Woodcarving, an integral part of local architecture & interiors of Gujarat, Jay Thakkar

Woodcarving, an integral part of local architecture & interiors of Gujarat, Jay Thakkar

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‘There are many documentation done on the wooden architecture of Gujarat but major of them look at the functions, spaces and the form. What is missed out is these in-depth research documents is the details about the expression: the expression of culture, craft and material’, says Jay Thakkar, Associate Professor and Program Chair (Interior Design) at Faculty of Design, and Director at Design Innovation and Craft Resource Centre (DICRC) at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India in Woodcarving as an integral part of local architecture and interiors of Gujarat: Past to Present 

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In India, major of the domestic and religious built environment within the rural and semi urban areas is made of the local materials; primarily of natural material like stone, wood, earth and grass along with metal and glass. One of the most widely employed materials is wood, which is used for making of buildings as well as of the interior elements, furniture and day to day objects. Different types of woods are being used from structural purpose to embellishments for temples, palaces, local houses, institutional buildings and miscellaneous structures like sheds, granary and storage buildings.

There are five states in India where a large scale of wooden architecture and interiors is found. They are Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Jammu & Kashmir, and Kerala. Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, and Jammu & Kashmir consisted of vast quantity of deodar (cedar) forest due to its mountainous plateau. Kerala on the other hand has the tropical forest, which helped in evolving a rich tradition of wooden architecture. But the wooden architecture in Gujarat developed irrespective of it being devoid of any natural resource of wood. Its development was due to its sea and land trade. Gujarat due to its geographical location as well as its enterprising business community has been able to develop traditional and vernacular architecture in all these materials. In Gujarat, bhungas in Kutch made of earth, traditional havelis in Saurashtra primarily out of stone, vernacular architecture in South constructed out of bamboo from Dang, and timber bonding architecture (commonly known as wooden architecture) made of wood and brick in Central and North Gujarat is prominently observed. Wooden architecture constitutes a major section of the traditional architecture of Gujarat. There are many documentation done on the wooden architecture of Gujarat but major of them look at the functions, spaces and the form. What is missed out is these in-depth research documents is the details about the expression: the expression of culture, craft and material. The rise of the wooden architecture in Gujarat also flourished the craft of wood carving.

The following article focus on the woodcarvings of the Gujarat.

Carving in wood in the traditional and vernacular architecture and interiors has undoubtedly remained a great craft since antiquity in India. Its widespread was possible due to the formation of the craft guilds which have been present since the dawn of Hindu civilization. Each guild was managed by a court of aldermen and it comprised of different skilled craftspeople. Woodcarvers were part of such craft guild.

The woodcarvers of Gujarat used the wood for structure as well as for ornamentation. They believed that “the true beauty in ornamentation results from the repose which the mind experiences when – the eye, the intellect and the affections are satisfied due to the absence of any wants.” [1]The woodcarvers of Gujarat conceived of their craft neither as their own nor as the accumulated artistry of ages but as originated from the divine skill of Vishvakarma(builder of the world according to the Hindu philosophy). This is how the Indian sacred texts have traced back the traditions of craftsmanship as originating from the fountainhead, which expresses that when the hands of the craftspeople are engaged in their craft, the act is always a ceremony. These woodcarvers before starting their work would always perform a ritual for their local deity.

Tools are but an extension of the personality of the craftspeople to reach beyond human limitations. Since time immemorial, both the wood and wood carving tools of the craftspeople were considered sacred and worshipped. The practice still continues. The tools used by the native woodcarvers are the hand tools fabricated by the local blacksmith in the community. The total number of tools used by the woodcarvers ranged from a dozen to a few hundred, according to the extent of their artistic ability, the nature of carving and the quality of wood on which the carvings has to be done.

The technique of wood carving was essentially derived from carpentry and was well adapted for architectural and element carving. Its evolution happened from the folk carving as seen in the vernacular architecture of Dang to the traditional architecture of central and northern Gujarat. The knowledge about the technique was inherited through ‘oral traditions’ and was perfected by the means of practice and experience. The process of carving can be divided into four phases. The first phase deals with the carpentry job of measuring and cutting wood. The second phase consists of drawing designs on wood. The third phase is actual carving and the fourth deals with the surface finish of the carved element.

