Creating an Identity through Crafts

Creating an Identity through Crafts: A Perspective on Indian Interior Architecture

Jain, Rishav

Across the globe, craft has oftenbeen associated to small scale ‘products’ and ‘objects’; one misses out the enormity of craft in the traditional and vernacular architectural structures.In India, the craft landscape comprises of numerous types of applications which range from vernacular objects of daily use that are made from locally sourced materials to the celebrated objects of symbolic value used on special occasions either for personal or religious use. The built landscape of India also depicts the vastnessof craft productions at various scales.

The legacies of craft traditions that shaped Indian architecture since ages are being consistently questioned and are subject to validity in our contemporary and modern environment. Space Making Crafts which also form an inherent tradition in our country are being manifested in diverse ways with multiple overlays of culture, tradition, design and many external forces. The country stands in the middle of a multi-faceted architectural landscape where there are numerous ideas shaping the building industry. It projects a mixed vision that blurs down to a state of absence of a cultural identity. While many buildings portray a departure from the traditional architecture; others have been integrating crafts in the built environment claiming an Indian identity in the built landscape worldwide.

An attempt to understand the complexity of crafts and its manifestation in the built environment of India is made through this paper.  It discusses the concept of Space Making Crafts in the initial part.  It also elaborates on how space making crafts lend a unique identity to the nation. In the latter part, the current status of Space Making Crafts is discussed along with the various approaches towards craft design innovation that are lending an Indian Identity to Interior Architecture practices of India.

Concept of Space Making Crafts

There is a difference between a craft being applied to an object and a craft applied to a space. The former is applied on a smaller scale and allows movement, while the latter is completely integrated and fixed to a particular space.  Space Making Crafts are not mobile (in most cases), as they are an integral part of the space and cannot be separated from that particular environment. The desire to be more meaningful in expression and communication increases manifold in Space Making Crafts, as in a particular space the role of crafts has to fit within the context, construction systems and the environment of that place.

The Space making crafts are the various tangible and intangible expressions lent to an architectural space by a skilled craftsperson(s) or artisans, using various materials, processes, tools and techniques which modify or add to its cultural aesthetic. Space making crafts includes a wide plethora of crafts that are directly or indirectly related to a built environment ranging from wall decorations, furniture, products, interior-architecture elements to structural elements and processes of building; all of which essentially involve the active participation of a craftsperson(s). These skills or techniques that make up a three dimensional space are indigenous in origin but may or may not be so in expression and execution.  Space Making Crafts comprise a vast array of crafts including both the hard and soft materials and the techniques used. They are not only confined to the techniques of construction or the skill of creating the elements. They engage sensorially, spiritually, physically as well as psychically.

              Figure 01:  Division of various space making crafts on the basis of material, 2011

Space Making Crafts are an integral part of a culture of the place and they have been also a portrayal of a regional identity of a particular place with multiple associations of society, culture, religion etc. A  singlespace making craft varying in expression, gave a uniqueness from the diversity of expressions, iconography, folklore, living patterns and myths and beliefs which varied from one region to other. Most appropriate examples of this would be paintings, frescoes and murals from different regions.

With distinct styles of ornamentation and surface decorations, the space making crafts are a storehouse of motifs, patterns, symbolic representations which have been constantly evolving throughout the history. Such motifs and patterns are often absorbed by a culture and then are disseminated across different kinds of media and are sometimes transferred to different kind of materials too. For example, the transfer of a motif from stone to wood, from handloom weaving to block printing, from the metal work to fabrics; and this has brought a unique amalgamation of the material and expansions of tool.

Space Making Crafts in traditional built environment of India

The vernacular structures and the traditional buildings in various parts of India show the integrity and the involvement of crafts in the built environment. There was no formalized methods of making, neither was a presence of a trained professional to help with the technical issues. They were constructed with the systems of making mentioned in the scriptures and ancient literature texts and with the skills of a craftsperson.

