The Living Crafts of India

Art History/Craft History

The Living Crafts of India: Unbroken Continuities

Sethi, Ritu


In today’s India across villages, hamlets, tribal swathes and urban fringes, in the most unlikely of places, ancient craft and weaving technologies are practiced and preserved, sometimes tenuously, often transmitted orally from father to son, mother to daughter, guru to shishya. The anonymous nature of India’s craftsperson’s, their dexterity and skill, their use of indigenous and ecologically viable technology to imagine and create – to weave, smelt, mould, sculpt, engrave, paint, build and imagine spans a cultural landscape that has for many millennia been bound together and shaped by its history, mythology and legend. Ingeniously adapted to surrounding nature, attuned to abundance and scarcity, and connected with social and ritual demand.

The beginnings of India’s craft traditions lie in the first known settled civilization of the sub-continent in the cities of the Indus Valley. This formed the blueprint for a continuous 5,000 year journey, formulating ways of thinking and seeing with closely defined links with the elements, a direction for the arts and a social structure that remains rooted till today. Over the course of history, waves of rulers and ruling empires, migrating peoples and craftsperson’s, merchants who plied the inland and maritime trade routes, travelers and scholars, have provided an exchange point for material possessions, ideas, languages, customs and cultures. To the present day, this complex culture is influenced, yet absorbs and makes its own, the happening and events from a globalised world: the scroll painter from Bengal who painted the cataclysmic 9/11 event and sings movingly about it, to the Rajasthani folk puppet vigorously being manipulated to a disco beat; from the Sujani embroidereress from Bihar who is sewing messages of AIDs awareness, to the Jhara tribals who cast a message to the Prime Minister in metal; from the Madhubani artist who draws the coming of the railway to her part of the world, to the fine chikan embroidery of Luchnow destined for the haute couture fashion houses of Paris and New York. These and many more are shaping our vision for tomorrow.

It is estimated that at present there are over 23 million craftspersons in India -making this sector second only to agriculture in its scope of self-employment – with over 360 clusters spread across the country. A little over 76 per cent of these are located in India’s rural hinterland. Clusters are individualized and differentiated by the craftsperson’s’ inventive responses to habitation, environment and demand, for objects for the sacred, for the temporal and for the everyday. About 96 per cent of the craftspeople create and crafting within their own household space, drawing on the services of kith and kin, each providing a necessary skill from the spinning on the charkha, the dyeing of the yarn, the making of a bobbin, the laying of the warp, and the weaving on the loom.

The diversity and plurality of the craft tradition of India extends to the creators of craft themselves. These demonstrating the spontaneous creativity that springs from tradition, whether one sees the Phulkari embroiderers of Punjab or the dramatic red and black Toda tribal embroiderers of the Nilgiris; whether one looks at the the Rabari, Ahir, Meghwal stitches of Kutch and Rajasthan or the mirror work of the nomadic Banjaras; whether one sees the Kantha of Bengal, the Sujani and Khatwa of Bihar, or the Kasuti of Karnataka, now turned to commercial work. India has over 460 scheduled tribe communities distinguished by their language and dialects, by their dress, headgear, ornaments and tattoos, by their rich oral traditions, music, dance and culture. The communities have skilled story tellers and craftsperson’s proficient in metallurgy, carving, pottery, painting, basketry and other crafts. The itinerant artisan is as remarkable, be it the Lohar wrought iron makers of Bastar, the Banjaras of Andhra, or the lost wax metal casters of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh and Odisha to the Jadupatua scroll painters and bard healers of the Santhal tribe.

In a tradition of inherited caste occupations, craftsperson’s are seen as the descendants of Lord Vishwakarma, the architect of the gods to whom a large number of craftsperson’s trace their origin. Practicing either individually or in craft clusters, whole villages and pilgrimage town are known equally for their craft practice: the bronze casters of Swamimalai; the potters of Molela; Pichwai painters of Nathdwara, the block printers of Bagh, Bagru, Balotra, Dhamadka, Sri Kalahasti, Machlipatnam, Kal Dera; Mithila painters of Madhubani. the leather footwear of Kolhapur; lac coated wood of Chennapatna, Kondapalli and Etikopakka; the painters of Raghurajpura and the hand paper makers of Sanganer. While the migrant craftsperson to urban centers like the zari embroiderers of Delhi and Kolkatta, the part time craftsperson’s who create during lean agricultural times add to the list.

