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Creative Arts of India


The history of Indian crafts is indeed very old, going back to almost 5000 years from present. The first examples of Indian crafts can be found from the ruins of the Indus Valley Civilization (3000 B.C – 1700 B.C). The craft tradition in India has revolved around religious beliefs, everyday needs of the common people, as well as the special needs of the patrons and royalty; there was the influence of foreign and domestic trade too.

These craft traditions have withstood the ravages of time and numerous foreign invasions and continue to flourish till date, owing to the assimilative nature of Indian culture and broadmindedness of the craftsmen to accept and use new ideas.

Metal Work

It is believed that originally metal was derived from meteorites, which were considered sacred; therefore very special objects were made from it. However, it was gradually discovered that metals could be obtained from below the earth’s surface. Working with metals appeared to be veiled in mystery and connected with the occult; the smelting and shaping of metal was a secret ritual and the blacksmith's forge was considered sacred. The blacksmith was seen as a visionary, who could fashion artistic as well as useful objects out of the most unlikely and inflexible of substances. Later, metals were associated with the planets and it was believed that their use could accentuate or minimize planetary influences.

This mystique was transformed into the science of alchemy. As a result of their ability of working with metals, the ancient civilizations gave the master workers predominance over those who lacked these skills.

Over the years, the availability of metals grew and vessels of diverse shapes were developed for different purposes; many of the shapes being derived from nature. The very word patram, for vessels, is derived from the Sanskrit word, patra, the leaf. Also, dried and cleaned shells of gourds have been and are still used by many tribal communities for carrying water. This shape has been imparted to various metal containers.

The earliest metal vessels were large water-pitchers made of brass or copper with a circular mouth. Its narrow neck and rounded contours, ending in a steady base, rendered s it a perfect form, convenient for daily use.

Even today, the shapes of vessels vary from one area to another. For instance the north Indian water-pitcher has a flat base and rises at an angle. The Rajasthani pitcher, however, is rounded and has a very small mouth and narrow neck, to prevent the water from spilling over, as well as to control the flow of water while pouring. The miniscule water-pitcher, the lota, is used for a number of tasks throughout the day. The curving outward lip, the narrow neck and the rounded container with its steady base, makes it one of the most functional and satisfying utility items.

A variety of ritual vessels were also evolved over the years, which in due course, achieved a perfection of form. A metal is used with sensitivity, not only to its burnished form, but also to its sound. The temple bells of India are celebrated for the depth and purity of their tone and also for their elegant architectonic forms. Since bell-metal is considered to be the purest of all materials, it is not only used for ritual purposes, but also for utensils of everyday use. Unlike the people of Europe and the Middle-East, the Indians did not traditionally use glass and porcelain. Naturally therefore, all household requirements – tumblers, glasses, cups, plates, serving dishes and storage containers used to be made of metal.

Down the centuries, innumerable metal techniques were mastered by the Indians. The most important of these are the technique of creating a shape by joining different parts of the vessel. This is done in a subtle manner by creating a ridge, which hides the soldering. This method emphasizes the central portion of the wadhi, the butter dispenser, or the sloping neck of the ghara, the pitcher.

Indian craftsman have been (and still are) experts at creating shapes out of sheet metal. The most complicated shapes are formed by hammer strokes. Water-vessels, lotas, large serving plates, thalis, and table-tops, besides dowry boxes from Gujarat, are traditionally made by alternately heating and hammering the metal. A number of these objects retain the impression of the hammer strokes, which accentuate their forms and textures.

Lota- the ubiquitous water pot

Ghara- the water pot

The objects of everyday use are generally not engraved, save decorative pieces and the items used for rituals or ceremonial occasions. The engraving is done by master craftsmen who are capable of reproducing a variety of patterns taken from everyday life. A number of ritual objects, commonplace in south India carry symbols of Vishnu or depict the Dasavtars, the ten incarnations of Vishnu. The ritual vessels used by the worshippers of Shiva carry the lingam (the phallic symbol) or Nandi the bull .

Many others utensils and vessels are adorned with designs and motifs taken from mythology as well as everyday life. These include a long-tailed peacock, the vahana (vehicle or mount) of Kartikeya, Rati, the goddess of love, hamsa, the mythical swan, associated with Saraswati, the goddess of learning.

The art of metal work was linked with the political situation of the country. The concept of state was ushered in during the age of the Mauryan Empire, in the 3rd century B.C. Numerous sculptures from Bharhut and Sanchi (Madhya Pradesh), Mathura (Uttar Pradesh), Amravati (Andhra Pradesh), Vaishali (Bihar), show female figures adorned with an array of jewellery. The amazing, rust proof iron pillars of Vaishali (Bihar) and Delhi, created during the time of Emperor Ashoka, are indeed marvels in the field of metallurgy.

