Traveling Begonias

Bringing the world to you one artifact at a time

India

From zero to elephant in four hours

IndiaKate Begonia1 Comment
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Yesterday morning had us headed about 2.5 hours northwest from Hyderabad to a small village called Bidar. This area is famous for a unique metalware comprised of zinc, copper and inlaid silver called Bidriware. It originated in Persia and came to India over 500 years ago.

There are only 6 companies making Bidriware so it's a very specialized craft. The artists work as a team to complete each piece, organized in a casual assembly line. These men are all specialists in what they do, and there are only 180 in the entire country trained in this handicraft.

It all starts with a block comprised of 80% zinc and 20% copper, and it takes 8 steps to complete each piece of Bidriware. We followed the entire process, from raw pieces of metal all the way to the finished product - a beautiful elephant. The 4" elephant took 4 hours to make and included at least 5 craftsmen: molding, design, engraving, inlay, and finishing.

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From this block the general structure is formed through a process of melting down the block and pouring it into the desired mold. The mold is packed with local black soil soured from an ancient fort in Bidar and is said to have special properties integral to making Bidriware. I'm still not sure what makes the soil so special but every single craftsmen will tell you it's an important part of the process.

After tamping it down so the impressions are defined, the molder then creates channels so when he pours the molten zinc/copper mix, it will fill in the desired area.

After a few minutes of cooling time, 'et voilà'! The first step is complete!

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Next the elephant was filed and sanded so no rough edges remained. After that, ammonium chloride is used to oxidize the zinc. This is done at this stage so the engraver can see his design as he etches it.

Next the mold is applied to a wax covered portable workbench of sorts. This keeps the pieces stationary as they are worked on by each artisan. The master designer takes it back and starts doing the deep etching that will become channels for inlaid silver.

And now the inlay pro joins in. First he files down the silver wire to be the appropriate gauge for this project.

After the gauge is perfected, he heats the wire so it's more malleable and begins to hammer the wire into the design.

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After all the silver inlaying is completed, he passes the elephant back to be taken off the wax board and filed again. The "finisher" files until the seams are smooth and then solders the two sides together with a mixture of zinc, tin, and lead.

Ta da! A fully assembled elephant! The elephant now gets filed again and buffed all over...again. Even the oxidization gets buffed off at this stage to ensure a uniformly smooth surface. 

Next the poor dear gets cleaned off with kerosene and then placed into ash to absorb the kerosene until she is completely dry. 

Now for what the craftsmen called "original magic." The finisher takes a bag of local dirt, tastes it for purity (I'm not kidding) and then mixes it with water and ammonium chloride. He then heats the mixture until boiling. And then this happens: 

Yes, this baby took 4 hours to complete but boy was that a satisfying way to end the process! After she comes out of the goo, she gets polished up with coconut oil and now this beautiful piece of art exists in the world. 

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Because of the materials used and the process being so labor intensive, Bidriware is highly prized and somewhat expensive. It's often given as diplomatic gifts (Obama received a Bidriware samovar on a state visit) and the artists take great pride in their workmanship. The team we spent the day with had recently been awarded first place in a local competition for their work. 

I really marvel at what goes into making every single piece. There is no automation involved and no shortcuts taken. I love seeing this ancient process live on with new generations. If you have the opportunity to collect a piece, you should. After a hard days work, I got to take home the elephant. 

Turning a block of wood into a god

IndiaKate BegoniaComment

For our next adventure we took a 1 hour flight south from Bangalore to Thiruvananthapuram (aka, Trivandrum), the capital of the state of Kerala. Since June is monsoon season we were hit with a little rain (which I relished after the past week of sweating). It rains here as much as Portland yet people here have learned to drive in the rain.

