Mohammad Asif’s favourite colour is turquoise blue. It is also the toughest colour to reproduce. He has been working for the last three years on the restoration of Delhi’s Mughal heritage sites. The 22-year-old resident of Nizamuddin basti loves glazing Mughal tiles with this colour, among four others — lapis blue, green, white and yellow. He is one of the few who knows the rare art of crafting and colouring Mughal tiles.
Each tile has to be an exact replica of the original. They have to be painted in the exact shade of lapis blue or turquoise blue or white, have to be the exact size and thickness and as sturdy as the original. “It’s tough to produce the exact shades. Even a slight variation in temperature, quantity, or weather, among other things, can alter the shade. Some tiles have thicker paint coats and too many coats can also change the shade. Turquoise was the toughest to produce. It took about two years and 10,000 sample tests to get the right shade,” says Saroj Pandey, Assistant Art Conservator, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the organisation spearheading restoration work at about 50 monuments in Nizamuddin area. Conservation is on at other sites including the Humayun’s Tomb, Arab ki Sarai, Nila Gumbad, Isa Khan’s Tomb and Bu Halina gateway.
It was in 2011 that Asif, with seven others from Nizamuddin basti, started learning the craft from an Uzbekistan team that arrived to train the artisans, since tiles from Uzbekistan were found to be closest to the Mughal ones. In the greens of Humayun’s Tomb, the tin-shaded workshop with low-hanging tubelights serves as a second home to the artisans.
After about three years of working with the tiles, the artisans here want to stick to the trade as long as they can. Mohammed Imran, who was a car mechanic before he learnt the art, is satisfied that he can be back home by 6 pm and spend time with family. “We make around Rs 12,000 each month. In my earlier job, I was making less than half of that. Moreover, the workshop is so close to where we live,” says the 30-year-old. “They are now rare artisans; nobody in the country knows the craft,” says Rampal Singh, Chief Engineer, Aga Khan Trust.