Towards a Renaissance of India’s Crafts


Towards a Renaissance of India’s Crafts

Jaitly, Jaya


Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was an extraordinary woman who lived in extraordinary times and made full use of her innate potential to change and shape events for a better India. It was a new India in the making in the early years after we became an independent country.  It was a time the country became ours to mold policies as we wished. During the times of the struggle for freedom, women stood alongside men, fighting in a non-violent manner, going to jail, standing tall, and believing in our potential as equal and free citizens. Once we became free, it was largely the male leadership that decided what form India’s development would take. It is this trend and mindset that continues even today, when we see the woefully small numbers of women in the decision-making and legislative processes of this country.

Some women remained undeterred. Kamaldeviji was one of them. She moved away from party politics but chose to continue her passion for identifying and nurturing the cultural expressions of India. The theatre arts, hand crafts, handmade textiles, art forms, alongside with justice and equality in society, development and creativity were all part of an integral whole for her.  Creativity for her was freedom – freedom of expression. But what followed over the decades was a compartmentalization of these facets; development meant industrial development, secularism meant forgetting the immense source of India’s cultural forms that are rooted in spirituality, myth, legends, history and even the worship of the sacred through work.  We opened our doors to mechanized and automated production, silos of specialization, and a preference for the ‘organised’ as against the unorganized.  Kamaladeviji, and all of us who derive inspiration from her life and thoughts have worked against these false separations, the relegation of India’s creative soul to secondary importance.

A book was published recently called A Passionate Life : Writings by and on Kamaldevi Chattopadhyaya  edited by Ellen Carol Dubois and Vinay Lall. I had the good fortune to review it for the Indian Express.  I found that the eminent feminist writer Gloria Steinem, had met Kamaladevi briefly. Later she wrote of the meeting, “Because of Kamaladevi, I also began to understand the politics of history… we often dismiss 95 per cent of the 100,000 or so years that humans have been around, call that ‘pre-history’ and only begin our study after patriarchy, hierarchy, monotheism, colonialism, racism, caste, class and other relatively new institutions began…”

I would like to share what Kamaladeviji said about the women of India in her writings published in this book:  She wrote, “In those beautiful days of the Vedic period of India, the glory of which still surrounds the country like a faint halo, women took part freely in the social and political life of the country, and, in the celebration of religious and cultural festivals, they had a special place of importance assigned to them.” She quotes the Rig Veda to list examples like Viswavara, Lopamudra, Vak, Maitreyi, Gargi and Tara as great philosophers and intellectuals of their time.

As a staunch nationalist, a progressive, liberal, promoter of India’s creative arts, craft and theatre, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay never pushed the ancient greatness of India aside.

In some months it will be 30 years since Kamaladevi ji left this world. Just before she passed away she mentioned to me, sadly, that her work lay destroyed around her. I do not believe she was right. A clearer understanding of her, as we come to look inwards at the great hidden potential in our country, will lead us to the renaissance in the field of hand crafts that awaits us. This is her legacy and it has not been destroyed.

Put in a different way, in our past lies the pointers to the future of our crafts and the world of crafts practitioners.

The composite and multi-layered culture of India that we often hear in speeches is a living, organic reality that has to be engaged with, understood, stimulated and appreciated at its many levels and its changing contours.  Our artists and artisans delve into the wellspring of mythical references, legends, identities, individual and collective histories, religious practices, seasonal celebrations, and even specificities like community perceptions of the sacred meanings of colour and motif. Even the craft-art of tattooing among our tribal communities is a collection of symbolic and auspicious messages that make them more than body decorations of the angst- ridden generations of the West.  A multitude of deities lead to one common belief in the oneness of all sentient beings. India’s crafts people replicate them in clay, wood, stone, cloth, and even rice husks tied together with thread. They beleive their deities bless them and guide their work. All these actions underpin the spiritual and emotional foundations of the creativity of our people.  These are their constant references. If they are cut off from these cultural roots, they lose their moorings, and worse still, their sense of identity and the sacredness of their value systems that guide their moral and ethical beliefs.