There are six types of carving techniques employed by the Indian woodcarver, when dealing with ornamentation on wooden architecture. The most simple and basic is the chip carving, which is the oldest technique where the form of carving is merely achieved by chisel and mallet. In this technique, the wood is chipped off from either side of the design forming mainly geometric patterns. This is still practised in the rural areas of Gujarat like kutchch, where it forms a large part of ornamental art. Another popular technique is the relief carving technique (high and low relief). Through the use of basic tools, the unwanted portion of design is chiselled out. The high relief carving creates the effect of light and shade producing bold forms. This type of an expression is one of the most prominent features of the facades of the wooden houses of Gujarat. The low relief carving was mainly applied to the door and window planks and facade panels wherein the cross-section of wood was meagre.

Undercutting carving technique produced much bolder forms by cutting away the wood that lies under the surface to a greater or lesser extent within the limits of design. As a result, shadows are formed, making that surface (ground) dark and more distinct, highlighting the design. Application of this technique can be observed mainly on the brackets, column capitals, beam ends, and many of the furniture pieces. Incised carving consists of carving a design without any ground work by using ‘v’ parting tool. The technique here is used for making veins in the leaves or outlining the design work by grooving. This technique is much prevalent in the interior elements and furniture.

Sculpturesque carving technique is applied to the carving of a three dimensional element, free from the ground. The interior-architecture elements like brackets, struts, interior elements and furniture pieces are carved in round with numerous projections like concave and convex surfaces to achieve any desirable form. In earlier times, craftspeople use to produce clay models to derive the actual form and proportioning system as such designs cannot be produced by drawing on the wood beforehand. Pierced carving technique has been known for centuries as the most effective form of ornamentation. Wood was sawed and chiselled out between the designs and then filed. This technique is used for making pierced jalis(trellis), interior doors, fixed facade windows and partition screens.

The growth of the craft of woodcarving was due to the inherent need of the society to embellish their surroundings. The idea of ornamentation germinates from the basic urge of an individual to make his environment more aesthetically ornate, wherein nature and socio-cultural environment plays a significant role. In India since ancient times, ornamentation on architecture and interiors as well as domestic artefacts have been a very common phenomenon strongly associated with physical and metaphysical value system.

There are three main factors that affected the placement of carving on the domestic wooden architecture of Gujarat. First was the practical consideration, wherein the parts of the structure which are bulky and difficult to hoist were left un-carved. If some ornamentation was desired, it was applied to it in forms of thin carved wooden strips fixed on it by nails or slide-in joints. The second factor was governed by the need of display. Those parts of the building like facade, internal courtyard (a public domain), and those spaces which formed a backdrop to the social activities were always ornamented to a greater or a lesser degree. Parts strictly for the private use were generally devoid of embellishments. Further, the qualitative and quantitative aspects of the ornamentation were based on the issues like socio-economic status of the owner of the society. The third factor revolves around the symbolic aspect of ornamentation. Woodcarving became a medium to express the religious beliefs and local superstitions.

The ornamental images are repeated in major of the traditional architecture of Gujarat with greater or lesser intensity. Temples and religious buildings receive the most attention followed by the large houses. This is in direct proportion to the size of the structure and the resources available to employ master craftsperson. Woodcarving is integrated into the construction of the building and not added later on. The exception to this is the freestanding wood sculptures of the temple deities. Rules are much more stringent and defined for subjects of ornamentation on temples, while on the domestic architecture, the ornamentation is the mixture of classical forms, popular local motifs, repetitions of previous works and new variations within the parameters of local aesthetics. The degree of creative expression varies depending on whether it is to be used for religious, communal or secular built forms. Expressions also depend on the skill and knowledge of the craftsman and the quality of his tools.

