In Saharanpur, art of woodwork thrives as artisans embrace international designs, digital business methods

Devyani Nighoskar

Wahid was feeling particularly restless the day he decided to come back to India. The 51-year-old woodcarver, having spent 25 years of his life creating furniture for the king of Bahrain, dreamed of starting a woodcraft business at a time when he could have been working towards a retirement plan. With enough expertise, Wahid returned to Saharanpur €" the place where he was born and grew up. He found his way back to the same old lanes where he was first introduced to woodcarving.

These lanes are where I find myself one winter afternoon. Khata Kheri is buzzing with the cacophony of cutting and drilling machines. The air is heavy with sawdust, the narrow streets are bustling with hawkers and buyers. Roadsides are dotted with huge wooden logs. The only colour in the otherwise bleak and brown landscape is of the vibrant signages of each workshop, highlighting the services they provide. Looking at woodcarvers and carpenters hard at work in each of these shops, Khata Kheri feels like an artisanal village buried deep inside the small, industrial town of Saharanpur in western Uttar Pradesh. Notorious for its caste-based riots and communal violence, a few are aware that Saharanpur is also known as the 'wood carving city of India' and is home to almost 1,50,000 artisans. With the industry pegged at Rs 400 crores, these wooden handicrafts travel from tiny workshops to plush showrooms in the country and are exported throughout the world.

Khata Kheri has many hardware shops that sells tools required for woodcarving

Khata Kheri has many hardware shops that sells tools required for woodcarving. All photographs by the author

One such workshop belongs to Wahid. He runs it with his younger brother, Abdul Gaffal (42). Like many other kaarigars in Khata Kheri, both brothers started learning woodcarving in their teenage years. But unlike most art forms in the country, woodcarving in Saharanpur is not a family craft passed on through generations. "Earlier, all boys who were disinterested in studies would be advised to take this up," says Wahid, whose father was the principal of a local school. "We were taught by 'Ustaads', the master craftsmen, and today, Inshallah, we have risen to that position too," adds Abdul. This industry takes the relationship between the Ustaad and the student quite seriously. I realise this when Wahid introduces me to his Ustaad, Mohammad Imran.

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Mohammad Imran has been practising the craft for years, but says that he doesn't really do it out of passion. It is the only skill he has

Mohammad Imraan is an old man in his 60s. Sitting cross-legged at the door of his tiny workshop, he is sketching a design on a white chart that he will later stick on the wood and carve. Dressed in a pink striped shirt and grey pants, his fingers move almost mechanically on the sheet as he completes a beautiful design for the facade of a bed without using scales. "I have been doing this for many years. I started off by making those huge partition dividers, like many other shops in the vicinity," he says, stroking his white beard.

However, the history of woodcarving in Saharanpur dates back much earlier than the making of these dividers. It was reportedly Bahul Lodi who settled some Afghani artisans at the outskirts of Saharanpur in the 15th century. Today, this area makes up for not just Khata Kheri but also Lakdi Bazaar where some of the finished items like exquisitely carved furniture, toys, objects such as boxes, lamps and lanterns are sold. But traces of Saharanpur wooden work can be found everywhere €" right from Rajasthan's beautiful heritage doors to Bahrain's king's furniture, and to wooden toys manufactured by brands, and furniture showrooms across the world.

It's not just the quality of wood that is superior (most use sheesham wood), but the finely detailed handwork of the wood carvers that distinguishes Saharanpur's woodcarvers from the others.

"They are unique, calculative and have a certain fineness, mastered over generations," states Parvez Alaam, who has been a woodcarver since the last 15 years. Working under Mohammad Maqim, a biggie in the industry, he tells me how he loved the subject of art, even though he drooped out of school after Class Five. "I would draw trees and flowers and leaves," he adds, leaning over a piece of wood with a chisel.

In fact, the design in Saharanpur woodwork features largely natural motifs €" trees, flowers, creepers and their signature style, leaves. "We use it in abundance in our designs and twist and turn it to give it different styles," says Maqim, who is busy making a design on paper subtly grooving to the music blasting from his earphones. A manufacturer of wooden furniture, he works on orders that he gets from all over the country. His primary job is designing.

