Some Thoughts on the Future of Tradition


Some Thoughts on the Future of Tradition

Kak, Dr. Krishen K


“Tradition” can be interpreted variously, according to whether one’s perspective is, for example, literary, political, sociological, or historical.  Which interpretation should we consider?  Obviously, for us, that which is considered relevant by the sponsor of this conference.  Well, how does the sponsor interpret “tradition” and “traditional textiles” and “traditional artisans”, all of which labels feature in the background paper circulated by it.  According to the sponsor, “specific geographical regions in India have age long tradition associated with fabric production. This is in terms of different fibre groups, cotton silk and wool and different manufacturing processes, spinning, weaving, dyeing and printing. With changing time the production centres have also evolved and developed their own grammer in terms of colour, design and ornamentation and their usage for specific products. A large number of such centres continue to be important in the social and economic life not only for the production of items associated with religious and social rites, but also in their effort to make a statement which fits into the contemporary usage. According to the [sponsor] these issues are relevant to traditions”.(1)

I make bold to suggest this grammar-centred interpretation is insufficient and, from a crafts manufacturing perspective (“manufacture” is literally “made by hand”), I would like to propose a semantics centred interpretation as being of greater concern to the theme of this conference.

From the sponsor’s interpretation and the theme of this conference, it appears “traditional” is being opposed to “contemporary” yet, as we shall see, a tradition in fact can be contemporary.  We all know “contemporary” is that which is of today, that which is current, so “traditional” must relate to the past. But how far past?  Yesterday? A year ago? A decade ago? Or a hundred years? And is “traditional” only that which has to do with the past, of whatever duration?

Consider the phrase “traditional artisans”.  In the Indian context, we commonly understand this as those belonging to a hereditary caste-based hand-manufacturing occupation.  The keywords here are “hereditary” and “caste”.  Now consider the dictionary meaning of “tradition” – “cultural continuity in social attitudes and institutions” – and connect the two meanings. “Social” has to do with “society”, with a group, with an entity greater than the individual, and that in our crafts context is the “caste”.  “Hereditary” is related to “continuity”, the passing of the skill from generation to generation. But the skill is not merely of the technological, of the grammatical.  To be “tradition” it must also be of the “cultural”, the passing on of cultural meanings from generation to generation of makers, people who make things, of artisans.  But artisans make things for use. So there must be users.  Hence, on the one side we have the maker, and the maker is part of a group, a community of makers/artisans/suppliers – whatever label fits the context – but maker always as a collective noun.  On the other side is the user, again as part of a community of users/customers/purchasers as may be appropriate, but user as a collective noun.  The connection between the two is through an object, the product that is made by the one for the other.

Now the product has two aspects – the material, e.g., its raw material, its dyestuff, its motifs, and so on, and the symbolic (in the jargon, semiotic), what the various aspects of the product and the product as a whole signify.  In other words, what is the symbolic meaning of the raw material used, of the colour or arrangement of colours, of the motifs and the pattern in which they are arranged.  The first aspect has to do with the technology of objects, the second aspect is about the culture of human beings.  And I put it to you that it is not objects that constitute tradition, but that it is human beings who create and live it.  Therefore, to understand tradition, and the paving of a clear path into the future, we need to focus not just on “old techniques and design forms, the old technologies” (in the words of the background paper), but we need to focus on the human beings of today, human beings who are the legatees and bearers of the tradition.

The relationship between the maker and the user is through the product.  It can be totally impersonal.  The user knows nothing of the maker nor is interested in knowing.  The interest of the user is in the product as an object complete in itself and with a specifed commercial value. On the other hand, the relationship can be personal as, for example, the jajmani of the old days, where the product emerged through a dialogue, where maker and user share a semiotic familiarity, where both are aware of, understand, respect the meaning, the symbolism the product embodies.

But the symbolism is rarely static. It evolves over time. The essential point is whether or not the evolution of meaning, itself a dynamic process, takes place for both maker and user together.  Let me illustrate this point with three examples, all of textiles.

First, the gharchola.  The gharchola is a silk sari woven by a specific community, tie-dyed by another specific community, and used as a bridal sari by a third community.  It has a typical weave, typical tie-dyed motifs, and a typical colour, all considered auspicious for the bride by the user community and recognised as so by the makers.  It is not necessary that for the brides of the tie-dyeing community the same garment, the same colour, the same motifs, be auspicious. In fact, they are not. But the makers respect the symbolism of the product for the users. And the users respect the skill of the makers to give this symbolism tangible form. Both makers and users understand and respect the cultural language of the product, and therefore the appropriate use of the product. A particular individual in either group may choose to innovate, so the field of the gharchola may change from bright red to a deep red, or maroon, or crimson, even to green, as long as the innovations are still considered appropriate for the bride by the user community and are understood to be so by the makers.  The traditional gharchola can then be said to be evolving or, rather, the tradition can be said to be evolving as the maker and the user continue to understand each other’s vocabulary, to respect each other’s values.

