Delhi Art & Craft


Delhi prides itself in its rich crafts tradition that sturck root during the reign of Emperor Shahjahan. It was in his new city of Shahjahanabad that arts and crafts proliferated. Artisans and craftspersons were invited, bought, won in battles or gifted by other sovereigns. They settled within the estates, in the karkhanas (workshops) of the noblemen and princes, and nurtured their special styles and sensibilities with a finesse developed over years of learning. The evolving Shahjahanabad was a maze of avenues and alleys, dictated by trade'and commerce. Specific streets derived their names and character from different crafts and occupations.

Their inheritors, painstakingly, and often against all odds, carried on the secret code of these special knowledge systems, with their fingers, their eyes, mind and soul. Today what we see as meticulously beautiful in craft, design and conception is a real testimony to this inheritance.

Despite modernity and its aggressive onslaught, despite urban sharks and middlemen, many traditional crafts have survived and have evolved new parameters of aesthetic and commercial value.

Craft, unlike so-called 'fine' art, is an expression of functional necessity, directly affecting peoples' daily lives. Design intervention and adaptations have rejuvenated some crafts which are alive and pulsating in the labyrinthine lanes of Delhi.


Kinari Bazaar, a narrow lane off Chandni Chowk, displays a dazzling array of gold embroidered garments. Available in the numerous small shops here are multiple applications of zardozi or intricate hand embroidery done with gold and silver threads. However, its sophisticated application is to be seen in the boutiques of New Delhi.
A talk with Gul Mohammed, a national award winner for the best craftsperson of zardozi work, reveals the inner architecture of work and space. He negotiates the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad into courtyards, through verandahs and secret passages, up staircases into room-lined landings and further up to tiny rooftop penthouses and then down again into adjacent streets, tracing zardozi workers, mostly women their bodies crouched next to wooden frames with fabric stretched across, fabric ranging from the most diaphanous silks to the heaviest velvets and damasks.
Nimble fmgers pluck away with fme needles at gold, silver and coloured threads, beads and spangles. The patterns are phool-patti (flower and leaf). Today, contemporary patterns have been assimilated into the vocabulary. Gotas, or woven tapes of gold and silver, are stitched in geometric patterns on lehngas (ankle-length skirts), saris and veils. The embroidered fabric could finally end up as wedding garments, temple hangings, bags, shoe- uppers, caps or even decorative cloth for draping a bridegroon's horse.


Behind Asaf Ali Poad, as you go in from Turkman Gate into Hauz Suiwalan, one of the little alleys leads to Hazarilal's house. He is the only practitioner of the Delhi Blue Pottery tradition. A special mix of powdered quartz is used to make the stoneware base which is then glazed blue, with ingredients which werer used for the blue tiles of pre-Mughal and Mughal domes, a style inherited from Persia.


The tradition of the Delhi school of miniature painting has continued from the time of Emperor Jehangir, father of Shahjahan. The Delhi school is an offshoot of the Mughal painting tradition. Mansoor, a painter in Jehangir 's court, was apprenticed to the Iranian miniature painters, Mir Ali and Abdul Samer during the 16th century. The Delhi school was distinguished for its dynamism and naturalism in treatment, contrast of colours and strong urban influence. The preferred base for the painting was ivory, but today special handmade paper is used.
In the Zakir Nagar house of Firozbhai, Faridbhai and Akhtarbhai, direct descendants of Mansoor, the ambience is that of a medieval studio. They prepare their own brushes with squirrel hair inserted into quills with specifications for fine single hair lines or thicker strokes. Only herbal and mineral colours are used. The gold-leaf work is the last to be applied before burnishing with agate stones.

IVORY CARVING Ivory was in Mughat India a symbol of aristocracy. African ivory was coveted as a material for its close grain, though Indian ivory was extensively used. Furniture, screens, lamps, platters and decorative items were inlaid with gold, silver, precious stones and miniature paintings. The carving was delicate, as can be seen in the screens in the Red Fort Archaeological Museum.
Delhi Ivory Palace, a 300-year-old shop at the northern gate of Jama Masjid, attracted the best craftsmen who lived in Shahjahanabad. It has, in its collection an old set of furniture carved by three generations of craftsmen which was intended as a gift for Queen Victoria. Because of the ban on ivory, craftsmen now work on bone for small items such as pendants and earrings, and on sandalwood.


Dariba Kalan near Chandni Chowk, known as the jeweller's street, is famous for Meenakari or the art of enamelling on silver and gold. Setting in gold of navaratan (nine precious stones), is a traditional skill of Muslim craftsmen called Saadegars who settled in Delhi during Shahjahan's time. Dariba also has Hindu craftsmen from Punjab and Bengal who specialise in gold and silver work.
The sarafs, sellers of jewellery, are mostly Hindus and have been around for more than two centuries. Over the years, a lot of work has sifted from gold to silver and gold-plated silver ornaments. Exquisite handcrafted silver ornaments are also available in Dariba Kalan.


Uttam Nagar and Bindapur in west Delhi are where most potters in the city live. Most of them are originally from Rajasthan and Haryana. A neatly laid-out settlement in Uttam Nagar called Kumhar Colony (kumhar meaning potter) was built in the 1970s to suit their specific needs. This is a unique case of group migration and solidarity. Most kumhars fan out to various parts of the city and establish pavement stalls from where they sell their wares.
The crafting of objects of everyday use like clay pitchers, cooking pots ar small oil lamps continues. Modern adaptations include flower pots and exotic display pots and planters. Quality earthenware is available at the Crafts Museum in Pragati Maidan, Dilli Haat, Lajpat Nagar and along major roads and at the annual Surajkuna Crafts Mela.


Opposite the Shadipur Bus Depot in west Delhi, one dips under the flyover and turns left into a deceptively innocuous street marked by a small stall of dholak (drum) sellers. This is settlement of Rajasthani puppeteers, street performers and craftspeople who migrated to Delhi decades ago. Puppets, large and small are made here as well as big, dramatic sculptures.
Families of the Bhopa community who live here are traditionally storytellers. Their women sing out the stories which are, in turn painted horizontal scrolls. The paintings are folk versions of the Rajasthani school of miniature painting. The painting are adapted to surfaces such as wood and clay, on furniture and decorative pots. The densely packed images are lyrical tales of local heroes.


There are a few old shops dealing in musical instruments, most of which brought to Delhi from various parts of India. Here, assemblage work is done, such as fitting of hide membranes of tablas, dholaks and other drums.Harmoniums are set. String instruments such as dilruba, israj and sarod are fitted, and the single-stringed ektara is made. One of the oldest shops dealing in musical instruments is Bina Musical Stores in Nai Sarak. Rishi Ram at Connaught Circus is known for its sitars.
The same tazia-makers also make huge Ravana effigies during the Hindu festival of Dussehra which are packed with fire crackers and burnt with flaming arrows. Their work place is known as teer ghar meaning house of arrows. They are also involved in making tazias with flowers for the festival of Phoolwalon ki Sair at Mehrauli.

The making of paper kites caters to the famous kite-flying mania of Dilliwalas which reaches its height during the monsoons, especially on 15 August, India's Independence Day, and during the spring festival of Basant Panchami. The patang or kite market in Lal Kuan Bazaar in Shahjahanabad is then a riot of colours. Kites come in all sizes, ranging from 36 inches to their miniature versions, which are available at the Crafts Museum, Dilli Haat and Central Cottage Industries Emporium. However, the two standard sizes are 12 inches and 15 inches. Kites made of plastic sheets are also available.