There are very few skilled craftsmen who are engaged in repousse work on brass and copper. Art apart, the metal, particularly brass, has remained the most important utility object in Punjab since time immemorial. Brazen vessels have also suited best of the Punjab motion of purity required to be scrubbed with earth or sand before being washed each time they are used.
The use of brass was, thus, apparently considerable. According to J.L. Kipling, Principal, Mayo School of Art, Lahore; 65,468 maunds of brass was imported into Punjab in 1882-83. Rewari, Jagadhri, Amritsar, Jandiala, Phagwara, Gujranwala, Pindi Dadan Khan and Kangra were popular for articles made from brass. Rewari was famous for making bells, particularly the large globular cart-bell, like an exaggerated hawk-bell, called zang that gave a loud and shrill sound.Apart from metal wares of utility catering to the needs of general public, repousse work on brass and copper, boldly embossed in patterns of foliage as well as figures, was wrought by craftsmen from Amritsar. The craft was locally known as ubhar-da-kam or raised work, from ubhar i.e. swelling or raising. In this process the metal sheet, brass as well as copper, was hammered into relief from the reverse side. Great dexterity was required to bring out the required result. Outstanding specimens of this craft survive in the Golden Temple, Gurdwara Baba Atal and in many other shrines in Amritsar. The worker engaged in this craft was called thathera, literally, ‘the beater’, and the best works were produced in kucha fakirkhana.
Most of the exterior upper portions of the walls of the Golden Temple are covered with repousse plaques, heavily gilded. The raised decorations are mainly floral, but there are some panels representing the human figure. On the front side, for instance, are two embossed panels, the lower representing Guru Nanak Dev ji flanked by Bhai Bala and Bhai Mardana seated under a tree, and the upper representing Guru Gobind Singh ji on horseback.
Also embossed in gold are several inscriptions in Gurmukhi mostly based on sacred compositions of the Sikh Gurus. Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who repaired the principal building in 1802 A.D, commemorated this act by an inscription over the entrance to the central shrine, which reads: The Guru in his wisdom looked upon Maharaja Ranjit Singh as his chief servitor and Sikh, and, in his benevolence, bestowed on him the privilege of serving the temple.
The embellishments wrought in repousse in Gurdwara Baba Atal are mostly figurative. Gilded rectangular plaques with various legends, hammered into relief, were fixed on the tympanums over all door openings to the shrine, each tympanum affixed with three plaques, a larger in the center, flanked by two smaller ones. These embossed plaques were presented by the devotees about the middle of the 19th century and after. A few of these bear names and addresses of the devotees and also the dates of presentations. Against the traditional anonymity associated with Indian craftsmen, one of the plaques here record the identity of the metal worker in a monogram in Gurmukhi characters, which is fascinating indeed.
The themes relate both to the Sikhs and the Hindus. In the scene illustrating Siddha gosthi, Guru Nanak Dev’s religious discourse with the Siddhas, the Guru is depicted sitting on a carpet against a bolster under a tree with Bhai Bala, along with a number of Siddha ascetics sitting in their hierarchical order. An inscription on this plaque reads: Dedicated by Mai Kesar Dei, wife of Bhai Hari Singh, resident of Kila Bhangian, Amritsar, samvat 1953 (1896 A.D.).
A plaque portrays Guru Arjun Dev and Bhai Gurdas in the act of compiling the Adi Guru Granth Sahib, including the portraits of the bhaktas and the sufis whose hymns have been incorporated in the holy book.
Four plaques represent Guru Gobind Singh; the first illustrating the Guru on horseback, holding a falcon and accompanied by a hound and five attendants; and second portrays the Guru baptizing the ‘Five Beloved Ones’; the third depicts the Guru sitting on a throne, behind him are seated Panj-Piaras and before him stand his four sons and devotees; the fourth represent him on horseback inspiring his followers with the conviction: Nischey kar apni jeet karun. Another panel illustrates Ajit Singh, Jujhar Singh, Zorawar Singh and Fateh Singh, the sons of Guru Gobind Singh, all riding on horsebacks with attendants.
The decline in this craft started when devotees were permitted to present contributions to religious edifices in the form of marble slabs. Soon the demand for repousse plaques diminished, making it nearly a lost craft.