The most significant and important part of our cultural heritage, particularly in the production of arts and artifacts for ritual, celebration or daily utility, is the fact that all have a purpose, a meaning that validates their existence beyond the personal preference or mere individualistic view. This is what makes India’s crafts different. This is where we can offer meaning that takes craft creation to another level, beyond a mere product on a shelf, or a scarf on our shoulders, or a picture hung on a wall. While it may find its place there, it carries with it a meaningful story rooted to a universal thought. On Raksha Bandhan day in Madhya Pradesh a sister ties a rakhi on her brother’s wrist and makes a small plaque of a boy and girl, to commemorate the meaning of the ritual. It is not just a whimsical wall decoration. A sculptor or a painter who creates an image of a deity only places the eyes last  when the rest of the torso is completed. This is in the belief life is brought through the eyes from where the deity can enter the complete figure to sanctify it.

What happens when the craftsperson’s world view comes in confrontation with the world of industrialization and technology created in alien cultures? Technologies come with an unspoken footnote: “Can be harmful if misused”. The scientific discovery of how to shatter an atom brought us nuclear energy that could, in a few seconds, annihilate millions of people, or can provide cheap energy to simultaneously light up millions of homes, if used for peaceful purposes. Similarly, can the rectangular lit up screen we stare at, work on for information, inspiration and communication, help or hinder the meticulous skills honed over generations by our crafts people who are still discovering this new world?  Will digitization, electronics and the regimentation of urban demands take away their markets or enable them to look further for inspiration, connect their enterprises to the rest of the world, and take the visibility of India’s crafts far wider than before? We conducted a photography workshop with crafts  people across many disciplines to learn how to arrange and photograph their products to best highlight its qualities. These would then be ‘Whatsapped to different customers.. It is how to find ways of negotiating technology to the benefit of craftspeople that is the exciting part of today and tomorrow.

I would like to share with my audience how we use creativity, for example, among traditional artists, to tackle these very questions. We collaborated, discussed and created three children’s stories; one of a tribal boy from the Gond artist community who lived in the forest, brought up in the mythological world of mystical, magical animals, where snakes, tigers, parrots buffaloes were all friends. Time had a different meaning and, of course, he didn’t have a wristwatch. With changing times and repressive forest laws, he found work in a factory at the edge of his forest. However, he always missed the bus because the ‘animals’ he encountered in the forest gave him a ride on their backs, engaging him in chatter, and delaying him every day. He had no concept of time, work schedules at the factory and regimentation. The factory owner was a kind man who could never see the animals the young boy gave as the cause of his lateness, because they were only in his vivid imagination. He simply got lost in his timeless, imaginary world that is so typical of Gond art

In another story, a young married girl comes to the city from Madhubani where she and the other women in her family used to customarily adorn the walls with their art. When she tried painted a blank wall in an unfamiliar city, someone spat against it or stuck an election poster on it without noticing the art. She is despondent till one day, a young ‘techie’ college boy suggests scanning her paintings and projecting them electronically on large blank wall spaces in the city to entertain and educate people about her art form and skill. He story is called Hira Devi paints the town. The municipal authorities reward them for their artistry and ingenuity.

In the last story, to be very brief, to assuage his ever-expanding appetite, Lord Ganesha adjusts with the modern technological world by ordering his favourite laddoos through an online food ordering app.

In the same line of thought, the well-known writer on mythological subjects, Devdutt Pattanayak, has written a charming children’s story titled Krishna and his Identity card. Lord Krishna goes to an airport and is asked for his identity card. His identity for him is his peacock feather headpiece. He knows no other. The story proceeds to explain how every deity has a recognisable symbol of his or her identity. It is both fun and educational. Traditional artists can relate to these stories as they emerge from their villages to fly to other places for marketing opportunities .  We are working on creating art works for murals for newly built airports with such stories painted by our traditional artists, bridging the gap between the new and old world and offering travellers a glimpse of Inddia’s dynamic contemporary art when created by traditional practitioners and enhanced throug digital technology .

