Traditional Artisans and Modern Architects

Craftspersons/ Artisanal, Cultural, Creative Industries, Op-Ed

Traditional Artisans and Modern Architects: A Polemical Statement

Kak, Dr. Krishen K


This piece appeared in Architecture, vol.1, no.7, 2001: 22-27. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.

Brief Sketch
‘As we in India westernize ourselves, can we really expect traditional Indian artisans – and, therefore, their skills – to survive?’

This paper engages with the discourse of modernity versus tradition, premising the discussion on the argument that throughout the world, ‘all modernising societies cannibalise their traditions, and [that] in no modern society have traditional artisans survived’. Trying to avoid judgements like like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, Dr Kak seeks to highlight the ‘existential implications’ of such a process and its logical conclusion(s).

The paper is grounded in the context of ‘traditional’ artisanal craftsmanship in modern architecture, raising the question of the extent to which ‘traditional artisans [can] meaningfully contribute their skills to modern architecture? However, the applications are more broad-based.

The paper raises the issue of a disjunction between ‘traditional’ (synonymous with ‘ethnic’, that is, Indian) and “modern” (that is Western), ‘especially among the English-language speakers in India… educated in English-medium schools, in a pattern established long ago by Macaulay…’. For many reasons, the English-speaking elite treats the latter [modern, western] as superior to the former [traditional, Indian] and so ‘West is best’. Dr Kak raises the critical question of whether ‘to be successfully modern we must deny or, more accurately… [we must] colonize our past to our own commercial advantage’.

In the contemporary creative vocabulary, “tradition” and “modern” are two common buzzwords. Philosophical and sociological literature discusses them at some length but the dictionary provides a useful everyday meaning. According to the dictionary, “tradition” means “cultural continuity in social attitudes and institutes”, and “modern” is “characteristic of the present or the immediate past”. Traditionalism is opposed to modernism, which is “a self-conscious break with the past”. Now, “post-modern” has entered the vocabulary and it isn’t quite clear what that means (post-industrial?) since, by definition, the present is always modern!

Anyhow, among English-language speakers in India, in our ordinary discourse, for most of us, educated in English, in English-medium schools, in a pattern established long ago by Macaulay and still heavily influenced by the West, “traditional” has become synonymous with “ethnic”, that is, Indian – and “modern” is Western. For many reasons, the English-speaking elite treats the latter as superior to the former and so “West is best”. As the dictionary reminds us, modernism requires a break between the two. Therefore, to be successfully modern we must deny or, more accurately, we colonize our past to our own commercial advantage – remember, colonialism was an indispensable resource in the modernization of the West. Just look at the priorities of the English-language so-called national press, just look at the socio-cultural focus of advertising, and just look at the design world generally and, as an example, the high fashion industry or, even more aptly, the tourism industry in particular.

Whether this is good or bad in the long term, who is to say, but the point is that such a view has vital existential implications.

We need not go into the socio-political difference that opposes “art” to “craft”, but art is commonly spoken of as something that Artists do (and the architect is a kind of artist) and “craft” is “things” made by “artisans/craftspeople”.

In our country, when we speak of the crafts, we usually refer to the work of traditional, hereditary artisans. These artisans are members of communities that share a common value-system emerging from a certain kind of resource management and economic production system, all within a common cosmogony. In this life-way, based on agriculture, the social unit is the group (jati) and the market evolved from the jajmani or hereditary services exchange relationship between groups. Skills produced objects as a result of interactions within this relationship. Creative recognition and merit was primarily accorded and acknowledged by the social unit as a whole to which the maker belonged. Meanings were contextual meanings, meanings shared within the social community and recognised and understood by inter-acting communities, and interests were protected by the jati and by professional guilds (shrenis).

For the preservation, the promotion, the evolution, of a creative skill, and therefore of the life of the artisan who has it, obviously there must be a demand. The demand is expressed through a demand for the product of that creative skill. But that skill can be expressed creatively only if there is a context that recognizes that creativity, a context in which the artisan is creatively a contributor, and not merely a contributor of technical expertise. The contribution of the technical expertise of the artisan has commercial value. The contribution of creative expertise has semiotic value, and can be significant only in contexts where that contribution has social meaning, is culturally meaningful. That is likely only when the artisan and the client speak the same language, use the same vocabulary.

However, the Artist belongs to the modern life-way, which is industrial, the social unit of which is the individual, and the market is a distanced client who is increasingly westernised and urbanized. The artist claims the right of original artistic meaning and specialists known as art critics are professional interpreters of this meaning to the larger world. The traditional artisan and the modern design professional (who include architects!) both may be citizens of India but their professional thought-worlds are very different, their professional training is very different, and what is meaningful to them professionally could be very different. Students of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, New Delhi, sit on the ground in a workshop with artisans in the National Crafts Museum. The artisans have all removed their footwear; the NIFT students are all wearing theirs. The Western experience teaches us that the latter thought-world invariably cannibalises the former. So that, for example, in the Kalkaji cremation ground in New Delhi, with the steady modernisation of the procedures, the funeral priests no longer remove their footwear even when actually performing the last rites. The removal of footwear acknowledges the earth as mother (dharti mata), to be respected; continuing to wear it belongs to that world that considers the earth a raw material to be exploited. <br

Research and experience amply demonstrate that one of the characteristics of modern society is novelty, rapid change, and the transient nature of the relationships within it. Hereditary artisans are the inheritors and bearers of traditions derived from a terra-cultural way of life, and this way is characterized by familiarity, gradual change and enduring relationships. The two kinds of societies and cultures in their essence are antithetical.

