Genuine marble inlay can be expensive; but make sure you’re not getting dyed mother of pearl in the name of the original.
When Shah Jehan commissioned the Taj Mahal for his beloved empress, marble inlay was to form the single most important decorative element in the complex. Records inform us that semi-precious stones were brought from all over the world, the quest for perfection overriding such trifling factors as distance or expense.
More than 300 years later, the craft of marble inlay is chief of Agra’s handicrafts. Although its roots are in the decorative work of the Taj Mahal, there are some important differences.
Foremost is the fact that the Taj Mahal contains a mix of floral, geometric and calligraphic motifs. Today’s marble crafts use chiefly floral motifs and very occasionally geometric ones Calligraphic motifs are virtually unknown.
Then, a look around the Taj Mahal and its predecessor, Itimad-ud-Daulah, reveals an interplay between the marble background and its inlaid embellishment. This is especially apparent in the Taj where marble inlay was more restrained, revealing superb artistry and highlighting the milky lustre of the marble. The finest illustration of this is the spandrels of marble set into red sandstone in the buildings of the entrance gateways, mosque and rest-house that bear the same floral motifs as the spandrels on the mausoleum itself. Today’s marble craft on the other hand, consists largely of an extremely high degree of ornamentation which usually tends to overshadow the marble.
Inside the Taj Mahal, the tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jehan are lavishly ornamented with a profusion of inlaid flowers. The artistic rendering of the outline of each flower is so life-like as to impart a certain vitality to the tomb, rather as if it were really a garden. Each flower is composed of many pieces of intricately cut semi-precious stones, sometimes as many as 60 pieces in one flower. By contrast, contemporary work makes use of much more simplistic representations of flowers, with little of the vitality of the Mughal period. Shading, by which each petal used is of a different piece of stone, is still carried on, though not with the same degree of skill. Today. one flower is likely to contain no more than 20 different pieces in it. Also. the Mughals were far from cost conscious: in places where vandals have prised individual stones from their settings, you will notice a groove at least a half centimetre deep. Today’s inlay work is made from slivers two mm thick though. of course, this has no bearing on the quality of the finished product.
Most of the city’s large marble inlay showrooms are in the shopping arcades of the deluxe hotels; on the road linking Taj Gunj with Fatehabad Road; on Taj Road and Munro Road. All marble inlay work is now on table tops, wall plaques, decorative boxes, ashtrays and coasters. In addition to the most commonly used white marble of Makrana in Rajasthan, there are a few other materials used. Green marble, mined in Madhya Pradesh, streaked or mottled with darker shades, is usually used for carved figurines of elephants on which inlay work is done. Black onyx is sometimes used, especially in conjunction with mother-of-pearl inlay work, where the lustre of the mother-of-pearl contrasts superbly with the high gloss of polished black onyx. Black marble is almost never used because its streaks do not make for a uniform colour.
Ochre jasper is occasionally. used as a base, though more often as an inlay stone, particularly in geometric designs, when its mottled texture is particularly appealing. Alabaster or Italian marble is good for small articles such as wall plaques. Being far softer than marble, and thus incapable of use in functional pieces, it is much easier to work with, and size for size, the cost of a finished piece is usually cheaper than Indian marble. Alabaster can easily be carved with raised relief work or pierced open work —it is that much more difficult to do so with marble, a fact that is reflected in the cost of marble with relief work or open work.
Marble inlay work is not cheap. Even a small jewellery box costs a few hundred rupees, and table tops are not infrequently sold for a few lakhs. It is, therefor, well to know something of the craft before you invest sour money on works of this art.
One room of every large showroom in Agra is usually a workshop where various stages of the craft can he seen. Firstly, a slab of marble is stained with dye to make visibility easier. A pattern is traced over it after which the portion to be filled with inlay is chiselled out. Meanwhile, the stones are prepared. Most commonly used are lapis lazuli, malachite, cornelian, tiger’s eye and mother-of-pearl. Each of these are bought by the weight by dealers, some the size of a pigeon’s egg. They have to be cut to slivers two mm thick. to the precise shape and size of their use. Each piece of stone used for inlay work -whatever the shape is known as a rakam in the trade, and it is the number of rakams used in an item that determines its cost. These rakams are smelted onto the marble surface. When cooled, they are fixed permanently. Only great force or extreme heat such as a burning coal can prise them loose.
So what really affects the cost? Firstly, the size of the marble—quite naturally, the larger the piece, the greater the cost, all other things being equal. However, of late it is beginning to make better business sense to the dealer and the craftsman to have an intricately inlaid small wall plaque rather than a large table top of similar quality, which means that the former could end up being more expensive than the latter.
In addition, the number of rakams that go into each article, their size and shape, will in the cost. Thus, if each flower is made up of 20 rakams as opposed to five, if each leaf has serrated (more difficult to cut with accuracy) rather than plain edges, and if the stem is no thicker than a thread, the cost will be significantly higher than in less detailed work involving far fewer rakams.
Sadly, the artistry of the work on the Taj Mahal has passed into the pale. Now the rule of thumb seems to be the more the work, the more the cost. In this, marble inlay is not unlike carpet weaving where the more intricate the design, the greater the skill of the craftsman.
Obviously, the type of stones used also have a bearing on the cost. Malachite and lapis lazuli are the most expensive stones, cornelian, jasper and mother-of-pearl being cheaper. The iridescent abalone shell has an opalescent gleam and is more expensive than mother-of-pearl, although purists find it too flashy. It certainly was not in use during the Mughal period.
To cater to all sections of the market, various cost saving devices are used. Lookalikes are often substituted for the real thing. Thus, while malachite, tiger’s eye and mother-of-pearl have no substitute, sodalite is often used in place of lapiz lazuli. Of the same shade of dark blue without, however, the golden flecks that characterise lapis, sodalite brings down the cost immediately. Similarly, turquoise and pink coral have remarkably similar synthetic substitutes, with none of the slight variation in hue that the natural counterpart is bound to possess.
Except for sodalite which is used in increasing quantities. none of the other look-alikes are used in significant proportions. Cost saying devices play a useful part in all crafts, but it should always he remembered that their function is to actually bring down the cost to the customer. They cease to be of use if they do not bring down the cost—as for example when cheaper lookalikes are passed off as the real thing. Most reputable dealers – Oswal Emporium on Munro Road is but one example –cannot afford to compromise their carefully built reputation by misleading customers about stones used.
The points to keep in mind then while choosing marble inlay are:
• The amount of work-50 flowers on a table top will cost more than 25 flowers on the same size of table top, assuming that both pieces have roughly the same rakam count.
• The number of rakams and the intricacy of their outline which is a testimony of the craftsman’s skill.
• Smoothness of finish, another pointer to the craftsman’s skill. Your fingertips should glide over the surface smoothly, not encountering unevenness or angularities in the inlay.
•Type of stones used: the greater the proportion of malachite, tiger’s eye and lapis lazuli, the greater the cost. Conversely, the greater the proportion of cheaper lookalikes and synthetic stones, the less the cost.
• Broken or cracked rakams should immediately lower the cost regardless of explanations of how hand-crafted items are bound to have flaws. It is the craftsman’s skill you are paying for—not his mistakes.
• The symmetry of outline is again a reflection of the craftsman’s mastery over his craft. This is especially true of black onyx plaques with the image of the Taj Mahal inlaid in mother of pearl. Check that the proportions are as graceful as they are in reality: the minarets should not be too thick nor the dome too squat.