The opportunities of teachers, contemporary artists, rural development agencies, designers and students to understand both worlds and help craftspeople cross the bridges. This challenge stirs the creative imagination of both and opens up a whole new world of ideas.

I am telling you these stories because I believe a whole world is open to us to enable our traditional artists and illustrators, who know every religious and mythological tale even while they may be uneducated in the urban sense, to open their minds to expanded options, turning a story into something new and recognizable for the youth of today who are growing up only knowing Batman, Spiderman and laser swords. We owe it to our artists and our future generation to find these meeting points. That’s is why these stories hint at the confrontation and adjustment of traditional worlds with a new technological world. In other words, learning to overcome obstacles and breaking old boundaries in storytelling, which forms the basis of traditional art. It is about an older world meeting and shaking hands with a new one. The moral and ethical values embedded in mythological tales will bring content to a word dealing with a world of technologies that are neither moral no immoral. Otherwise we may allow cultural disconnects in society to widen.

Another small exercise of mine called Akshara  – Crafting Indian Scripts, attempts to bring crafts-persons in many disciplines to acquaint themselves more closely with their own regional scripts and learning to turn them into calligraphy. The results have helped interest in literacy, turning words into art, find little known cultural stories to express through craft. The resulting exhibition contains 150 museum quality objects, and has been appreciated in Delhi, Mumbai, Cairo, Paris and now in Singapore. Best of all, barely literate crafts people are exploring their own scripts and children from different parts of India enjoy learning to write their names in calligraphic styles.

When we go to fairs and government-organised festivals their beautiful artifacts or the faces of turbaned craftspeople in their quaint mud huts are romanticized on posters. The real lives are often a different picture, and that is what I have worked hard to change. The instruments to do that have to be constructive, positive, creative and innovative. Lamenting alone will not do. I can say with a fair degree of positivity today, that if we address every advantage we have, and turn the perceived disadvantages for growth into strengths, India will lead the world in what can truly be defined as craftsmanship.

More importantly, the key outcomes will be ecologically sustainable practices and the sustenance of livelihoods for millions who otherwise would go in search of menial work. A third advantage would be the preservation of our cultural heritage which is a rich mixture of tribal, Persian, Hindu, European, Chinese and even African influences if we study the history of trade and commerce across the world over centuries. Last year we explored Persian influences in Indian art and craft forms since Mughal times, shared it with Iranian crafts practitioners and shared experiences and ideas of today with them in a heartening exercise of public diplomacy through cultural exchanges.

Ecological advantages
Kagzipur, near Aurangabad in Maharashtra, continues with its practice of a 700-year old handmade paper making craft. All they need is access to waste materials to process and improvement of quality in their output. Vast areas can come under handmade paper manufacturing processes with very little mechanisation and capital-intensive processes offering women employment. The world awaits ethically produced, recycled materials that help restore rather than ruin forests, and this need not all be made by machines in Sweden when India can offer its recycled options too.

The world is today becoming increasingly conscious of the serious consequences of disastrous climate changes and the loss of unrenewable natural resources needed to sustain human life in every form.  Inextricably linked with this realisation is the limits of wild capitalism, of mega-corporate ways of accessing raw material and cheap labour in developing countries to feed greed rather than need in society. Mahatma Gandhi had warned us of these much earlier. Tourism came to mean building and destroying both the geographical and local cultural environment, as Pico Iyer in his wonderful book Video Nights in Kathmandu described.  We learned English, and offered 5-star hotels and hamburgers, planted in surroundings that had no cultural affinity. Today, I am happy to find a serious movement towards ‘sustainable’ and ‘responsible’ tourism where awards are given to offering our cultural, farming, and even simple living practices to open up the real India to travellers. The earlier tourism projects were thought to offer a fillip to crafts as trinkets and souvenirs. Today, Dilli Haat and the Surajkund Crafts Mela among many folk festivals and melas across the country draw tourists and incomes because of the crafts and arts.

Kagzipur, near Aurangabad in Maharashtra, continues with its practice of a 700-year old handmade paper making craft. All they need is access to waste materials to process and improvement of quality in their output. Vast areas can come under handmade paper manufacturing processes with very little mechanisation and capital-intensive processes offering women employment. The world awaits ethically produced, recycled materials that help restore rather than ruin forests, and this need not all be made by machines in Sweden when India can offer its recycled options too.

