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Usta – Heritage Art of Rajasthan

Usta is a combination of many different form of arts and techniques and is commonly practiced in Rajasthan, India.

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Pradeep Chamaria
Pradeep Chamaria
I am a photojournalist. Love to travel to unknown and unexplored vistas. Since 1992, I make places desirable for other travelers through experiential Travel Writing.

India. Rajasthan: Indian traditional art forms and artists are unique to the locations they come from and to the culture that they belong to. Almost every region in India has an art form associated with it. Rajasthan is one state in India that is famous for its forts and havelies and the exquisite artwork inside them. Frescoes in havelies, Usta, Minakari, Thewa, and Kundan in jewellery are exquisite symbols of uniqueness.

Mirror Frame, Usta Art. Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria

Usta Art

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Some art forms were brought into Rajasthan by the invaders and flourished during the 16th-19th century. Usta art is one of them which came from Iran and flourished in the Mughal durbars and inter-mingled with the Indian culture. Raja Rai Singh, the then king of Bikaner, brought Usta artists (who do the delicate nakashi work) to his kingdom. These Usta artists developed a new stream of Usta art – Sunehri Manouati Nakashi or gold embossed work, that involves a backbreaking process, involving hours and hours of patience and is completed in many stages. The unique form of Nakashi and Manouati on walls, pillars, ceilings, wood, glass, stones, marbles, and camel hides can be seen used in various historical monuments and forts in Rajasthan.

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Usta is a combination of many different forms of arts and techniques and is commonly practiced in the Bikaner district of the state. The term USTA is derived from the Persian word ‘USTAD’ or master in a particular art or several arts. The art form has been in practice for ages, but like many other forms, somehow is on the brink of extinction nowadays because of the influence of the modern lifestyle.

Usta Arts’s most unique thing is its fine and detailed work. The technique is characterized by miniature paintings and gold embossing on various surfaces. The unique gold embossing and magnificent Usta paintings of that period can still be seen at palaces inside the Junagarh fort today in Anup mahal, Phool Mahal and Karan Mahal and also at Bhanwar Niwas, and Hotel Gaj Kesri. Narendra Bhawan’s interiors have some wonderful collection of this art work.

Usta Art Workshop Wall. Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria
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The Process involved in Usta art

Usta art involves miniature paintings with gold and spaces filled with bright Meena colours and vice versa too. It can be done on various surfaces; the only condition is that it has to be smooth. During the British period it was done on camel hides too, to make saddles, bags, water bottles – Kupi, etc.

In simple words, Nakashi and Manouati, both are types of lacquer work using real gold, handmade paint and executed with fine line “Siyahi” technique. The artists earlier have used only naturally available vegetable dyes to bring in the vibrancy. Though today, most commercially available colours are used.

The vibrant colours used in Bikaner’s miniature painting have a direct relation to the arid landscape of Bikaner and were made from naturally available material. Vegetable and mineral colours used mahawar (marinade itrifolia) and goondi (gum plant) for the red pigments, Indigo (south Indian vegetable) to produce a bright blue when mixed with gold, Lazward (ground lapis lazuli) for deep blue, Sindur (red arsenic) for orangish-red, etc.  

Steps for making an Usta Art piece

Nakashi can only be done on a smooth surface, so the base surface is smoothened and prepared by applying natural primer. The surface is then tightened and fixed and the basic outlines of the design are drawn; AKHBARA. The designs are first made on paper and the outlines of the pattern are punched on the paper with pins thrust along the tracery of the design. The design is then traced on the surface using indigo or coal powder which filters through the pin-holes on the paper and traces the outline of the intended design on the surface. The manouat is then done over the akhbara which creates an embossed effect.

Tools of an Usta Artist. Photo Credits: Pradeep Chamaria

The embossed surface is then painted upon with a colour called paveri first, and thereafter a colour made from sindur and rogan (prepared by adding chandrush and linseed oil and heating it) is applied.

Once dried, a paste made of pot clay powder, gum, jaggery and naushadar, and other secret materials is applied on the floral design. On this embossed design, two coats of yellow paint are applied. When the coat attains a consistency, the gold foils are applied and details of embossing are drawn. Then ink (Sihayi) is used with a brush made of squirrel hair to fill the design with different colours. The remaining surface is filled with other vibrant colours. The risen surface is painted in gold while the base is painted black or red.

Visit to Bikaner to experience Usta Art

During The Transcontinental Times visit to Bikaner, we met Mr. Sunil Rampuria at Hotel Gaj Kesari, who currently supports a small karkhana (studio) in Bhanwar Niwas (ancestral Rampuria Haveli and a heritage residency now). A small team of 3rd and 4th generation artisans are involved in making Usta art novelties, and also teaching the art to the new generations.

Mr. Rampuria said, “Usta art has passed down through several generations. This art form demands tremendous hard work and commands a princely price, and as a result, not many buyers are there.”

He was hopeful that with his efforts and also with the efforts of other people, the art will survive and find its luster again. And I also hope so, after all, it is the pride of India.

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