Although less than five percent of the country’s land is under forests, the material available to Pakistan’s wood-craftsmen is of considerable variety. While the forests of mangrove-like trees in the coastal areas mostly provide firewood, date palms, babul (acasia arabica), farash, kikar and papal (ficus religiosa) scattered all over the sandy plains have traditionally yielded raw material for wood-craftsmen. In the hill tracts of Balochistan and the Northern Areas are found fruit trees and forests of deodar, pines, walnut, oaks, birch and willows. But by far the largest source of wood are the irrigated plantations of shisham (dabergia sirsco) and mulberry. The shisham plantations vary from large forests in Chhangamanga and Chichawatni (Sahiwal district) to rows of trees along the roads and watercourses. For each variety a different craft has been evolved.
In the first half of the twentieth century the use of ornamental wood panels in buildings declined under pressure of demand for more functional structures and the possibilities of speedier construction offered by bricks, mortar and cement. But the last quarter-century has witnessed a revival of interest in breaking the drabness of concrete walls and ceilings with carved wood panels, and richly carved wooden doors and windows are back in fashion.
A far more extensive use of the wood carver’s skill has been in furniture making. The oldest surviving style was evolved by the early craftsman of the Northern Areas who created massive pieces – beds, chests, chairs, stands for water-pitchers and oil-lamps, spoons etc.
So irresistible is the attraction of carved woodwork that, in order to satisfy the demand of people who cannot afford to pay for walnut, craftsmen in the Punjab plains have taken to carving on hard and cheaper wood like shisham. Chiniot is the traditional home of such workers but one can find smaller groups in almost all major towns near the markets. No doubt they sometimes succeed in carving motifs and patterns traditionally associated with walnut but they know that shisham cannot be given the soft texture on creation of variety in form and designs of surface decorations. Thus one finds tables in numerous shapes: the tops may be rectangular, square, circular, polygonal, or palm-shaped, and they may rest on four straight legs or on a single pillar. A recent innovation from villages around Faisalabad is the setting of tables of different heights into a bigger one, all with carved tops and legs. Another recent example of craftsmanship is the creation of table stands which look like intertwined snakes of different sizes. These collapsible legs, crafted from a single piece of shisham, go especially well with glass tops or engraved metal plates or bowls, which do not cover the unique features of the stand.
The common types of wood carving in Pakistan are designs in relief, in which the design is either sunk into the ground or the ground is etched high to stand out; round, in which the design or figure is totally detached from the background wood; chipping, in which a desired depth; incising, in which designs, mostly flower and creeper traceries, are cut into the wood without ground work; and piercing, in which the ground is cut away leaving only the design.
At first sight it may appear that the technique of carving on wood has not changed much except that the craftsmen have replaced their home-made chisels, with straight blades in a limited number of sizes, with stronger, imported chisels, with straight and curved blades of various widths. But a study would reveal Pakistani craftsmen have explored in depth the possibilities of decorative carving offered by the natural colour and grain of the wood or to overcome the limitations imposed by such peculiarities. Traditionally they have adapted their workmanship to suit the nature of the raw material. There would be more of perforated work in black, opaque wood and more of relief work on lighter coloured wood. The patterns of carving would be determined by the staple and grain and tonal variations on the surface of the available wood. But there is increasing evidence of successful attempts to defy the impediment of grain to carving and also to reduce reliance on post-carving operations, like rubbing with sandpaper or polishing to smoothen out rough chisel work or sharpen the detail.
The use of metal strips and nails to bind chest planks suggested patterns of decorative-cum-functional nails and strips of metal such as had been seen on leather shields and animal gear. The rich rulers started matching precious metals or ivory but since there was enough of gold on tapestries and court gowns and sandals, ivory became the most highly prized material to inlay wood with. But the strength of the craft can be judged not only from the surviving specimens of the period but also from the present-day practice of inlaying wood with other materials. Inlaid furniture and decoration pieces are now being crafted with horn, bone, or plastic. Many craftsmen have learnt to use bone strips so well as to give the effect of ivory inlay. In fact, unlike the workers inlaying wood with ivory, they have found it possible to use bone to create bolder patterns. Notable examples are the setting of floral cut-outs in spiral-like combination on jewellery boxes, and the arrangement in perspective of cut-out pieces under the glass top of a table to give the effect of a sea-bed scene. Much more common now is the use of brass. Peshwar and Chiniot have been the traditional centres of brass-inlaid wood work. The Mohattan Tarkhanan (carpenters quarters) in Chiniot has the largest concentration of inlay experts.