I am often confronted with suggestions by corporate leaders to bring better branding and packaging into the handmade sector. It comes to mind that the old style of using old regional language newspapers and jute string or even cheap cloth bags is cheaper and more ecologically sound if helped to a better level of sophistication through small technological interventions. Thousands of women’s Self-Help Groups could benefit if their work in creating packaging material of this nature were formalized. The lifting out of poverty into luxury can start with small steps and become part of a global movement to save the planet and provide livelihoods.

When we say local to global, let us make the advantages of the ‘global’ being brought to the ‘local’ rather than the other way around. Local would mean the use of local resources, often recycled resources or those that can be regrown. An eminent organisation in the USA called the National Association of Governors which regularly met to share policies and planning for economic development came to the important conclusion that if the art and culture of a particular area were to be highlighted, it would attract development and visitors, enhancing the earnings of the local people.  As did Kamaladevi ji, I am combining craft, art and culture as belonging to an integral part of a larger societal construct that disallows separate compartments which create disconnects and exclusion.

In China the government plants bamboo forests in 8-year cycles for the bamboo industry, farmers in the region grow small clumps of bamboo in their homesteads and link with factory owners to learn how to semi-process them before supplying them the bamboo to be used for machine made floor boards, mats, boxes etc. The link between the farm and factory takes on another dimension.We are extremely thankful that the government, in its budget for 2018 has removed bamboo from the list of forest items to be protected and allowed them to grow freely for the artisans of the entire North-Eastern states of India, apart from enabling it to be used in legitimate construction of homes. Bamboo is at times found to be as strong as steel and opens up livelihood and employment opportunities for bamboo artisans everywhere. The environment and livelihoods are sustained. Bamboo villages can attract tourists in the most authentic and natural manner.

A tiny village in Chhattisgarh, where unlettered women like the late Sonabai Rajwar and now Sundari Bai and her apprentices, use their creative imagination to create lattice, and figures of people, birds and monkeys to enliven their own walls, partitions and doorways. A little imagination, passion and a new view of what development mean can make this village a living museum of clay art if access and infrastructure were even marginally improved. Similarly, a village of enterprising weavers in Bhujodi, Kutch, have very achievable goals like creating a small museum of their earlier masterpieces and even setting up a cafeteria serving local food. They display their dyeing and weaving techniques to visitors, which encourages them to buy their woven textiles. It also demonstrates the human skill involved in all the intricate processes of production, thus celebrating the human rather than the machine. This village could then be declared a heritage craft village which adds to its value in the world of tourism.  It can be promoted on the internet as an integral whole consisting of place (tourism), people (culture), process and product (craft), within India’s own culture, for economic benefit.

When spiritual and economic well-being, cultural rootedness, and traditional wisdom are respected, the quantum of money earned and the happiness it brings is relative and not primary.

Tourism agencies and entrepreneurs are consciously looking out for local craft and other cultural practices when they develop a site or a route for tourism. The once dying River Nila in Kerala was revived by an agency called The Blue Yonder, through cleansing, homestead development on its banks and the encouragement to local crafts, rare rituals, music and nknown art forms along the route of the river, for tourists to see. It has increased local earnings and crafts, and revived a natural water body to its old glory. Linking local crafts to bigger grids of development rather than wiping them out while widening a road can give long term benefits to the economy that starts at the grass roots and is not ‘top down’. The local inhabitants become the stakeholders enabling them to be more evolved and involved. Hodka village in the Banni area of Kutch is a fine example of profits earned in 6 months through craft related tourism, enabling them to live in comfort for a whole year. Today, a tourist resort has been created, and is maintained and run by them based on the strength of their local crafts, done mostly by their womenfolk. The opposite can be seen in Kashmir, when political turmoil during the tourist season of April to October destroys the sale of handicrafts, the second most important industry in the state. It leaves the practitioners impoverished for the entire year.

