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In Search of Vishwakarma and His Progeny

Craft, Handloom, Art, Craftspersons/ Artisanal, Op-Ed

In Search of Vishwakarma and His Progeny

Jaitly, Jaya

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Professor Ramaswamy has devoted a lot of time to the study of the Vishwakarma community. You find her studies referring to this community, which is often described as a unified grouping of five subgroups—carpenters, blacksmiths, bell metal workers, goldsmiths, and stone masons- who believe that they are the descendants of Vishwakarma , through his sons. Manu was said to have worked with iron; Maya in wood; Tvashtha in brass, copper, and alloys; Silpi in stone; and Vishvajna was said to be a goldsmith and jeweller. The kammāḷars in south India, who claim to be their descendants, are well versed in the shilpa shastras, the art treatises in Sanskrit laying out all the religious and technical processes to be followed in their work in order to achieve perfect results. Forms and formats are rigid and the process of creating an object is considered a part of a spiritual exercise. Till date, the Vishwakarma community worships various forms of this deity (Vishwakarma) and follows the fiveVedas: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda,  , and Pranava Veda.

Vishwakarma is mentioned repeatedly in the Rig Veda 10.81.7, but it would be best to quote from the Mahabharata, as used by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, which is, ‘Visvakarma, Lord of the arts, master of a thousand handicrafts, carpenter of the gods and builder of their palaces divine, fashioner of every jewel, first of craftsmen, by whose art men live, and whom, a great and deathless god, they continually worship.’ He is said to be the god of all architects, engineers, and craftspeople, the supreme architect of the universe, Brahma in another form. He, thus, provides an overarching umbrella, including everyone involved with work and creative expression.

Vishwakarma has always held a place of fascination for me. It began when I saw simple workers from different artisanal professions, shop floors, and construction sites pausing work for a day dedicated to his name, to clean their machines, tools, and instruments and adorn them with flowers. Then they prayed to him, since it was Vishwakarma who enabled them to flourish their skills. It seemed so fundamental an act, imbued with utmost respect for one’s own work and a recognition that the blessings of a higher being are needed to successfully execute one’s skills at work.

Vishwakarma is obviously a concept that is commonly depicted as an elderly figure sporting a white beard. It is a concept honouring work and the encouragement of creativity and excellence. So we should see Vishwakarma Jayanti, celebrated immediately after Ganesh Chaturthi, as an occasion honouring creativity, skills, and thus, the dignity of labour. This day always seems more important to me than the innumerable holidays accorded to different communities and religions in our secular nation. To stop work for just a day in order to respect the workplace and the materials that enable one to work seems to me a highly sophisticated concept that is only partially matched by the Western concept of Labour Day, which refers essentially to the working class in organized environments. It is also equally important to note that Vishwakarma Day brings together artisans and craftspeople, mechanics and carpenters, and architects and artists from a number of communities to celebrate their patron and guardian. Descendants of the professional artisan castes associated specifically with Vishwakarma, who today may be involved in some wholly unrelated profession, also take pride in celebrating this day.

On the basis of the belief that all gods having different attributes in the Hindu pantheon are ultimately one, and the soul of the ‘one’ resides in each of us, Vishwakarma too can be appropriated by all artisan groups apart from the original five, and indeed, by anyone involved in creative expression. It is from this position that my study of what Vishwakarma means to craftspeople began. Being an activist in the field, and spending more time in dusty villages and narrow lanes of small and big towns in search of people who uphold India’s craft traditions than in libraries and among books, I found that not only is the ‘progeny’ of Vishwakarma spread far and wide, but that craftspeople do not need to go to temples to seek him. The true manifestation of ‘work is worship’ is found when one watches crafts persons at work. The silence, the meditative quality of their concentration, the systematic and meaningful application of techniques, and the choice of suitable colours make the final product almost like an offering to a higher being. The earnings from this work are then attributed to this higher being, thereby making traditional knowledge and skills, workmanship, spirituality, income, and livelihood part of an integral whole that constitutes a meaningful creative life. This perspective is wholly and satisfyingly Indian. It is also what has cradled and nurtured our crafts, inclusive of and beyond castes and religions.

We often refer to the ‘mapping’ of crafts. I began my quest for the reach and spread of Vishwakarma’s progeny and products through the literal process of creating maps. It began when I saw a map of the markets of Bangkok, presented in water colour, by an American artist Nancy Chandler in the early 1990s. It struck me that if shopping in such a small country could be presented in this attractive fashion, the multitude of crafts, artworks, and textiles that India offered should be actually mapped to lead people to them. These maps took on a slow and steady momentum of their own. It took fifteen years to cover all the states. Some new states were formed in between, and the map of Telangana now will have to be created, separate from Andhra Pradesh. Political and geographical evolutions reflect the evolution of India’s art and crafts over millennia as being an ever-changing phenomenon, responding to the times and needs of the people.