But would a black gharchola be a traditional textile?

Consider a second example. The designer Rina Dhaka once came to an NGO with which I was associated to pick up Kutch bandhini dupattas for one of her fashion presentations.  The ones readily available were not quite what she wanted so she asked us to get more urgently, within a week.  We said such intricate quality of work was impossible in so little time, and so she sent her own representative to Kutch. Now, those who have worked directly with artisans will know that they rarely say a direct “no” to the outsider (if nothing else, they consider this extremely rude) nor are they bound by our exactness of (industrial) time.  So Ms Dhaka had a problem again, and complained later to us that artisans tell lies, till it was suggested to her that the difficulty was not with artisans who spoke in their usual culturally courteous ways, but with the outsider who was ignorant of the nuances of artisan culture and its conception of (agricultural) time.  Anyhow, Ms Dhaka managed with dupattas from us and, in her fashion show, used them as langots, loincloths. The models wore just a contemporary brassiere above, and the dupatta knotted as a langot below. Nothing else.

Are dupatta-langots traditional textiles?

Finally, the third example.  According to a news report, designer Amar Kumar Singh has designed leather saris. In his words, “I decided to take leather because it is an international thing.”(2)

Is a leather sari a traditional textile?

The black gharchola, the dupatta-langot and the leather sari all draw on elements of tradition, especially in the material aspect, they draw on the grammar of the crafts, they involve skills of traditional artisans, but I put it to you that they are not traditional textiles.  They are not traditional because the user no longer acknowledges, no longer respects the meanings which the product embodied for both user and maker.  In these three examples, the user has usurped that joint authority that created the meaning, has unilaterally given the product a completely new significance, an avowedly individualistic meaning.

Black, in the common vocabulary of Indian maker and user, is not an appropriate colour for a bride or, indeed, for any Indian auspicious occasion. Black as a colour of fashion has come from a very different geocultural tradition.

Artisans to whom the newspicture was shown of the Dhaka presentation were scandalised at the way their skill had been applied.

Leather in the Indian context is considered a polluting material hence it is rarely if ever used as a main body cover. Leatherwear, animal skins to cover our body, also has come to us from a very different geocultural world.

In all three examples, the maker from being a cognitively-empowered human is reduced to a tool, an instrument of the user to fashion the product. Dialogue has been replaced by dictation. And, eventually, as we see the world over, the machine (that can accept dictation more effectively) replaces the human.  There is not a single significant exception to the global historical experience that as industrialism spreads, it destroys the communal handmaking process.  This may be an international thing, as designer Singh says, but the world over this international thing cannibalises indigenous things.  In the indigenous world of the traditional artisan, creativity is in the public domain and freely available to all members of the group, whether maker or user.  In the international world of Ms Dhaka and Mr Singh, creativity is copyrighted by an individual, it is an individual’s private property, no longer a commonly shared resource but a privately-owned right, and the copyright excludes the traditional artisan’s creative claim in the finished product.

This is not to pass a value judgement on this change that is taking place but to point out that, if traditional artisans are our concern as the background paper desires, then we must remember that the sustainer of tradition is a community, not an individual, and that it is communities of makers and users who give and share the meaning of crafts traditions.  Individualistic creators assert semiotic authority over their creations; they are their own interpretative authority, and the created product ultimately stands by itself as a commercial object.  The value of the product, then, is not in meanings shared by communities, but in the price it can command in an impersonal market.  The maker is no longer the traditional artisan. In the new dispensation, the traditional artisan is not a partner in the creative process.  The right to creativity has been taken away from her or him.  In our examples, the creator is no longer the leather artisan but a contemporary designer. The creator is no longer Khatri Dawood Yusuf of Mundra but Rina Dhaka of New Delhi.  In the words of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya in the background paper, the traditional artisan has been bypassed by the design studio.

The background paper refers to the preservation of a culture being closely allied to the preservation of its crafts skills.  I suggest to you that this is insufficient.  A clear path to the preservation of a culture is not through its outward forms but through its meanings, not merely through its technical craft skills, but through the communication by human beings of meanings conveyed through the exercise of these skills. To take out the human being is to take out the meanings, to reduce “tradition” to pretty patterns re-arranged in studios by designers “inspired” by the leavings of the past.

As long as meanings are shared by makers and users, as long as meanings evolve through this process of sharing, a tradition can be said to be alive, is contemporary, may even have a future.  As the process of sharing dies, the tradition begins to die, and when the product ceases to embody mutually respected values, the tradition is dead.  The spirit that animated the tradition has vanished – and we are then merely playing around with the parts of the corpse.

(1) pers. comm. from the sponsor.

(2) “Leather saris are the latest in fashion” by Bhawna Sharma, Neighborhood Flash (New Delhi), Jan. 19-23, 2003, p.5.

Presented at the Sanjam Randhawa Memorial Conference   on “Textile Traditions in India: Contemporary Perspectives”, sponsored by Lady Irwin College, New Delhi, Feb 7-8, 2003.   

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