Traditional Tajik Woodcarving
Soon after I arrived in Tajikistan, I started noticing impressive examples of hand-carved ornamentation on doors, gates, signs, and crown moulding all over the capital and beyond. When I went to the Tajik Museum of Antiquities and saw similar carvings that came out of excavations from the time of Alexander the Great, I knew this needed further examination. I wanted to talk to some craftsmen. Today I got into a cab and asked the driver if he knew of a workshop. He made some calls and we set off to the other side of the Varzob river, till we arrived at a fenced compound of industrial buildings on the far northern side of the city.
There we found Dushanbe’s Technical School #30, where four master carvers teach traditional Central Asian relief carving and decorative woodworking (kandakariy-e chub) to 15 students each year. It’s a 3 year apprenticeship, completed while the students are still in high school, and culminates with a final project of the students’ own design and execution. The program is a holdover from Soviet times, and a massive hammer-and-sickle greets visitors above the door.
The program is under the directorship of Safarali Nazimov, a native of Dushanbe who learned woodcarving first from his father, and later graduated from this same school. When I asked whether the majority of his students come from woodworking backgrounds, he answered, “Absolutely, for several reasons:” first of all, students who grow up seeing woodcarving have a working vocabulary of skills needed and thus take to it with more skill and aptitude than those who do not, and secondly because there is pressure at home to keep a family craft alive and for the son to take over the family business. Mr Nazimov told me that he stresses creativity within tradition in the design process: rote copying is discouraged, but the students learn the language of pattern that defines traditional Tajik carving.
I asked who most of their customers were, and Mr Nazimov said that the work is not for sale, it is instead labeled with the student’s name and year, and kept on school premises so that the students can revisit it years later, when they are master craftsmen with apprentices of their own. He showed me a carved column that he made in the early 1980s, when he was a student at the school.
The majority of the wood that they use is pine, which is the most plentiful tree in Russia, by far (most of the wood is imported, not locally harvested). They also use native Tajik Plane trees (Chanor in Persian, a hardwood tree in the Sycamore family that is common here), as well as beech and cedar. They told me that they will occasionally use fruitwoods like walnut or pear for their own projects, but not for the students because it is just too expensive.
The program the students undertake is comprehensive: drafting, math, and design are taught in the adjacent classrooms, while stock preparation, tool care and sharpening, finishing, and of course actual carving technique and execution are taught in the workshop. Many of the hand tools are shop-made, while most of the machine tools are Soviet-made beasts.