At one level, these maps were meant as shopping guides, with the locations of manufacture of crafts and sometimes even with some guidance on how to get to a certain village or locality. At another level, the maps had to bring out interesting differences in the processes of manufacture of crafts, depending on local cultures, availability of raw materials and histories. For example, we discovered that in Odisha, women of a certain tribe wore similar blue saris for a festival, while their priestess wore saris specially woven in yellow. Thus, colour becomes spiritually meaningful beyond mere aesthetics.

I wanted these maps to be inexpensive and accessible to young students and travellers who cannot afford coffee-table books that just look beautiful but serve no great purpose. Coincidentally, they came in useful to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and state governments after the supercyclone in Odisha and the Gujarat earthquake. The maps made it easier to locate artisan pockets which needed to be provided with relevant relief for the craftspeople to carry on their traditional vocations. I would like to believe that it was Vishwakarma who was ensuring the continuity of their creativity. Coming around a full circle, these maps were combined with a new, freshly expanded text to create the Crafts Atlas of India. It was selected by Choice, the premier review journal in USA, which recommends books to colleges and universities all over the country, in which they choose around 600 from over 25,000 publications for their excellence of scholarship and presentation. All the maps were done in different art forms of India by artists from respective states, and every known craft, art, and textile was covered. It was nice to know that knowledge about India’s crafts and their practitioners would reach students through our initial and very modest attempt at mapping in an artistic way. The Surveyor General of India’s office had to certify all international boundaries of the maps as accurate, so there was some scientific accuracy involved within the art work.

The major caveat that I will add here is that I am fully aware that we could not possibly have discovered all the crafts of India. Besides, some of the crafts that have been recorded may have since disappeared, while several others may have sprung up after the time of documentation and hence remain unrecorded on these maps. But that is the very beauty of the creative craft process of India. It is like a mighty river that forever absorbs new material, throws some away onto its banks, changes course, and meanders as it wishes, depending on the pulls and pressures of the surrounding environment. Sometimes, like the Varuna and Assi rivers that gave Varanasi its name, crafts dry up and become pathetic and sullied representations of their initial selves. At other times, new channels open, providing people with fresh opportunities for expressing their creativity and earning their livelihood. This is their beauty, and discovering them brings constant excitement. Change too is constant, and the search for ever-evolving progenies and legacies of Vishwakarma continues, like a river, for ever.

I have come across cultural histories in unintended and interesting ways. My project ‘Akshara, Crafting Indian Scripts’ (2012) was inspired by my reaction to the constant lack of self-worth expressed by craftspeople, who considered themselves illiterate despite being excellent in craftsmanship. They felt themselves to be at a disadvantage, not knowing English or not having the knowledge to operate computers. They also believed that if their children went to school, craft skills would no longer remain relevant, and yet there were hardly any honourable ‘jobs’ available for many of the literate, let alone the semi- or neo-literate.

To persuade them to turn to their linguistic roots, study the scripts of their regional tongues, and apply these through creative calligraphy using their craft skills, we mobilized more than 70 practitioners in 21 different skills, like weaving, embroidery, carving, metalwork, ceramics, folk art, and many other forms, using 15 of the 22 official Indian languages. Out of this exploration came over 150 museum-quality objects that opened up a whole new design vocabulary. But this was not all. When I told them to use their own scripts in the form of alphabets, verses, names, phrases, shlokas, songs, and local stories deeply embedded in their local cultures, a wealth of ideas and cultural histories turned up from this freshly tilled soil.

To give you some examples: women in Bihar do simple forms of embroidery, which are being developed into more sophisticated products than mere quilts for a charpai. Applique is one of them. I asked them to create wall hangings based on local stories or festivals and embroider the words of songs in their local dialects. They came out with religious songs sung while standing in the water at Chhat Puja and Madhushravani, a festival when a newly married girl returns to her mother’s home for the first time, to be seated among flowers. They also brought out a moving old folk song telling of a potter, a farmer, and a boatman, lamenting the fact that Sita’s fate would have been very different had she been married into their family, where she would have been tended with love and care, rather than meet the unhappy end after marrying into a royal household. The subtle challenges to existing attitudes of caste, class, and gender, set to verse in gentle tones and accompanied by poignant embroidered images, are as sophisticated as any brought out by the intellectual community.

Likewise, traditional artists in southern India came up with calligraphy in kalamkari, offering snippets of a song that described a bride’s face adorned with turmeric as yellow as a marigold. In Kashmiri kani weaving, we created a shawl in the colours of a pigeon. The weaver found a dead pigeon since he could not capture the colours of a live one on his mobile phone. He took it to the dyer who faithfully created yarn in shades of grey with touches of salmon pink, since the pigeon’s legs were of that colour. A new colour palate thus came into being. An old folk song welcoming the monsoon in Gujarat, when it was advisable to eat karela to ward off malaria, and a hidden welcome to visitors to a home lovingly carved into a wooden door handle were some of the many forms of communication through craft and calligraphy that came about. Crafts found a new avenue of expression on fresh artefacts and objects of daily use and have since spawned a variety of spin-offs that take inspiration from a single idea of how to apply old skills in a new way within a very Indian, very local, perspective.

