Bell metal and brass have been the most commonly used metals
for the Assamese artisan. Traditional utensils and fancy articles designed
by these artisans are found in every Assamese household. The 'Xorai' and
'Bota' have been in use for centuries, to offer betel nut and paan while
welcoming a distinguished guest.
Brass is an important cottage industry with highest concentration in Hajo of Kamrup district. The Sarthebari area of the same district is well known for its bell metal craft. The principal items of brass are the 'kalah' (water pot), 'sarai' (a platter or tray mounted on a base), 'kahi' (dish), 'bati' (bowl), 'lota' (water pot with a long neck) and 'tal' (cymbals).
They have also used their innovative skills to design modern-day articles to compete with the changing times. Gold, silver and copper too have formed part of traditional metal-craft in Assam and the State Museum in Guwahati has a rich collection of items made of these metals. Gold however is now used only for ornaments.
Cane and bamboo have remained inseparable parts of life in
Assam. They happen to be the two most commonly used items in daily life,
ranging from household implements to construction of dwelling houses to
weaving accessories to musical instruments.
The 'jaapi', the traditional sum-shade continues to be the most prestigious of bamboo items of the state, and it has been in use since the days when the great Chinese traveller Hiuen `Tsang came to Assam that visitors are welcomed with a jaapi.
Cane and bamboo furniture on the other hand have been a hit both in the domestic as well as export market, while 'paati', the traditional mat has found its way into the world of interior decoration. A whole range of fishing implements, 'jokoi', 'khaloi', 'juluki', 'polo' and so on, are also made of bamboo and cane, while their replicas have found place in the modern day drawing room.
Assam is the home of several types of silks, the most
prominent and prestigious being 'muga', the golden silk exclusive only to
this state. Apart from muga, there is 'paat', as also 'eri', the later
being used in manufacture of warm clothes for winter.
Every Assamese woman irrespective of caste, creed or religion can weave clothes on the loom. 'Mekhelas', 'Chadars', 'Rihas', 'Gamochas', you just name them, and they will weave them for you. Weaving in Assam, as they say, is not just a commercial venture, but is actually a labour of love.
The Enchanting Attires
The famous 'Vrindavani Vastra', now preserved in a London museum in bits and pieces, was woven by none other than Shri Sankaradeva, the great religious and social leader of the 16th century Assam. Weaving in Assam is so replete with artistic sensibility and so intimately linked to folk life that Gandhiji, during his famous tour to promote "Khadi" and "Swadeshi", was so moved that he remarked: "Assamese women weave fairy tales in their clothes!"
The Tribals on the other hand have a wide variety of colourful costumes, some of which have earned international repute through the export market.
The toys of Assam have been broadly classified under four
Wooden and Bamboo Toys
Cloth and Cloth-and-Mud Toys
A Traditional Craft
While the human figure, especially dolls, brides and grooms, is the most common theme of all kinds of toys, a variety of animal forms have also dominated the clay-toy scene of Assam. Clay toys, traditionally made by the 'Kumhar' and 'Hira' communities, have often depicted different animals too, while gods, goddesses and other mythological figures also find importance in the work of the traditional artist.
'Pith' or Indian Cork has also been used for toy making since centuries in Assam. Such toys are chiefly made in the Goalpara region and they include figures of gods, animals and birds, the last of which again dominate the over-all output. Wood and bamboo on the other hand have been in use for making toys for several centuries and like the other mediums, come as birds, animals and human figures.
Toys of cloth as also with a mixture of cloth and mud too have constituted part of the rich Assamese toy-making tradition. While the art of making cloth toys have been traditionally handed down from mother to daughter in every household, the cloth and mud toys are generally used for puppet theatres. Among the household toys, the bride and groom are the most common characters, while the other varieties have animals and mythological characters as the plays demand.
Pottery is probably as old as human civilisation itself. In
Assam, pottery can be traced back to many centuries back. "Varahamihira",
as the legend goes, stayed in a potters' village called "Lehidongora"
on his tour to Kamrupa, where later was born, of his blessings, "Daak-Purush",
known for his famous sayings.