Whatever the material used the inlay technique is the same. First the inlay pattern is drawn on paper or card-board which is then perforated or cut to be used as a stencil for transferring the pattern on to the sheet of inlay material – ivory, brass or plastic. The impression of the cut-out pattern is drawn on or hammered into the meticulously smoothened wooden surface. Then the pattern is incised to the right depth and the inlay cut-out driven in. In case of linear patterns the worker lays strips of ivory, bone or brass in the grooves with one hand quickly followed with light strokes with small hammer held in the other.
The patterns are varied. Articles meant for marketing at low prices carry simple designs – a single stylised flower, or a floral design surrounded by a circular or rectangular border. A more elaborate design takes the form of a central medallion with instricately laced borders and tughras in the corners. Sometimes the inlaid top of a table or the front of a chest can display the whole design of a finely knotted carpet, with stylised floral decorations, arabesque, tughras, and motifs arranged in borders, centres and corners. In many cases craftsmen are repeating a design over again but two trends are in evidence. One, the composition of the inlay design is changed to suit the shape of the wooden object. Second, every few years the craftsmen move from simple designs created with a few lines and curves to crowded patterns, and vice versa, obviously in order to keep pace with the consumers habit of seeking change from any familiar design.
In Sindh and the Multan-Dera Ghazi Khan regions of the Punjab the craft of applying lacquer to wood has been refined to a high level. A number of families in Hala, Kashmore, Khanewal and Dera Ghazi Khan have stuck to traditional workmanship despite sharp fluctuations in consumers’ taste and the nature of patronage. The choice of colours and decorative patterns vary from place to place. Black, white and brown are favourite colours in Punjab and the designs are mostly geometric. The Kashmir craftsmen like floral patterns in black, red and other deep colour combinations. In Hala the dominant trend is to use rich primary colours to paint both geometric designs and floral patterns.
Till some time ago lacquer was applied mostly to items of furniture used in villages – bed legs, low chairs, jhoolas (swings for infants) – but in recent times elaborately lacquered sofa-sets and chairs have found their way into the drawing rooms of the modern urbanities. Besides, the range of lacquered goods has been enlarged to include bowls, powder-boxes, spice containers, mirror frames, walkers, toys, imitation fruits and vegetables, etc.
It is in easy to understand how the craft took root in the desert areas. The quality of the wood available was neither good for carving nor was its colour pleasing. The application of lacquer satisfied the rural folks’ instinctive desire for different colour schemes as well as helped them to bring the beauty of flowers and foliage into their homes, the growing popularity of lacquered wood objects even when the environment has improved considerably is in a large measure due to the craftsmen’s merit. The whole process is so dextrously conducted that one is amazed at the firm and calculated moves of the craftsmen’s hands. For the most outstanding Hala lacquer work, done by families that have practised the craft for centuries, wood (kikar, farash) is first cut and chiselled into the required shape. The surface is rubbed smooth with sandpaper or pottery powder. The piece is then passed on to a lathe worker squatting on the ground. He rotates the wooden piece on the lathe and presses the lac stick in the required colour against it. If the ground is to have more than one colour the craftsman leaves spots blank which are coloured in subsequent rounds. After repeated coatings of lac the piece is passed on to another lathe operator who uses a chisel on the spinning piece to separate the layers of different colours. The piece is then handed over to the design-maker who chisels off the upper coat of lacquer to reveal myriad patterns. The speed with which a skilled craftsman carries out this delicate operation is unbelievable. Finally the object is given a marble finish by first rubbing it with a bamboo pen and then with an oil rag. The whole effect is created by craftsmen with their hands but the modest Sindhi worker chooses to call his craft jandri (rotation).