lacquering for sheen. Alternatively, spray painting is done which in a way violates the norms of any artistic tradition.

Going by the latest evidence on the subject, lacquerware was introduced in Sawantwadi around the late 17th and early 18th century and falls into three categories.

First is turned lacquerware, in which lacquer is applied on wooden objects turning on a lathe followed by polishing and buffing with kewda leaves. Second is painting of borders and motifs on the surfaces of objects and third is painting of mythological figures on the various surfaces.

For the well-dressed Shivnath Pandurang Kanekar in a brown bush shirt, dark pants and chappals, tradition is not proving to be a business proposition. Watercolours and oil painting, cooking and fruit sets bring in the money even if it cheapens the originals.

Some 10 to 11 men and women work in each of his two factories and earn anything between Rs 1,000 to Rs 4,000 a month. The total labour force in the industry is put at around 100 to 150 while the annual turnover is estimated at around Rs 60 lakh. A cooking set (oil painted) costs Rs 55 while the lacquered set comes to Rs 70. A fruit set with 27 items is priced at Rs 350 while an edited version costs Rs 300.

These days the original paints derived from plants are scarcely used as the plants are difficult to access. In addition, Kanekar makes pats (flat wooden stools) out of amba (mango trees) with coloured designs during Ganapati festival. "The Hindu community in Goa, which is just a few km from Sawantwadi, buy the pats during major festivals," he explains.

"For the time being, business is good as we are able to sell the little produced. In a day a factory makes about six sets of cooking pieces. We do not get foreigners, with most of the clients coming from villages and towns in and around Sawantwadi. We do not even reach Mumbai. And then the craft is dying as the Chitari community is dwindling and the few around are not keen, as they do not see any future. The Government has not done anything," Kanekar adds.

A couple of days ago the five-shop industry saw one of its experts Kamalakar Chitre, an expert in etching Ganjifa playing cards, die of a heart attack; Chitarli gully remained shut for two days. Both Ramdas Chitari and Kanekar admit to Kamalakar being probably the last of the original Chitari artist.

A 20-minute walk away is the Palace where a confident 67-year-old Rani Satvashiladevi Bhonsle is nursing back to life the original, Sawantwadi lacquerware art.

"I am a Gujarati though I am told the Sawant Bhonsle family can trace their origins to the Sisodias of Udaipur," says the gracious lady holding a modern day one-woman durbar in the lawns fronting her palace.

Simply attired in a light-brown cotton saree, brown blouse and heel-less chappals, she sits in a wooden armchair with a table covered with a pink cloth in front. Looking more like actress Leela Naidu, the Rani should have been a beauty when young as at 67 the grace still lingers and tarries on her fair face with eyes sparkling behind glasses. A patina of soft grey hair easily speaks the lineage as the Rani softly places the first question to us. "So what did you see in the market place?"

She listened to our tale, waited for us to finish and then said, "Do you know that 50 per cent of the wooden items in the five shops at Chitarli gully come from Karnataka." We checked out to find the Rani proving to be on the dot.

Over the last 30 years, starting in 1970, the royal family of Sawantwadi has been trying to breathe life into lacquerware art. In the 17th and 18th centuries a large number of learned brahmins from Andhra and Telangana visited Sawantwadi to hold discussions on Dharma Sastras with Rajabahadur Khem Sawant the Third Bhonsle, the then ruler of Sawantwadi.

A pamphlet provided by the Rani speculates: "It is very likely that this craft of lacquerware with all its styles of painting was introduced in Sawantwadi by these learned people, particularly so far as the figure paintings are concerned.

"The floral surface decorations are a style of their own. One sees a happy blend of the Spanish and Portuguese styles mixed with Hindu motifs; many of the floral borders on the older pieces of furniture, which are still in the possession of the ruling family of Sawantwadi, appear almost southern European in their appearance.''

In the 18th and 19th centuries, one Kelkar started a school with artisans from all communities. In the 1930s, His Highness Raja Bahadur Sir Khem Sawant V tried to promote the art and got artisans from Goa who came to be known at Chitrakars or Chitaris. Over time, the famed art got lost in the bazaars, to be identified only by coloured cooking and fruit sets.

In 1959, the ruling family shifted to Belgaum and it was around this time that the Rani and her late husband (Lt. Col. Rajabahadur Shivram Sawant Bhonsle) decided to take some more interest. In 1970 the royal family spotted 80-year-old Pundalik Chitari who had in him the woodcraft.

From Pundalik they developed the Ganjifa art, which is a pack of 120 cards made from cartilage paper with the Dasavatara painted on them.

The stylised Ganjifa paintings can be linked to earlier playing cards made by Mughals.

"Today we have discovered the rules of playing with Ganjifa cards.

Three people can play at a time," says the Rani. One doubts whether anybody plays the game today. The hand-painted Ganjifa cards (Indian motifs) with 120 cards cost Rs 1,500 a set while that with Mughal motifs and 90 cards cost Rs 1,200. A worker placed the cards on the table and the Rani spread them out for us to see.

But Pundalik Chitari was not keen on training members of the Chitari community and got others interested.

Now the tradition is alive with the Rani's Sawantwadi Lacquerware training men and women over a period of time. "I have about 11 trained hands at my place as I do not want to attract the provisions of the Factories Act. Moreover I am not into fruits and cooking sets. We now make old-style hand carved furniture from teak wood and export them as I have many foreign clients. To save space, the furniture is made foldable and there is good demand," the Rani says.

Spread over six acres, there are three palaces, one abandoned, a second where karigars work and a third where the Rani lives alone. G.A. Bua took us into the Durbar Hall of the second palace made entirely of teak.

The Durbar Hall was built in 1881 and designed by Lt. Col. E.P. Gambier. Busts of gaur and tiger stare at the karigars from the walls. A young girl was working on a Ganjifa card as we went around the Durbar Hall, which is puny going by the standards set by kings in Rajasthan.

The Rani employs eight master craftsmen across three units: Sawantwadi Lacquerwares, Sawantwadi Woodworks and Shri Patekar Industries. There does seem to be some conflict between the bazaar and the Palace in Sawantwadi.

The Rani sharply contests the bazaar view of the original art being dead with the Chitari community disappearing. She claims to have brought back the lost artistry and is quite content with the exports of Sawantwadi woodcraft. Yet she is also unsure of the future, as the younger generation is not sold on the idea of making Sawantwadi woodcraft a profitable business.

"I am not for any Government intervention as they make a mess. The art can live only on private efforts," the Rani admits.

For Pandurang Kanekar though, salvation lies in the Government setting up training and designing centres, apart from helping create markets.

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A craft struggles to survive — Amid the sights and sounds of Sawantwadi

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