A search for traditional names given by handloom weavers to colours of their saris evoked an era of aesthetic sophistication that would far outshine any Parisian fashion palette or marketing phrase. To express the subtle differences in shades within a similar colour, old documents reveal names like kapur-safed (camphor white), makkai (creamy corn), and subz-kishmish (fresh raisins). Old texts describe the colour white further by referring to the colour of white mist, or of steam rising from boiled milk. To neglect, and worse, to ignore such subtle and sophisticated terminology coming from often illiterate weavers and dyers, who honour handwork and creativity, and to do this in the face of the seasonal colour diktats from the fashion world of the West, is to do disservice to our own heritage that Vishwakarma encompasses.

Looking at trends in the publishing world, and in government policy-making for the development of crafts, I spotted a gaping hole that was widening as crafts became more commercialized, imitative, and export-oriented. To be like the Chinese seemed to be the goal. How can we be like them? We are Indian. We have our own identities and cultural histories from which our crafts are created. It came to me that the Vishwakarma’s terrain had no institution of national importance to recognize research, document, and add value to crafted objects. Cultural histories and stories add immense economic value to a work of art. Everyone wants the story behind its maker and its making. So I proposed the idea of setting up the Hastkala Akademi on the lines of the Sangeet Natak, Lalit Kala, and Sahitya Akademis, but in a new environment free of unwarranted governmental influence, and bureaucratic deathtraps. Happily, the 2014 budget announced its allocation of Rs.30 crore for this purpose, with the intention of a public-private partnership model where enlightened patrons would fund, but not control, the work of the Akademi.

Every journey into the crafts persons’ world is one of discovery and wonder. There must be something that drives these children of Vishwakarma to remain true to their traditions and processes of work, never paying any heed to how harsh, difficult, or tedious they may appear to be. On recent tours to 25 places in India to photo-document different craft, art, and textile forms that expressed the meaning of success, for a Google project for its Art & Culture platform, we found practices motivated by the drive for excellence, marketing opportunities, community demand and support, and love of the people for their own heritage. If anyone visits a tiny village in Chhattisgarh called Ambikapur, in Sarguja district, they will find an indigenous craft form that sprang simply from a woman’s desire to express herself in a world where she found herself isolated. Her eyes roamed over the soil she stood on, the water that flowed nearby, the colours made by leaves, and the spices in her kitchen. Putting all these to work, her fingers deftly created toys for her child, then a shelf, or a lamp, and finally a wonderland of birds, animals, gods and mortals, leaves and flowers, and geometric shapes that became a home which was a museum of her skills. It, however, did not stop there. Her work took her across the world and inspired others in the village, who are today creating similar, magical decorations on their walls, windows, and doorways. A new art form, closer to tradition than to modernity, was thus born. In a weaver’s home in Bengal or a terracotta artisan’s hut in Odisha, there will always be a decorated area at the entrance or in the courtyard, where the tulsi plant grows and the evening lamp is lit in prayer. There are no images of gods or goddesses there, only aura of prayer and the seeking of blessings automatically and wordlessly, are directed towards the god who takes care of artisans. In Bagh, Madhya Pradesh, the printing process comprises sixteen stages, with hard labour involved in soaking metres of cloth, drying them, treating the surface, printing in many stages with carved wooden blocks, drying them again, washing them in a stream of clear water, and then drying them yet again. Similarly, bell metal workers in Kerala follow many elaborate processes to make lamps that adorn temples and ornaments for traditional dancers. These cultures, fostered by the all-pervading spirit of Vishwakarma, keeps Indian heritage and culture alive amidst a fast-changing world of automation and technology. Here again, the person who does this work, will pray to it as a tool he needs to use to earn an honest livelihood.

To end, I would like to quote Ananda K. Coomaraswamy’s words on Vishwakarma:

Beauty, rhythm, proportion, idea have an absolute existence in an ideal plane, where all who seek may find. The reality of things exists in the mind, not in the detail of their appearance to the eye. Their inward inspiration upon which the Indian artist is taught to rely, appearing like the still, small, voice of god, that god was conceived of as Vishvakarma. He may be thought of as that part of divinity which is conditioned by a special relation to artistic expression: or in another way, as the sum total of consciousness, the group soul of the individual craftsmen of all times and places. 

Endnotes

  1. The hesitation I feel when taking up a tough challenge is outweighed by the excitement and intellectual curiosity of being able to explore new ideas to build upon older ones. Therefore, I must thank the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, and Prof Vijaya Ramaswamy, for offering me this opportunity and especially the honour of speaking at the opening of a fascinating conference.
  2. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Visvakarma: Examples of Indian Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Handicraft, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1978.
  3. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, ‘Religious Ideas in Craftsmanship’, in The Indian Craftsman, London: Probsthain & Co., 1909.

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