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Hands That Make History

An outpost in northern Tajikistan keeps alive the country’s tradition of exquisite woodwork.

by Muhaiyo Nozimova 24 January 2014

ISTARAVSHAN, Tajikistan | In a workshop in northern Tajikistan, a handful of people sit hunched over tools and several pieces of wood. First they cut the wood to fit, then create a stencil to guide their knives. In about two weeks this will be an ornately decorated table of the kind ubiquitous in Tajikistani households, the centerpiece of an arrangement surrounded by kurpachas, thin mattresses on which family members sit.


Carving and trimming, these artisans’ hands shape everything from combs and jewelry boxes to the intricately etched window frames and doors that Tajikistanis often use to impress their neighbors. They turn flat pieces of wood into something resembling strips of delicate lace. 


Master carver Kurbon Mazbutov at work.

And they are almost the only hope of saving their country’s ancient and revered tradition of elaborate woodcarving.


Carver Munira Vakhobova said that in addition to providing her an income, the painstaking work “steadies my nerves.” Vakhobova is one of the roughly 65 women who make their living here, although generally women are rare in Tajikistan woodcarving, which dates to the sixth century B.C.


The historical center of the art, where the best carvers originate, is Istaravshan, a 2,500-year-old town formerly known as Uroteppa. It is there, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the women’s workshop, that the country’s only crafts college continues to train woodcarvers.


Founded in 2009, the People’s Crafts College teaches 14 decorative arts, including pottery, jewelry, embroidery, carpet weaving, and engraving, to some 200 students.


Kurbon Mazbutov, a top carver who makes custom works, has trained students since the school opened. In this cold season, his charges are working primarily on window frames, doors, and gates, which they will install when it warms up.


Mazbutov was trained by his father, also a carver, and then at a technical school in the capital, Dushanbe. His techniques include zaminkor, a straight cut of a pattern on a flat surface; lulapardoz, for making oval-shaped geometric and flowerlike patterns; kandakorii barkastai mukarnasi, or bas-relief carving; kandakorii khamvor, straight smooth carving; chukur, deep cuts; and dutarafa, grid carving.


Kandakorii is one of the most ancient types of decorative and applied arts, in which carvers use bones and alabaster to decorate wood.


An ornate windowpane in a door carved in Mazbutov's workshop.


In addition to making goods, carving is used to decorate columns, friezes, beams, gravestones, wooden grids, ceiling and wall panels, and reading stands for holy books. Most carvers abide by Islam’s prohibition on the depiction of humans or animals, although that was not the case in the Soviet era, when religion was held in abeyance, and some artisans continue to carve such figures. Verses and moralizing couplets from the Koran are plentiful, especially in shrines and mosques.


A carver who makes wooden souvenirs gets 30 percent to 40 percent of the proceeds from every piece sold, said Mirzoilkhom Mirzokalonov, who teaches at the crafts college. Mirzokalonov estimates it takes up to a week to makea wooden bear eating honey or an old man drinking tea,” which would sell for around $10.


Works are sold at bazaars and exhibitions in Tajikistan and abroad. Last year, Istaravshan carvers took part in an international exhibition of handicrafts in India, Mazbutov said.  


“We usually take smaller pieces to exhibitions like that, for instance small jewelry boxes, combs, and wooden toys that are in brisk demand,” he said. Such pieces usually go for $10 or more, he said.


Whimsical figurines by Mirzoilkhom Mirzokalonov.


At a bazaar, a handmade wooden trunk with a carved ornament costs at least 700 somoni ($150), and a handmade door is priced at 5,000 to 6,000 somoni. Bigger works are much more expensive. A nice summer house, for instance, would cost a customer up to $50,000 in Tajikistan, equivalent to about 26 years’ worth of the average monthly salary.


But the bespoke nature of woodcarving makes it difficult to export on a large scale or even develop a large market in Tajikistan.


“We do everything by hand without using computer designs or that kind of thing, which is why our works don’t all look the same,” Mirzokalonov said. “Every work is unique, but when you need to make many of those things, you need equipment in addition to a workman’s hands.”


Although carving remains profitable, few are willing to learn the difficult and time-consuming art. Of the Istaravshan college’s 200 students, only 13 take lessons in woodcarving.


Back at the workshop, founded by a famous local carver about four years ago, Vakhobova smiles when asked if the work is difficult.


“Any job is tough. Life is made this way,” she says. “But if you do your job from your heart, it’s easy to overcome any difficulty.”    

Story and photos by Muhaiyo Nozimova, a journalist in Dushanbe and the coordinator of the Scoop journalism development organization in Tajikistan.

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© Transitions Online 2014. All rights reserved. ISSN 1214-1615
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