Of Soil and Silver: Bidri Metal Inlay Craft from Bidar, Karnataka

Striking strokes of silver against a deep, dark black, one that does not fade with time – these defining characteristics of bidriware from Karnataka in Southern India bear testimony to the fine craftsmanship involved in creating this metal inlay work.

Believed to have been brought to Bidar (hence the craft’s name) by the Bahamani Sultans who ruled there in the 14th – 15th Century, the craft is said to have originated in Persia with an intermingling of Turkish, Persian and Arabic influences. A craftsman from Iran, Abdullah Bin Kaiser, was invited by the then Sultan Ahmed Shah Bahmani, to decorate the royal palace and courts. His work, in collaboration with local craftsmen, became the form of bidriware practiced since the reign of the second Sultan Allauddin Bahmani.

Bidri craft is an arduous process involving steps that are all done by hand. It begins with creating a master pattern with wood or acrylic, which is then used for moulding or casting. A mixture of soil, Castor oil and resin is used for preparing the mould. Then a molten metal alloy of zinc and copper, in a 16:1 ratio, is poured in. This is followed by ‘Buffing’ where the rough surface is smoothened by filing, to prepare the surface for engraving. Copper Sulphate is applied on the surface where the design has to be etched. This blackens the surface, making it easier to sketch, which is done using a metal stylus.

The engraving or etching (khudai) is painstakingly done with a metal chisel. Inlaying (baithai) is either sheet work (patta ka kaam) or wire work (taar ka kaam), where either sheets or wires of pure silver are meticulously hammered into the grooves of the engraved design. The surface is buffed and smoothened to remove any extra silver jutting out.

What follows is unique to the Bidri craft. Soil from the Bidar Fort, built by Sultan Allauddin Bahman of the Bahmanid Dynasty in the 1400s, is mixed with ammonium chloride and boiling water. This solution is applied to the surface, turning the zinc-copper alloy black, leaving the silver unaffected. This black color is permanent and does not fade. Coconut oil is applied at the end to give the product a lustrous sheen.

From engraving on vessels, serve-ware in the past, to contemporary use products such as pen-drives, staplers today, the few craftsman engaged in this work are adapting to the dynamic marketplace, trying to find a foothold among a wider, younger audience.

This beautiful craft, with its 500 year old history, continues to be centered around the soil used. Artisans lay special emphasis on the quality, often determining it by placing the soil on their tongue, a skill passed from one generation to the next. Theories abound on what makes the soil from the Fort special. While some attribute the oxidizing properties to lack of exposure to sunlight and rain, others consider it a result of unique metal extracts. Irrespective of the beliefs, all craftsmen agree that the Bidri craft will live on till the soil from the Fort continues to bless it with its mysterious properties.

– Text by Manika Dhama

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