The house forms of the desert areas, especially the bhunga structures in few parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan are one of the best examples of such built forms. Circular houses made of mud and roofed with thatch: these materials being highly suited the hostile desert environment. Also the clustering of huts, the arrangement of various open, semi-open and closed spaces was a reflection of their lifestyles. There was an involvement of craft in every element of the spaces thus created. Also as the users of the space were makers here, they added personalized creativity to the spaces in form of expressions which often carried a symbolic meaning implying auspiciousness and good fortune.

                                                Figure 02: Bhunga Houses in Gujarat, 2011

Space Making Crafts added a character to the otherwise harsh and plainer life. It brought associations which were not merely related directly to the built form but also to a specific region, as the wooden constructions associates to the craft of making wooden houses in Kerala where they use the wood extensively. In Kerala the detailing of the wood craft is so immaculate that the wood has sustained till date.

The city palace in Udaipur is one of the prominent examples that showcase different extents of integration of crafts within the built environment with diverse approaches.  It induces a sense of spatial quality to the built form. The presence of courtyards and pavilions indicate a spatial organization with reference of the climate of the region. The crafts have been also explored in making of balconies and jharokhas. This palace shows extensive use of crafts associated with glass and mirror work.

Another exclusive example of integration of crafts into the built form is the Adalaj step well located near Ahmedabad,where the stone craft is explored to its full potential which guides the form and massing, the scale and proportion, the space making elements and also the surface decoration. Here the integration goes beyond merely visual impactbut is also associated with various intangible factors. Apart from having detailed ornamentation on various surfaces, here craft helps in giving a spatial quality to the structure.

          Figure 03: Adalaj Stepwell, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 2010

Creating an Identity in Indian Interior Architecture

Over the past few hundred years or so, the notion of crafts has been constantly changing, the people who try to be enthusiasts of craft production are considered as intellectual utopians, or revivalists or people who are just trying to go back to the past and attempting to turn back the hands of time. The period after independence and the search for a new identity of being projected as Indian has rooted craft back into the interior architecture practices today vying for a new language in the practice.

The late years of 1950s in India initiated a drive among many professionals working in architecture to create an identity of the emerging nation states. The major question being asked was how far were the emerging modes of practice in Indian interior architecture able to fulfil the physical, the social, cultural needs of people at various economic levels. There was also a drive to test the effectiveness of the climate controlling devices which were derived from the western methodologies. They were being critically analyzed for their suitability in the varied climatic zones across India. There also arose a debate regarding the relationship and continuity between the old and new built environment where the new one was reacted to as alien to the culture of the nation.

The years between 1945 and 1980 began with the euphoria of independence – building   a new India based on a concern for all people – but afterwards a materialistic, commercial and rationalist approach prevailed. (Lang and Desai, 1997, p.194)

Different architects and designers responded to the complex matrix in different way. There were multiple viewpoints and attitudes which were seen towards crafts and interior architecture practices. And as discussed earlier, craft never was a new tool or was never a new phenomenon which had started after independence or in the last few centuries but it has been an active part of our lives.

With the search of an identity of being associated with India and the richness of craft traditions the nation had, there are different layered approaches which started appearing in the practices of many professionals. Taking a critical glance at the various scenarios and trends that have emerged out of socio-cultural consequences in the country, Interior architecture practices in India have become multifaceted and complex. There are different architects and designers in varied projects using different facets of craft in their productions. While the ideas have been changing considerably, the impacts too have considerably varied with the ideas. There is involvement of various tangible and intangible factors which govern the integration of crafts within the built form. This is not merely a single approach but involves different people from different fields who come together to combine their ideas in a single space.

For explorations associated with the emerging landscape in India, it is important to represent the diversity of architectural production in that context. With this multifaceted nature of production processes, clues about the form and nature of the emergent landscapes in India – the new practices that are reacting to the contemporary could be found. The emerging modes of practices discussed in the following section are in fact the indicators of the interior architectural landscapes that we can envisage in the future, they being illustrative of various issues that the Indian society and the architects and designers aspire to address.

