Agra, the city of love, has countless heritage structures like the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Tomb of Imad-ud-Daulah and Buland Darwaza. These architectural marvels and tourist attractions have impacted the city deeply
The art and culture of Agra city has been deeply inspired by its heritage structures and monuments, and vice versa. Two main examples of art are – marble inlay and hand-knotted carpets. While marble inlay is present in almost every heritage structure, designs of hand-knotted carpets are inspired from these heritage structures.
People visiting Agra, more often than not, pass-off the art on heritage structures as mere paintings. But they are semi-precious stones, which have been inlaid into white marbles. The art is locally referred to as Parchinkari. It is an art of inlaying semi-precious stones into marbles with such neat craftsmanship that it looks like a painting. There was an evidence of a similar art form being present in Italy in the 17th century by the name of Pietra Dura, in which stones inlaid were not necessarily semi-precious.
The different types of semi-precious stones, which are used in Parchinkari, are Lapis lazuli, Malachite, Carnelian, Turquoise, Coral, Pearl Jasper, Shell and Onyx. Most of these stones are imported in the form of a rock and then manually cut into desired shapes and sizes. The different types of marbles used in this art are white Makrana marble, green Udaipur marble and black South Indian Kadapa marble.
The first process of Parchinkari is to cut these stones as per design, which is done through roller blades. After cutting, these stones are placed on marble surface for tracing. Marble is first coloured with mehndi/henna. Based on tracing, cavities are made in the marble for inlay. These cavities are made through diamond, chisel and tungsten carbide.
Stones are then inlaid into marbles by pasting them with natural homemade glue. The natural glue is produced with tragacanth gum (gond), slurry soil (gara mitti) and wax. For better pasting, at times, chemical glue is also used. Lastly, sandpaper polishing is done to remove the colour of henna.
It takes months, or even years, to make a single piece of inlaid marble, depending upon the design and level of workmanship involved. The artisans are descendants of those artists who were a part of the team, which constructed the Taj Mahal and this art has been passed on to them through generations. Marble inlay souvenirs include table tops, plates, coasters and show pieces.
Carpets of Agra are famous across the globe as they are hand-knotted with around 180 knots in a square inch. Each knot represents a pixel, which makes up the whole image or design. The first step in the entire process is drawing of a design on a graph paper, in which one square (1×1) unit of a graph paper represents a single knot on the carpet. Based on design, quality and size of the carpet, requirement of wool in different colours is determined and the wool is then dyed accordingly.
After dyeing, knotting is done on a wooden structure called loom. The loom works on the concept of warp and weft, which is also known as Tana and Bana in local language. Warp is the lengthwise vertical thread that is held in tension on the loom and weft is inserted and knotted around warp to make a knot.
Cotton thread is used as base and merino wool is used for knotting. Each single knot makes up the entire design, so utmost care is taken to ensure that the right colour wool is knotted in the right string. After an entire line of knot is completed, a cotton thread is passed between lines to lock them.
For a small carpet of 3×5 ft, one artisan can operate the entire loom but for a large carpet of around 9×12 ft, it requires three artisans to operate the loom. Once knotting of the complete carpet is done, knots are sealed from the reverse side through blow torch by singeing (burning) the extra fiber. Carpets are then washed with normal soap and water and dried in the sun. After that, trimming is done by cutting extra fringes or tassels of carpet from front side with sharp scissors and border binding is done with an iron needle using the same colour wool. Different colour piles are then separated to make the pattern more prominent. To avoid any kind of design distortion, carpets are placed in a stretched state on a wooden floor or an iron frame.
Text & Photos: Viney Rao