The more than 200-year-old craft of Udayagiri wooden cutlery is shining bright as a beacon in this age when the need for environment-friendly, biodegradable, locally made, and sourced items used in the food industry has increased manifold. Granted the Geographical Identification (GI) tag, applied jointly by The Andhra Pradesh Technology Development and Promotion Centre and Andhra Pradesh Handicrafts Development Corporation, Udayagiri wooden cutlery has received a significant value addition.
Past And Present Continued Sense
This labour-intensive craft was invented in Udayagiri, in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh, during the rule of the Nawabs of Arcot, and the jagirdar, or landowner, Mustafa Ali Khan. He was granted the jagir, or ownership of the region, by the Nawabs of Arcot. Khan and his descendants reigned over the area till 1839. During these reigns of different dynasties, the royals and jagirdars patronised the Udayagiri artisans, and the craft reached new heights. The arrival of the British East India Company, and their death-wielding anti-handicraft policies for India, pushed the Udayagiri craft almost to extinction however, the craft persisted and has now been revived.
Traditionally, the craft was male-dominated however, now, women are at the forefront. The most prominent and awarded names are that of Shaikh Ghousia Begum, a generational artisan, and she has trained several women to carry forward the art of wood carving. Ghousia Begum was awarded the Dr. YSR Achievement Award 2021. Now her son Zaheer Sheikh also has taken charge of the reins and is steering the local community of craftspeople. Additionally, some artisans have come together to set up the Udayagiri Cutlery Mutual Aided Cooperative Society.
Mind Over Material
The range of handmade wooden cutlery consists of forks, spoons, knives, scoopers, spatulas, ladles, bowls, and plates of all sizes. Each item is carved with Persian-style motifs such as the amini, khajuri, kangura and the beautiful dargah ki jaali. The wood is sourced from the Durgampalli hills, and nardi, devadari, bikki, kaldi, or palabarki tree wood is used for the cutlery. The softest wood, nardi, is only used for decorative items, while the hard kaldi wood is used for making items of daily use.
Once the wood is acquired, the logs are stored for around ten days to be de-moisturised. They are soaked in water and put out to dry again before carefully cutting them into smaller blocks, making them easier to carve. The next step is to wrap up the blocks with jute rope and compress them with a heavy stone slab. This technique renders the wood fibres soft and the block more suited to being carved. The basic shape of the cutlery is marked on the block, and carved with the chisel, or the gor uli. This requires focus and a steady hand as the wood has turned quite soft, and one wrong scoop can ruin the design. The other tools which are used to shape, file, and carve the intricate patterns on the stem of the cutlery are file, or gol kaadi, and the paper finishing machine, which is used for the large cutlery.
A Firm Hand
About 400 families in Udayagiri practice this craft, and more needs to be done by the authorities by way of providing solutions for the easy acquisition of local raw materials, mechanisation to a certain extent, increasing marketing for better visibility of the products, and putting stringent laws in place for preventing fake products, and ensuring a higher minimum-price. As it happens, even though the artisans participate in most exhibitions organised by the government and the NGOs, they find that their GI-tagged products are being sold further up the supply chain, at much higher rates, and that too without any monetary returns or creation credit to the craftspeople.
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