There are many degrees of the application and integration of crafts in the built environment which can be seen, each showcasing an individual interpretation of craft in the built environment. Many architects merely followed the modern masters by using concrete as the only expression in architecture; others challenged the multi-faceted practices of modern architecture in India by making the traditional knowledge and skills as one of their key principle while designing in architecture. Crafts in contemporary times have been manifested in different manners by different architects. These traditions become a constant source of inspiration to architects who attempt to embody, identify and find meaning in the design of new buildings.

Approaches towards Crafts in the recent past

Recent examples from the last two decades showcase different approaches towards the use of crafts. This has been quite individual and has largely depended on the kind of the project and the concerned architect/designer. There are many approaches which may not show a full integration of crafts in the built form but embody craft traditions in them.  The creation of Indian identity in many projects is not merely restricted to visual integration of craft practices, rather the manifestation is done at various levels. The reinterpretation of space making crafts, the elements from traditional and vernacular architecture and the influence of folklores, narratives or mythologies often have been translated. There could never be a case for or against this phenomenon, as there is no right way or wrong way of integrating crafts within the  built environment. Rather they are just myriad manifestations and positions which an individual architect or designer takes while working with the world of crafts.

Discussed here are the few key approaches which are seen towards interior architecture practices in India with specific reference to crafts. A few of the dominant ones were seen in many projects. They are:

Crafts as continuum of traditions:

Many architects and designers till date value craft as an important component of our lives, considering its socio-cultural and economic benefits. Craft is not an external layer which is to be added upon once the built form is complete, rather is itself imbibed in the building; building in an indigenous manner. Here the context, the site locations and understanding of the system as a whole becomes a crucial part. Many times such approaches might not show craft as a final visual outcome; rather the process might be a craft process. Tree of Life resort in Jaipur shows a deep understanding of the craftsperson and his skills in which the crafts are successfully integrated with the design philosophy. Without intervening much with the craftspeople, a freedom of expression is given while giving them a specific brief about the project.

                                        Figure 04: Tree of Life Resort, Jaipur, 2012

Crafts with the ease of production:

With the constraints of time and money, and scarcity of skilled craftspeople, the technology is improving with each passing day. This also initiates many approaches where craft is seen in the light of technology, hence rendering it possible for the architect and designer to incorporate it in the built form. This is to create a new language which emerges with the harmonious blend of hand and machine. For e.g. The luxury hotel, Raas in Jodhpur by AmbrishArora achieves a pattern of jaaliwhich was designed and derived by keeping in consideration the local skill of the person and the limitations of machine as a tool. This pattern was made which used machine for the initial cutting and the handwork to refine it and make it cleaner. Also at various places, the hand work is used extensively due to the limitations of the machine.

                           Figure 05:  Raas, a boutique hotel in Jodhpur, 2012

Crafts with the idea of glocal practice

There are constant flips faced between the modern and the traditional. There is a constant strife between making something which is rooted within but is still placed in the modern and updated world today. This idea of placing a project within the global industry and looking for local solutions often leads to amalgamation of the two extremes, leading to a glocal approach which often looks for a local solution to a global issue or program. Here crafts are mostly used as a plug-in which often comes at a very late stage and is often used as a contrast to the minimalistic and modern expressions. Ayushakti, an ayurvedic hospital in Mumbai uses the traditional language integrating the wooden columns and the wooden roof which is juxtaposed with the planar columns and walls which are painted in the lighter hues.