Responding with inventiveness to the strongly contrasting geographic features of landscape, climate and topography of forest and field, to the great rivers, coast lines and mountain ranges, and to the creatures inhabiting the sea, land and air, to areas of heavy rainfall to desert landscape, Indian craftsperson’s have developed a domestic technology adapted to the environment and to materials available, and connected with demand. One can see this from the wool gathering and weaving of the Pashmina shawls in the high reaches of the Himalayas, to the gathering of the al root to create the characteristic red; from the weaving of the wild Eri and Muga silk of Assam, to the variety of creative responses to the wild grass, fiber and vegetation that grows in abundance, and the sculpturing of the Shola pith in Bengal; from the toys and baskets of Sikki grass in Bihar and Odisha, and the use of Kauna reed to make mats in Imphal; from the Kora mats of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, to the use of wicker in Kashmir; from the mats of Sheetalpati and Masland in Assam and Bengal, to the use of Sarkhanda in Haryana to make furniture and containers, and of the Pulla grass footwear of Himachal; from the ubiquitous use of Cane and Bamboo across the North East and in other parts to build homes and bridges, flutes, chiks, baskets to beer mugs. The list is endless.

A close relationship with everyday life also underpins Indian hand crafts, as does its sensitivity to natural and seasonal rhythms. Common objects for daily needs are created by the potter, the weaver, the metal smith, the jeweler, the dyer and others. Combining indigenously developed technologies with locally available materials, local skills and local needs, the objects created are functional, utilitarian and, practical, to be used in homes, at work, in the field, at play, at prayer. Unlike assembly-line production, where products are made for distant markets and unknown users, these handicrafts – even the smallest and most insignificant one – are personalized for the user, embellished and adorned with a vernacular idiom of form and visual expression. The range is as marvelous as the attention to details: from butter churners to vegetable slicers and other kitchen accessories, betel boxes to nut crackers, diyas for illumination and prayer, icons for worship, for wish fulfillment and propitiation of the gods, locks and latches for safety, writing instruments, lotas and spouted pots, women’s beauty accessories from combs to make up containers, hookahs and chillums for the man of the house, scales and measures for trade, children’s toys, games and dolls, charkhas for spinning silk and cotton to implements for the farmer.

Parallel to the development of humble everyday craft grew ritual crafts based on belief systems of organized religion, of ancient folk wisdom, and of innumerable cults, religious sects and ways of thought. Whether to invoke and propitiate deities, exorcise negative forces, celebrate rites of passage or mark the turning points in the cycle of life, death and renewal, objects and offerings have created a context and a focus.

The classical craft tradition that flowered around the temples built to glorify and worship the gods departs from the folk and tribal traditions. These follow till today the strict rules laid down in the Shilp Shastras, pertaining to iconography and iconometry, with shape, proportion, colour, stance, and use of material dictated in a manner appropriate to honoring the gods. These rules of measurement apply not only to religious and secular architecture and sculpture but also to functional objects used for offerings for the celebrant, the priest and the community. One can see this in a variety ranging from the classic bronze metal icons cast in Tiruchanur and Chittoor in Andhra; the granite stone carvings of Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu reminiscent of the Pallava sculptures; the solid caste bronze and panch loha icons of Swamimalai, symbolizing the five elements ; wood carvings and Muthangi, the pearl studded attire and accessories made for deities in Madurai; the Vilakku brass lamps of Thanjavur district; the bell metal temple and church bells of Nachiarcoil; the Bhramanical deities in bronze and the lamps used in temples and churches of Kerala; the sandalwood carving, the sheet metal embossing of Karnataka and its the temple jewellery; the ritual cloth installations and metal icons of Buddhist Monasteries that follow the measurements laid down in canonical texts; the commissioned textiles for chariots, umbrellas and temple canopies of Sickinaikkenpet; the Pichwai paintings for the Nathdwara temples; and the stone inlay calligraphy of the great mosques, the stone jail, lattice work in floral and geometric designs for palaces, forts and mosques practiced in Agra and tracing back their ancestry to the makers of the Taj Mahal.

