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INDIAN MASONRY: Resuscitating Traditional Building Skills

participants during informal interactionsThe Programme

In the summer of 2013, I got an opportunity to help in a skill-enhancement programme for masons. The programme was launched by Mango Tree – a company run by my grandmother. Education with a difference and resuscitation of the dying arts of India are two of the major goals of Mango Tree. The company offers a month-long residential masonry programme for unemployed youth every year. As part of the programme, a skilled faculty instructs the participants so as to empower them with a skill that can become a means of their livelihood.

The current programme, which was aimed at skills enhancement, was conducted over two weeks at Tijara Fort Hotel, Haryana. Restoration work was underway here. Twenty-six trained and semi-trained masons from neighbouring villages and the masons already working on the restoration project were invited to hone their skills. The participants were given boarding and lodging and a stipend equal to their daily wage. Three skilled masons from South India and two trained tile-masters from Delhi conducted this workshop.

The team of tile-masters taught the eager masons how to lay tiles in a specialised way, using efficient tools that saved both time and material. The experts from South India demonstrated certain techniques derived from old, languishing skills. One of them was the use of araish in the construction of large floors without any joins for giving the appearance of a floor made with a single piece of highly polished natural stone. The second technique was araish finish on walls, similar to what we see in old forts and palaces. This unique plastering technique is applied to make the plaster weather resistant and durable. The third technique was for dealing with the problem of building a 3-inch separating wall – a difficult task.

particiapnts at the workshopOur interviews with the masons, however, showed a disappointing trend. Most of the masons wanted their children to work in government offices, rather than take the masonry tradition forward, as they considered government jobs more respectable. Later, during the sharing sessions, the masons understood the importance of acquiring a skill when they realised that it was rather difficult to get a government job. So, they decided to encourage the younger generation to acquire masonry skills while pursuing formal education.

In a developing country like India, we need to make special efforts to help improve the average income of the population. In a modest way, this programme contributed towards meeting this objective and preserving some of India’s languishing, yet useful, building skills. However, we need to launch more masonry programmes and establish more technical training schools to give a fillip to our traditional building skills.

Overall, this project was a grand success. We were able to fulfill our objectives by empowering the masons with advanced traditional skills while instilling in them a sense of pride in their profession. The masons felt that acquisition of these unique skills would create alternate job opportunities and result in their upward economic mobility. They requested us to make such programmes an annual feature. I would certainly continue my endeavour to support such programmes and look forward to helping others in launching similar programmes.

The Techniques

The first step is to prepare the required shades of colours. Oxide colours are used for this purpose – from which up to 75 shades can be obtained. One part of oxide colour and one part of marble powder are mixed with five parts of white cement. Marble powder is a substitute for sand, as it avoids cracks.

hands on wall preparationFor an araish finish on walls, the wall is first roughly plastered with regular plaster and left for one day after curing with water. Then 2-3 mm of the pigment, which is made into a paste by adding water, is applied to the wall and smoothened with a towel. It is then left to be cured with water for 12 to 15 days; after which it is smoothened with waterproof sand paper (number 220 first followed by 320). Finally, mansion wax is applied, followed by rubbing with coconut fibre sponge for 5 to 10 minutes to give it a good shine.

For an araish floor finish, the floor is first flattened, cleaned and surface grips created by chipping sparingly. Then cement water is poured on it. Next, the floor is layered with a 2-3 mm thickness of a mixture of 4 parts of sieved sand and one part of cement while beating with a hammer to make it hard and dense. Then the floor is kept submerged in water for 12 to 15 days. Next, the prepared colour paste in the desired shade is added and walked upon with a flat slipper. It is left for a day to be cured with water. For the polish the same process of wall finish is applied with sand paper and wax.

Indian Masonry

Written by Mr. Ameya Somany

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