Craft as a derivative of a new language:

This approach looks at craft as a dynamic process which evolves and should evolve with time; it does not focus on redoing things done before but shows a new way of looking at crafts. The involvement of craftspeople is at various stages depending on the requirement. This approach initiates ‘start afresh’ idea while there is an understanding of the context, construction methods and the culture. Often such practices do not have an existing framework to refer to, they evolve a new framework and methodology of working styles which is becomes a sustainable model developed in favor of both the architect/designer and the craftsperson.  Nrityagram in Bangalore  by Gerard Da Cunha is an extensive exploration of the skills and knowledge of the craftsmanship and the crafts. Though nothing has been imitated from what existed earlier, sufficient references have been taken forward to create a new language. Such practices evolve over a period of time based on the personal influences the practitioner develops with various facets of craft over time.

                                       Figure 06: Nrityagram, Bangalore, 2011

Crafts as a term or notion:

In various projects, we often hear , ‘inspired from crafts’, ‘learned from crafts’, ‘ it was handcrafted’, ‘crafts used’  and so on, where the words become more important than the process and the outcome. These are the practices which merely use the notion of crafts or the semantics of the term crafts rather than going beyond this. These projects do not go beyond the terms yet are often considered as projects which show the use of crafts at different levels. Projects like Pearl Academy of Fashion, Jaipur which initiates their design concept from the craft of jaali making and concepts of traditional architecture of Jaipur refers to nothing other than this but still claims to be a catalyst for initiating crafts in the projects.


The emerging modes of practices discussed in the last section are in fact the indicators of the interior architectural landscapes that we can envisage in the future, they being illustrative of various issues that society in India and the architects and designers aspire to address. Here, the medium becomes craft and craftspeople; including both the tangible and non-tangible factors thus making the construct more complex. In whichever manner these practices are formed, it is important to know that they struggle for authenticity and identity while attempting to resolve the intellectual complication and undercurrents of craft and culture in India.

Few of the projects are intentionally linked with crafts, as the country is often know for its rich craft traditions. In various approaches, be it continuum of traditions or usage of mere terminologies, with this integration, the projects are recognized across various regions through such manifestations. There are different instances of the same phenomenon, for example the usage of traditional architectural forms and motifs along with crafts at the India Pavilion at the Shangai World Expo 2010 were suggestive of identifying India through Crafts. Indira Gandhi International Airport Terminal 3, New Delhi is another example where the huge installation of hand gestures against copper discs portrays the exuberance and cultural richness of crafts.  Such instances are slowly increasing and the trickledown effect of such approaches is manifold. The craft traditions practiced for generations in the built landscape are being redesigned and remodeled, where each expression is unique and independent of others.

With the advancement of technology and division of labour, the manifestations have considerably changed. Earlier where the craft was practiced as a community, it is now often practiced solely by individuals. A lot of exchange of ideas between various cultures, regions and people are becoming evident in a country where the interior architecture spaces are seen an interaction between all these. Traditional interior spaces ensured the expression of a regional and cultural identity, being made and designed by the local people and craftspeople using the available resources and techniques. The optimum use of the resources and its relative geographical isolation, gave a local flair and portrayed a unique identity of the region. Post liberalization, the conception of interiors has changed drastically, with myriad manifestations and varied attitudes, various works of interior architecture still claim to be ‘Indian’ merely with the integration of craft practices. What has remained constant is the connection of crafts with the nation. Even though the methods have changed, the ideologies have changed and so have the tools and techniques; but the impact remains the same. Like earlier times, Space Making Crafts are lending a unique identity to Indian interior architecture practices. The only difference which remains is that the horizons have broadened beyond region and community; and extend to the nation as a whole.

Select References

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  • Coomaraswamy, A.,1909.The Indian Craftsman, London: Probsthain& Co.
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  • Lang, J., Desai, M. 1997. Architecture and independence: the search for identity India 1880-1980. Toronto: Oxford Uni. Press
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  • Pye, D., 1995.The nature and art of workmanship.London: The Herbert Press
  • Vyas, H.K., 2009.Design the international Movement: with Indian Parallel. Ahmedabad: SID Research Cell

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