Miscellaneous Arts & Crafts of Assam
Assam, the land of Ahoms, has a rich cultural tradition, which finds expression in several arts and crafts. The natural beauty of the state, is said to be reflected, in them.
Dance, music, woodwork, pottery, sitalpati, or the art of mat making have survived through centuries with fewer changes since it remained integrated with the everyday existence of the locals. The advent of modernity, indeed, has brought a change in the lifestyle of the tribals, yet the basic arts and crafts, and their technique of production has not changed much.
Making of wooden articles is a common industry in Assam. The growth of the industry has been favoured by the availability of the main raw material, timber. Assam’s forests are full of valuable trees and as such timber is abundantly available throughout the State.
In the plain districts of Assam, the traditional carpenters who have been the important elements in a village society belong to the community ‘Sutradhar’ and there is mention of this caste in the ‘Vedas’. Since times immemorial their forefathers, from whom the mantle has fallen on them, have been working on wood. Generally, a carpenter earns his living by building houses, manufacturing carts, ploughs, looms, furniture, icons and boats. Occasionally he manufactures and repairs wooden structures such as doors, windows, battens etc. for construction of a house or a bridge.
Yet the indigenous carpenters are few in Assam. Much of the business is run by migrants, who can provide a better look to their products suited to the modern tastes and needs. The majority of indigenous carpenters are lagging behind their fellow carpenters from outside the state.
History and origin: *“The art of wood carving is proved by Bana, who writes that the presents from Bhaskara to Harsavardhana included ‘carved boxes with panels’. (*An abstract from “The History of Civilization of the People of Assam” by Shri P. C. Choudhury, 1959, pp. 374 – 375.)
The Tezpur grant indicates that a large number of boats in the Brahmaputra were carved with beautiful designs and decorated with ornaments. Wood was used for the making of icons, as proved by an icon of Jagannatha in Ksetri in modern Kamrup. Speaking of the various articles of wood, a later source Fathiyah-i-Ibriyah enumerates wooden boxes,stools, trays and chairs which were made from a single piece of wood.
The Forests of Assam were noted for their valuable woods. Epigraphs mention a few of them, viz., sandal wood and agaru, besides others like ‘Vata’ (ficus indica), ‘Asvattha’ (ficus religiosa). ‘Madhurasvattha’, ‘Salmali’, ‘Khadira’ (acacia catechu), etc. These were used for both domestic and religious purposes. Classical writers make important mention of aloe and musk from Assam. We have reference to sandal wood and aloe from Kamarupa as early as the Epics. Kautilya in his ‘Arthasastra’ refers to some best varieties like Jongaka (from Jonga), Dongaka (donga)— both black aloe wood – Grameruka (grameru), Aupaka or Japaka (Japa), and Taurupa, all of which come from Kamarupa”.
Till today, it can be seen in almost every district of the Assam Valley that a few ‘namghars’ or ‘kirtanghars’ (a house where congregational prayers are held by the Hindus) are decorated with fascinating carvings of wood. ‘Kamalabari Satra’ in Jorhat subdivision is noted for its exquisite carvings on wood. On a visit to a ‘namghar’ the first thing which attracts the attention of a visitor is its ‘singhashun’ which is placed at the farthest extremity of the house opposite the main entrance. The mythical animals like ‘garoor, hanuman, nagar and ananta’, also find prominent places inside a namghar. Besides these mythical figures, there can also be found the wood-carvings depicting lions, horses, men, birds, tigers, monkeys, etc. It is also not uncommon to witness a few carvings on the beams and cross beams of namghars which are generally covered with figures of deities and conventional flowers and creepers.
In the Assam Valley, carving was not confined to things in the religious sphere. Carved articles of furniture were also common in the olden days such as paleng, the salpira, the barpira and the karoni. Local craftsmen can also produce carved benches, chairs, thagi or book-rest, stools etc. The finer sense of artistic beauty among the wood workers can also be traced from the manufacture of minor weaving implements like makoo, karhoni, durpati, nasoni, etc., which were generally ornamented with the carving of parrots, peacocks, magars, monkeys and other floral designs. Carved figures of peacocks, parrots, lions and magars are often seen on the ‘dolah’ or palki. Boats were also ornamented with carved floral designs and figures of birds, animals and fishes. Amongst minor bits or carvings are those used in kharams (wooden sandal), gosa or lamp-stands and walking sticks.
