Book Review

Craft, Handloom, Art, Reviews

Book Review: Crafts Atlas Of India. Jaya Jaitly

Tyabji, Laila

I always have two open books on the round antique table in my hallway, chosen for their illustrations and subjects. They vary from month to month. There is a small horn-rimmed magnifying glass so visitors can examine the intricate details of courtly life in the Azimuth Edition of Shah Jehan’s PADSHAHNAMA or the magical Machlipatnam kalamkari Trees of Life in Martand Singh’s HANDCRAFTED INDIAN TEXTILES. Another week there could be Pauline van Leyden’s sensitive photographic collages of RAJASTHAN or B N Goswamy’s NAINSUKH OF GULER. Everyone, from visiting friends to the plumber and the policeman checking my passport details, stops to take a look – most find it difficult to pull themselves away. A universal favourite has been Aditi and M R Ranjan’s amazing HANDMADE IN INDIA, a gloriously illustrated and detailed encyclopedia of Indian Crafts, co-published a few years ago by NID and the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) Office. Now Jaya Jaitly’s vibrant CRAFT ATLAS OF INDIA will also find a place.

The two books have much in common – including their almost overwhelming weight and volume! Both are a compendium of Indian craft traditions; both group these geographically rather than by technique or material. This makes sense since so many Indian crafts owe their origin to local socio-cultural practice, or the availability locally of a specific raw material. It also means that mini-states like Goa or Pondicherry, usually ignored by craft researchers, find a place. Jaya Jaitly’s book is more individual and anecdotal, the Ranjan book more exhaustive; stronger on technique and technology.

What makes the CRAFT ATLAS OF INDIA so distinctive is the use of crafts idioms and folk art in the books design. These derive their inspiration from the stunning and evocative Crafts Maps that Jaya has developed over the past 2 decades. Starting with an All India map they are now 24 of them – each state being illustrated in the craft technique for which the state is best known. So papier-mache painting for Kashmir, for instance, and Madhubani for Bihar. This is a brilliant idea, and makes each map (or the corresponding title page for each section in the atlas) an exuberantly evocative work of art. Sadly, in the Atlas, fitting the image to the format of a double page spread has necessitated slicing bits of the text off the sides – with occasionally jarring results.

Unlike the NID HANDMADE IN INDIA, which was the result of years of funded institutional research, the CRAFT ATLAS is Jaya’s labour of love, done in the midst of a hectic professional and political life, using her Dastkari Haat Samiti organization (to whom the book is dedicated) as her main source. So there are obviously gaps and variations in emphasis, information, and inclusion, some of them subjective. Delhi for instance, gets much more attention than Chennai or Kolkota, even to listings of her pick of craft emporia and boutiques, a useful addition that is missing for other cities and states. And, while Jaya quite naturally includes her own charming Dastkari Haat Khan Market shop, as well as SANTUSHTI and TRIBES, it’s surprising to find no mention of the KAMALA shop run by the Crafts Council, which stocks some of the best and most beautifully displayed craft in town, the re-vamped National Museum store, THE SHOP (which pioneered contemporized, crafted home accessories in the ’60s), Kamayani Jalan’s Alladin’s Cave of textiles and crafts in Anandlok, or the amazing JIYO sample room at the Asia Heritage Foundation. Other surprise omissions are the wonderful Sanskriti Terracotta, Textile and Everyday Art museums at Anandgram, set in sylvan surroundings and full of stunning crafted objects; beautifully curated and maintained, and refreshingly different to the more institutional brand of sarkari museums.

The photographs do not purport to represent the “best and finest” examples of each style and skill, but give the reader a general idea of the textile or craft, and sometimes of the craftsperson in the process of making it. The effect is an impressionist overview of the range and variety of Indian craft skills rather than a comprehensive encyclopedia of every Indian technique and tradition. The photograph of Lucknavi chikan white-work embroidery for instance, has a very pedestrian example of bakhia shadow-work, with none of the jaali work and interplay of over 25 different stitches that gives chikan its unique character and quality. Nevertheless, while each of us might cavil at what is left out, or how our favourite craft has been presented, the CRAFT ATLAS is not only a visual delight, but a very useful aid to anyone attempting to encompass craft in the sub-continent. It’s an on-going shocker that such information and precise data, whether for the tourist or researcher, in a sector which should be India’s pride, is not generally available.

As always, one is stunned by how many crafts still exist in India thirteen years into the 21st century, despite the pressures of globalization and industrialization, and the corresponding marginalization of Indian craftspeople. All of us in the sector, quite naturally, obsess endlessly about the numerous threats to the survival of craft (15 to 18% of India’s craftspeople leave the sector in search for more lucrative employment every decade), but so much does remain, just waiting to be properly invested in and supported. We sometimes forget too, how the efforts of Government, NGOs, and private entrepreneurs, has resulted not only in preserving but mainstreaming many otherwise unknown and localized skills, and how much better off we are in this regard than our neighbours in Nepal, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. Though we may complain about the rigidity and disfunctionality of Government Departments and Schemes for crafts and textiles, at least we have them!

My mother loved and used craft all her life in both her home and her wardrobe, but the range of Bomkai, kasuti, and kantha embroidery saris, Lambani and Rabari mirrorwork, sujni bedspreads, Kutchi cutwork leather, Gond and Warli painting, banana fibre, ajrakh resist-dye printing, Bhujodi shawls, Bhagalpur and Maheshwar textiles, Mathura papercuts, Bastar dhokra and bell metal tableware, and a myriad other skills, textiles, and products that we take for granted, were certainly not accessible to her in Delhi or Hyderabad in the 50s and 60s – and the only chamba rumals and kani shawls around were antique pieces. At the same time of course, many of the crafts, textiles and objects that were a commonplace in my grandmother’s home and wardrobe in the 20s and 30s are longer extant. The story of contemporary Indian craft is full of ups and downs, both sad and celebratory; and the winners and losers keep changing!

One of the most interesting parts of the CRAFTS ATLAS is the introductory text in which Jaya traces the various socio-historic streams of Indian craft, and the way in which India’s multiple cultures and geographies have led to this amazing diversity of materials and traditions. Invoking the well-known Francois Pyrard de Laval quote on how in the 17th century “Everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman, is clothed from head to foot in the product of Indian Looms“, she introspects on how India became this cornucopia of craft skills, and why these declined from being the wonder of the world into their present disadvantaged state. How wonderful if the phoenix were to rise again from the flames, and Indian crafts and textiles (and the craftspeople and weavers who make them) regained that premier place in the global marketplace! This monumental and lovingly put together book will certainly aid those of us working to that end.

In a PS, (in case I am suspected of plugging my own publication) I should add that the Dastkari Haat Samiti is quite separate to my own organization, Dastkar! Jaya was one of the six original Dastkar founders, and when she left to form her own organization she added Dastkar to its name. The two organizations, while both working with craftspeople, are quite separate, something that occasionally causes some confusion!

First published in the Book Review April 2013.


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