Crafting Traditions of Himachal Pradesh

 

Wooden Box Between the soulless anonymity of mass-produced goods and the dizzying price levels of antiques, some artifacts can still be loosely categorized as folk art. Woodwork of Paharis is one such example, an effort at continuing our artistic and cultural traditions.

Himachal Pradesh is an inexhaustible source of marvel and fascination. Its wonder and mystery are deepened by the large number of artifacts produced by rural artisans over the centuries. The artifacts have helped preserve the ancient artistic and cultural traditions in the villages.

Wooden Statues

All over Himachal Pradesh, one finds innumerable wooden sculptures in rural style, each carved respectively in the local style of the area. Freestanding, three-dimensional sculptures in this style are very few in number, while those carved in relief on the wooden planks are numerous.

Both the varieties are marked by an expressive quality that results from direct carving. The rural folk satisfy their religious responsibilities through these images.

Very often, one finds them enshrined in a shack-like structure near a big temple. Around Shimla, one can come across plenty of such sculptures in the compounds of Naga Temple in Naldehra and the Launkara Bir Shrine outside the old Jubbal Palace. The significance of these religious sculptures for the Paharis is that they have implicit faith in them.

The Pahari wooden sculptures are not symbolic but representational. Each sculpture represents a well-known Hindu deity and is carved in strict adherence to iconographic tenets for immediate recognition. This adherence imposed a powerful discipline on them and also strengthened the hold of tradition. The carvers fashioned these images out of deodar wood; sometimes sheesham (teak) wood was also used. The idea of ugliness or beauty apparently did not bother them nor did it bother the devotees who worshipped them with unflinching devotion.

History of Wooden Statues

It is not possible to trace the development of folk sculptures in a chronological sequence, for no dated images are to be found. Nor is it possible to date them. In fact, these carvings cannot be said to have a history but they certainly have a tradition. There are strong indications that this style had been handed down from generation to generation for centuries.

The overwhelming unity of religious feelings of the village community has made it possible for such a strong tradition to be produced by the Pahari carpenters. Also, the Pahari rural areas have a closed society, impervious to change and outside influences. The traditional values are more compelling for the villagers, convinced, as they are that the traditional manner is all that matters, for it has persisted for centuries and stood the test of time, so it must be accepted and continued.

So, the folk style continued unchanged. The carvers carried their mythologies, legends and folklore in their minds. The wooden sculptures served as an instrument for preserving their religious beliefs in powerful shapes.

Common Forms

The three-dimensional freestanding sculptures are hewn out of a single block of wood. Efforts are made by the carvers to keep the grain of wood intact. What strikes one most about these images is that they are cylindrical. In fact, this cylindrical form derives from the shape of the log, lending the sculptures a wonderful three-dimensional quality. The statue of Goddess Kali standing in a desolate corner, a few kilometers away from Kusumpti near Shimla, is placed in the midst of stones in such a way that only the torso of the Goddess is visible. Due to exposure to weather, it has acquired a rugged appearance. The Goddess's arms are broken and there is a mere suggestion of breasts. Her body is roughly carved and executed with great simplicity in rounded forms. On her drawn face, she has a weird expression, a long grotesque nose, circular eyes arched by thick brows, a protruding tongue and small ears that project slightly from both the sides.

Shiva and Parvati

There are two statuettes of Shiva-Parvati discovered from Nirth village in Shimla hills, both cylindrical in treatment. Shiva is riding Nandi, which is chiseled in a remarkably skilful manner. The full body and sturdy legs firmly planted on the flat wooden pedestal reminds one of the bronze horse-rider images in rural style from Rajasthan. A lot of hard work seems to have gone in chiseling his facial features - arched eyebrows, eyes, sharp nose, thin lips and full cheeks. His two broken arms and his feet are vestigial. Parvati has a broad face, prominent jaw line and tightly worn bun.

She is wearing a long skirt hemmed by a zigzag pattern and the pleats are suggested by long vertical lines.

Wooden Panels in Relief

The two-dimensional wooden panels carved in relief display an imaginative depiction of the actuality of living, where every day contributes some novelty to be absorbed by the stream of tradition in well-modulated style. The whole surface of the panels is treated as part of the composition and there is no distinction between the relief and the ground plan. The human figures are carved without any anatomical details and with little indication of clothes. An outstanding characteristic of these panels is the complete integration of patterns and figures into one harmonious whole.

These panels vary in size - from one foot to five feet in width. Similar panels are generally fixed on the wooden pillars of the temples, and the bigger ones are placed in the verandah running around the temple by the villagers as a token of thanks giving for fulfillment of their wishes.

The most fascinating specimens of relief carving are square panels depicting the worship of Shiva because of which they have been termed 'Shaivite' panels. In most of them, the central portion depicts the worship of Shivalings. Twelve or sixteen female figures holding hands on the top-most horizontal panel; animal motifs; a cattle shed and granary suggested by pestle and mortar and a cow being milked by Pahari women; two notched ladders in slanting position leading to the shrine; a tall cypress tree looming large over the fields; mountains and water springs suggested by squares, triangles and circles are common features in all panels.

Wooden Masks

The wooden masks used in the rural dramas are little known. Interesting specimens are still seen in the temple treasuries in Chamba and Shimla hills. The masks of Chamba, especially Chhatrarhi and Trilokenath, are finer specimens and have artistic merit.

The contribution of villages in preserving ancient artistic and cultural heritage cannot be overlooked. They are responsible for the unbroken chain of continuity of all traditions.


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