Sambhal is the heart of India’s horn and bone industry — a waste material that’s upcycled into decorative pieces. Situated nearly 200 km from Delhi, Sambhal is a small city with a core population of only 90,000 — small by Indian standards. Artisans residing in villages surrounding the city center have been working with horn and animal bone for generations.
Post-independence, Sambhal became a gathering spot for artisans who worked with buffalo horns.
The materials were, historically, sourced by animals that had died naturally. They were collected and provided to artisans to transform into art. As years passed, the horns became limited in supply; so artisans turned to bones as well. These bones stem from animals that have been slaughtered for their meat. A largely Muslim area, and trade, bone artisanry requires skill.
What started as a trade to produce fashionable hair combs, made of bone, during the British Empire and thereafter, has evolved into a much larger industry.
Sawing, filing, and setting hundreds of pieces into intricate patterns requires precision and a keen eye.
The handcrafted pieces require the bone to be cut into the appropriate size, dyed in the perspective colors, and laid out to dry. Once the bone is ready to be set into a design, it’s applied using adhesive onto a metal base. Often, aluminum is used along with a layer of MDF, or wood fibers compacted into a single layer. The shape and pattern dictate how the bone is then placed onto the base. For complex and original patterns such as these, artisans generally take four to five hours to complete a single piece. At that rate, they can finish about two such designs in a day.The final product, be it horn or bone, is taken to a finishing unit where the item is cleaned and prepped for shipping.
Nearly 2000 manufacturing units, cloistered together in a neighborhood of Sambhal, are famous for this vintage skill. Yet as the artisans age, many of them now over 60, fewer youngsters are keen to take up the work.