It was in Class 9 in Pune when Alijan Shaikh discovered his skills during a “boring” lecture. He picked up his compass and started shaving off chalk powder from the chalk stick. “I made a gumbat (dome) in that class,” he tells us about his first-ever work of art. It wasn’t long before his teachers discovered this “rare” skill and encouraged him to carve more chalks. The 18-year-old is now what he calls a self-trained chalk sculptor. Over the last four years, he has sculpted more than 120 chalks, of which only 60 remain with him. “Most of them have broken and I have gifted the rest to friends, teachers, and relatives,” he says.
For him, carving chalks has always been a test of patience and perseverance. He has lost count of the number of chalks he must have broken in the process of shaping them. With every crumbled chalk, Shaikh kept improvising and today, he sculpts a chalk in less than 90 minutes.
He has carved portraits, cartoons, animals, letters, abstract ideas, the Buddha, and many others on white and coloured pieces of chalks. He first looks at the photos and then starts carving them with the help of a needle, blade, and sandpaper. A bunch of mistakes have also led him to ponder over the process of sculpting. “Using needles directly was uncomfortable,” he says. He found an old painting brush and replaced the brush hair with the needle. In order to sculpt off the unnecessary chalk parts, he cut a blade diagonally and placed it in front of the brush.
After breaking so many chalks, he decided to keep them safe by wrapping a few in an old, green-coloured piece of cloth. He has kept his best works wrapped in polystyrene foam in three rectangular boxes.
He follows only one principle for sculpting the chalks: “Don’t get up until it’s done." The most difficult part in the entire exercise is the minute detailing. “It gets frustrating at times,” he says with a smile. There are times when the imperfect composition of chalks leads to their crumbling. “Now I’ve started shaping my chalk idols according to the composition of the chalk powder,” he says.
Shaikh wanted to pursue a course in design but his family could not afford the college fees. He is currently enrolled at the Abeda Inamdar Senior College in Pune for a bachelor's degree in Commerce. “I’ve to first earn enough and then I will pursue this hobby full-time,” he says. For now, he has begun to experiment his skills on wood. He recently carved a human face which he has hung at the entrance of his house.
His mother, Saira—in her mid-30s—treasures all the works he has gifted her but is concerned about the strain his craft puts on his eyes. “I will work in more homes, but I want Shaikh to continue this hobby,” says Saira, who works as a maid, while Shaikh’s father, Gulzar—in his late 30s—works as a watchman on a daily 12-hour shift at a petrol pump. Till date, Shaikh has sold only one chalk idol for Rs 200 when he was in Class 12. But he insists, “I want to master this art form and learn different techniques before I start selling them."