In looking into interesting artisans to profile, we discovered that the government of Kerala regulates their handicrafts quite closely to ensure quality and authenticity. Knowing this, my friend sent a written request to the government agency weeks ago for us to view the process and meet the craftsmen but received a non-committal reply. He followed up with repeated phone calls which were met with equally non-committal responses. So we showed up at one of the government-run showrooms and asked to speak directly to the managing director since he alone could grant us permission. We waited about an hour and I guess they realized we were serious. After speaking to layer after layer of management we were finally presented to this very important man. He asked us a few questions, stared at us for what seemed like an eternity over the rim of his glasses until ultimately granting permission. I have no idea what we did or didn't say to convince him. Maybe he just wanted the sweaty American lady out of his office.

The "manufacturing unit" we visited houses woodcutters, brass workers, apprentice and master woodcarvers. The process begins with cutting the chosen wood down to the size needed. This unit works in white pine, rosewood, and sandalwood. In this case they are cutting a block of rosewood.

The workshops are busy and loud but each artisan pays close attention to detail. The facility we visited was carving Hindu gods out of rosewood. There are varying degrees of skill amongst these men, with the master craftsmen being able to actually sit in chairs at a workbench rather than the floor.

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This artist is working on a Ganesh, the god of new beginnings, success, and wisdom. You may recognize him, his elephant form is quite popular.

The chalk outline helps guide them as they carve each piece freehand.

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Seeing this master work on the intricacies of carving Krishna was a thrill. His dexterity and precision was very satisfying to watch.

Krishna is the god of compassion, tenderness, and love in Hinduism. I really think this artist is able to convey those qualities, simply through his expression.

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One of his completed Krishnas, made from white pine is coming home with me.

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The workmanship, patience, and skill impressed me. They spend days, sometimes weeks on a single piece and when you see the sheer amount of these carved gods in the marketplaces, it makes you understand why the government has regulated the handicraft industry so closely. This provides a steady income for the artists while also supporting the community through the tourism economy. 

I don't consider myself very religious but I do love the iconography. From my travels I have collected items from Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Romanian Orthodoxy, and more. I find the icons beautiful and comforting. Seeing the care these craftsmen put into creating them makes them even more special. If you are a lover of Hindu gods and would like me to find an interesting piece for you, please let me know.

In my own home, I have Ganesh featured prominently on my mantle because I'm just really taken with him and what he represents. He is the remover of obstacles and the god of wisdom. And he makes me smile.

Kate in Toyland

IndiaKate BegoniaComment

Today we headed to Channapatna, about 90 minutes from Bangalore. This village is known for the manufacture of wood crafts. Today they were working on toys; the types of toys any parent has seen a hundred times over. The wooden duck your kid pulled around when they were 2? Likely made here. That abacus you paid too much for at Pottery Barn? Quite possibly their product. Spinning tops, key chains, toy instruments...yep, yep, yep. Many of us don't realize when we see something stamped, "Made in India" that in all likelihood someone actually hand made it, they didn't just operate a big machine that spit out identical wooden objects, they actually put elbow grease and artistry into making it.

The site itself is pretty unassuming. In fact I wasn't sure anyone was there when we pulled up.

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Inside, 8-10 men worked in relatively tight quarters on a variety of toys.

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The wood they use is a type of white pine that grows in the area. The men source the wood and bring it to the workshop themselves.

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They each have their own specialty and churn those out.

This man specializes in small boxes which he forms on the lathe and then hand carves detail into each one.

While he does work quickly, each embellishment is unique and precise.

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The colors are added after carving. They use a type of crayon made from vegetable oil that they apply with the lathe which burnishes the color into the wood. This is the red "crayon:"

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The finished products have a similar aesthetic but the details vary by artist.

The best part of today was the realization that our purchases supported these hardworking artists. I hope you guys like the toys and wooden handicrafts I bring back.

Know before you Goa

IndiaKate Begonia1 Comment

A few caveats before I tell you about my Goan adventure. I only spent 12 hours there (well, 16 if you count the 4 hours waiting at the airport due to a flight delay on the way home), so this was not an exhaustive excursion. May is the off-season so many places were closed and though I was promised this was a hippy enclave, I didn't encounter a one! So that was disappointing.

