One cannot help but admire the intricacy of marble inlay work on various architectural marvels constructed by Mughals like Taj Mahal or buildings within Red Fort of Agra.
Inlay work on delicate shives of precious stone began in the workshops of Florence in Italy around the end of the 16th century. This was known as pietra dura. The Italians had created a classic artistic form and held a monopoly over it. From 1630 onwards pietra dura appeared on moveable, small objects as decorative panels, with bird and flower motifs, suitable for cabinet fronts and table tops. Some of these soon reached the Mughals in the form of presents.
Of all the Mughal Emperors, Shah Jahan was the greatest patron of architecture in India. For him no amount of money or time was too much to create enduring, everlasting architectural beauty and through it be remembered always. It is in his buildings that one feels most compelled to make the connection between Mughal art and pietra dura. The Taj Mahal, the cenotaphs of the Emperor and his wife, the main floor and the surrounding marble railings bear very close resemblances to the pietra dura form.
Indian Inlay Work
Unlike the pietra dura of Italy and particularly the Florentine tradition, Indian inlay work is not three-dimensional but more flat. The Mughal adaptations have ensured that the European birds have been replaced by the Indian kingfisher, myna, and red-breasted parakeet.
With the exit of the Mughals, the art of marble inlay work also started to decline. The number of craftsmen engaged in this art began to dwindle. So much so that in the mid-19th century there were only 100 craftsmen specializing in this work.
The art saw its revival in around 1950s with the setting up of organizations like the Development Commission and the Handicrafts Board.
Today, apart from Florence in Italy, Agra is the only place in the world where any kind of marble inlay work is being done. There are around 3000-4000 marble inlay craftsmen in Agra. The marble inlay work can be found on large and small boxes, pill boxes, plates, table tops and small hangings inlaid with colored stones. The more the pieces of precious and semiprecious stone, the more expensive the product.
Making The Product
For the craftsmen in this trade the actual tools used remain much the same as those used in the Mughal period. A design, be it a floral or geometrical motif is cut out on a brass sheet. This is then placed on marble, drawn and then the marble is carved out. Slices of precious and semi-precious stones, which have in the meantime been shaped and polished, are then laid into the marble with adhesive. (The adhesive is a mixture of oil, lead oxide and wax made into white putty). After it has dried, the surface and edges are polished to give a shiny finish.For slicing pieces of stone to be inlaid, a bow saw strung with copper wire of upto five strands was used during the Mughal time. Separation between strands set the thickness of the shives of stone and this very same method is used even today. Sharp eyes and dexterous hands are a must for this work.