Art of Wood Carving
Wood carving is one of the oldest arts of mankind, wood being derived from trees. Wood carving is also a part of ornate architecture. Figure-work seems to have been universal. To carve a figure in wood is more difficult than sculpting with marble or stone, owing to wood tending to crack easily, to be damaged by insects, or to suffer from changes in the atmosphere. The work is slow and requires consummate skill. But in spite of this it has been sculpted on since yore. It seems to have started as a temple and palace craft which flourished alongside architecture and sculpture.
Wood Carving in India
Wood carving is an ancient art of India. Though traditionally wood has been used for making home posts, rafters, yokes, ploughs, toys, planks, furniture among others, India has seen wood carving since yore. Emperor Ashoka’s palace at Pataliputra was made in wood, and the grand temple at Bodh Gaya as well. The carvers of Madurai, Tamil Nadu, known as asaris, claim to be direct descendants of Vishwakarma, the celestial architect.
The 'sutradhar' at work
In ancient India, the wood-worker made war chariots in addition to furniture, doors and panels. The Rigveda mentions the wood-worker as sutradhar and who was also the charioteer of the chariot made by him. Temple cars of South India have exquisite woodwork. Due to the perishable nature of wood, many treasures have been lost over time. Many regions of India have produced excellent works of art in wood. The main woods used for carving and making ornate furniture in India include teak, Blackwood, East Indian walnut, rosewood, sandalwood, mahogany, ebony, mango and neem. Texts like Brihatsamhita, Vishnudharmottaram and Viswakarmaprakasha give details on selection of woods for making images of deities and designing ornate furniture.
A craft across regions
The North has Kashmir’s exquisite work in walnut. Gujarat and Rajasthan have beautiful woodwork in temples and palaces. Also wood carving of Saharanpur, Aligarh, Nagina and Lucknow are mentionable. Amritsar, Hoshiarpur and Ludhiana are among woodcraft centres in Punjab. Bengal uses bel and neem for woodcraft and Assam uses bamboo among others. Nashik is a woodwork centre in Maharashtra. Kerala has rosewood carving and coconut shell work. Beautiful architectural wood carvings are there in the palaces and temples of Mysore and Madurai. Andhra Pradesh has toys made at Kondapalli and Telangana has famous woodwork from Adilabad.
The South has used teak for carving and sandalwood, the fragrant wood for delicate woodwork. Sandalwood being an aromatic wood, the fragrance stays on for decades. The wood is heavy, yellowish-beige and fine-grained. In Karnataka the style in Mysore and Coorg made from sandalwood are mixed indigenous and Chalukyan style. Shimoga is an important sandalwood carving centre in Karnataka. Madurai is famous for incised Blackwood tables, whose legs are in the form of elephant heads with extended trunks, also mythical Yali figures. Tribals in Madhya Pradesh are adept at wood work. Chittorgarh and the Pali district of Rajasthan specialises in woodwork.
A variety of themes
The themes covered in the art of wood carving are various and plentiful. Hindu deities are the most popular subject. The work is of an intricate nature, scenes and characters from Hindu mythology are frequently portrayed. Also floral patterns, inlay work, lacquered wood, jaali work, animal and bird figures on decorative plaques, panels, doors and doorways, screens and ornate furniture abound across India. Tiger legs, elephant heads, mythical creatures are also carved as part of the furniture.
The Salar Jung Museum carvings
The museum has an interesting collection of sandalwood and other wooden carvings. As already mentioned wood-carving has been done since a long time in the Indian subcontinent. The museum collection has sandalwood figures, figures of Hindu deities in different wood, mythological wooden figures with polychrome lacquer, decorative items, lacquered and highly ornate furniture from different regions of India.
Let us take a visual journey and discover these wondrous wood artefacts from India.
Garuda (1701/1799)Salar Jung Museum
Figure of Garuda
This is a figure of Garuda, a masterpiece in wood carving. Garuda is the vahana or vehicle of Lord Vishnu. Garuda is depicted in a kneeling posture with open wings. He is bejewelled and has the Vaishnavite mark on the forehead. In this sculpture, the chest and face are covered with a thin sheet of bronze, from Vijayanagara, dated to the late 18th century.
Mahisasura Mardidni (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum
Durga as Mahishasuramardini having eight arms with weapons, with the demon Mahishasura under her feet, most probably from Kerala, South India, 19th century.
Dancing Radha and Krishna (1900/1999)Salar Jung Museum
Dancing Radha and Krishna
Sandalwood figure of Radha-Krishna in dancing pose, the figures are on an ornate pedestal with floral motifs. Lord Krishna is holding his flute in his right hand, from Mysore, dated to the 20th century.