The Kumhars and Hiras are two traditional potter communities of Assam and while the Kumars use the wheel to produce his pots, the Hiras are probably the only potters in the world who do not use the wheel at all. Again, among the Hiras, only the womenfolk are engaged in pottery works, while their men help them in procuring raw materials and selling the wares.
The most commonly used pottery products include earthen pots and pitchers, plates, incense-stick holders, earthen lamps etc, while modern-day decorative have also found place in their latest designs.
Assam has always remained one of the most forest-covered
states of the country and the variety of wood and timber available here
have formed part of the people's culture and economy. An Assamese is said
to be able to identify the timber by touching it even in darkness and has
produced a series of items from it.
Decorative panels in the royal 'Ahom' palaces of the past and the 600-year old 'Sattras' or Vaishnavite monasteries are intricately carved on wood. A special class of people who excelled in woodcarving came to be known as "Khanikar", a surname proudly passed down from generation to generation.
The various articles in a Sattra and 'Naamghar' (place of worship) are still cut on wood, depicting the 'Guru Asana' (pedestal of the lords), apart from various kinds of birds and animals figuring in mythology. Modern-day Khanikars have taken to producing articles of commercial value, including figures of one-horned Rhino and replicas of the world-famous Kamakhya temple - two items heading the list of demands of a visitor from outside.
With the tribal art and folk elements forming the base of
Assamese culture, masks have found an important place in the cultural
activities of the people. Masks have been widely used in folk theatres and
'Bhaonas', with the materials ranging from terracotta to pith to metal,
bamboo and wood. In the bhaonas, masks are a must; especially for those
playing the parts of mythological characters like 'Hanuman', 'Ravana',
'Garuda', 'Jatayu' etc. and these are made from different materials
varying from place to place.
Similarly, among the tribals too, the use of masks is varied and widespread, especially in their colourful dances, which again revolve chiefly around their typical tribal myths and folklore. Such traditional masks have of late found their way to the modern-day drawing rooms as decorative items and wall hangings, thus providing self-employment opportunities to those who have been traditionally making them.
Gold has always constituted the most-used metal for
jewellery in Assam, while the use of silver and other metals too have been
there for centuries. Gold was locally available, flowing down several
Himalayan Rivers, of which Subansiri is the most important. In fact, a
particular tribe of people, the Sonowal Kacharis was engaged only for gold
washing in these rivers.
Jorhat in Upper Assam is one place where the traditional Assamese form of manufacture of jewellery is still in vogue, and people flock to the Jorhat Sonaris to get the exquisite Assamese jewellery. Assamese jewellery include the 'Doog-Doogi', 'Loka-Paro', 'Bana', 'Thuriya', 'Gaam-Gharu', 'Gal-Pata', 'Jon-Biri', 'Dhol-Biri' and 'Keru'.
Terracotta as a medium has dominated the handicraft scene of Assam since time immemorial. While the famous Ambari excavation in the heart of Guwahati threw light on the rich tradition that this craft has been handed down from generation to generation without break. Today we have the descendents of such families engaged in improvised terracotta versions of various common figures from gods and goddesses to mythological characters, while toys, vases, etc have also found a new life. The Kumhar and Hira communities have also improved their skills to compete with the modern competitors, in the process adding new vigour to their traditional wares.
The tradition of paintings in Assam can be traced back to
several centuries in the past. The gifts presented to Hiuen `Tsang and
Harshavardhana by Kumar Bhaskara, the king of Kamrupa, included a number
of paintings and painted objects, some done on exclusive Assam Silk.
Assamese literature of the medieval period abound in reference to
'Chitrakars' and 'Patuas' who were expert painters who used various
locally-available materials like 'Hengool' and 'Haital'.
A large number of manuscripts of that era have excellent paintings in them, some of the most famous being "Hastividyarnava" (a treatise on elephants), "Chitra-Bhagavata" and Gita-Govinda. Ahom palaces and Sattras and Naamghars etc. still abound in brightly-colorued paintings depicting various stories and events from history and mythology. In fact, the motifs and designs contained in Chitra-Bhagavata have now become a traditional style for Assamese painters of the later period and are still in practice today.