India’s rich heritage is preserved in its folk arts and crafts. Today there is a tremendous interest in the rich heritage of Indian folk tradition. Immense in its variety and range, this tradition reflects the amazing diversity of the people who have created it. This book, concise yet comprehensive, and richly illustrated, tells the story of how the arts and crafts of an ancient and imaginative people can be related to their day-to-day living, their legends, myths and festivals.
Mrs Jasleen Dhamija has been working and researching in the area of folk arts and crafts for the last 36 years. This book is the result of her years of field research and study on the cultural heritage of the different regions. She was involved for over six years in the same field in Iran and later for four years in Africa-as in-charge of a Pan Africa Centre for Craft Development, covering 21 countries. Internationally known for her work in the field, she has written several books, including The Crafts of Iran : Living Traditions, Crafts of Gujarat, Textiles of Andhra Pradesh, Handwoven fabrics of India, etc. She lives in Delhi, researching, writing and lecturing on living traditions.
Folk Arts and Crafts are an integral part of life in India, despite rapid social and technological changes taking place. The weaves with the transistor hanging from the wooden pillar supporting the thatch over his hut. The world outside his immediate environment has entered his work-place and his home. The well-to-do Maldhari cattleman of Banni-at the edge of the Rann of Kutch, which was called the end of the world-has a television set and his kinsmen trek 10 kilometres on foot or on camel to watch the Sunday films or Chitrahaar. The men sit and braid their camel belts and the women set their minute mutwa embroidery aside to watch the movie. They still wear their embroidered back-less shirt, the kanjari, the Salwar, the pantaloons and ordhni; and the men dress in their traditional attire. The changes occurring in the urban centres are being disseminated to rural homes through the audio-visual media and easy means of transport, no matter how isolated they are by deserts, swamps or high mountains.
People are beginning to travel not only outside their own areas but also out of the country. With the opening of airports in remote parts of the country, bus-loads of tourists descend into Banni or Bastar in Madhya Pradesh to see the life of the tribals. The local craftsmen do a brisk trade in selling their wares and their women sell their embroideries. They are filled with pride in the homes they have created themselves and which are admired and photographed by the tourists. Simultaneously, the Crafts Museum and Regional Cultural Centres bring craftsmen and performing artists to the metropolis where the cultural festivals suddenly transplant them to far-off lands and to a way of life which appears too alien to be real.
All this is bound to affect the way of life of the people and make them question their age-old traditions. I had visited Banni for the first time in 1956 when the people had very little contact with the outside world. Some of the men did travel to Bhuj, the capital of the erstwhile State of Kutch, but women hardly ever travelled out of the area. Only the Dehbaria Rabari women migrated every year with their men, following their cattle. The Rabaris camped away from the cities and settled communities, and only the men dealt with the outside world. Today the women travel to the city to get orders for their embroideries, open a bank account and operate it. They want their daughters to go to school and not remain illiterate. The growing demand for their work has led to a revival of a number of techniques and designs which would otherwise have been lost. Yet despite these changes and the flooding of the market with cheap consumer goods, many of the folk traditions which are closely linked with the dally life of goods, the people and associated with ritual ceremonies and religious observances have survived. Amongst the Maldharis, I have observed that access to money has not meant that they have moved out of their bungha, the rounded mud hut; on the contrary, it has led to more elaborate wood carving by the Meghval carvers and to elaborate paintings on the roofs.
It is in the small towns and among the working class that the traditional style of dress and of life are being rejected. They would like to adopt the way of life which is nearer to the artificial images projected on the cinema and television screens. Young girls wear shapeless frocks and the young boys wear tight jeans but,during rituals and special occasions, boys wear traditional clothes and the girls after marriage dress in sarees or Ghagra. All over India women have kept to the traditional way of dress, while the men wear a version of Western clothes; even they shed their alien clothes once they reach home.