By now it should be clear. There is an essential, a vital difference between tradition and modernity, a difference in their very essence. We don’t usually notice this because we are a population in transition and people within it are at all points, but it will be easier to appreciate this if you look at first-generation NRIs in America, and their third-generation American children. Oh sure, the kids may wear a bindi because Madonna made it fashionable, or some other superficial acknowledgement of their ancestry, but will they re-enter that thought-world in which the bindi or the tilak represents a cosmological significance? Most unlikely!

In the traditional world, the architect began his career as an apprentice – the sthapathi is an example. The master-sthapathi is, to use today’s language, both artist and artisan, and any innovation he makes is always perceived as an evolution of the tradition. But how many modern architects are familiar with Indian traditions of architecture? Then, in what way can artisans contribute their skills to modern architects and modern architecture? The latter can certainly use those skills and knowledge if they so wish but it is essentially a one-way transaction, because the artisans are not educated in the meanings of the modern architect’s world. In other words, the modern exploits the traditional to its own advantage, but how does the traditional gain? Okay, the sthapathi may flourish because temple construction is still in demand, but what of traditional masons and woodworkers and carvers and so on as their jajmans even in villages are abandoning old-style dwellings for modern RCC boxes? How many carpenters today can join woods together without using “fevicol”? In the South Extension market, the patua whose skill included the tying of knots now uses a quick-drying adhesive to fix the ends of the threads. It is easier and faster for him, and his clients are in a hurry and don’t mind – the old skill is irrelevant and dead.

An artisan who shared the cultural vocabulary of his patron and took pride in the level of braiding and knotting expected of him and required in his work now takes shortcuts because his new patrons have neither the time nor the inclination to pay for that higher level of skill. His children will not learn the old skill, and gradually examples of it remain only in museums and private collections.

As we in India westernize ourselves, can we really expect traditional Indian artisans – and, therefore, their skills – to survive? Where is the evidence to deny that traditional artisans in India will not, like in more “developed” societies, also become extinct? In how many societies of the West do architects patronize the skills of their own traditional artisans? Indeed, in how many of those societies can you still find such artisans? Why should we assume that India’s story will be any different? Already the dances for our gods are performed in restaurants to the sound of people chomping food, and our classical music, described as a way of self-realisation, is sung before banners of cigarette companies.

To what extent, therefore, can traditional artisans meaningfully contribute their skills to modern architecture? Modern workplaces, modern homes are designed by modern architects for modern lifestyles; elements of traditional architecture can be incorporated in their design, to be executed by traditional artisans because they are the ones who know how to do it. But modern architecture is actually appropriating from the traditional world – just as modern intellectual property rights steadily appropriate to individual entities in the modern world that which is in the public domain in the traditional world. The artisan is just the skilled labourer to execute the architect’s will. If the architect could get a non-traditional but skilled worker to do it cheaper, why should he – or his client – pay more simply out of sentiment for an outdated tradition irrelevant to their immediate lives?

Of course, this is a generalization, and architects shouldn’t get their hackles up! But this generalization recognizes an inevitable historical process that can be stated very simply as “India vs Bharat”. Throughout the world, all modernizing societies cannibalise their traditions, and in no modern society have traditional artisans survived. Even Japan is proving no exception. It has “artisans” who are “living national treasures” but they are essentially government-supported studio craftspeople; no people’s communities sustain them and their creativity.

This is not at all to suggest that traditional artisans should not be patronized by modern architects. Certainly they should, and the more the better. To that extent, at least some will continue to make their living from what they know. But the overwhelming majority will steadily die out – as official census data confirms. Futurologists sometimes describe global civilisational transformations in terms of waves. The agricultural first wave, perhaps 10,000 years long, crested on sources of renewable energy. The industrial second wave, about 400 years long, exploded up on non-renewable energy sources and raged through mass slavery and colonial plunder and exterminations, world wars and genocides, bringing enormous material wealth to a few parts of the world and a good deal of desecration and death to the rest of it. Twenty percent of the earth’s population consumes 80% of its resources. A second wave modern world arises only by engulfing the first wave traditional world. India is witness simultaneously to all three waves. This third, informational, wave will flow on a sustainable energy base. The data suggest striking similarities between the agricultural and informational waves, and the very strong opportunity open to societies such as ours of surfing directly to the third wave.

Modern architects are third-wave professionals. Traditional artisans are a first-wave culture. They can contribute meaningfully to modern architecture only if modern architects understand, respect, and appreciate the meanings of traditional architecture. Meanings and, therefore, usages evolve, but they must evolve through a dialogue in which both the artisan and the architect contribute creatively in a shared process. Traditional artisans are inheritors and repositories of certain cultural meanings and the skills through which these meanings are expressed. The jajmani system and the shreni that protected their interests are almost extinct. If modern architecture believes these meanings are of significance and value in the new world, it becomes the responsibility of the modern shreni (such as the Council of Architecture!) to guide traditional artisans into floating onto the third wave, so that these meanings and their bearers can survive and evolve.

Otherwise, the one essentially uses the other, and a patronising tokenism substitutes true patronage.

Categories: Modernisation & Craft; Westernisation & Craft; Traditional Artisanal Skills & Modern Architecture; Traditional Artisanal Skills in ‘Modern’ Contexts

Keywords: Craft, Modernisation, Tradition, Westernisation.


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