Tarakasi Art – On The Brink of Survival

If Bhubaneswar is known as the City of Temples then its twin Cuttack, renowned for its varied cultural practices, historical aspects and craftsmanship is celebrated as the Silver City. Cuttack is the anglicized form of Katak that translates to ‘Fort’ which here is the Barabati Fort, the erstwhile capital of Odisha.

Cuttack city which is located on a spit of land between the Kathajodi and the Mahanadi Rivers was established as a military cantonment by King NrupaKeshari in 989 CE. During the Ganga Period (13th century CE), it became the capital city and continued to be so till India’s independence. After the death of Raja Mukund Dev, the last Hindu king of Odisha, Cuttack was brought under the Muslim rule in the 16th Century CE and later under the Mughals, Cuttack flourished as the seat of Odisha Subah. In 1750 CE, Cuttack came under the Maratha rule and grew as a vibrant business centre on the east coast of India. Its prosperity continued during the colonial era and Cuttack emerged as both a culturally and an economically prolific city.

Filigree or Tarakasi is Cuttack’s USP and this art was introduced to the city some 500 years ago. According to Wikipedia, filigree is a delicate kind of jewellery metal work of usually gold and silver made with tiny beads or twist thread or both in combination, soldered together on the surface of an object of the same metal and arranged in artistic motifs.

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Archaeological evidences suggest that filigree was incorporated into jewellery as early as 3500 BCE in Mesopotamia where it is practiced even today as Telkari work.   According to historians, there is every possibility that the tarakasi work reached Cuttack from Persia through Indonesia some 500 years ago by sea trade. The argument is based on similar workmanship seen in both Cuttack and Indonesia. It was during the Mughal Era, that the craft received royal patronage and today, Cuttack Tarakasi is world renowned for its delicate artistry and excellent craftsmanship.

The main attraction of Cuttack Tarakasi is its fine spider web work. Rose flower is one of the main elements in its repertoire of design motifs. One rose takes about 3 to four hours to make. Beside jewellery, works of creative art portraying iconic monuments of Odisha, replica of Lord Jagannath, other Hindu gods and goddesses, flora and fauna and in recent years a number of contemporary themes, such as currency notes, chariots, rickshaws, bicycles, and so on are also seen in the market.

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Tarakasi involves a number of steps. Artisans who are mostly goldsmiths work with 90% silver alloy. A lump of silver is placed on a small clay pot over a bucket full of charcoal. A hand operated bellow is used to regulate the temperature. It takes about 10 mins to melt the silver lump. The molten silver is then poured into a rod shaped mould which is further put in water for cooling. A machine is used to create thin silver wires from the rod. Wires are then carved into a number of intricate designs, which are first drawn on paper. On the other hand, thick silver wires are used as frames into which thin wires are embedded through the process of soldering.  There are about 90 types of wire designs of spirals and curls, creepers and jaalis, which the artisans use to create the outline.

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In the early 20th century, due to the lack of patronage, tarakasi work of Cuttack had almost vanished. Thanks to Madhusudan Das, the architect of modern Odisha and a resident of the city, a craft workshop named Utkal Arts Work Factory was set up to revive the centuries old craft. In 1962, former Chief Minister Biju Patnaik established the Kalinga Filigree Cooperative Society to help local tarakasi artisans.

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Today there are about 400 artisans in Cuttack working but the craft is in danger due to a number of factors, such as competition from Kolkata, which produces coarse but affordable silver filigree items, lack of interest among the new generation because of its labour intensive and time consuming nature, increase in the cost of raw material, poor returns to the artisans and absence of a strong community based leadership.

The situation looks bleak but there is hope. As I talked to Mr. Ashok Vora, a leading merchant of Cuttack dealing with tarakasi craft, I discovered that there is a revival of interest among art connoisseurs and general public alike owing to its exquisite and intricate filigree work. Only time will tell whether the art survives or not though I remain hopeful.

 

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

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