For the past six months, I have been planning a light, small wooden box, as the body of a camera I am building to take quick, not too loud, pictures of wild elephants. I have long had the lens for this camera and recently acquired the bellows and focusing movement, but what one would think was the easiest part of it, the wooden body, has frustrated me.
I could have had the box made of light, strong packing-case wood–Sitka spruce planks are often to be found in packing cases that have brought machinery and the like to India, and the wood is light and fibrous, strong, warp-free when fully seasoned, and takes screws better than almost any other wood I know.
But, getting sentimental with the years, I wanted the wood of an Indian tree, of a species in the shade of which I had relaxed and slept in the jungles, and was set on the wood of the “kumizh” (Gmelina Arborea), and I could not get it.
After all, I needed only a square foot of one-inch thick plank, and I tried various traders in wood in Madras and Kerala. One offered me a plank of “kumizh” wood, but it was from the porous, weak outer part of the bole, and what I wanted was the heartwood, beautifully close-grained and capable of being cut and shaped precisely and finished silken smooth.
Well, finally I compromised with the wood from which cigar boxes are made in India (Cedrela Toona —the Indian red Cedar), under which, too, I had slept on occasion. But the experience made me realise how rapidly woods valued for centuries in our country have become increasingly rare.
I was happy to hear that in North India the Forest Departments sometimes use the “kumizh” (which they call “gumhar”) for small plantations: it was good to know that one of our best and most highly valued light woods was not being neglected at least in the North.
But in the South, the “kumizh”, long celebrated as a tree of montane forests yielding wood peculiarly suited for the manufacture of musical instruments and for fine carving, is virtually forgotten now.
In classical Tamil the nose of a beautiful woman is compared to the flower of the tree. I think the comparison far-fetched, but the flowers of the “kumizh”, yellow deepening to rust-red at their bases, do have a charm of their own; they never fail to remind me of candle flames fluttering in a gentle breeze.
The fleshy fruits, green turning to yellow when ripe are eagerly sought after by deer and other forest animals, including the lordly elephant. For this reason alone the tree deserves to be encouraged in our sanctuaries.
There is no defined heartwood, as in ebony, but the inner wood is much closer and stronger than the peripheral wood, and takes a high finish; it is light, durable, a beautiful pale ochre (with the tinge of grey or red at times) in colour, and does not warp or shrink once it is seasoned; it is eminently suited for carving, for it is easily cut and shaped to precise proportions and takes a perfectly smooth finish, but still retains the charm and texture of wood, unlike harder and closer grained woods, such as boxwood or the wood of Wrightia species.
In the old days the bowl of the yaazh (a musical instrument of the South somewhat similar to the veena) was made from “kumizh” wood, but the yaazh went centuries ago. Even today it would be worth making the bowl of musical instruments of the veena type from the wood—the trouble would be getting tree with a sufficiently thick bole from which to shape the bowl, but the effort would, I think, be rewarded.
This was published on 4 September 1967