While shopping around for apparel or household accessories in India, the last thing on your mind is promoting the craft traditions of the country. But, incredibly enough, that’s exactly what you’re doing !
Just as Indian culture has the supreme ability to adapt itself to a succession of alien Influences over the millennia, so also with Indian crafts: walnut wood carved artefacts have been a strong craft tradition in Kashmir. The advent of the British in Kashmir spawned a variety of carved furniture from dining tables to sideboards and escritoires—all completely alien to the Kashmiri way of life, yet quintessentially Kashmiri. On the threshold of the 21st century, carved walnut wood furniture is seen internationally as a Kashmiri handicraft, although it is a safe bet that not one sample adorns the house of any Kashmiri !
In fact most Kashmiri craft traditions, be it papier mâché, carpets and shawls are primarily for export, and have scarcely any place at all in the local Kashmiri market. In that way, Kashmir has both preserved its own traditions as well as earned itself a formidable reputation, worldwide as well as within the country, for its craft traditions.
That it has been able to do so, is primarily because many crafts, especially the aforementioned ones were introduced into Kashmir in the 14th century from Iran. Curiously in the intervening centuries they were seen more as a means of earning revenue rather than a way of life. This has meant that while the indigenous crafts like engraved copperware and namdah rugs form part of every home in Kashmir, papier mâché candle stands and walnut wood dragons are not part of the warp and weft of local life.
Craft traditions in India had three main origins: court crafts, religious art and folk crafts. Today all three jointly represent “Indian handicrafts” whether they are rosewood elephants from Karnataka, bronze idols from Thanjavur or patta chitra (painting on cloth) from Orissa. Certainly an urbanized, westernized Indian would have difficulty identifying one from the other. However, the dichotomy was clear to the traditional users of these crafts. Royalty or nobility would have scorned terra-cotta toys from Bihar, and the temple in ancient India was the sole destination of all religious crafts — no bronze image of Lord Krishna would have found its way into the hut of a camel herder in Barmer, Rajasthan.
That we are able to wander into Central Cottage Emporium. New Delhi, or the Crafts Mela held normally at Suraj Kund, Haryana.,and pick up crafts that are pleasing to us rather than those which would have had meaning in our lives two hundred years ago illustrates the continuing tradition of crafts in our country. Formerly, crafts were more or less need-based; today some continue to be so, however many are the product of marketing and contemporary design. Nothing better illustrates the ability of the entire body of Indian crafts to bend with the wind. And fortunate it is too, for in these times of political correctness, crafts are eco-friendly and non-polluting to produce. More importantly, they form a vital link with the past, providing a glimpse into a rich heritage and employing skilled craftsperson much more meaningfully.
The best illustration of need based crafts comes from Kachchh, Gujarat. This barren, desert region at the westernmost tip of India is the source of some of the brightest crafts in India. Amidst the bleak settings, all colour refreshes the eye. Thus the women’s costumes are a celebration of searing colour. In a land where tradition continues, supremely unmindful of the twentieth century, every individual in Kachchh derives his or her identity from his caste. And every caste has its own distinctive costume with its unique vocabulary of embroidery.
Thus a single glance at a woman will tell you which tribe she comes from and her marital status into the bargain —single, married or widowed! The way of life in this part of India owes itself completely to the surroundings: the inhospitable environment means that nothing here is wasted. When clothes have become too frayed to wear, they are not discarded. They art, simply transformed into quilts. With borders of patchwork and quilting stitch, they are objects of beauty in themselves. The clothes that the women wear similarly, are heavily worked over with embroidery which is labour intensive rather than cost intensive.
To buy these embroidered jewels, one does not have to travel all the way to Kachchh. They are available in distant cities all over the country largely through the efforts of non-governmental organizations like Dastkar that serves as a link between the craftsman and the buyer, obviating the need for the middle-man. Dastkar and other non-profit organizations like it serve the very useful purpose of understanding the crafts, the skill of the craftsperson and the tastes of the buyer and are able to successfully correlate the variables. Hence, the craft has changed a little but remained essentially the same.
Not all village handicrafts have to be adapted to fit the urban context. Camel saddles find favour in sophisticated homes in the city, and the proud owners find new ways to use an old object in this case as potted plant holders!
At the other end of the scale is the humble durri (cotton rug) which once lay unsung in a village home until it was revived by Shyam Ahuja to become a must-have accessory in high-society homes all over the globe. The skill in durri weaving remains largely unchanged: what has altered is the motifs and colourways which constantly change to conform to international trends. Quality control, it goes without saying, is rigorous.
The other latter day success story is that of Anokhi, Jaipur. When the husband-wife team who head the firm started out, it was with a refreshing perspective on their business: for them their bottom-line did not matter. Their commitment on the other hand was to the hand-block printers and dyers who were the backbone of their venture. In other words, they set out to ensure for their craftsmen a steady supply of work around the year, and would accept only so many international orders as their craftsmen could comfortably handle! Many years down the line, Anokhi has a distinctive look to its apparel as well as home furnishings — a look that is dictated by the international market to which it caters, while the craft remains essentially unchanged for centuries. Therein lies the greatest asset of the Indian craft tradition.
As with the Shyam Abuja and Anokhi stories, so also with the interaction between Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design and the leather workers of Jawaja, Rajasthan. What began as an academic exercise for the students of National Institute of Design to work with the leather workers and come up with contemporary designs for bags has now become something of a household name. Arguably, but for the interaction, generation of leather workers may have had to seek employment elsewhere had their craft not been given a shot in the arm.
The ultimate success of the story of Indian crafts lies in whether the craftsman’s own life has been enriched or not. With the rise of the powerloom, the shadow of the middle-man and the dwindling of the traditional markets for many crafts, it is a natural corollary that crafts should have been on their way out. However, this is patently not so. Despite the polyester invasion, handloom has its own status and is likely to remain the same in the foreseeable future. Similarly the tidal wave of plastic which has swept the country has undeniably eroded the rural market for basketry; on the other hand, it is seen as a status symbol in the urban context. And owing to the excellent work done by voluntary agencies like SEWA which strives towards the self-employment of women throughout the country, sectors like the chikan (shadow embroidery) workers of Lucknow are not the depressed, ill-paid workers they used to be even a decade ago. Now the craftswomen themselves travel around the country in crafts bazaars selling the trademark delicate embroidery that is produced by family and neighbours. So radically has the life of these women changed that whereas once they were the object of pity within their community, now they hold an enviable place in society. It is reliably learnt that young women in Lucknow have the best chances of making good matches if they are members of SEWA. And if that typifies the status of craftspersons in the country, perhaps we can look forward to Indian handicrafts continuing their tradition into the next millennium as well.