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Where doors tell tales – art of doors

April 2nd, 2009

The architectural heritage of India is interleaved with images of a long and ancient history that has patterned the philosophy and lifestyle of its people so that there is an infinite variety of architectural forms. Grandiose palaces, venerable temples, churches, mosques and monumental tombs dot the country.

In particular, the doorway has always been the focus of design as it holds a special significance in every aspect of thought.

Traditionally, in the simplest home, the step of a guest through the threshold is considered a matter of honour and the entrance of the house is commonly festooned with mango leaves that spell prosperity or there is the sign of the Swastika, representing Ganesh, the god of luck. The door may thus be decorated or symbolically engraved in a gesture of welcome. In their artistry, entrances to shrines are unmatched, adorned as they are with a spirit of devotion. For sheer splendour, one must turn to the massive doors of palaces and commemorative gates that speak of the glory of the ruler and the conqueror.

Building traditions in India are therefore surcharged with ideological concepts. For this reason, creativity and the planning process are intertwined so that architecture has always been supported by the dexterous hands of the craftsman.

According to recorded history, artisan tradition has its genesis in the Indus Valley Civilisation, when the potter’s wheel and the control of fire was first discovered. The craftsman then learnt to experiment with new kinds of tools and also learnt to cast and forge metals. According to Panini, the ancient historian in the 5th century B.C., the potter, blacksmith and carpenter were an integral part of the village, besides the barber and the washerman. The artisan’s knowledge was specialised and conserved within his family, to be passed on through Sanskrit verse and diagrams. There was, even then a tremendous perception to proportion and colour with defined rules of length and breadth so that admirable works of scale and symmetry were produced. The craftsman was then also the designer.

However, through the ages, the realm of craft and architecture gradually became fields of individual specialisation. This happened in the course of the multiple invasions into India that culminated with the Mughal period when art and architecture reached their zenith before the British take over of the country.

It was then that building activity became a joint venture between local Hindu master builders and Muslim overseers as the first Slave king, Qutb-ud-din Aibak had no time to import artisans from his country, so keen was he to perpetuate his name by building the massive victory tower, the Qutb Minar. Other ambitious rulers like Alauddin Khalji tried to build complete new cities like the city of Sikri in the neighbourhood of the Qutb complex. He marked the entrance of his city with Alai Darwaza, a cubic volume, crowned by a hemispherical dome. This was when the true arch and the dome were first introduced to the Hindus. The Tughlaq Dynasty followed with more building activity, making cities like Tughlaqabad and Firoz Shah Kotla.

For some time, the Lodi Dynasty held nominal sway in Delhi, making no spectacular contribution to architecture save for the octagonal tomb. It was with the Mughal empire that there was a flowering of a new style of architecture in which the craftsman reigned supreme. The chief personality in building activity was Akbar, whose style was unique as it was eclectic. Sikri near Agra which he envisioned as his capital, was later abandoned. It was here that the first massive doorway of its kind was made, the Buland Darwaza. It is built on a platform which rises at an elevation of 42 feet from the ground below and is approached by a grand flight of steps. It is gigantic in size, with a 50 foot wide and 100 feet high arch that has a scalloped semi dome portal measuring 134 feet. There are two-storey rows of arches and balconies set in a pentagonal manner at the base. The central arch is flanked by thin minarets and the top of the gateway has unusual parapets with domed kiosks.

Jahangir and Shahjehan made a lasting impression on architecture by introducing pietra dura or inlay work, using stones such as topaz, onyx, jasper or cornelian. It was also during this period that the thatched Bengali roof with sloping lines was adapted to marble in the archaeological idiom. The last Mughal emperor was a diehard puritan and no architecture flourished under him. But the Rajput rulers of Rajasthan and Central India began employing immigrant craftsmen from Mughal courts. This is how artisan skills became perpetuated and have weathered time with a remarkable resilience as they continue to be practised even today.

It is but natural for Rajasthani art to be strongly influenced by Muslim-Persian styles. It is further tempered by the geophysical characteristics of the region. This is a land of deserts and rainless tracts, embracing rich supplies of marble and sandstone. As there are few jungles, the only wood available here is coarse babul and rohira and so stone takes precedence over wood which is expensive. Rajasthani doors have frames and lintels that are often made of red sandstone, especially in the region of Bikaner. Heavily carved stone work consists of arabesques, scrollwork and geometric patterns or Persian designs of butas of flowers and vines. Only the actual door is made of wood and the hinges are so designed as to fit into the sockets carved in the frame. The workmanship on the doors is usually blunt with simple notching. Windows and door screens are often covered with perforated tracery or floral carvings. This is again a distinct Islamic feature as perforations were employed for the purposes of ‘purdah’ for the women who could not be in direct public view. They also served the purpose of ventilation. While doors from Marwar have blunt work, those from Jaipur have a more deeply cut and intricate carving.

The virtue of cool, white marble quarried mostly from Makrana has always been emphasised as an antidote to the warm climate. Being a more expensive stone, it has been particularly favoured in the construction of royal palaces. The Phool Mahal at Kishangarh Palace has a majestic marble gateway studded with Persian style blue and white tiles. In many instances, the opulence of marble is heightened by fine work in mirror, mica and gesso.

