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 and Library, and Prof Vijaya Ramaswamy, for offering me this opportunity and especially the honour of speaking at the opening of what I am sure will be a fascinating conference.
Prof Ramaswamy has devoted a lot of time to the study of Visvakarma. You find her studies referring to the Visvakarma community often described as a unified grouping of five sub-groups – carpenters, blacksmiths, bell metalworkers, goldsmiths and stonemasons – who believe that they are descendants of Viswakarma, through his sons. Manu was said to have worked with iron, Maya in wood, Tvasta in brass, copper and alloys, Silpi in stone and Visvajna who was a goldsmith and jeweller. The kammalars 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 to achieve perfect results. Forms and formats were rigid and the process of creating an object was considered a part of a spiritual exercise. The Visvakarma community worships various forms of this deity and follow five Vedas: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda, Atharvaveda, and Pranava Veda.
While these are the specifics, Visvakarma has a grander title. It says in the Rig Veda (10, 81, 7) “Lord of sacred speech, thought swift Viswakarman: the All-maker, let us invoke him to our aid today. May he, the maker of Good Things and giver of great joy, may he gently hear these, our invocations”. He is the god of all architects, engineers and crafts people. He is the supreme architect of the universe, Brahma in another form. He thus provides an overarching umbrella to include everyone involved in the act of work and creative expression.
Visvakarma has always held a 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 adorning them with flowers. Then they prayed to them since Visvakarma enabled their skills to flourish through them. It seems so fundamental an act, imbued with the utmost respect for one’s own work environment, and recognition that the blessings of a higher being are needed to successfully execute one’s skills at work.
Visvakarma is obviously a concept that is 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 Visvakarma Day, celebrated immediately after Ganesh Chaturthi, as honouring creativity, manual skills and thus the dignity of labour. This day always seemed more important to me than the innumerable holidays accorded to appease different communities and religions in our secular country. To stop work for just a day in order to respect the workplace and the materials that enable the work to happen seems to me a highly sophisticated concept that is only partially matched by the western concept of Labour Day which refers essentially only to the working class in organized environments. Equally importantly, Visvakarma Day brings together artisans and crafts people, mechanics and carpenters, architects and artists of all communities and religions to celebrate their patron and guardian, the architect of the universe. Descendants of the professional artisan castes associated specifically with Visvakarma who today may be involved in wholly unrelated work also take pride in celebrating this day
With the belief that all gods displaying different attributes in the Hindu pantheon are ultimately one, and the soul of the One resides in each of us, Visvakarma 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 Visvakarma means to crafts people 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 Visvakarma spread far and wide, but that crafts people 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, the choice of traditional colours, make the final product 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 this that has cradled and nurtured our crafts inclusive of and beyond castes and religions.
We refer to the ‘mapping’ of crafts. I began my quest for the reach and spread of Visvakarma’s progeny and products through the very literal process of creating maps. It began when I saw a map of the markets of Bangkok presented in water colour art by an American artist Nancy Chandler in the early 90s. It struck me that if shopping in such a small country could be presented in this attractive fashion, India offered a multitude of crafts, arts and textiles that should be actually mapped to lead people to them. These maps took on a slow and steady momentum of their own. It took 15 years to complete all the states. Some new states were formed in between and Telangana now will have to be created separate from Andhra Pradesh. Political and geographical evolution repeats the evolution of India’s arts and crafts over millennia as an ever-changing phenomenon responding to the times and needs of the people.
At one level these maps were meant as shopping guides, with locations of manufacture and sometimes even some guidance on how to get to a certain village or locality. At another level it had to bring out interesting differences in processes of manufacture depending on local cultures, availability of raw materials and histories. 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. Colour becomes spiritually meaningful beyond mere aesthetics.
I wanted these maps to be inexpensive and accessible to young students and travelers who cannot afford coffee table books that just look beautiful but serve no great purpose. By coincidence, they came in useful to UNDP and state governments after the Odisha super cyclone and the Gujarat earthquake to easily locate artisan pockets that could be provided relevant relief for crafts people to carry on their traditional vocations. I would like to believe that Visvakarma was ensuring the continuity of their creativity. Coming around full circle, these maps have now been combined with a new freshly expanded text to create the Craft Atlas of India. It was selected by Choice, the premier review journal in the USA which recommends books to colleges and universities all over the country in which they choose around 600 from over 25,000 publications for its excellence of scholarship and presentation. All the maps were done in different art forms of India by artists from the particular state, and every known craft, art and textile was covered. It was nice to know that knowledge about our crafts and their practitioners would reach many students through our initial and very modest attempts 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 I will add here is that I am fully aware that we could not possibly have discovered all the crafts of India. Some crafts that have been recorded may have since disappeared. Others would 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 creativity and earnings. This is their beauty, and discovering them brings constant excitement. Change too is constant and the search for ever evolving progenies and legacies of Visvakarma continues, like a river, forever.
I have come across cultural histories in unintended and interesting ways. Some of you may have heard of a project I did in 2012 called Akshara, Crafting Indian Scripts. It was inspired by my reaction to the constant lack of self-worth expressed by crafts people who felt they were poor and illiterate despite being excellent in craftsmanship. They felt at a disadvantage not knowing English or the computer. They also believed that if their children went to school, craft skills were no longer 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, metal work, 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: Bihar’s women 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 first returns to her mother’s home 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 intelligent nuances of challenging 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 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 Kashmir 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 that colour. A new colour palate 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 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 took 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 kapursafed, camphor white, makkai, creamy corn and subzkishmish, fresh raisins. Old texts describe 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 non-literate weavers and dyers who honour hand work and creativity, and to do this in the face of seasonal colour diktats from the fashion world of the West, is to do disservice to our own heritage that Visvakarma encompasses.
Looking at trends in the publishing world, and in government policy-making for the development of crafts, I began to spot 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 Visvakarma’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 the object. Everyone wants the story behind its maker and its making. 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 death traps. 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. It is still in its baby pram – not even taking baby steps yet – but I sincerely hope we can collectively relate the outcomes of conferences such as this to enrich and enlighten such an institution when it begins its work.
Every journey into the crafts persons world is one of discovery and wonderment. There must be something that drives these children of Visvakarma to remain true to their traditions and processes of work, never mind 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 a love of their own heritage. If anyone visits a tiny village in Chhattisgarh called ……….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 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 that was a museum of her skills. It 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, close to tradition rather than modernity, was born. In a weaver’s home in Bengal or a terracotta artisan’ 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, but an aura of prayer and the seeking of blessings automatically and wordlessly, are directed towards the god who takes care of artisans. In Bagh, In Madhya Pradesh, printing processes go through 16 stages, with hard labour involved in soaking meters of cloth, drying them, treating the surface, printing in many stages with carved wooden blocks, drying them again, then washing them in a stream of clear water, and drying them yet again. Bell metal workers in Kerala go through many elaborate processes to make lamps that adorn the nearby temple, and ornaments for traditional dancers. These cultures, fostered by the all-pervading spirit of Visvakarma, keeps Indian heritage and culture alive amidst a fast changing world of automation and technology. But here again, the person who uses these work, will pray to it as a tool he needs to use to earn an honest livelihood.
To end, I would like to complete the lines of what Prof Viyaya Ramaswamy has quoted at the beginning of her concept note for this conference. They are Ananda K Coomaraswamy’s words on Visvakarma:
….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 Visvakarma. 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.
Conference on Vishwakarma at Nehru Memorial Centre and Library.