In rural areas generally the rhythm of life remains unchanged. Village markets in Rajasthan and Gujarat have the traditional jogis, who are the basket-markers, and the stone-workers who make the small hand-grinding mills and grinding stones and come to sell their wares alongside plastic and cheap machine goods. The kharadi, wood turner, also comes with the wood turned rolling pins, pegs for the wall, rattles for the baby and little spinning-tops. A range of brooms used for performing different types of functions in every home are sold at fairs and in urban markets, where the housewife still prefers to sweep the floor even if she has a mmachine for cleaning. The metal surma-dani, kohl container, and the silver sindhoor box for holding the auspicious red powder for the circular dot-the bindi on the forehead-have an important place in the cosmetic kit of every women and will be placed side by side with the Cartier perfume or Revlon make-up. In Kerala, the bell-metal vessels may have given way to steel, but every home will have the bell-metal panchapatra or a copper one for worship and at least one bell –metal lamp, no matter how high or low be the family income. Every home has the durree, the flat woven spread for the bedding and the floor, besides the handwoven or plaited mats. Every devout Muslim household will have a jah-namaz, the prayer rug, for creating a pure place for praying. Every kitchen will have baskets for storage and hand-made vessels along with pressed steel ones. The simple iron griddle, the tongs of iron and evend and iron karahi, the traditional Indian wok without which cooking is impossible, are all shaped and prepared by the traditional lohars, ironsmiths, many of whom are itinerant craftsmen.
“What is a handicraft?” many people ask. A common response in most developing countries is that handicrafts are a luxury item. In the Western world craft objects are considered luxury goods which are created as individual pieces by studio crafts-persons and artists, while in a country such as India, where it is one of the largest means of employment after agriculture. handicrafts can be defined simply as objects made by the skill of the hand and which carry a part of the creator, as well as centuries of their evolutionary tradition. It could be as simple as diya, clay lamp, used during the Deepavali festival in urban homes or to light up a rural home where there is no electricity; or it would be a sophisticated piece of enameled and diamond-encrusted lotus-shape karanphool jhumka, an earring, or a similar design made in silver for the rural and tribal women. It could also be a stylised silver spoon with which the child is given the first taste of cereal-annaprasadam-or a simple leaf spoon lovingly created by the mother. It could also be the flowing auspicious patterns which women make at the entrance of their homes, as a sign of welcome, or the drawings on the walls or clay forms, which women make as part of their vratas, fasts, to propitiate the deities which govern their life. It could even be the decoration for the home, made by the women and children out of mango leaves and flowers, for festive occasions or the rich embroidery which women create lovingly for the use of their children, from left-over cloth or worn-out sarees.
It is these objects-created by people to answer their ritual and personal needs, as well as the luxurious objects created by specialized craftsmen for a select group’s sophisticated requirements and the commercial crafts created to answer everyday needs or as a form of trade-which constitute handicrafts. They bring grace to every home, be it the home of the rich or the poor. There is a timeless quality in these objects, for they have been evolved over centuries and countinue to be made even today with the same sentiment, the same belief and are a part of our living tradition.
Three distinct types of crafts have been evolved over the years. There are the folk crafts which are created by the people for their personal use, or by the village craftsmen for a limited clientele, with whom they are in touch. The variety of folk embroideries which are prepared all over India, is an expression of folk traditions kept alive by women. The gramdevatas, village gods of clay, wood or stone, which are created by village craftsmen, are and expression of the people’s religious beliefs. Specialised objects made by village craftsmen for particular occasions like the Deepavali, Bihu, Durga Pooja, the Ghanghore, the Sahi Jatra and Baisakhi are designed to answer the needs of particular festivals. There are craftsmen who specialise in creating textiles and ornaments which meet the requirements of a particular clientele, drawn from each community with its own distinctive design.
