Dastkari Haat Samiti’s upcoming exhibition blending tradition, design and calligraphy positions the craftsman at the centre of it all

Thirty-five-year-old Shabir Ali Beigh of Kashmir remembers the first time Jaya Jaitly, president of Dastkari Haat Samiti, told him that this project would require him to read and write. “Suddenly the face of my three-year-old kid came in front of me reminding me how the poor child must have felt on his first day at school. So my position was also quite similar,” says Beigh over the phone line from Kashmir. An unlettered man, Beigh was bound to be overwhelmed, even reluctant, at the proposition but Jaitly cajoled him to join in. And Beigh, who practises the traditional craft of Kani-Sozni embroidery, eventually came up with a muffler and a stole bearing not just the exquisite embroidery but also the names of the embroidered motifs, like ‘chinardar’, ‘badum’, ‘sozandar’ and many more. Taken in by the experience and deep down regretful of the absence of education in his life, Beigh felt compelled to embroider on the stole an old adage “taleem aadmi ko insaan bana deti hai” (education maketh a man.) in Urdu calligraphic style.

“Akshara: Crafting Indian Scripts”, Dastkari Haat Samiti’s upcoming exhibition in the Capital, is brimming with many such craftsmen like Shabir Ali Beigh who are incredibly talented but unlettered. Sixty such artists from 16 states bring with them 15 craft, textile and art forms which are blended with different scripts and calligraphic styles to come up with 150 exhibits.

Jaitly, who has conceived the entire project, says the intended long-term impact is manifold. While at one level it aims to add value to the skill of the craftsperson, on another it wishes to expose not just the local population to the vast written heritage of India but also make the world take notice of it and, finally, create a valuable design vocabulary. “I have worked at three levels — alphabet, script and calligraphy. These three stages of learning are visible in all the products,” says Jaitly, citing the example of stone carving of Odisha. “The artisans who practise this usually make figurines but here they have made a paving stone with ‘swagatam’ written on it,” she adds.

While Ambika Devi has merged Madhubani with Devanagari script, Satyanarayan Sutar from Rajasthan has brought Devanagari onto the kavad, and Vishal Khandelwal has done silver work using the multiple scripts of Rajasthan, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali and much more.

Delhi-based artisan Rajesh Roy, who works with terracotta, has crafted a lamp using the Mughal jaali work. “The words get illuminated when light falls on them. The brief was to keep the focus on the akshara or the letters but I wanted to do a product that has utility value and is marketable,” explains Roy, who has created 37 Bangla alphabets on 90 terracotta tiles. Speaking of the process, Jaitly describes it as an interesting one. “While I needed to speak to some on phone, some were called for a six-day design development workshop. Skilled craftspeople were explained the concept behind calligraphy and how it can be applied to various regional scripts. New designs were evolved on paper and produced over the following three months using calligraphy. They drew from the visual strength of India’s regional scripts and were translated onto a range of products in natural materials with traditional craft skills.”

(Akshara: Crafting Indian Scripts, will be held at India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, from September 16 to 21. An art book called “Akshara: Crafting Indian Scripts”, highlighting the use of Indian scripts on crafts in the past (Niyogi Books), written by Jaya Jaitly and Subrata Bhowmick, will be released on the day. An art film combining choreography and calligraphy with dancers Navtej Johar and Justin McCarthy and calligrapher Rajeev Kumar, will also be screened.)

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