The poetics of carved wood


        While traveling round Uzbekistan it is unlikely that one can meet a traditional Uzbek house without wooden decorations. Since ancient times wood has been highly valued and respected by the local craftsmen who have demonstrated genuine mastery of wood carving. By Rustam Mirzaev



        Patterned wood carvings often cover architectural elements  pillars, beams, cornices, doors, as well as smaller objects, such as low khantakhta tables, trunks, boxes, Koran stands, book-holders, kalamdon pencil-cases, musical instruments.

        The few extant samples of the ancient wood carving impress us with their beauty and perfection of execution. Among those of the ancient Sogdian wood carvings which testify to the high skills of ancient masters are the fragments from the ruins of the sixth-century Jumalaktepa castle, and the wooden panel found in the area of the upper Zarafshan River. The latter depicts a two-headed snake surrounded by a regular wavy pattern. As a matter of fact, in Uzbekistan images of various creatures had been carved on wood till the 10th century, even after the Arabian invasion. It was only in the later period that they were fully replaced by geometric and floral patterns.

        During the excavations near Kusam ibn Abbas mausoleum in Shakhi-Zinda necropolis archeologists found a fragment of a splendidly carved epigraphic frieze dating back to the 11th century. Several centuries later, in Temur's times, wood carving and other crafts reached the level of a real art. In the 14th century Kusam ibn Abbas burial vault was decorated with a beautiful panel containing the geometric pattern girih made of separate wooden elements; in Saifeddin Boharzi's mausoleum in Bukhara there was set up a fretted cenotaph. The fretted doors of the Gur Emir mausoleum are apparently the most wonderful wood carving sample of those times. At the end of the 19th century the Russian artist V. Vereschagin was so impressed by the splendor of these doors that he depicted them in his famous picture "The Doors of Tamerlane".

        At all times cities and villages of Khorezm and Ferghana Valley were renowned for their skillful wood-carvers. Masters from Bukhara and Gijduvan had the reputation of "universal carvers". Carvings made in Tashkent, Samarkand, Shakhrisabz and Vabkent were also in great demand. The main styles of Uzbek wood carving had developed by the late 18th early 19th centuries.

        The three main ornamenental styles are distinguished in Uzbek wood carving: bagdadi, islimi and pargori. The no-background bagdadi style is the most commonly used everywhere in Uzbekistan. It is usually a three-edge-cut pattern forming various simple geometric figures. This carving style is especially popular in Tashkent and Khiva. It was called after an ancient type of framed doors. Bagdadi usually appears in stripes framing different-style compositions on doors, khantakhta tables, or trunks. Sketches for bagdadi patterns are drawn right on the material to be carved on.

        The low-relief pargori style is used in Tashkent and Kokand. Its name is derived from the word pargor meaning 'a pair of compasses'. Masters uimakors first draw sketches for pargori patterns on the wooden work-piece with the help of a ruler and a pair of compasses and then start to carve them out. The sketches are geometric nets consisting of circles, squares and triangles, on which thin lacy patterns are drawn. Low-relief, clear-cut and intricate, this carving presents an amazing chiaroscuro effect.
 

        The deep-background islimi style has richer artistic qualities than no-background one does. It is used in decoration of both architectural elements and smaller objects, usually in combination with bagdadi and pargori. As a rule, islimi style has one background, though experienced carvers sometimes make two- or three-plane carving when the pattern of the second layer becomes a background to the upper one. The prevailing patterns in islimi style are twisting, regularly intertwined plant vines, stalks with flower buds, flowers and leaves all very intricately combined. Sketches for islimi patterns are first drawn on a piece of paper and then copied on the work-piece by pouncing. The art of the master then lies in creating the proper background and revealing the natural beauty of the wood. The flat surface of islimi relief and its deep background are finished by applying a set of techniques called pardoz: the edges of the relief are made a little curved or right-angled; its surface is either polished or covered with diagonal notches; the background is left plain or is made dot-textured, thus creating the patterned basis for the ornament. In each region of Uzbekistan they use their own pardoz techniques.

        Uzbek carvers use several species of trees for their works. Among them is karagach, a local species of the elm-tree. This tree grows thick and high and has hard fine texture feasible for fine intricate carving. Karagach, as well as platan and walnut, are used for making fretted pillars and doors. Walnut is also used for making tables and boxes which, if polished, look really exquisite. For smaller objects the masters prefer nut-tree knog with beautiful veining. Central Asian juniper is another hard wood the local carvers use: it also has very peculiar veining. For panjara composite lattices local soft species of willow are preferable. Mulberry tree, so common in Uzbekistan, is used for making musical instruments. Linden and apricot-tree are chosen mostly for inlays. Poplar, though being soft and light, is not strong enough, and is usually used for only very simple carving designs.

        To find and cut down the required tree is only one part of the business. Fresh wood does not fit for wood carving. It needs seasoning in a dry and warm place, with logs and planks being placed in a vertical position to prevent deformation. For instance, plane and walnut needs 10 15-years seasoning. Skillful masters never ignore these requirements.

        Uzbek carvers usually use traditional, time-proved tools. First of all this is big and smaller tesha an axe-like tool whose handle is fixed perpendicular to the blade and which is used for initial shaping of the work-piece. Then they use planes for final stripping, and, if necessary, frame-saws, cross-cut saws, and mallets can be applied. Wood-working machines are also used. A wood carving tool kit usually consists of over 25 various cutting tools. They look like chisels with short wooden handles and well-sharpened blades. Depending on its function a cutter can have the blade of various shapes straight, semicircular or angular. The widest blade of the cutter is not more than 10 millimeters in width.
 

