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TBI Blogs: How Telangana’s Dying Nirmal Art Form Was Saved by an Innovative Solution from the Artisans

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Artisans from the town of Nirmal, famous for its paintings and toys that go by the same name, have empowered themselves by forming an artisans co-operative society and setting up a store.

India is known for its handicrafts and villages, and they usually go hand in hand. So exclusive and distinctive are they in their technique that these villages usually lend their name to the craft, irrespective of the form they take. In  Adilabad district of Telangana is such an Indian artisan village, Nirmal, known for its paintings and soft wood toys.

All the artists in this town have gotten together to create an artisans co-operative society, recognize themselves, and set up a store to sustain this dying art form.

Nirmal Artisans Cooperative Society
An artisan at work in the co-operative society’s workshop behind their store.

Traditionally practiced by the Naqash (fret work) artists of the 14th century, the Nirmal Art Form is an ancient tradition that has today translated into making toys and paintings from a locally available variety of softwood, known as ‘Poniki Chekka’ (white sander wood). The toys carved from the tender wood are made using only indigenous raw material. A mixture of sawdust in tamarind seed paste, called Chinta Lappam, is used as a base to smoothen and bring shape to the toy, and also to glue on its various parts. Once dry, these get a final coat of brilliant paint, typical also of the Nirmal Paintings.

The most common of these light handmade toys are animal and bird figures.

Nirmal Artisans Cooperative Society
An animal figure made from white sander wood and sawdust in tamarind seed paste.

The most elaborate are scenes of daily life from an Indian village, complete with the villagers and their cattle. You will also just as easily find something trendy in the shape of little key chains, matryoshka dolls, and even platters of paan.

The artists also make the paintings on the same wood, with colours from local minerals, gums, and herbs. The influence of Mughal miniaturist art and the Ajanta and Kangra styles of painting is evident here.

You can typically tell a Nirmal Painting from its characteristic streaks of gold, always against a black background, and the graceful human form that is almost always the subject.

Nirmal Artisans Cooperative Society
Paintings for sale at the society’s store.

Nirmal Art had once flourished in the area, as erstwhile rulers were great patrons of it. The Nizam of Hyderabad even extended patronage to the art form to get intricate pieces of furniture for his household. Today, this art is slowly fading out, as each passing generation of artisans loses interest and moves onto better-paying, stable jobs. There is also the paucity of raw material to deal with. White Sander trees take nearly 20 years to mature, and the rapidly depleting forests are not making it any easier. In spite of this, there is a general air of pride and enthusiasm evident in the artisans.

They happily explain what goes into making these toys and pose for pictures, even lining up the bird figures to demonstrate each intermediate stage in the process of its creation.

Nirmal Artisans Cooperative Society
A toy at different stages of its completion.

All the artists register with the artisan co-operative society, The Nirmal Toys and Arts Industries Cooperative Society Ltd., and work within its framework. Every artist is assigned only one particular toy, which he makes in large numbers and takes around 20 days to a month to complete. Artisans are free to pace out their work as long as they deliver on schedule. Therefore, they need not adhere to a stringent daily work routine, making for an equitable and happy co-operative.

Nirmal toys and paintings received the Geographical Indication Tag in 2009. These toys are available in Government Handicraft stores like Lepakshi and Cauvery. You can also place an order directly with The Nirmal Toys and Arts Industries Cooperative Society Ltd. on 08734 – 242356.

Find out more about the indigenous art and the artisans behind it on Nirmal’s website.

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Neeharika Satyavada is an award-winning travel photographer & writer blogging at Map In My Pocket.