Secondly, there are crafts which have been developed around religious centres. These answer the needs of the religious institutions and the ceremonies associated with them, not to mention the needs of the pilgrims. Many important religious places have become specialized centres for particular crafts. At one time Varanasi and Kanjeevaram, for instance, used to specialize in the weaving of cloth specially required for religious ceremonies. They have now developed into important silk-weaving centres. Puri in Orissa, another important pilgrim centre, has developed a number of crafts which cater to the needs of the temple-such as the patachitra, painting on cloth, carving and paintings on wood, stone-carving as well as appliqué work on cloth used for temple ceremonials. The craftsmen also make small patachitras with the image of Lord Jagannath, wooden deities, stone replicas of temples, and innumerable other similar objects for the pilgrims. Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan, an important pilgrim centre for Muslims, has developed a number of crafts which answer the needs of the pilgrims. The Haji Pir Mela in a remote part of Kutch, which attracts thousands of pilgrims from all religious groups, offers a wide range of crafts made by the traditional craftsmen.
Thirdly, there are commercial crafts which are made by specialized craftsmen who belong to a group or a caste, who work together often in centres specializing in specific skills. Here there is complete mastery over the technique, for their processes are complicated and are mastered through long years of apprenticeship. The julaha or vankar weaves textiles, the rangrez or dyer dyes cloth, the khatri, printer, works on surface decoration. The sonar, goldsmith, works on precious metals, and even among them they have sub-castes who work for particular communities and use different tools and varying techniques.
There are also specialized craft traditions related to the building industry. The somapuras are the traditional stone-carvers who work on stone in Rajasthan and Gujarat just as the sthapathis work in southern Indis. The southar, wood-worker, who planes, shapes and carves, also belongs to the craftsmen group. Here the skills are hereditary and passed on from one generation to another, so much so that their way of life is built around the particular craft tradition. Over the generations even the physique and temperament of the practitioners are affected by their occupation.
These specialized skills led to the development of a rich range of crafts which became an important commodity for world trade and a part of our economy, from very early times. Trade links between India and the rest of the world existed even in the most ancient times. In Lothal, the excavations of a complicated system of channels for bringing in sailing ships to unload their wares-nearly 4,500 years old-point to India’s trade contacts which existed even in pre-historic times. The excavations at Tel Asmar, near Baghdad (Iraq), revealed pottery, beads and seals which, according to archaeologists, were imported by the Babylonians from India.
India being the home of cotton had an important textile trade, not only with the Western world but also with the Far East. Indian textiles and their permanent dyes had become an accepted commodity all over the world, and they feature in many of the ancient texts. In the Old Testament, Job’s wisdom is said to be more lasting than the Indian dyes. One of the ancient documents of Indo-Roman trade, knoen as Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, gives details of trade in fabrics, dyes and ivory. In an interesting remark, quoted by a Roman historian, one of the Roman senators, while decrying the import of fine cotton muslin of India to satisfy the vanity of Roman women, said that in doing so the Empire’s coffers had been emptied. Roman trade documents also mention that silk was exported from India to Europe around the sixth century A.D. Arab geographers describe Khambayat as the hub of trade between the East and the West. Arab sailors brought silver and gold from the Arab countries and Europe and carried away shiploads of textiles and other handicraft objects to the Far East and Europe. Trade in spices also depended on India. The bulk of the spices were purchased from the Far East, but the traders found that their gold could not tempt the islanders as much as the printed textiles of India. Arab geographers describe Masulipatnam, on the western coast, as an important port for trade. A number of languages were heard at the port of Masulipatnam; and gold from all parts of the world poured into India. Here ships from all over the world anchored for a whole year during which period they ordered the production of various kinds of handprinted cotton textiles, which they paid for in gold. These printed cloths were then carried to the Spice Islands where they were exchanged for spices. Trade records mention that one bolt of printed fabric was exchanged for 40 kilograms of nutmeg. In the north, caravans carried woven textiles along the Silk Route and went right up to Moscow by the Fur Route. Ancient records mention the existence of an Indo-Persian House, where merchants die brisk trade with their local counterparts and with trade embassies of Europe.