The woodcarvers followed certain inherent principles of Indian style of ornamentation. The basic principle followed while ornamenting the built form was “to ornament construction; never to construct ornamentation.” In the woodcarving of these traditional and vernacular buildings, not only does the ornamentation arise naturally from the construction but the constructive idea is also carried out in every detail of ornamentation of the surface. The prominent characteristic observed in these edifices is the continuity and plenitude of ornamentation which usually fills up the surface to be embellished with a profusion of ornaments either exactly alike or of similar nature. Hence the design is created by repetition of the same objects or forms. It was remarkable, for the elegant outline defining the form and for the judicious treatment of surface decoration. Every ornament worked towards developing a general form, which upon being divided by the lines, formed interstices that were enriched with secondary ornamentation. The details never interfered with the general form and there was no excrescence or superfluous decoration. One finds that nothing was added without purpose, nor could anything be removed without disadvantage. All lines grew out of each other in gradual sinuosity and everything was connected to a common root. When the carving is viewed from a distance, the main line strike the eye; as one approaches nearer, the details come into composition; on a close inspection, one further observes the marvellous details on the carved surface of the decorated form.

Any ornamentation, how elaborate they may appear, can be resolved into three main types. The first is the isolated units or decorative forms – symmetrical or asymmetrical, simple or complex – which can exist independently. These are called motifs. Motifs when used singularly or in a cluster form in a simple or ornate manner produces a design around which a boundary can be drawn and is finite in extent. Such bounded designs are known as ‘finite designs’. The second is the repetitive type where a characteristic unit or a motif is extending either side in a linear fashion with an upper and lower boundary. These are known as bands. The unit is repeated according to the geometric motions or symmetry operations known as translation, rotation, reflection (in a line in a plane) and glide reflection. The third type is where the motif or a fundamental region is repeated at regular intervals along both horizontal and vertical directions (and all sides) simultaneously in a plane ad-infinitum. These are called patterns.

These three types of ornamentation are observed on the architecture as well as the elements of the Interiors. Ornamentation observed on these houses belongs to natural, figural and geometric type. The facade of the Hindu houses of Gujarat show a very high end style of figural motifs, where subjects like peacock, parrot, elephants and religious figures are much popular. The narrative figures depicting the stories of gods and goddess was largerly observed in the haveli mandir and the temples of Gujarat. The muslim dwellings mainly represented the floral and geometric types of motifs and pattern. One of the interesting subject of carving observed in all these regions is the mythical creature. As the craft of woodcarving started reaching its zenith, the appearance of the mythical creature became more and more visible. The reason was that it required perfection in terms of carving as observed in the brackets of wooden architecture of Gujarat. These brackets are carved with Gajvyalawhich is part elephant, part tiger and part bird.

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Wood carving like many other crafts of Gujarat depicted the general scenario of the society existing during that time along with the cultural beliefs. As there are stories and folklores within a culture which are sung or passed on through oral traditions or literature; in a similar manner, woodcarving was used to express the stories and events of the community or an individual by carving out a narrative in wood. Like many other Gujarati crafts, it also falls into the category of the narrative craft. Each stroke sung the story of the skill and knowledge of the craftspeople and their role in that culture.

In the present milieu, with the process of deforestation and rapid arrival of new industrial materials, the making of the wooden architecture has nearly ceased. This has led to the demise of the magnificent building-craft of woodcarving associated with it. This caused a change in scale. From a large scale of the architecture, the craft of woodcarving has shifted to the intricate scale of smaller objects and interior elements. The traditional skill of woodcarving still continues in many areas of Gujarat but with focus on smaller products and furniture. Woodcarving, which was once an integral part of the society and was accessible to larger mass, has now become an arena of privilege and elite class of society. Like any other craft, woodcarving also achieved its zenith during the making of the wooden built environment. As observed in the past that any craft goes through the up and down. With the current awareness of sustainability and green architecture, society is again moving towards the natural materials of construction reducing the environmental footprint. This will lead to the reforestation program and soon the availability of wood will increase and henceforth will lead to the innovative craft of expression in wood using new tools and techniques. 

Some say “it is the death of the caterpillar but I say it is the birth of the butterfly”. 

[1]Naqsh: The Art of Wood Carving of Traditional Houses of Gujarat: Focus on Ornamentation,