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A Master Craftsmen Crusades to Conserve the Dying Art of Camel Bone Craftsmanship

To understand this intricate art, demands stepping into a haze, covered with dust, the colour of dirty snow. The sight that welcomes is a large room full of young, enthusiastic artists feverishly concentrating on their creation. Their facial features are tough to fetch as they are covered in bone dust from head to toe, like a uniform that wraps them in their identity, the identity of being harbingers of a dying art form, the intricate and beautiful camel bone handicrafts.

On one of its documentation trips, Project Kalayatra met award winning master craftsman Zakir Hussain, enlightening us on the crusade to protect this dying art form. An art conservationist, Hussain is an artist in true character, he is unabashed, honest and his fingers carve out some of the most beautiful artefacts worked out of camel bone. His mentorship program involving young men who are encouraged to work with him and learn the art while they are awarded by a monthly stipend has helped incredibly in preserving this art form. Having represented India in numerous art summits across the globe, he had recently returned from one in Italy, sent there by the Indian government.  The mentorship program, though Hussain’s brainchild, has got backing from the government too, though the battle has been far from easy.

Hussain speaks at length about the beauty of the craft, the zeal of the youngsters, the worries that plague them and the help by the government in all its honest truth.  Here’s the story of these gifted craftsmen, huddled together in the workshop near Hanuman Chowk, Jodhpur. The tale of an art form, he is working relentlessly to preserve, the camel bone artistry from Rajasthan.

The Art

Camel Bone Artisans work with tremendous focus, the beauty of the art lies in its intricacy. The machines used in the craft are delicate and equally dangerous and include grinders and shapers, they are sharper than the sharpest knives. The art demands not just determination but also courage and good lungs, the camel bone dust can be asthmatic and is not easy to work in. The artists work in these conditions for hours, sometimes almost 18-20 hours a day, creating the souvenirs. The camel bone is collected from dead camels, once the flesh has decomposed. The bones with the toughest structure like the hip and legs are the once usually used for handicraft purpose. The bones are sent to the Nigam offices and sold under auction. A chemical treatment makes them ready to be carved into designs of the artist’s choice.

Mentorship Programme

Zakir Hussain was a trader before plunging into the art of camel bone designs, two decades ago. A craft he learned when young, Hussain has spent days with no sleep, working on intricate designs which need time, aesthetic ideas and concentration. The master craftsman runs a mentorship programme that teaches young artists the engineering behind the art and then allows them to become independent artists. With the migration of younger generation to metros abandoning their family craft, there was a period which was disastrous. But now, the art is thriving. Artists who have no history of bone crafting in their families too have found a reason to come and learn the trade. The fight to get them the recognition and impart a meaning to their work, which also involved economic support has been tough and they had to fight tooth and nail with the Indian Government for the same.

The Crusade

Months into the mentorship, the struggle paved way to a stipend that was due to all the apprentices. A blend of Art and Trade, this mentorship programme has seen dozens of camel bone artisans, learning and turning independent.  Hussain says, “I have seen a number of crafts at the brink of death in Rajasthan and I make a point to speak about it during every summit or conference, I am invited to. We have created a number of camel bone artefacts which also involve some sent as official record holders to New Delhi. What we need is a place to exhibit and sell these handicraft forms, which is easily accessible to the public, locals and tourists alike.” According to Hussain, Shilpagram was formed with the same idea in Udaipur, yet the accessibility and awareness deficient fails the purpose. He emphasises that what is also needed is awareness of the fact that every craft demands the artist to undergo a tremendous amount of hard work for its creation and that needs to be respected and awarded. In the recent past, guides from the Mehrangarh Fort who are locals and well versed with the art forms have been transferring the information to tourists, which in turn has helped various art forms. There is a huge demand for the craft, internationally. Yet, there is tension with regards to appreciation and economic independence from within, as is with any other art form in the country. If not addressed duly, this can lead to the death of many indigenous art forms from India, in the coming decade. As Zakir Hussain rightly puts, “The mentorship programme is a drop in the ocean and the battle is far from over. “

The master craftsman signs off with the hint of a question but also with courage and confidence that also lights up the faces of half a dozen young men, sitting in the workshop, bent over their design, protecting and conserving a dying art form, ceaselessly. Covered in camel bone dust, though their features remain flecked, these artists have turned heroes, an inspiration for many who are fighting this battle, every day..