Under the patronage of early Mughals, India’s sophisticated crafts reached their acme of perfection. The making of enameled jewellery, textiles and carpets was developed into a fine art. Akbar, Jehangir, and Shahjahan attracted master craftsmen from all over the world and added a number of skills, techniques and designs to the already rich repertoire of the Indian master-craftsmen. The craftsmen were so skilled that new techniques and skills were mastered in a short span of time and soon surpassed the original. Extra weft-brocading, mashru weaving and even velvet manufacturing, which was not indigenous to India, were rapidly developed, surpassing those produced in the original centres of manufacture. It is likely that kani shawl-weaving of Kashmir was introduced from Persia, but it soon developed into a refined form of weaving, with the use of pashmina wool; so much so that the Persian termeh could not compare with the fine pieces produced in Kashmir.
With the break-up of the Mughal Empire and growing strife amongst the smaller principalities, local patronage started diminishing. Uncertain conditions also discouraged trade; the quality of workmanship also deteriorated. Later, when the East India Company gained firm control, an attempt was made to organize production for the European markets. This fillip to craft-manufacturing was short-lived because of the strong opposition to the import of Indian textile goods into England. This evidently reduced the volume of trade. The Industrial Revolution in England gave an unprecedented stimulus to production and consequently rendered a number of English craftsmen unemployed. To find larger markets for its commodities, England flooded the Indian markets with cheap machine-made goods which ousted the home-made products. A number of craftsmen were rendered destitute. Those who continued to practice their trade were forced to compete with machine-made goods, with the result that quality had to suffer.
Fortunately, most of the handicraft artisans were spread over the country-side and were essentially catering to local needs. As many areas were physically isolated from outside influences, the skills of these areas survived. A number of crafts were also closely associated with religious observances and thus they too were retained in all their purity.
Gandhiji’s swadeshi movement focused attention not only on the plight of the Indian craftsmen but also on need for maintaining the craft traditions. Five years after Independence, the Government of India set up an All India Handicrafts Board under the dynamic guidance of Smt Kamaladevi Chatto-padhyay. As Chairperson of the Board, she was distressed at the depressing picture: no data was available on the crafts industry; in fact, very little was known about the craft centres, the conditions of the artisans, the trade channels, and the financial position of the industry. The problem was acute as millions of craftsmen spread over the entire country were facing starvation and were unable to find a market for their products. Their goods did not meet consumer needs; their attempts to meet the demands and to compete with machine-made products had led to further deterioration of their designs. They earned a mere pittance, felt an eroding sense of frustration, were treated as a menial class, and could never hope for a place in society.
It was felt that the immediate need was to collect basic information on crafts. As a first step, a market survey of important craft centres was conducted by a team of economists, social workers and marketing experts. L.C. Jain and Prof. Raj Krishna guided the study which assessed the problems facing the craftsmen. Additional rapid surveys were conducted by the staff of the Board and by the Chairperson herself. In November 1954 the author joined the organization and worked in close association with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, travelling the length and breadth of the country to revive the crafts industry.
One of the major problems was to persuade the Central and State governments to allocate human power and financial resources to develop supportive programmes for the crafts industry and assist the craftsmen in restarting the production of fine quality crafts. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s personal reputation and her zeal to promote handicrafts helped her to secure funds and support from the Central and State governments. Special departments run by senior officials at the State level were set up alongwith a number of training, common facility, and other service institutions. A network of State emporia came up to promote marketing of handicrafts.
Besides the developmental programme for the handicrafts industry, a parallel programme to create an awareness amongst Indians of their cultural heritage and traditions was launched. Exhibitions focusing attention on particular crafts were organised at home and abroad. Unknown craft centres were identified and a number of crafts, which were originally seen only in museums and personal collections, were revived.
The central cottage Industries Emporium in New Delhi was crucial in bringing about this awareness of quality goods, for it displayed a range of the very best of handicrafts. It helped to impact a sense of pride in the craft tradition and cultivate a taste for folk art and craft. It also attracted a large number of foreign buyers, who were anxious once again to import Indian goods for markets in Europe and the U.S.A.
