First set of Usta artisans who visited Bikaner
Usta refers to a professional caste of artists, and the word "Usta" derives from the Persian word of استاد " Ustad", meaning master or skilled person.
In Bikaner city, the USTA ART has been founded to be in limelight and glorious heights since the 16th-17th century. Originally, Usta Art, the Art of Golden Painting and embossing on the Camel Hides, was brought to India by Mughal Emperors. They also brought with them a sect of artists in this art from Iran. This art came to the Indian Courts of Emperors at the very initial state that may be called its prime youth. After this rare and historical craft form reached India, the honour and pride of bringing this art to Bikaner goes to the Former Ruler of Bikaner, his Highness, Rai Singh, who was a general in the Court of Emperor Akbar and was a contemporary of Jahangir.
After being highly impressed by this craft, he requested Akbar to allow some of the experts in this art to work in Bikaner. By accepting this request, Akbar sent seven Usta artists to work in the Court of Bikaner state. From then on, Bikaner became famous for it’s Usta Karigars.
The art is a generic term used for the media of Naqqashi and Manoti art practiced by Usta artisans from the erstwhile Bikaner State in present-day Rajasthan, India. Naqqashi and Manoti are characterised by painting miniature translucent and opaque watercolour and oil-based floral patterns on objects, and architectural elements with gold leaf. Manoti are items that are embossed gold layers.
From metal and stone to camel hide, the art of Usta is done by the master craftsmen of Bikaner on walls, ceilings and pillars of forts and castles too. At present, it is done on wooden bases so as to design various utility as well as handicraft products.
Usta Art is the only craft form in the world that uses 24 Carat gold leaf for decorating the handicrafts. The embossing designs carved on the products are inspired from nature and contain elements like leaves and flowers. Experienced artisans take multiple days to intricately craft and design each and every Usta product.
The first and foremost step is to smoothen the surface of the wood out of which the product is to be made. For this, a natural primer is applied to it. After this, the dimensions of the base wooden material within which the floral designs are to be made is fixed. Then, the artisans draw the intricate designs on the wood according to the measurements.
The first stage (also known as ‘Akhbara’) commences by using brushes and colors to fill the floral designs. While the color dries; a paste of gum, pot clay powder, Naushadar and jaggery is prepared by mixing all of these ingredients together.
After the floral design dries up, it is embossed using this paste with a brush. On this embossed design, a layer of yellow paint is applied and the design is left to hard-dry. Once the layer dries completely, another coat of the yellow paint is further applied.
After the yellow paint dries, 24 carat gold foils are applied on the intricate design. The design is then filled with color and details are drawn intricately with the help of a very fine brush.
Despite the beauty of this art form, the artisans are finding it difficult to find demand for the masterpieces, mainly because of old and outdated outdated designs, high prices of raw materials and lack of availability of good-quality wood in Bikaner. As a result of the constantly decreasing demand, the number of artisans has reduced significantly from around 200 in the past decade to a mere 10 currently. Usta Art continued to maintain its traditional and glorious presence over the years but unfortunately, failed to keep up with the modern preferences.
Exhibiting a rich, exemplary inheritance, Usta Art stands not only for tradition and innovation in the present times but also exhibits the commitment of kaarigars in terms of nurturing the craft till today and displaying willingness to eternalize it.
Project Virasat is an initiative by a student-led organisation from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi to help revive this magnificent craftform and to impart the story of Usta Artisans to the world. Our vision is to connect the modern India to its rich cultural heritage and restore the lost glory of the beautiful Usta craft form.