Greetings from Udaipur, Rajasthan! I have been in India a little over 3 weeks now, and it is a completely different world in so many ways from anything I have experienced before. I will be here through December, and I would like to share my journey with all who are interested: my experience of the culture, the people, the food, and my research in weaponry and metalworking in this region of the world. So let's start at the beginning.
On Saturday, April 2, I left my home town of Hebron, NY for a nine-month stay in India. I had been planning this trip since July 2020, when I applied for the Fulbright grant, a prestigious award given to students and scholars from all around the United States to conduct research in countries all around the world. Once I applied, I entered a state of uncertain anticipation, including two rounds of highly-selective screening, COVID-19 spikes in the US and India, three delays in the Fulbright timeline, all while attempting to schedule classes and commissions and advance my craft. It was with some disbelief then, that I packed up my apartment, locked my shop door, and left home at 4 AM to drive to the airport (Thanks, Mom!) for my 14-hour flight to Delhi.
View from my morning walk to the City Palace, overlooking lake Pichola
Once the capital of the Mewar Kingdom, Udaipur, known as the "Venice of the East," is nestled in the hills of Southern Rajasthan around a series of large, man-made lakes dating back as early as the 14th century. I came here because it is the heart of a rich metalworking and weapon-making tradition that stretches back centuries. The high value placed on opulent weapons with abundant surface ornamentation, preferably in gold, was shared by both the Rajputs: the Hindu ruling class of Rajasthan, and the Mughals: the Muslim empire that encompassed the majority of Northern India during the 17th century. Udaipur is still well-known today for koftgari, which was the most common technique for embellishing weapons in the region, and is of central importance in my research. Koftgari involves preparing an iron object (such as a sword hilt) with fine crosshatching scratches, pressing a thin gold or silver wire onto that prepared surface, and then burnishing the metal to lock the wire into place and smooth the surface. Master koftgari artist Sandeep Singh, who lives in the city, has agreed to teach me the craft, and the City Palace Museum is hosting my project and providing me with access to their collection of swords and daggers for careful study.
Inside the City Palace, Udaipur
I’ve dedicated the first few weeks in Udaipur to getting my bearings: meeting people, starting Hindi classes, and attending to the other necessities of life like food, housing, transportation, and government paperwork. From the day I arrived, I’ve been aided by the overwhelming hospitality of the Indian people I have met. The afternoon I flew in, Sandeep brought me to his home, offered me tea and sweets, gave me a tour of his workshop, and showed me pieces of his family's collection of antique Indian blades. In subsequent days Utesh Dungerwal, who works at the City Palace, brought me on his motorbike (the primary mode of travel in the city) to several possible apartments for me to rent, and invited me for tea and snacks at his house every afternoon, where he lives with his wife, parents, and three daughters. I share an office at the City Palace with a delightful person, Mudit Charles, and the curator Dr. Hansmukh Seth has already introduced me to many people and helped me to navigate the museum archives.
Overlooking Udaipur at Carni Mata Temple with Shourya, Haldik, and Arpan
On the research front, so far I have spent most of my time at the Palace reading books in the library, learning about the history of the Mewar rulers and the city of Udaipur to give myself a solid historical background to study the weapons in the collection. Hansmukh Seth has set aside a selection of historical swords and daggers with particularly nice koftgari work, and I am eagerly looking forward to giving them some proper examination. I have also spent a few days with Sandeep at his workshop, where he demonstrated silver koftgari on a small hammerhead. I posted a video of the demonstration on my Instagram page if you are curious about the process.
Going forward, I plan to split my time between Sandeep's workshop and the City Palace, combining practical study with examination of historical pieces. I hope to collaborate with Sandeep on some projects, as well as create some work of my own. While there are logistical challenges gaining access to appropriate materials and tools for forging, grinding, and heat treating knives, Sandeep and I are working together to overcome these challenges, so I hope to report favorable developments on this front in the coming weeks!
Street view from my apartment window in the Old City, Udaipur