Wooden panel with Ganesha and Lakshmi (1800/1825)Salar Jung Museum
Wooden panel with Lord Ganesha and Goddess Lakshmi
Panel depicting Hindu deities Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati in carved mandapas. The border of the panel is ornate and has distinct floral motifs at the corners, from South India, early 19th century.
Manmatha (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum
Polychrome lacquered wooden sculpture of Manmatha, the Hindu god of love, standing on his vehicle the parrot on top of a rectangular pedestal with inverted lotuses. The figure is profusely carved with necklaces, ear rings, armlets, and depicted wearing karanda makuta.
He holds a bow in his left hand and lotus bud in his right hand. His right leg is placed on the back of the parrot; his attributes being companionship of a cuckoo, parrot or humming bees which are symbols of spring season.
The festival of Holi is celebrated during this time, possibly from Channapatna, dated to the 19th century.
Rati (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum
Polychrome lacquered wooden sculpture of Rati, the Hindu goddess of love and consort of Manmatha, standing on her vehicle the swan on top of a rectangular pedestal with inverted lotuses.
The figure is profusely carved with necklaces, ear rings, bangles, armlets and wearing a karanda-makuta. She holds a sugar cane in her left hand and lotus bud in her right hand. Her left leg is raised and placed on the back of the swan; the swan is holding a lotus stack in its beak, possibly from Channapatna, dated to the 19th century.
Wooden screen (1801/1899)Salar Jung Museum
Four-fold screen with inlay
A small screen in four folds inlaid in ivory to represent creeper designs and flower plants all over. The big vertical panels have a geometrically stylised cypress tree in each, an exquisite object from Kashmir, dated to the 19th century.
Yali is a mythical creature seen in many Hindu temples. It is usually portrayed as part lion, part elephant, or part horse and sometimes has bird-like features. Their presence is supposed to be protective for the temple. They are also called vyala. This coloured Yali bracket is a Simha vyala, a lion figure, from Tadipatri, Andhra Pradesh, dated to the 18th century.
Banaganapalli settee (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum
A wooden settee from Banaganapally in Kurnool, South India with the Salar Jung (SJ) monogram on top. It has a high back with a rectangular mirror. The king and nobles are on three elephants. Above this is a panel with a flower creeper design against blue background. The panel on either side of the mirror depicts flower plants and birds. The middle panel above the mirror represents a hunting scene, dated to the 19th century.
Wooden stool (1900/1999)Salar Jung Museum
Wooden stool with octagonal top and foldable stand. Floral designs in the centre, around which are designs depicting a flower plant with a stork on either side in an arched panel, surrounded by flower creeper and leafy borders on top. An arch on each side of the stand with with flower plant in the panel above. All the designs are inlaid with ivory, from Hoshiarpur, Punjab, dated to the 20th century.
Wooden wall shelf (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum
Wooden wall shelf
A wooden wall shelf fitted with metal plaques embossed with floral designs having two compartments on each side, from South India, dated to the 19th century.
Table with camel design (1900/1999)Salar Jung Museum
Table with camel design
Carving of an ornate pedestal, the figure is of a camel, standing on a carved pedestal and on its body is arranged the wooden stand. The stand on its surface has an intricate floral design having waving creepers and lotuses, broken at regular intervals by four flowers, from Madurai, dated to the 20th century.
Wall hanging (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum
Carved wall plate representing lotus flowers, from Kashmir, dated to the 19th century.
Bull with single horn (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum
Bull with single horn
A toy showing a single horned bull which may be similar to the Bolli Aavu, the unicorn cow that occurs in a Telugu medieval chronicle of a battle. Horn in the middle of the bull's head. The four legs carry the paintings of humans and Garuda from Kondapalli, Andhra Pradesh, dated to the 19th century.
Sandalwood screen (1800/1899)Salar Jung Museum
A sandalwood carved screen in three folds, carved to represent Lord Krishna killing the snake Kaliya, playing on the flute, stealing butter, playing music seated on a tree, attended by gopis or cowherd maidens, creeper designs around, from Karnataka, dated to the 19th century.
Text and Curation: Soma Ghosh
Photography: M. Krishnamurthy and Bahadur Ali
Research Assistance: Dinesh Singh and E. Rajesh
Special thanks to Dr. A Nagender Reddy, Director, Salar Jung Museum, Hyderabad, India.
References- 1. Nambiar, P K (1965) Census of India 1961 Vol IX Madras Part VII A-VI –Handicrafts and artisans of Madras State -Wood carvings of Madurai, Delhi : Manager of Publications.
2. Chakravarti, Shymalkanti, ed. (2001) Wood carvings of Bengal in Gursaday Museum, Kolkata: Gursaday Museum.
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_wood_carving (accessed on 25.01.2022)
4 .https://oneindiaonepeople.com/wondrous-woodcraft-india/ (accessed on 27.01.2022)