Artisans at work: Mahesh with his two sons, Mohit and Rohit
Masterful Carvers of Rajasthan
Working almost exclusively in rare sandalwoods, the Jangid family hand-sculpt elaborate art that has earned awards from Limca and the government of India
INDIA IS HOME TO A PLETHORA OF Handicrafts, partly due to its long cultural past and rural majority but also to its still compelling urge for ancestral occupations, passing skills down to sons and daughters. Handicraft guilds, emporiums and online markets bring India’s unique crafts to a world fatigued by stamped-out, extruded and now 3-D printed commodities. The rare charms of a handmade product place it in high demand, whether in the world of fabrics, jewelry, toys, accessories or ceramics.
Exemplifying this point is the Jangid family of Jaipur, in Rajasthan, India, an area that for centuries has been known worldwide for quality, elegance, design, ethnic flavor and unmatched workmanship in both utilitarian and artistic wooden masterpieces. The five-member family trace their craft back four generations to Shri Malchand Ji Jangid, grandfather of Mahesh Jangid and guru to the family. Mahesh, 47, has inspired his two sons, Mohit, 23, and Rohit, 21, to follow the family profession, even as their peers are leaving the field for more modern careers.
The three artists begin each carving day at 9am and work until 8pm, breaking only for lunch. Learning to sculpt with precision and exactness on a miniature scale that challenges even the most seasoned carvers, the family looks upon their craft as a lifelong journey—not as work so much as a calling, a mission in life and a pathway to personal and family fulfillment. As a result, they are at their tasks almost 365 days a year. Rohit notes, “This is our traditional work, and we are addicted and dedicated to it. This is a kind of worship for us. Also, it is the family’s only way to gain money. No other money-making job is allowed to distract us.”
The two brothers and their younger sister, a college student, are unmarried, so there is an unusually disciplined focus in the home. Rohit shares, “My mother, Prem Lata, is a gifted homemaker. She and my 19-year-old sister Pooja are our strength and motivation, doing so many things that allow us to sit for the needed hours of carving.”
A collection of the simple tools used for the intricate carvings, all done by hand
Using the simplest tools, these artisans faithfully adhere to their forefathers’ style, a loyalty that keeps the tradition of miniature carving alive for at least one more generation. “We make most of our own tools, according to our needs,” Rohit tells us—“small iron sticks, knives, chisels and tools for filing.”
Finding fresh projects is part of the drill—new items to carve, new designs and new clients. They use old books and the Internet to explore what others have produced and build their ideas creatively from the photos. They draw inspiration for their miniaturized carvings from history, mythology and day-to-day life in India. Their highly intricate designs are created by using a combination of carving methods, such as deep carving, shallow carving, latticework and fretwork on a nearly impossible miniature scale.
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A large carving called “The Ashram” with banyan trees, peacocks, monkeys and deer
One of the unique aspects of the works that Mahesh and his sons produce are the pockets that pull out to reveal tiny figurines and vignettes inside. Mohit enjoys making the miniature scenes the best: “I think the addition of these miniature carvings is most important to our work, because it makes all of our items more interesting and attractive.”
The Jangid family are also highly skilled in the art of tarkashi, inlay work on wood. In each cubic centimeter of inlaid work, up to 250 pieces of metal and wood are laid side by side. The art of inlay was highly developed in the Safavid era, during which artists created precious works including doors, windows, mirror frames, Quran boxes, inlaid boxes, pens and penholders, lanterns and inlaid ornamented shrines.
The family gets precious little assistance from outside; the private associations, councils and government departments are mostly ineffective. So they do everything themselves, including marketing to art collectors. To promote his work, Mahesh participates in national art and crafts exhibitions and fairs, such as Delhi Haat, Suraj Kund Mela and Master Creations Delhi. He also participates in international art exhibitions and fairs in France, Germany, Egypt, Malaysia, Poland, Switzerland and more.
