Carving – A Fading Profession & Dying Artform

Amidst the hustle and chaos of everyday life in today’s world, we look for the smallest things that bring happiness and joy. They may be hidden in plain sight, waiting for the right eye to capture it and be noticed. That is the beauty of design, it exists everywhere; some obvious, some inconspicuous, but always having an impact on its surroundings and users.

Solid wood is one of the most versatile and mouldable materials found in nature. Its quality is unmatched and its finish, unique. Wood carving has been practiced in India since time immemorial! It has been the first choice of material for all furniture and product needs ever since the beginning of civilization. Over the years, the role of solid wood in our lives has had a steady progression from being purely structural and utilitarian to being a symbol of ornamentation and grandeur. Hand skills were developed in the art of shaping solid wood ever since the kingdoms of ancient India.

Carving and detailing of wooden pieces slowly became a prominent sight in all architectural and artistic works found in everyday objects like chairs, tables, stools and storages. This skill slowly made an appearance in religious buildings, architraves, entablatures, motifs, sculptures, and ornaments. Entrances and doorways were considered majestic only if it was accompanied by intricate carvings and embellishments. Palaces of kings, performance halls, places of worship and residences of the wealthy, all displayed an extensive range or wood work and detailed carving. Wood carving comprised of different methods and extents of artwork. It could range from a mere surface design etched onto wood, to transforming an entire block of wood into a three-dimensional sculpture of beauty and grace. Most carvings were inspired by nature and mythology. Several wondrous carvings that are famous to this day, depict intricately detailed narrations of mythological stories of gods and goddesses, meaningful scriptures, flora and fauna. They lined the plinths of buildings, pillars of great halls, frames of doorways, backrests of thrones, legs of tables and pieces on a gameboard. This skill had grown so widely appreciated that it was not restricted by religion or region. Carpenters and craftsmen with wood carving skills were considered to be the most talented and their profession was one of the most valued during ancient times. People migrated from far and wide, just to come learn these skills from the most experienced carpenters.

Alas, how times have changed! With the passing of time, this art form and those who practice it have been on the decline because of how we have come to take it for granted. Modernisation and industrialisation have taken over and converted these skills into machine made activities. Our need to cater to a larger audience has called for faster production and higher volumes of furniture and other solid wood items, thereby shifting the focus from quality to quantity; unique designs have been replaced by drab repeating motifs. Meaningful stories that were once immortalised by being carved into wood are now substituted by machine carved flat patterns and lines. Mass production and cheaper retail prices have become the deciding factor for several consumers. What we fail to realise in this narrow-minded approach towards furniture production, is that the life and authenticity portrayed in hand carving designs cannot be imitated by any other means. The depth and volumes created in traditional solid wood carving that add another dimension of realism cannot be replaced by any machine.

Needless to say, with the falling demand in traditional hand carved wood working, carpenters are losing their jobs. Those of them who are still working hard to keep the spirit of wood carving alive, are paid poorly and receive no recognition. With no assurance of growth in profession, highly skilled carpenters are taking on menial works well below their potential just to earn a wage. They prefer that their children have a city education and a technical degree rather than pass on their skills to them. With lesser youth to pick up the baton and carry this skill forward, many of these talents will die with their last skilled craftsmen. These artisans are the original flag bearers of preserving India’s rich cultural heritage. And with their extinction, we will have no more culture and heritage to boast of, 20 years down the line. What is most worrisome is how oblivious some people are to these skills that once formed the backbone of the solid wood industry. These skills need to be recognised, the artisans need to be appreciated and encouraged, and we as a society need to be conscious about saving this art form becoming redundant. In the modern day, of course, the presence of these hand carved pieces may be prominent only in furniture and décor pieces that adorn our homes and social gathering spaces. However, they do have a deep impact and add a strong sense of nostalgia that no other article can.

Wood and Metal is a solid wood furniture design community that encourages and hopes to revive these fading artforms by uniting a group of highly trained and skilled carpenters and craftsmen from around India. At Wood and Metal, we hope to showcase these talents in the form of authentic hand-crafted solid wood furniture moulded from the most high-quality hard wood. Our carpenters are given the freedom to express their skill and talents into creating masterpieces for our clients. Each piece has a unique story, a distinctive point of inspiration. Our factory is a haven of bustling sounds with the hum of constant creation. Watching our talented experts chisel away, creating new stories and expressions that will soon grace the lovely homes of admirers, will always be a source of awe for us young designers.

We are always hoping to observe and learn from these maestros about their thought processes, the effort and concentration that goes into each detail. We often engage in conversation with these carpenters during our factory visits, curious to know how one could possibly produce something with so much precision! The answer remains constant across all who were asked, practice and experience. I once sat beside our head sculptor gaping in awe as he effortlessly chiselled through a sculpture of Hanuman. “What happens when you make a mistake?” I asked him. After all, the fear of messing up your artwork is something that must haunt every artist. What happens then? “With 30 years of experience in this profession, my hands are trained to create pieces as close to perfection as possible. I no longer think about mistakes, if something goes differently than the way I had planned, I turn it into something new that will blend into the sculpture as just another element.” That thought stuck with me. Artists don’t make mistakes, they just make different art. And the ability to do that comes with practice. Something that has been nurtured so far and evolved so much, mustn’t be overlooked or taken for granted. Let us not only encourage this age-old skill and its craftsmen, but also learn from their relentless devotion to perfecting it and producing pieces that will bring happiness and wonder to all those who lay their eyes on it.