The ritual offerings of the folk and tribal traditions, with their spontaneity and fluidity of vision, made myths and legends come to life. Whether it is the daily making of the auspicious symbols on the doorstep to ensure prosperity and ward of evil, or terracotta figures with symbolic attributes; or the ceremonial clay or metal pot, one can see the immediacy and relevance of the traditions. Local deities, the gram devatas, guardians and protectors of villages and tribal life, the larger than life terracotta horses offered to Lord Aiyannar, a village deity are to be seen in villages across Tamil Nadu, the Phad cloth panel paintings of Rajasthan depicting the epic adventures of Dev Narayan, a folk hero, the Bhoota cult figures of nature spirits carved in wood in Dakshin Karnataka and cast in bronze and bell metal in Udipi, the block printed and painted shrine cloth Mata ni Pachedi of Gujarat depicting the Mother Goddess are all part of daily lives and imaginings.

Bearing a stamp of achievement that is not only indigenous and ancient but also notably creative is the ritual and everyday art and craft of India’s tribal communities, whether it is the tribal textiles in heavy cotton, dyed in madder and black obtained from waste iron worn by the Oraon, Muria, Maria, Dhurva and Gonds; or the abstract wall pictographs of the Warli tribe of Maharashtra. The Pithora paintings of the Rathwa Bhils and Bhilal tribes depicting the God of Food Grains and other tribal divinities. The Bhil, Gharasiya, Rathwa tribal offerings of votive terracotta horses to the Gods. The carved wooden comb offerings to a beloved and the Gond and Pradhan paintings on doors and walls venerating nature and seeking protection, the skills of tribal India making things for themselves and for urban markets.

Along the continuum of crafts was the efflorescence of luxury and court crafts that were intimately bound to politics, trade, and the pursuit of a privileged life. These included woven silks, jewellery, carpets, metal ware, muslins likened to woven air, dyed and printed textiles, embroideries, shawls – and endless array of objects both desired and envied.

The insatiable appetite for India’s fabled artifacts, along with continuing traditions of craftsmanship, demonstrate the high level of skill that has survived in India till today: from the brocade weaving in Banaras to the metal casting in Swamimalai, the circular hand painted Ganjifa playing cards, from the Kundan and enameled Minakari jewellery of Jaipur, the Pachikari semi precious stone inlay of Agra, the Thewa gold leaf worked on glass of Pratabgarh and the continuing tradition of the Kalamkari patterned textiles of Machlipatnam once meant for the elite in Europe and Britain Objects that continue to be highly prized and regarded, these also remain gifts fit for kings, and today, for an exchange between heads of State.

Equally bright and joyful are the festive crafts. All over India festivals are celebrated and icons, lights, objects, ephemeral in nature are crafted: from the construction of the effigy of Ravana, the demon king built with paper, bamboo and filled with fire crackers to Uttarayana celebrated in Ahmedabad with the flying of paper kites with craftsperson’s travelling from all over to the make the patterned kites and the cotton thread strengthened with crushed glass, to kite flying with a contemporary twist with kites in the colors of the Indian flag made especially for and flown on August 15 as a symbol of freedom on Independence Day. The Sanjhi floor decorations created with intricately cut paper stencils, filled in with colors, celebrating events in the life of Lord Krishna, hours in the making to be effaced after the unveiling and offerings. The occasion of Durga puja with the sculpting in Shola Pith and clay, the elaborate clay Ganpathi Baba in Maharashtra, worshipped and then ritually relinquished into the waters. In Haryana and Rajasthan the folk tradition of making of Goddess Sanjhi, the cow dung votives and the floral arts made for celebrations, gifts, events and as presentations, the ritual floor mandalas and symbols in the floor and wall, the Buddhist butter sculptures, the Muslim Tazziya are all painstaking and elaborately made. Festivities and melas are memorable for their playful and inventive toys and dolls for children made of clay, tinsel, palm fronds, coconut fiber, papier mache, wood and other material.