What are the family’s modes of daily worship? Rohit shared, “We do worship when we get up, performing namaskaram and a puja of our great grandfather. He is the god of this work and our guru. We all visit the local temple at least once a week. No special mantras are used during the carving, but we always pray for good happiness, health and positivity around us, offering thanks to the Deities for giving this talent to us. Like all craftsmen, we worship our tools during Diwali puja. And each night we sing the Hanuman Chalisa together before dinner.”
One of the family’s most detailed works is a village scene called “The Ashram,” based on the story of Dushyanta’s marriage, separation and reunion with his queen Shakuntala. This completely hand-carved sandalwood miniature stands a little over 12 by 18 inches.
Another extremely impressive piece is the intricately carved Rajasthani hand fan, also made of sandalwood, with a peacock on the top that gives a pure Indian look. Concealed within the fan are several of the family’s trademark hidden scenes in small fold-out sections, depicting events in Lord Krishna’s life story: Shri Vashudeva crossing the river to save baby Krishna’s life, Shri Krishna eating butter with his brother Balarama, and Shri Krishna dancing on Kaliya Nag. This miniature stands at 12 by 20 inches.
The Jangids’ “Jharokha” piece is an ornate Ganesha wall shrine measuring 26 by 28 inches (see photo at bottom of next page). A jharokha is a type of overhanging enclosed balcony used in Indian architecture. This type of balcony is typically used in Rajputana, Mughal and Rajasthani architecture. Jharokhas jutting forward from the wall plane could be used both for adding to the design beauty of the building itself or for a specific purpose. One such function was to allow women in purdah to see the happenings outside the home without being seen themselves.
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Love of detail: Mahesh Jangid at work on a sitar; the award-winning 24-inch-tall Rajasthani doll with its many secret chambers
The woods typically used in India for ornamental and inlay work are walnut (Juglans regia), rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia), ebony (Diospyros spp.), teak (Tectonia grandis), sal (Shorea robusta) and sandalwood (Santalum album). The Jangid family works almost exclusively in sandalwood, due to its malleable characteristics and natural fragrance. Mahesh explains: “Sandalwood is the most conducive medium for our particular craft, because it is softer than most types of wood and easier for us to work with.”
Rohit adds, “I use only the richest quality of sandalwood, which is so expensive these days. Sandalwood is easily available here in Jaipur. I only buy auctioned sandalwood sold by the government of India. We don’t keep a stock, buying as required by each project.”
Rohit’s purchasing is limited by the strict laws of the land. In India every precious sandalwood tree is owned by the government. Even a tree on your own land does not belong to you. In many areas every tree is boldly marked with a number, so agents can be sure no trees go missing in the night.
Mahesh Jangid was born and raised in Rajasthan’s Churu District. He began woodcarving at the age of seven under the tutelage of his grandfather, Shri Malchand Ji, a nationally recognized woodcarver and National Award winner. After a basic education, Mahesh gave up studies to devote his life to carving sandalwood, and by the time he was twenty-four Mahesh had earned his own national carving award for extraordinary miniature work. In 1993 he won the National Award for his village scene carving, “The Ashram” (see here). He has passed on his passion and techniques to his sons, and they, too, have won multiple awards and recognition.
Mahesh broke a record when he carved the world’s smallest jointless chain from a single piece of sandalwood—one of his specialties. The chain is just under 12.5 inches long and weighs barely over 5.5 ounces. More recently he bested himself by carving a larger jointless chain, this one measuring ten feet long with 496 links and weighing, incredibly, less than half an ounce. Mahesh has many records for making these jointless chains—two in the Limca Book of Records, one in the Indian Book of Records and one in the Global World Record.
“The greatest challenge of my occupation,” Mahesh says, “is that people take my designs from the Internet and copy them in other ordinary wood, producing cheap-quality work. This affects the popularity of my items. And there is no support from the government for us—quite the opposite. The Indian government has applied a 5 percent value-added tax on handicrafts this year, and they announced the age limit for the national award is 32. No older artist can apply for the national award this year.”