Barring Jumma (Friday), the artisans are expected to work every single day

But while getting the designs right on paper is one man's job, to deliver a final wooden product requires teamwork that one can see demonstrated in the labyrinthine lanes in Khata Kheri. The products are finished in various units dedicated to woodcutting, woodturning, polishing and carpentry.

Perhaps that's what lends a sense of charm to Saharanpur's wood items. But the craft has changed considerably from the olden days. That is what Abdul Malik, a 70-year-old woodturner, believes. Having worked in Khata Kheri since the age of 16, the frail, wrinkled man sits on his haunches under the soft glow of a bulb, sipping a cup of chai. He is instructing a young man on turning on the wood lathe machine, thinking of the days when woodturning had to be done by hand. "What takes a couple of hours today, used to take days, but the labour reflected in the finished product. Haath ki bani cheez ki baat hi kuch aur hai. (Handmade objects have a different charm)," he says. Malik comes to the turning unit, every day. "It's my passion, the reason that I was able to educate my children. Today, one of my sons is a doctor, the other a computer designer," he adds.

Woodwork is a respectable job in Saharanpur, but the younger generation is migrating to bigger cities for better work and educational opportunities. "Why should they do this backbreaking work, if there are better prospects," questions Malik. However, not everyone thinks this way. Some youngsters have recognised the potential this art carries and have found innovative ways to expand it. 20-year-old Sameer Malik, who recently took over his father's woodcraft manufacturing business, has taken its presence online and has started getting orders from Germany, Finland and the Middle East. Dressed in a swanky jacket and denim jeans, he says that he is constantly looking at foreign designs online and showing them to artisans employed under him so that they can be inspired by something new and unique. "We did an Italian design some time ago and it became a hit. Now some customers search such designs online, which we imitate," he states. The annual turnover of his business is close to 10 lakh.

Two other youngsters making similar progress are the carpenter-carver duo in their 30s €" Bhola Bhai and Mohammad Nasir. Having spent most of their lives making wooden furniture in Khata Kheri, they entered the big leagues after they took their craft to the city of dreams. Now the duo claims to have designed and produced furniture for Karan Johar's film Dostana and for Genelia D'Souza's house, and worked for Twinkle Khanna's interior design company. "Go to Mahim market and ask anyone about Bhola. They all know me," Bhola Bhai states proudly. The duo shuffle between Saharanpur and Mumbai. The former keeps their art intact, the latter keep the money flowing.

Saharanpur's woodcraft industry is a flourishing one. Unlike other art forms in the country, it's not anticipating an unfortunate death. The demand has been constant, so has their hard work and innovation, despite many challenges. The 10-hour work shift, 6-days-a-week, on the floor job requires them to be bent over at most times, putting a lot of strain on the necks and backs. Working without safety equipment like masks or shades means that the sawdust often ends up in their eyes or their lungs, which cause irritation and infections. They usually eat jaggery to keep their throats clear, but would still end up with problems like poor eyesight.

Manufacturers, owners and even the government remain apathetic towards these kaarigars. Most claim that the industry was severely affected by demonetisation. "People here are not educated and do not understand digital payment. Moreover, the items we deal in, are desires, not needs. Thus the demand went down drastically," recalls Sameer. But the worst time was the Dalit-Thakur riots in the city in May 2017 which brought a 10-day-internet shutdown, affecting orders, payments and salaries, almost bringing the entire industry to a standstill.

But the wood carvers of Saharanpur are determined to keep working amid adversity. They neither have any hopes nor any expectations from governments or NGOs. "We believe in self-sufficiency. That is how we have made a name for ourselves," states Wahid. The name of his workshop is 'Iqra' which is also his brother's daughter's name. But the irony is that there are no 'daughters' in the workshop or any part of Khata Kheri. "We do not allow our women to work. There are no women in Khata Kheri," Wahid says sternly.

Their religious identity (much of the woodcraft industry is Muslim) has given them their own corner in the town, but they admit that religion has never gotten in the way of their business. They simply do not have the time to grapple with issues of character and identity. Their priority is their work. Balancing their artistic instict and business acumen has been an innate struggle. But this is something they continue to work on in their tiny workshops in Khata Kheri as they create world-class wooden crafts that travel the world, on their behalf.

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