The equivalent term for wood carver in the local language is ‘khonikor’. In the sadar sub-division of the district of Sibsagar there is an old village of khonikars known as Khonikargaon. It is reported that during the reign of the Ahom kings, the khonikars of that village rendered services to the Rajahs. In those days the Ahom kings greatly patronised and encouraged the khonikars and their craft in all possible manners.
One can see the continuation of the indigenous tradition of wood working in Assam, though over the last few hundred years new type of artefacts came to be manufactured, some of which had a ritualistic association.
In the district of Sibsagar, some special varieties of wood-works are done by the local village carpenters of which the following deserve special mention. 1.Simhasan :— A structure generally supported by 4 elephants, 24 lions and 7 tigers, kept in a Satra, Namghar or temple for religious purposes.2.Kharai or book rest. It is also known as thagi.3.Images of a few deities and figures of magar, garoor, hanuman, etc.4.Carvings of conventional flowers, creepers, etc, on doors, windows and beams of namghars and satras can also be found. These products are made by the permanent residents of the satra known as ‘bhakat’ (Vaishnavites). In the Cachar district, migrants from former East Pakistan have taken up the manufacture and repair agricultural implements, a few simple-designed furnitures like tables, chairs, bedsteads, etc., and occasionally construct wooden structure of bridges and buildings. Some of the rural craftsman are also found to be proficient in the part of making fishing boats, ferry boats, mar-boats,etc. A few carpenters manufacture smoking pipe (hukanal)—mainly in the village of Kholagram under the Badarpur police station – and ‘kharam’ (wooden sandals) in addition to a few wooden articles required for domestic use.
- Sum suk—pestle and mortar—This is manufactured by local carpenters from ordinary jungle wood for husking of paddy.
- Chawthleng—rice plate—In the interior parts of the district the rice plate is generally made out of ordinary wood so that 2 to 4 persons can take rice from the same plate. The stand to support the plate is also carved out of the same piece of wood
- Thingthutlang—stool—This is also made of wood and used for sitting purpose.
- Dawkhan—table—This is made of wood of good quality.
- Puanbu—loinloom set—Manufactured by local carpenters.
- Hmui—Traditional spinning charkha.
- Herawt—ginning machine—This simple wooden tool is used for cleaning cotton.
Other important wood-craft items include wooden sandals, boats, etc. The timber used for the manufacture of wooden sandals comprises such soft timber species such as jarail, poma, rata, polan etc. To manufacture wooden sandals, timber logs are cut into pieces by village artisans with the help of a big saw. These pieces are then shaped into different flat sizes with the help of axe, adze, wooden planer, etc. The design on these flat pieces are sketched from a wooden mould with a pencil which are chiselled into proper shapes later on. Finally a wooden hook is fixed at the top of the sandal to make it complete. In the case of flat wooden sandals a strip of rubber is fixed at the top.
Different varieties of wooden sandals can be seen in the market and the bulk of them are being produced in the Cachar district.
Wooden sandals are also slowly being replaced by leather or rubber-soled slippers and sandals with the possibility of this petty trade going down as people become more literate and richer.
Also, the demand for boats is uncertain and low, resulting in a small scale of production. Further, it is reported that many families make boats not for sale but for their own uses. As such, the commercial prospect of the industry does not seem to be bright.
Tribal craftsmen used various types of saw, chisel, hammer, plane axe, adze, brace, vice, drill-machine, file, auger, curved chisel, screw drivers, pliers, scale, templets, squares, mallets, levels and clamp, gauges, etc.
Hand saw — Hand saws for general purpose vary in length from 10² to 28² . These are variously shaped and have different sized teeth according to their particular use. The hand saw is used for cutting sized timbers across the grain or in the direction of the grain.
Tenon saw—These have a brass or steel stiffener along the back to keep the blade firm. They vary from 8² to 18² in length. A usefull all-round size has a 12² blade and 12 teeth per inch. The tenon saw is mostly used for cutting small materials and for working on the bench. The saw is normally used in a horizontal direction.
Key hole saw—sometimes called a pad-shaw. The blades range from about 6² to 14² in length. It is usefull in cutting key-hole slots, internal work and often comes to great help for use in restricted spaces.
Jack plane—These planes are 14² or 15² in length and their cutters are about 2² in width, according to their pattern. They are available both in wood and metal. The Jack Plane is used for all planing except for finishing prior to scraping and glass papering.