The growing demand for crafts at home and abroad activated craft centres all over India. Craftsmen, who were specialists in their field, were able to get work all the year round and many of those who had left their traditional fields of work returned to pursue these. The Handicrafts and Handloom Export Corporation, under the able guidance of Smt Pupul Jayakar, set up a number of sales shops, Sona, which exhibited the best of crafts and helped to build up the market for crafts abroad.
The production base, built through multi-pronged approach and unstinting involvement of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, fostered the image of crafts abroad. Export promotion policies, aimed at encouraging private trade, led to the rapid growth of export in handicrafts and the creation of employment opportunities for a large number of people.
India became a source of inspiration for other Asian and African countries and many followed the Indian example. Kamaladevi was the moving spirit in setting up the World crafts council, with its headquarters in New York and member countries which spanned the world. This built up an awareness of crafts on a global scale. The tremendous growth in export of handicrafts achieved in the early stages has slowed down. Today, some of the smaller countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Hongkong have developed their craft exports to an extent that India has in some cases been outstripped. The export figures show that India is lagging far behind in most commodities, except in the case of gem and jewellery.
Despite the growth of the handicraft industry, the average earnings of the craftsmen compare poorly with the income earned in other fields. The number of young craftsmen has begun to fall steadily and the average age of master craftsmen ranges around 50.
It is necessary to re-examine the policies which were relevant when the craft movement began. Private trade which caters to the urban market, to tourist trade and export is well developed and is able to carry out marketing operations. They, however, face problems in getting the required stocks of quality goods and new designs in order to keep ahead of their competitors and enter markets where there is a large turnover and good profits.
What is needed are development measures which would build up production and assist craftsmen to improve their techniques, gain access to processed and quality raw materials, designs, credit, direct marketing channels, and protect their interests by ensuring adequate wages and socio-economic benefits.
Besides the export market and the urban market, there exists another large market which caters to the needs of the millions of rural and poor urban consumers. The small self-employed craftsmen who answer these needs also require assistance. They are the potters, the blacksmiths, the leather workers, the basket makers, mat weavers, metal workers, printers and dyers. We are aware of the plight of the handloom weavers who weave dhotis, chaddars, gamchas and pacherdis for the local people, and the difficulties being faced by them. A range of technological institutions, weavers, service centres, and extension services exist but they do not reach the handloom weavers. They are mostly used for preparing special designs for exhibitions and as showpieces, not as an essential part of the movement which would reach the industry that employs the largest number of persons.
Do we ask the question whether improvement in the quality of life means selling plastic containers, rubber shoes, aluminium utensils, polyester cloth, folding metal chairs, plastic toys, pre-fabricated houses to our villages- articles and materials totally unsuited to our geo-climatic conditions and way of life? The poor designs, dull colours make the common man’s life drab, dreary and meaningless, yet it is emphasised by our audio-visual media. The lifestyle of the middle class and the educational system also contribute to eroding craft traditions. Plastic containers are replacing clay and metal storage jars. No one talks of the harmful properties of the chemicals in plastic which may react on the food kept in them. Nor is there any mention of the fact that metal is lasting and even after it breaks it has a value, whereas plastic after a certain period of time and if broken is junk. No emphasis is laid on the fact that rubber and plastic sandals can cause allergy and are difficult to patch and maintain, or that polyester is not suitable for our climate, besides being hazardous. The folding metal chairs though viewed as an indication of affluence cannot replace the pirdhi. That these furnitures are badly designed, uncomfortable and lead to bad posture, are factors that are ignored.
The fact that simple products, made from indigenous materials with local skill, can answer the needs of millions of people and are also within their purchasing power, besides providing employment to a large number of people, is often not considered. For example, the Kolhapuri chappals sold all over India at varying prices are finding a market at home and abroad. The chappals are strong, durable and are priced between Rs 25.00 and 150.00. such successful production and distribution can be organized for other crafts too and the needs of millions could be fulfilled, if product designers, design institutions and development corporations applied themselves to study the needs of this sector.
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