        Since the 18th century the most distinct stylistic qualities have been traced in Khorezm wood carving school. The foundation of the school was laid by the masters who created the interior carvings of Juma mosque in Khiva. The ceiling of the mosque was spanned by a large number of wooden beams lying on 212 four five-meter-high pillars. The surface of the pillars was covered with fretwork representing plant and geometric patterns. Each of the pillars is remarkable for not only highly artistic carvings and multiplicity of ornaments but also for harmonic proportions and original design of its lower part made in the form of a pitcher with flowering plants. This form of a pillar, with minor modifications, was adopted in traditional building practice everywhere in Uzbekistan. In the later period for Tash-khauli palace of Khiva's khan there were made magnificent fretted doors containing medallion-like elements and fretted wooden pillars embedded in ornamented marble bases.

        Since then the traditional Uzbek architecture has applied three types of fretted pillars: one with a base carved out of the same piece of wood, one set in a stone base, and one fixed to a separately-carved wooden base by means of a pin. The pillars are decorated with spheric lower ends kuzogi and stalactite-like cornices makarnas. Sometimes their upper ends are crowned with a head kalla. But mostly they join the ceiling beams by means of structural unit decorated with figured carving, which makes the pillar look light and elegant.

        Among the most outstanding masters of the second half of the 20th century was A. Palvanov from Khiva. The works of art he and his apprentices produced are exposed not only in museums. For instance, walking along the narrow streets of ancient city of Khiva a visitor can knock at one of the numerous carved doors and the hospitable hosts will invite him in to the inner courtyard enclosed by terrace aivan with splendid fretted pillars.

        Ferghana Valley has its own peculiar wood carving style. In Juma mosque in Kokand, built in the 18th century, the aivan roof is supported by 98 fretted pillars made of a "stone-hard" species of elm called karagach-budjun. Each of the pillars and its base was carved out of the same piece of wood, and the carving on the pillars serves not merely as ornamental decoration: it creates a certain artistic image harmoniously blending with the whole architectural concept of the building.

        Among the most prominent masters of Kokand school was Kadirjan Khaidarov. It was him who ornamented with fretwork the front doors of the State Historical Museum of Uzbekistan and the doors of the Palace of Peoples' Friendship in Tashkent. He was the best ever pargori style wood carver. In many museums are now on display his hexahedral little tables and khantakhta tables covered with intricate carvings of a polished relief on a matt background. Since the end of the last century his grandson A. Umarov has been practicing the same craft, preserving and developing ancient traditions. Following in his grandfather's footsteps, he makes elegant fretted pillars and famous Kokand fretted framed doors.
 

        In Tashkent there work a lot of skillful wood carvers. The oldest of them is master A. Faizullaev. He rightly ranks as the best expert in almost all types of traditional wood carving and as a skilled craftsmen who wields the most sophisticated carving methods. He is one of the few masters who can carve and make up panjara composite lattices. At all times such open-work lattices have been used to fill the upper parts of doorways, window frames, and folding screens. The secret of panjara lattice lies in making beautiful geometric patterns by joining one-centimetre wooden elements with no glue, nails or screws. This can be checked by tapping on any panjara element: it will readily start getting out of its slot, and just as easily it can be returned into its place. This apparent simplicity is achieved by precise mathematical calculations and great thoroughness of work inherent to a jeweler. Today's Uzbek hereditary wood carver M.Ibragimova and A.Faizullaev's disciples S. Rakhmatullaev and Kh. Khasanov are well-known both at home and abroad. They are often invited to decorate public buildings in Malaysia, Turkey, and Kazakhstan.

        There is a wide variety of wood carvings in art salons of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara, Kokand and Khiva. Among them are khantakhta tables, little hexahedral tables with stools, various boxes, pencil-cases and cigarette-cases, walking canes, book-holders, picture frames, wall panels and dishes. The carving on table tops and boxes usually consist of a central pattern in the form of a flower or a medallion surrounded by narrow or wide patterned stripes. The artistic value of a carving equally depends on the beauty of the ornamentation, rhythm of pattern elements and their harmonious integration as well as their adaptation to the form of the object they cover. Combining the patterns and changing the deepness of relief to the best effect, Uzbek wood carvers always try to choose the best traditional ornaments to match the functionality and architectonics of the carved object.

        One of the most original wood carving articles a collapsible Koran stand laukh came into service in the Middle Ages. With the death of the famous Tashkent master S.Khodjaev in the mid 20th century, it was believed that the art of making laukhs was lost forever. But 15 years ago some masters decided to revive this ancient technology. Carved out of a single piece of wood inseparable parts of laukh being unfolded, they form a book stand which is placed on a table. It is hard to believe that this utensil is made with no glue, nails, hinges and joints. When folded up, it becomes a neat wooden bar. The most skillful carvers make 2- or 3-tier stands. When unfolded, they look like miniature bookcase. The side shelves of such a laukh are intended for small objects, like pencils, notebooks, bookmarks, whereas the central part is the book stand itself. Laukhs are usually covered with elegant carvings and are thoroughly polished. Tashkent master A.Azlarov is apparently a top laukh carver: he makes "multi-storey" stands capable to unfold up to 10 tiers.

        Despite of all the vicissitudes of life, wood carving remains extremely popular among the applied arts. Fretted doors and pillars are now widely used to decorate public buildings. The unique qualities of wood, invariability of ancient traditions, warm-heartedness imparted to the object by masters' deft hands this is what attracts us to wood carving in today's hi-tech world.