Smooth plane—The smooth plane is of similar pattern to the jack plane but is smaller in dimensions. It is used for finer finishing or for small jobs where the jack plane would be too big. A few special planes are also available for working grooves, chambers, inlay works, etc.
Chisels—There are a few varieties of chisels most commonly used, viz.firmer chisel,bevel-edge chisel, mortise chisel, solid socket chisel. Among these, the most useful for general work are firmer chisels. The diferent sizes available are 1/4², 3/8², 5/8² and 1².
Mortise chisels are made exceptionally strong to resist the lever action and heavy blows which they are subjected to.
Gauges—these are used for shaping hollow or rounded work.
Brace and Bits—A brace with a set of auger bits and a few centre bits and a counter sink are needed for drilling. Some workers are also found to use hand drills or straight-fluted drills for drilling holes from about 3/8² diameter downwards.
Joiners sash clamps—This device is made of either iron or any other metal. A five-foot long joiner’s clamp is very usefull for the majority of the carpenters. This implement helps the carpenter in making a compact joining of timbers possible.
Miscellaneous Tools—Little need be mentioned about hammers. A heavier claw hammer and a light ball hammer will meet most of the requirements. A bradawl is invaluable for boring holes and a spoke shave can give a finish to curved surfaces. Marking gauges and squares for setting out the work are most essential. Other desirable tools are a pair of pinces, a pair of long-nose pliers, one or two screw drivers and a scraper. One or two files, a cabinet rasp, a grinding stone, an oil stone, a spirit level, mallet and strong pair of compasses are most desirable. A working bench and vice will be of much help to a carpenter to carry out his job efficiently and smoothly.
The artisans generally used only a foot rule (sometimes locally made bamboo measuring device) and a plain wooden marking gauge for the purposes of marking and measuring. Now, they have begun to use other modern tools and implements. And, sadly, except carved wooden icons of Hindu gods and goddesses, many wooden articles are being gradually ousted by more elegant and durable articles imported into the State.
The production of sital pati is purely a household industry. Generally, men prepare the cane slips, while women do the weaving work with few exceptions here and there. The highest concentration of artisans pursuing this craft is noticed only in the district of Cachar. The patikars (mat makers) mostly belong to the Muslim community and also to Hindu refugees from East Pakistan belonging to the Mahesya Das, Mali, Nath and Dhobi castes. The villages renowned for the production of sital pati in Cachar are Katakhal, Kaliganj, Karimpur, Basigram and Sridurgapur. Pati is made from ‘murta’ (clinogyne dichotoma) a plant of the reed family. Unlike reeds of the ‘khag’ variety, it has no joints. Like other reeds, it grows on marshy and water logged areas and is found in abundance in choked up tanks and damp hill slopes.
Process: The manufacture of ‘sital pati’ involves many complicated processes. The most difficult part of it is, the preparation of fine cane slips fit for ‘pati’ weaving. First of all, the canes to be used for obtaining requisite slips are washed in water mixed with some amount of washing soda. After washing, these canes are kept in the open sun for drying. These are then divided into equal halves lengthwise, with the help of a bill-hook. These divided halves are again sub-divided into four splits of equal length and breadth, and the ‘boka’ (soft inside portion) from slips is chopped out with the help of a ‘chip’ (chopping tool). This process is locally known as ‘aushani’ (planing). The next operation known as ‘nawkhani’ (sizing) in which all the pieces of the splits are sized to equal breadths throughout the whole of their length. Weaving of ‘pati’ is generally done in twill or check pattern with slight variations here and there. Colouring of the splits is done by indigenous methods. White (ivory) colour is obtained by boiling the splits in water, wherein other ingredients, such as ‘bhatar phen’ (boiled rice juice), ‘amrapata’ (hibicus safdariffa) and tamarind leaves are mixed. For black colour, the splits packed into bundles are wrapped up with mango barks and kept under the mud for about 7 days. In order to obtain red colour, the cane splits are boiled in water mixed with ‘mezenta’ (a kind of chemical dye-stuff). The different designs produced by the ‘patikars’ of Assam are the following (local nomenclatures) : 1. Fulpata (flower leaves with creepeers), 2. Dalani, 3. Cup-plate, 4. Taj Mahal, 5. Aeroplane, 6. Tree, 7. Birds, etc.