Aside from inscriptions and paintings made on stones and the walls of caves, palm leaves were the base upon which were inscribed ancient verses that make up the body of India’s scripture and literature. Over time, the leaves have been replaced by paper, and the scribe by the printing press. While several of these manuscripts can be found in museums across India, and the world, there are many ancient engraved palm leaves still being discovered wrapped and stored in peoples’ homes across the country!
Initially, the paintings probably illustrated some of the literature, but over time this skill of etching and cutting have become a full fledged art form... possibly one of the few that has become more artistic in recent times. Through intricately etched and tinted pictures the artists tell the stories of the Gods, and of itihaas, or history, found in the body of Hindu literature.
Palm leaves are gathered and treated over several weeks to make them dry, long lasting and resistant to degeneration from natural causes such as humidity, fungus, insects etc.
They are washed, dried and then boiled in a solution made with water, turmeric, and some locally found herbs. They are then set out to dry, alternately in a warm place (usually the kitchen) followed by airing in a cooler place. This process carries on for a few weeks before the leaves are deemed ready for use. They are cut to different sizes, and those of a similar size stitched together to make scrolls of varying widths and lengths.
The artist then etches their pictorial story, or the image of a deity, or of nature, with a sharpened iron implement, often complementing the etching with a cut work border to add an additional layer of detail. The etching is then highlighted with a black pigment made of soot collected from burning a wick soaked in a mixture of ghee and camphor, among other things. This soot is mixed with the sap of a local tree and water to ensure it colours the engraving when applied, but doesn’t stain the rest of the leaf.
The intricacy and detail of the subjects etched, the fluidity of form, the skill involved in showing every facial feature and the hands and feet of each tiny figure, the drape of the garments... each bit of it is awe-inspiring, not least because of the stiff and unforgiving nature of the base, and of the instrument of etching. This is skill and craft at a different level all together and I can’t help but bow my head down in awe!