The Jangid family in front of their studio/home; fan; a sitar with hinged vault; a Ganesha wall shrine called “Jharokha”
Mohit was born in Jaipur and was initiated into the craft at a young age. After graduating from school, he chose to dedicate his life to woodcarving, having already practiced the art for fifteen years. He feels strongly that the Jangid family possess a rare woodcarving talent, and he would rather spend his life learning and developing that skill than taking a job he “wouldn’t have respect for.” Mohit feels he and his brother can do much better in life with woodcarving than in a job with limits—“a limited salary, limited time and limited work. Woodcarving, on the other hand, is limitless,” he explains.
“I do prefer miniature work, because I’ve seen this type of carving from my childhood. Miniature work is the most important aspect of our work, because it makes our items unique in all the world. We can make all kinds of carved products, but miniature carving is my favorite. I give my best to the tiniest projects, and I always enjoy it.”
Like his father, Mohit is no stranger to awards and records. In 2008-09 he received the State Award from Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Shri Ashok Gahlot for Excellence in Sandalwood Carving. He also holds a world record for the smallest playable violin, a remarkable four-stringed instrument measuring just over five inches tall and not quite 3/4 inch wide that is exactly to scale.
Mohit’s knowledge of the epics and other religious texts helps him bring a rare blend of tradition, beauty and craftsmanship to his creations. “I enjoy all the carving we do,” he says, “but carving the ‘Rajasthani Doll’ was my favorite project. This piece shows the beauty of the Rajasthani lady with our traditional jewelry and it tells the story of Rajasthani freedom fighters.”
Rohit also learned the family craft from his father from a young age. Still in school (though near graduation), he cannot dedicate to carving full-time just yet—but he already holds a record in the Indian Book of Records for his wooden house-fly, and some national and local records for the same piece. Rohit tells us: “I like miniature work in my art. Miniature carving involves engraving the wood on the contours of the design with the utmost care. We, the Jangids, are the only people who make these kind of carving products with scenes in flipped lids. All scenes have their own story.” Rohit loves to show people his work and see their surprise when he opens the lids to reveal intricate details they did not expect. The surprise is a big part of the discovery and the charm of the design.
We asked Rohit how he finishes his work: “After I complete my artwork, I don’t oil it. I keep it original. I give a final touch with a dry brush.” How long does it take to complete a major work by hand and what price might he expect to receive upon sale? Rohit responds, “The large Rajasthani doll took a full three months with all three of us working on it. This is one of our finest pieces. The price depends on size. Small pieces go for $200 to $2,000. For the larger works, around twenty-four inches and above, it is higher; and for a museum-quality piece we receive about 500,000 rupees ($7,500).” Rohit brings his work to national and local art and craft exhibitions. Readers wishing to see more or acquire these masterpieces can visit www.mrhandicrafts.in.
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Mahesh can rest assured that his sons will continue the family carving tradition. Both sons say they would not want to do anything else. Mohit, who recently completed his formal education, says, “I will continue to do this work for the rest of my life, because carving has no limits. How much we do and how far we go is all up to us. I like that we always get to do new things, new designs, more miniature work, etc. I would not have this kind of freedom with any other job. I am absolutely addicted to my work and am so happy that I have the talent to do this.” Rohit says, “We work at home, so I will definitely teach this work to my future children. But if they then want to go into some other profession, I will support them.” Rohit tells us he also had the option to choose another profession, but he picked carving for his life’s work. He feels nobody should be confined to a profession that doesn’t call forth his highest abilities—that it’s best to teach him a skill, and then he can continue the work if he wants.
Mahesh exults, “I feel so proud of both of my sons for following our traditional craft. They are so dedicated to this work and are very creative. They are always thinking about how to make their carvings more attractive and beautiful. So I think they both will do much better in their lives.”