My Journey to Craft – Part 1


My Journey to Craft – Part 1



Some people born into craft families learn craft skills as children. I learnt in middle age, starting at the age of 35. By that time I had two children aged 10 and 14, and we were living an ordinary middle class life in Delhi. I had built up a business, designing silver jewellery with semi-precious stones, getting it made by craftsmen and exporting it. The beginning had been difficult, I had walked around the jewellery centres of old Delhi with my designs, looking for craftsmen who would translate them from paper drawings into jewellery. Then someone introduced me to the master craftsmen at the Regional Design Centre of the government’s Handicrafts Department, and I met Lalaji. Lala Govind Ram Verma had won a Master Crafsman award for his silver jewellery, and immediately agreed to make my designs. He loved the challenge of converting a drawing into a finished piece, and was intrigued by my designs – “yeh kaise dimaagh me aathe hain, kya khwab me dekhthi hai?” (how do you imagine these, in your dreams?), he would ask. He would turn up at my house, demanding new designs. But where are the ones you were supposed to deliver, I would ask. “haan haan, woh tho ban jayenge, kuchch naya tho dikhao” (they’ll be made, but show me something new), he would say.

Through the Regional Design Centre I met producers who were able to make numbers of the samples made by Lalaji. I held exhibitions which were quite successful in Delhi and Mumbai. I also showed the samples to buyers for the big European and American department stores, and began getting small orders of a few dozen each. But my designs were easily copied, and I was too naïve to realize that when a big store asked for three of each design, it was to use them as samples for mass production.

Then my husband, a business executive, got a job in England and we moved there. In England I was so unhappy that I had trouble in breathing, literally like a fish out of water. It was learning how to work with hand tools that saved my sanity and my life, and eventually changed my way of thinking.

In the UK learning at any stage of life was made easy by the Labour Governments of the 1950s and 60s, who instituted the Adult Education programme. Through this programme the state supported learning by adults in almost any subject, and many who have learnt under it have gone on to reach professional competency in their chosen field. In those early days the courses were very informal, you did not need any basic qualification and did not have to register for a formal degree or diploma. Later on when the Conservative Government under Mrs Thatcher came in this changed, and all students were required to begin with a foundation course and then enrol for a formal diploma course.

Because of my jewellery design background, a friend introduced me to a well-known modern jeweller, Catherine Mannheim, who taught jewellery making at two Adult Education Institutes, and Catherine agreed to take me into both her classes. I started out by learning basics like sawing with a hacksaw, drilling holes, filing, etc, then soldering, using copper sheet to begin with, and silver solder. These are the things that in India a young apprentice would learn in a workshop, though he would probably start by making borax paste for the whole workshop. It was an exhilarating experience to learn to use hand-tools with skill and precision, but all the time I was learning these things, in my mind I saw a clear picture, of myself imprisoned in a dark, cold stone prison, outside which there was a beautiful sunlit garden where birds sang and there were lots of trees and plants, and sun, sun, how I missed the sun. But there were thick stone walls between me and the garden and I could only look at it from inside the prison.

As soon as I learnt the basic techniques, I set out to make the pictures that I could see in my imagination. Catherine helped me. The cold heavy stone walls I made in silver, using a metal etching technique called aquatinting, for which I had to attend another class where they taught engraving and etching. This gave the silver a pitted surface, and I etched lines in them for the stone walls. This dark pitted texture formed a frame for the garden. The garden was made out of silver too, but highly polished, with a bird in gold, silver leaves, and plants and coloured rocks in coloured stones and enamels. I made a pair of two matching pictures, about 4.5 inches by 3.5 each, and mounted them on a double acrylic sheet in shades of grey, as wall decorations. That year Goldsmiths’ Hall held an exhibition for which they had an open submission, which meant that you did not have to be a member of the Guild of goldsmiths to take part. I submitted both my pieces, but for lack of space only one was selected. It was exhibited in the show with only my name, address and telephone number, no title or anything to indicate its subject, or that it was one of a pair.

The day after the exhibition opened I got a call, from a woman who had seen the show and wanted to buy my piece. She wanted to know if it was one of a pair… and wanted to see both. How did she know it was one of a pair? After the show was over I took the pieces to the address she had given, of her office in the City; she was a businesswoman who collected pictorial jewellery. She held them in her hands for a while and then said ‘It looks as if you’re looking out of a tomb’. She had understood completely, this stranger, the feeling that I had tried to convey. She bought both pieces.

After I made the pictures, my unhappiness disappeared. Friends saw photographs of the pieces, and wanted copies. I tried to make them again, I even bought the silver sheet, but I couldn’t make them. The pain from which the images had been produced was not there any more. I have never felt that particular pain again, and the jewellery that I made after that was very different from those two pieces. It comes from a different part of my brain. The pictures came from a particular kind of emotion, which crystallized as clear pictures in my mind, and which could be drawn out through the fingers into concrete expression in metal and stone, clearly enough to be sensed by viewers.

To Be Continued…

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