Carved in stone: the sculptural grandeur of Mysore’s soapstone carvers

Author A.D.Posey once said “Rocks and minerals: the oldest storytellers.” As the soapstone carving craft of Mysore, Karnataka, one of most unique facets of the ancient city’s cultural wealth, I can safely say that this is true.

My story began back in the 12th century AD, when I enjoyed the patronage of the many royal kingdoms that ruled over the land. Due to the abundance of soapstone deposits in and around Mysore, with H.D.Kote being the center, I soon became the predominant craft form. Available in brown, tan, yellow, red, gray, pink, white and black colours, I am locally known as ‘Krishna Shila’.

An artist carving on soapstone

Much of my craft can still be seen today in the form of sculptures, artifacts, religious idols, monuments decorative items and the beautifully constructed Hoysala temples of Belur, Somnathpur and Halebidu. Even today, a large population of skillful artisans practice the craft of carving soapstone to make beautiful designs.

The sculptural grandeur and ornamental details that go into creating me goes beyond the ordinary, for it is a skill set possessed by the last of the stone carvers. The art of making me is not an easy one, one that is time-consuming, labour intensive and requiring great craftsmanship. In fact, some of my larger pieces can take upto six months to create, which is no ordinary feat.

First, the raw material is sourced from different regions in the State. Soapstone is available 60 feet below the ground and once its water content is evaporated, the stone becomes hard. The big block of stone is roughly cut as per the design and dimensions. It is very important to pick the right stone, as any cracks may affect the carving process. The craftsman then uses a reference paper, charcoal to draw and divider tools to mark the design. He then uses a hammer and chisels of different sizes to slowly carve out the intricate patterns. A little known fact is how the simple use of a line drawn through the centre of the stone helps us maintain symmetry and proportion for the overall composition.

The softness of soapstone makes it easy to carve, even though a lot of strength is needed to shape the irregularly shaped stone. The chisel is used and the repeated action of drawing and sculpting takes place. Following this, the other tools are used – like files, sharp edged chisels and jumpers for the finer details, and a grass brush is used after carving to remove the extra dust. Tempering is done to toughen the tools from time to time. Finally, the external surface of the object being crafted is smoothened using a stone. Sometimes, the final product is even painted or inlayed, giving it a richer look. A mixture of copra ash and coconut oil is applied on the final product to get the glossy finish that is often seen in soapstone carving.

While the entire process is supervised by a master craftsman, who also does the marking and final carving, each of the other craftsmen is specialized in one particular area. Men are usually given the task of working with the stone, breaking it, and carving, while women often carry out the detailed carvings as this requires less strength.

Interestingly, while Mysore is world renowned for its shiny, lustrous soapstone craft, other centres like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu also have their own clusters of carvers. While a majority of craftsmen still adhere to the traditional designs and patterns, some contemporary artisans are also playing around with floral designs, perforated patterns and experimenting with colours to appeal to the modern Indian market. Today, the craft relies mainly on commissioned works and is a dying form – one that needs a lot more patronage to keep its heritage value and beauty alive.

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