Kullu valley is steeped deep in faith. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that nothing moves in the valley without the consent of the local gods. The many deities from the valleys spread across the length and breadth of the district — from Manali (that shares its border with Lahaul-Spiti district) to Seraj (that meets Mandi and Shimla) — are at the centre of life. The colourful palanquins, or raths as they are called, are the fulcrum of all activity; not just during the world-famous Kullu Dasehra, but also at every major and minor festivity, in times of trouble too.
The deities’ faces are depicted by metal masks or mohras, their heads adorned by chattras (umbrellas) and music played by traditional instruments. A recent award by the Himachal Pradesh Lalit Kala Akademi celebrates an artiste who has been painstakingly keeping alive the tradition of mask and instrument-making in a world increasingly threatened by commercialisation. Khimi Ram, the Manali-based artiste, has won this award in the traditional sculpture category for 2018.
The 43-year-old was initiated into the craft by his brother. “I don’t remember how old I was when I took to metal craft. As a child, I was fascinated to see metal being moulded into so many things. But I took it up professionally only around 15 years ago,” he says. Same goes for his son, Krishan Kumar, who is 24. He too has taken up the family profession for the love of the craft.
Masks are hollow reliefs, the most prominent feature of the raths of the gods and goddesses. They could either be grand or subtle, but never really understated, depending on the deity. From ashtdhatu (made of eight metals) to bronze, silver and even gold, the choice of metal depends on how much a devta can and would like to spend.
Like all other artistes, Khimi Ram makes these masks, along with chattras lamps and jewels for the deities, besides local musical instruments such as karnal, dhol, nagara and narsinga.
He says each mask takes about a week to make, the most complicated, and time consuming, of his oeuvre being the many jewels adorning the raths. “There is a lot of detailing in jewels and chhatras. Hence, these take more time than the masks or musical instruments,” he says.
Sadly though, the craft does not find many takers among the young. “In the area surrounding Manali, one would find hardly any sculptors. The bulk of artistes comes from Seraj and Banjar valley. Most of those who have set up shop in Kullu are also from Banjar,” he says.
Most youth, especially in the Kullu-Manali belt, have taken to tourism and allied professions — thanks to the glamour and monetary gains associated with it. The government, Khimi Ram says, has been making efforts to save the craft, with regular exhibitions organised across the state and outside of it. Still, it would be long before metal crafts of Himachal gain popularity nationally.
Despite the fact that Khimi Ram and his son’s shop is located right in the heart of Manali, only an odd tourist comes asking for his works. Ready audience is, as of now, found only in the deities. And that will keep it going for long.