The weather today was hot. And before you presume it was my delicate constitution making me produce sweat-lodge level buckets, my friend who was born and raised here agreed. So there. HOT, I tell you.

The state of Goa is definitely different from the other areas I've been in India. It's very lush and tropical and like the rest of the country, quite crowded in places. The beaches are known for partying so I don't gather it's very kid-friendly. Since Goa was a Portuguese colony until the 1960s, you can still see the influence in the architecture and in some of the food.

One of the places my friend Cherie recommended was Anjuna Market. So we made our way there early yesterday morning. It's very well-hidden, and you have to drive some crazy narrow roads to find it.

Then you have to walk about 1/4 mile down the beach to get to the market entrance. The beach was serene and not crowded at all. It's a nice walk (and it wasn't super hot yet).

Once we got there, we saw that quite a few stalls were closed but enough vendors were there to make it worthwhile to walk around.

The cool thing about the vendors I met is they're peddling wares from all over India. I found some beautiful linens that I'm bringing back and saw some other interesting items.

We also hit another market that has everything from umbrellas to cake. Almost like an old school shopping mall.

After shopping, we toured a cozy, little hotel on Baga Beach called Fiesta Resort. It's right across the street from the beach but you would never know how close it is to the action; it's very quiet inside the grounds. 

And finally, an awesome meal in Colva at Kentuckee Restaurant where we ate freshly caught fish and cooled off with a Kingfisher beer. One of the things Goa is famous for is very high quality cashews. So you see them everywhere and they've even created a liquor! I tried a little sip and it essentially tasted like rum. Not bad stuff! <those pics will be posted in the next few days.>

It was a quick trip but we fit a lot into our time. Can't wait to share all my finds!

Saree, not sorry

IndiaKate Begonia1 Comment

One of the things that struck me on my first trip to south India was how colorful the clothing is. Women of all ages are dressed to the nines in beautiful clothing, some traditional and some more modern, but all looking quite striking.

Those who wear the traditional saree can choose from a variety of fabrics but the most luxurious is the silk saree. Today we ventured out to see how these beautiful garments are made and we got to see most of the supply chain in action in Hindupur (about 2.5 hour drive northwest into the countryside from Bangalore). This is where some of the most exclusive saree shops in India come to buy silks and re-sell in their high-end retail stores for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars.

First the cocoons are harvested and brought to this small factory, and the next step is for the cocoons to be removed from their husks (I have no idea if they're called husks but that's what they look like to me).

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Next the cocoons are added to boiling water to kill the worms living inside (yes, I felt bad for the worms...they worked so hard on their houses!)

Once the worms are boiled to death, the cocoons are dried.

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Now comes a really interesting part. They are put back into water and the cocoons are unraveled. (All that hard work by the worms, undone by humans! Honestly, who ever thought to do this. Innovation is a peculiar thing.)

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After being unravelled, the silk is spooled.

With the spools in hand, they are then separated into skeins for dying. The dying process is unbelievable folks, I'm really not kidding.

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Now yet another painstaking process begins. Over what essentially amounts to an open kiln, a pair of people hand-dye the silk threads. They dip it over and over again for a period of an hour to ensure consistency of color and to create the hues you see in the most beautiful silks here.

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Once dried and re-spooled the new, brightly colored silk thread is delivered to the weaver.

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The weaver uses a loom to make the sarees. Each weaver's loom was different, some being more professional looking than others. But all of the men we met created beautiful masterpieces with silk. (Side note: all the weavers we saw today were men. I'm sure there are women too but I didn't see any in this village.)

The entire neighborhood sounded like this. While it was quite a racket, it was mesmerizing after awhile.

I'll definitely be bringing some of these silks home with me. What an unforgettable day!

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If you have any interest in sarees, or even just the silk, drop me a line!