The people of Assam have traditionally been craftsmen from time immemorial. Though Assam is mostly known for its exquisite silks and the bamboo and cane products, several other crafts are also made here. Different regions of Assam are known for their different forms of art and handicrafts.
Cane and bamboo have remained inseparable parts of life in Assam. Grown in abundance here and hence most of the household articles in the homes of Assamese are made of cane and bamboo. They happen to be the two most commonly-used items in daily life, ranging from household implements to construction of dwelling houses to furniture to weaving accessories to musical instruments.
The Jappi, the traditional sunshade continues to be the most prestigious of bamboo items of the state, and it has been in use since the days when the great Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang came to Assam that visitors are welcomed with a jaapi.
Bell-metal and brass have been the most commonly used metals for the Assamese artisan. Traditional utensils and fancy artiicles designed by these artisans are found in every Assamese household. The Xorai and bota have in use for centuries, to offer betel-nut and paan while welcoming distinguished guests.
The entire population of two townships near Guwahati - Hajo and Sarthebari, are engaged in producing traditional bell-metal and brass articles. They have also used their innovative skills to design modern day articles to compete with the changing times.
Gold, silver and copper too form a part of traditional metal craft in Assam and the State Museum in Guwahati has a rich collection of items made of these metals. Gold however is now used only for ornaments.
Assam has always remained one of the most forest-covered states of the country, and the variety of wood and timber available here have formed a part of the people's culture and ecomony.
An Assamese can identify the timber by touching it even in darkness, and can produce a series of items from it. While decorative panels in the royal Ahom palaces of the past and the 600-years old satras or Vaishnative monasteries are intricately carved on wood, a special class of people who excelled in wood carving came to be known as Khanikar, a surname proudly passed down from generation to generation.
The various articles in a satra and naam-ghar(place of worship) are stiff cut on wood, depicting the guru asana (pedestal of the lords), apart from various kinds of birds and animals figuring in mythology.
Modern-day Khanikar have taken to producing articles of commercial values, including figures of one-horned rhino and replicas of the world-famous Kamakhya temple - two items heading the list of demands of a visitor from outside.
With tribal art and folk elements form the base of Assamese culture, masks have found an important place in the cultural activities of the people. Masks have been widely used in folk theatres and bhaonas with the materials ranging from terracotta to pith to metal, bamboo and wood.
Similarly, among the tribals too, the use of masks is varied and widespread, especially in their colourful dances which again revolve chiefly around thier typical tribal myth and folklore. Such traditional masks have of late found thier way to the modern-day drawing rooms as decorative items and wall-hangings, thus providing self-employment opportunities to those who have been traditionally making them.
Gold-washing and jewellery-making were two important ancient industries in Assam. The earliest references to the golden art are found in the Arthashastra, but jewellery-making on an elaborate scale happened during the Ahom reign. Goldsmiths and gold traders flourished in Kamrup, Goalpara, Barpeta and Sivasagar but Jorhat town and outlying areas became the nerve centre of the gold and silver craft for superior enamelling work known as minakari in Assamese.
Dark blue, dark green and white were the preferred enamelling, but red and yellow were used occasionally. Crafting traditional Assamese ornaments is a painstaking process but the end products are a breathtaking range of ornaments. Necklaces carry names like Jonbiri, Dholbiri and Dugdugi while Lokaparo, Thuria and Dighal Keru are popular ear-rings. The rings have names like Patia Angathi and Babari Phulia Angathi while a variety of bracelets include Gam Kharu, Baju and Kangkan.
Two categories of people – Kumars and Hiras – made pottery their own. But the ones that carved out a niche are the terra cotta craftsmen of Asarikandi in Dhubri district. The distinctive style has made Asarikandi an ethnic art brand in India. Asarikandi is also known for its sola pith craft, made from the soft core of a special kind of reed. Terracotta as a medium has dominated the handicraft scene of Assam since time immemorial. The tradition itself has been handed down from the generation to generation without break. Today we have the descendent of such families engaged in improvised terracotta versions of various common figures of gods and goddesses to mythological characters, while toys, vases, etc have also found a new life.
The tradition of paintings in Assam can be traced back to several centuries in the past. Ahom palaces and satras and naam-ghar etc still abound in brightly-coloured paintings depicting various stories and events from history and mythology. In fact, the motifs and designs contained in Chitra-Bhagavata have come to become a traditional style for Assamese painters of the later period, and are still in practice today.