The tools used in crafting objects and weaving of textiles range from the most simple and basic to the technologically complex, using scientific and mathematic principals and combining an extraordinary knowledge of material combined with an inventive mind and the ability to think spatially and visually. Tools are often made to suit the hand and eye of the user, and personalized to age and physique – not available over the counter, in shops or markets. The makers of the tools are often the craftsperson’s themselves or craft ‘engineers’ working within the traditions of an oral and hereditary knowledge system that is closely unified in its understanding of material and process. The tools range from the inventive construct of a bent bicycle spoke to burn geometric designs on to a tribal wind pipe, to the intricately carved wooden block used for textile patterning, and requiring mathematical precision in its making (now considered a high craft in itself); from the loin loom of the North East made to suit the woman’s form and convenience as she weaves in her open courtyard, to the loom designed for the silk double ikat Patola sari of Patan built so that two weavers can work simultaneously; from the balanced potters wheel to the tribal crucible, moulds, lathe, files and chisels to cast the lost wax Dhokra metal object; the bamboo pen used to paint the translucent goat skin of the leather puppets of Andhra to the iron drawing chisel used to engrave the intricate geometric and floral patterns on the black metal Bidriware; from the ubiquitous dao, the curved, razor sharp knife of the North-East craftsperson used to split bamboo and perform the most delicate of tasks.

These time honored methods and processes of creation, now adapted to modern times, can be simple or complex with multiple and sequential processes, but there always is unity between the maker and material. Days or months in the making, the identity of the maker is often recognizable, almost branded into a product. The process, tools and the relationship between these and the craftsperson is amply visible in the crafting the black resist proof, non corrosive alloy base of bidriware in Andhra that is inlaid with gold and silver wire; in the casting of bell metal cooking utensils, the urli used domestically and the hugh charakku vessels for community cooking in Kerala; in the encrusting of one metal on another in Thanjavur; in the silver filigree of Karimnagar and Cuttack created by drawing out wires through a gauge; and in the metal mirror of Aranmula in Kerala that reflects an image and that does not undergo any refraction. Techniques of working with clay from moulding, shaping, coiling, beating and casting, the incising of silver motifs on to the black pottery of Nizamambad making the utmost use of the plasticity of the material, is another example, as is the carving, etching, engraving, inlay, lac turning and other techniques used on wood. The making of the Kettuvallam wooden boat in Kerela, capable of carrying several truck loads of cargo. One can see the complexity in the shaping of horn, bone and shell, the use of feathers, hair and fur the making of jewellery using the most precious of metals and stones to the use of nut and seed; in the painting on the wall and floor, on scroll and paper and cloth sheet, leather and palm leaf on glass and on the body with permanent tattooing or henna, in the making of musical instruments, animal trappings, blowing, staining and casting glass and book binding, all of which follow processes laid down orally and learned on the job. Similarly, the understanding of the chemical and physical properties of plant and fiber to be use as dyes, create textiles, plait ropes, weave mats, use as thatching, make into paper is un paralleled and unsurpassed.

Six decades after Indian independence, crafts are one of the greatest of all the subcontinent’s influences over modern life, a material culture that is very much a part of everyday life. A cultural exchange continues to today, a unique one in which the traditional crafts and craft-traditions of India interact with the demands of urban living, resulting in a juxtaposition of ancient technologies catering to a globalised world. Craft has moved ahead: it is not static or crystallized in time nor is it contained. Its essence lying in movement and constant flux. Traditions of production have been translated into contemporary designs and marketed to an emerging global clientele. Continuing traditions and contemporary developments have been meshed in craft production and consumption, revealing not only both the persistence and adaptability of an enduring and highly prized form of patterning, shaping and creating but also the impact of India’s craftsperson’s in an interconnected and interdependent world.

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