Rajasthan has a compensatory wealth of copper and iron ore, giving rise to a traditional tribal race of blacksmiths or ‘lohars’ who are still found camping on the outskirts of the city. The medium of metal is often applied to Rajasthani prototype doors. Knobs, handles, latches and stoppers are made into fine linear forms of humans, birds, animals, snakes and flowers so that iron itself has become an expression of art. Brass is also used as an eyecatching contrast to wood. Solid brass knobs emerge out of floral patterns. The door of the City Palace is an example in metal work par excellence. A delicate pattern has been cut out of a sheet of brass to produce an exquisite door frame and its panels. The carved metal side post or jamb fits perfectly into the door and this is coordinated with a lotus petal border painted on a lime wall. Frescoes are another art form of this colourfully expressive state and are found mostly in the Shekawati region which is known for its superb drawings. They are often employed to heighten the ornamentation of doors. The Peacock Door in the City Palace has the quality of a tapestry, so intricate and vivid are its drawings. The actual door is approached through a vaulted ceiling with suspended cusped eaves within which are painted exquisite motifs of peacocks and an external geometric border all around. Brass is often used in combination with white metal, but ancient royal doors were made of silver.

The neighbouring state of Gujarat on the other hand, has revelled in a rich tradition of wood carving. As far back as in the 13th century, local guilds of building craftsmen were active and so strong was their influence over Hindu art that the Muslim rulers absorbed it as well. Ahmad Shah, the famous ruler who broke away from the Delhi Sultanate in 1391 A.D. encouraged Hindu builders. Still, the introduction of some Islamic features was inevitable. For instance Gujarati doors have elaborate geometric patterns in heavy wood with raised carved borders and lintels. Some brackets and capitals have horizontal concentric rings. In many doors, the pointed arch is retained but there are Hindu features as well with a diverse expression of ornamentation. One may find 40 to 50 varieties of the same motif like the lotus or peacock. Figures of the elephant or pipal tree are characteristic motifs of Mauryan art, dating to the Asoka period. There are Hindu temples that have wood carvings of post-Gupta and early medieval periods. Door frames and jambs are decorated with a delicate representation of gods and goddesses like Shiva and Parvati. They are found in the Jain temples of Gujarat. They have been executed by the artisan according to ancient techniques by using chisels and guages of various shapes and sizes. In contemporary residential buildings woodcarving still holds importance, being applied to windows doors, jambs, lintels, arches, supports, capitals and balconies. And so, traditional designs like a row of rounded wooden balls over the lintel of a richly carved door are still to be found here.

Punjab too has felt the impact of Muslim invasions, due to its proximity to the north west mountain passes. Consequently, Sikh art is inspired by Muhammadan forms but executed more on Hindu lines. This is also a land where sentiments of pride run high and traditionally a person with any pretension to a good social position considered it essential to have a carved door as a measure of personal wealth. Sikh artisans work in shisham or deodar wood. They make large outer frames, embracing a series of panels both over the primary lintel and along the jambs. The panels are once again geometric with elaborately veined floral scrolls running around the edges. Muslim oriented doors embrace two mihrab arches, one cusped and the other flat but the Hindu version does not have this feature and uses expressive portraitures instead of designs. Doors are also studded with metal bosses or overlaid with brass ornamentation. They normally consist of two leaves hung on pivots instead of hinges. A bold iron chain and hook is suspended at the top or bottom of the door for the padlock.

A similar style continues into Uttar Pradesh, but the Islamic traces are diluted. It is common to see a figure of Ganesh framed in a diamond in the overdoor panel. Angular patterns may have floral rosettes within the meshes and the carving is free, bold and graceful, cut in rounded shapes.

Himachal Pradesh looks down graciously at the northern plains and set in the picturesque mountains are quaint stone and mud houses with sloping roofs, scalloped eaves and wooden balconies. The house door may be simple, but the frames and lintels in which it is set bear V-shaped cuts or twisted designs of foliage. The style is bold and naturalistic, mixed with mythological figures. Himalayan cedar or deodar wood is available in plenty here. But in the extreme east, hill states like Nagaland display a totally different character of doors. Houses use bamboo rather than wood, possibly because the plant grows abundantly due to the heavy rainfall. What is interesting are the curious masks at the entrance, sometimes with a crossed spear to drive the evil spirits away. The influence of the occult is rather strong here.

Moving south, one must marvel once again at the sheer exuberant influence of Chalukyan art dating far back to the Kalyan dynasty of 750-900 A.D. Originally these were Muslim craftsmen who gradually converted to Hinduism. But the mastery of their style spread all over the Deccan, through the Nizam’s territories, up to the Bay of Bengal. The doors have intricate lattice work but it is often combined with a variety of statutary celestial forms with figures of elephants, lions, horses or birds. The temples at Hallebid in Karnataka are purely Hindu with heavy engravings of such figures combined with flowering branches dispersed within scrolls. A Dravidian style temple door will have three frames, one within the other and the innermost door is the most ornately carved. Many of the overdoor frames are massive with niches where idols are placed. The doors of Mysore and Travancore bear some exotic carvings. They normally have one leaf that swings on a pivot and have deep wings so as to include the doorstep and lintel. The panel boards may not be latticed, but they have religious portrayals of gods or animal forms. A favourite motif is that of the bird or ‘Lepakshi’ with a floriated tail that carries a wreath of flowers which extends as a border all around the door. Goddess Lakshmi may occupy centrestage on the lintel, representing prosperity. The carved doors of the famous Dassera Hall of the Mysore Palace speak volumes of the saga of woodcraft.

But art has not been the prerogative of the blue-blooded alone. It is to be found in the rural ambience as well. Deep in the labryinth of village lanes the entrances of mud houses are delightfully ornamented with stone and wooden lintels or flanking niches for the welcoming oil lamp. There may be outlining patterns in white and ochre ‘chunam’ or the facade may have folk paintings of a bird, animal or tree or simply the imprint of the palms of a woman’s hands. Some mud adobes, particularly in Gujarat, may have clay relief work embedded with mirrors around the door. In each, the style is spontaneous and uninhibited, with little adherence to specialised techniques.

In every instance, be it opulent or simple, whether in a palace or a humble dwelling, the entrance door makes its statement: there is an inner drive in the human race to be close to creation that inspires man towards craft and design.

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