Our clothes have been part of our cultural identity. A sari was never in or out of fashion. It was what we wore. Design had meanings, colours were for an occasion, some expressed status and others became heirlooms. Weavers sanctified their saris in temples before their daughters wore them at their weddings, or the female deity in the temple was honoured with a gift of a traditional sari at the beginning of the festive season. The sari at one time was our outer skin and high–end fashion at the same time. Today, fashion brings with it seasonal changes, styles and colours dictated by countries on the other side of the globe. We can instead show the world our khadi, our handlooms, our most stylish and elegant weaves and designs, new textures woven with natural fibres from banana and bamboo to hemp and nettle. We can even offer colour palettes from our own environment and natural resources. Indigo blue, madder red, turmeric yellow, henna green and as Varanasi weavers of old described whites, ranging from mist, the vapour rising out of boiling milk, to fresh kishmish. Let us create our own vocabularies and through it define our future.

At the nascent stages of our fashion industry designers looked outwards to inspiration, styles and techniques from the west. There was obviously tough competition if they tried to compete with famous well-established names like Dior. I specifically mention Dior to point out that very recently this great establishment that adorns film actors on every red carpet across the world, copied and digitally altered a design evolved by a very small producer of Indian clothing which works with rural block printers and dyers in Rajasthan. Dior designed a dress modelled by an Indian actor, and presented it on the cover of a reputed fashion magazine. Leaving copyright, patent and intellectual property theft and other such ethical issues aside, what does it tell us? It tells us we have the designs and colour right here and need not look outward to imitate. Let us offer our talents, skills, fabrics and designs to the world with the full support of those in the corporate sector, government and individuals and design institutions supporting a “push with pride’ movement to tell the word what treasures we can produce through a combination of our hands and our heritage.

Indian crafts and textiles can offer the world its creative bounties now from a position of strength rather than subservience. Would you not agree that we now have the requisite confidence in ourselves to do that?How do we shift our position and what are the arguments to demonstrate our strengths?

Moving away from non-standardization
Kamaladevi ji used to wear handloom saris which she would then embellish with a little bit of whimsical embroidery of her own. Each village woman decorates the walls of her home or the handle of her broom or the cover of her pillow case in a different way. We ‘custom’ make our clothes and articles of utility to please ourselves.  Local cultural practices also involve displays of community identites through common dressing styles .  Fashion and identity are two different things. And all cultural clothing has nearly always been hand-made.

How far should we submit to the rigid specifications of machine produced synthetic goods that take away livelihoods and often bring in pollution?  Instead of fearing or attempting to imitate the container-load culture of China we could devise a system of capsule collections that become a large mass of smaller producers and quantities. Otherwise we risk being washed away by the modalities required to produce huge numbers.

My first proposition is to argue against standardization. When every human being, every leaf, every snowflake is different from the other on this planet of a billion wonders, why should the output of human beings be exactly the same? Over-production by machines led to over-hyped marketing to create need among consumers and more wealth for the owners. Many across the world are beginning to realize and react against this. We can measure the same amount of tea that goes into a cup but why should the cup always be the same size, weight and colour? When natural –dyed textiles dry into different shades depending on the quality of the water and the heat of the sun, why do we want them the same colour when all of us human beings are not the same colour? And don’t we celebrate this fact?

Redefining luxury
Luxury itself has to be redefined and taken away from ideas of cost, brand, power and status to the luxury of wearing something exclusively made by hand that represents a better value system. “Made by Hand” is a luxury concept not defined by money but by the wider benefits to society that accrue and the reflection of India’s timeless cultural aesthetics.

For me personally, luxury has meant the opportunity to work with remarkably creative people possessing skills that have from most other parts of the world except our neighbouring countries. We have a collective responsibility to preserve and nurture them.