Bronze images of the
Chola period
Various techniques

Metal casting

The Harappan figure of a female dancer, with her carefree stance, is one of the first metal sculptures discovered in India. Even 5,000 years ago, Indian craftsmen had mastered the art of casting. The large image of the Buddha at Sultanganj is possibly the largest surviving metal work of ancient time - a tribute to the skill of Indian craftsmen in melting and casting metal.

Images and idols of numerous deities, (made for the purpose of worship) all over India were earlier made from an alloy known as panchadhatu (five metals). The metals were mixed in the proportion required for the image to be prepared. The basic form was first prepared out of wax, enclosed in clay moulds and fired. In the process of firing, the clay mould was created, the wax melted, leaving a hollow inside the mould. Hot molten metal would be poured into the mould. After the metal cooled, the mould was broken open and the basic solid cast image emerged. Bronze casting is pursued in Madurai (Tamil Nadu), Mysore, Bangalore (Karnataka), Kerala, Mathura and Moradabad (Uttar Pradesh), Vishnupur (West Bengal), Palitana (Gujarat) besides Balasore and Puri in Orissa. However, each region has its own distinctive style. For instance, Palitana is famous for casting Jain images, while the hilly areas of the country mould and cast images of the mother goddess (Devi, shakti) or the mohras (faces, visages) of various deities. The most popular theme in Benaras is the divine couple Radha and Krishna among others deities. The famous brass and copper castings of Moradabad have become a household name across the country and is one of the major export items today. The focus is on decorative and aesthetically pleasing items.

The tribal style of metal castings is prepared in Bihar, Bengal, Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, Kerala and Orissa by a community of itinerant metal workers. The images include human beings, animals, birds, deities, besides objects used in the daily lives. The basic structure is first prepared in clay and then covered with threads of wax, which are either smoothed over to give a flat surface, or retained in their original state to produce a wire-like effect. Details of the finer features and decorative designs are then worked with the help of thin threads of wax. The finished wax model is then covered with a thin layer of fine clay, followed by yet another coat of clay mixed with straw. The clay-covered piece is then fired, so that the wax covering melts and gets burnt, thus creating a gap between the inner core and the outer mould. After this, the hot molten metal is poured and the final shape emerges after the mould is broken open. An acid bath cleans the metal and gives it a soft burnished effect.


Tribal metal images from
Bastar (Chhattisgarh)
This is an ancient art in which one metal is encrusted onto another either in the form of wires or as small-shaped metal pieces. Koftgari was originally done with silver and gold wire on iron or steel meant for swords, daggers, and even guns. Today this art exists in Kerala, where complicated designs in silver wire are inlaid on iron metal sheets.


This art form is based on the technique of damascening. This involves inlaying gold and silver into grooves gouged out of a metal surface, often used for making the hilts of swords and daggers. The technique originated with Muslim artists of the Near East and was later adapted by Italian and Spanish craftsmen during the 15th century, from whom it spread to the rest of Europe. The art gets its name from the place of its origin in Bidar, near Mysore in the southern state of Karnataka, though it is also practiced at Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh) besides Purnea and Murshidabad in West Bengal.

Bidri ware
Tanjore plate work

Originally used for making ritual objects, this also involves the process of damascening. Here the basic shape is made out of copper, which is considered an auspicious metal and is used for ritual purposes. Silver medallions carrying repoussee designs of gods and goddesses and their vahanas (mounts) are attached to the surface. Brass decorative rosettes are also sometime attached for accentuating the contrast of color and textures. A number of traditional objects are made by using this method – large wall plates, chembu (a broad-rimmed storage vessel made of brass), the lota, kalash (pitcher), panchapatra (a small container used for storing holy water during rituals) , bowls and cigarette boxes.

A brass chembu

This is largely carried out in the cities of Jaipur, Delhi, Lucknow and Moradabad. Here, a metal is engraved so as to provide depressions in which different colors of lac are heated and fixed to create a surface of variegated colors. In certain cases, the surface is filled with glazes and the pot is fired. When this technique is employed, the colours become lasting.

A silver panchapatra
Repousse work

This method involves embossing a metal sheet by punching and hammering a design from the back, and then polishing it up in front with a chasing hammer, producing a three-dimensional bas-relief surface.This technique is used for making of images used for worship and decorative panels depicting mythological scenes. Tiruchirapally, Madurai, Tanjore and Chennai in the south, Varanasi in the north besides Mumbai, Bhuj and north Gujarat, specialize in this type of work.


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