Focussing on inclusiveness
We also have a responsibility to be furthering inclusiveness in terms of fair and equal earnings for both men and women in the production processes of crafts. Of course, this will ultimately affect the final price of a product but that does not mean the woman becomes the free labourer. Better promotion and marketing opportunities will raise the value of the product. Women are also more rooted to the soul of our culture and do not lose touch with it as easily as men, who have access to many more outside influences and work options.  Their creative instincts arising out of this special connectivity can be tapped to increase their won self- worth and autonomous expressions. I have found that the Aadhar card makes a rural woman feel special because she has her own identity recognised, her own mind and talent can express itself much more if they are given better recognition both economically and visibly.

Many well-known professionals in fields such as architecture, interior design, education, fashion, the hospitality sector and photography are turning to the skills of artisans who can give their work an identifiable ‘Indian-ness’ in order to be unique. This  will require systemised and ethical methods of co-creation that lift the artisan up to the level of the professional rather than be a nameless factor. This will help as much as the certifications offered by the newly created Skill Development Ministry.

India has achieved an international flavour that must be tapped into and built upon  by those concerned with cultural issues.

Hast Kala Akademi – a proposed repository of craft cultures
In 2011, I began to sense the glaring absence of the word ’culture’ in official conversations about craft. The Ministry of Textiles had laid emphasis on marketing, exports and product design. While all these are important in a globalised world, the human and cultural elements were never mentioned. Craft became a mere object without a history of its source, maker or special story that rooted it in its very own cultural well-springs. This was clearly giving rise to machine-made imitations from China. How could we re-claim our heritage and the sources that first inspired the making of the artifact? When I met buyers from abroad and showed them a beautiful hand-crafted textile or object they would always ask about the story and meaning behind it, indicating that this information would make it more valuable and interesting. I realized that almost a generation had passed. One more generation and we would be story-less if we did not research and document them. I also realized that while immediately after Independence we had set up the Sangeet Natak Akademi. Lalit Kala Akademi and the Sahitya Akademi but there was none for the nurturing of the cultural repository from every craft and textile emanated. This sector probably contains the most cultural stories of all. Therefore a massive treasure of knowledge, referring to the location, community, ritual, practice, processes, technologies,  meaning and materials residing in the organically learned systems of our craftspersons. I believed these had to be recorded for posterity, for economic value addition and for their protection from appropriation.  I believe hundreds of research students could be motivated to study all these aspects of a craft. Master craftspersons could be encouraged to give lectures and demonstrations to visitors from everywhere. Historians could be interested in seeing linkages between countries, movements and influences that converged to create a particular textile or object.

All this material could be easily stored digitally  and accessed with ease. It was not for the purpose of legally claiming our ownership of a craft as with GI Systems, patents or copyrights, but to demonstrate the undisputable cultural roots from which it emerged.  I strongly believe we cannot allow this knowledge to be lost by allowing our crafts to become mere objects without the cultural story that accompanies it. This valuable cultural knowledge is absent in modern art, literature or new forms of electronically created art which reflect contemporary concerns but should be informed of the wealth of the past.

I proposed the setting up of a hast Kala Akademi to the the UPA government which put it into the Approval of the 12th Plan. Both the Culture Ministry and the Ministry of Textiles showed great enthusiasm in setting it up. I had the proposal revived at the beginning of the term of the NDA government. Its establishment was announced in the first budget of 2014, with an allotment of Rs 30 crore set aside towards it.  Unfortunately, at present it is still shuttling between various desks within the government administrative systems.

I do believe, that when and if such a body comes alive, it will provide immense cultural resources to an institution like this august one. It would educate and inspire teachers, students and the world alike and add a true cause for pride in the cultural heritage of our great country.

Ultimately there is no lasting honour in talking of crises and suffering in the craft sector. There are many, many avenues to create a renaissance today, with better technology, education and opportunities. The world looks at India differently now, as a country that can much to the world on equal terms and not as an exploitable one.Among other things, people in India and abroad are noticing the unique advantages of our crafts and textiles. India is a country of a million stories and as many possibilities if we know how to seize them. It is up to all of us, and especially all of you here, whose job it is to both educate and inspire students about our wonderful craft and textile practitioners and their infinite special cultures, just as Kamaldevi Chattopadhyaya, inspired many of us.

At CCERT, Delhi, 8th Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya Memorial Lecture ,23rd February 2018


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