As the Dastkari Haat Samiti showcases its wares in the city, its founder-president Jaya Jaitly talks about her books and lifelong engagement with traditional crafts

The Dastkari Haat Samiti unwraps its wares on the grounds of the Kalakshetra Foundation. Seated in an empty stall with two young colleagues and overseeing the arrangements is Jaya Jaitly, founder-president of the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national association of craftspersons with members from all over the country. Jaitly brought into being the extremely popular and vibrant Dilli Haat where crafts are displayed and sold in the atmosphere of a mela. The Dastkari Haat has returned to Chennai after a couple of years to tempt buyers with its wonderful spread of crafts and textiles from numerous States.

For more than 40 years, Jaitly has been in touch with the heart of craft and recorded its constant and sometimes changing beat. She has been guiding the craftspersons, helping them find viable markets and espousing their cause, all the while documenting their resplendent work through articles and books. Her three recent contributions are the slim book The Artistry of Handwork, the substantial Akshara: Crafting Indian Scripts (along with Subrata Bhowmick), and the massive Craft Atlas of India.

In her gentle, unruffled manner, Jaitly elaborates on her books and her lifelong engagement with a field that provides sustenance to such a large per cent of our population but does not get the attention it deserves.

“The Artistry of Handwork has photographs of familiar, simple and beautiful craft,” she explains. “We take too much for granted and don’t perceive what is around us. The book helps us notice, and feel happy about the simple beauty of craft. The book can be given as a gift — it is long lasting and much less expensive than flowers or a bottle of wine. It lifts our spirits — that is the strength and beauty of our crafts.”

Celebrating languages

The Akshara book that celebrates the letter, script and languages of our country features 150 exhibits. The Akshara exhibition went to Cairo last year. “But the project goes way beyond, to 2010 when we brought Akshara to Chennai. Egypt, India and China all have a tradition of scripts and we were proud to display our skills and our engagement with the word.” In Akshara, word and calligraphy have been transferred, in imaginative, aesthetic ways, on to cloth, stone, wood and an array of materials by craftsmen all over the country. It gives the often “unlettered” craftsmen a platform and instils a sense of pride and worth in them. A total of 58 craftsmen, 13 different languages and 21 craft skills have been showcased in the book. “The Indian Government sent the exhibition to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris last year and it was lauded by the organisation.”

To pore over the Craft Atlas is to travel through all the regions of the country and marvel at the multi-splendoured craft canvas that is part of our living heritage. Jaitly is thrilled that the Craft Atlas has been recommended by the prestigious magazine Choice in the U.S. to all colleges and institutions for their libraries. “It has been chosen this year by Choice for excellence in scholarship and presentation,” she adds. The craft maps of each State, creatively compiled by the samiti some years ago, have been very popular. “Putting it all together in the form of a book needed rewriting and it took two years to do this.”

Hat-trick

Topping the hat-trick will be a book by Jaitly on the Woven Treasures of Varanasi to be published by Niyogi (that has published the books on handwork as also the atlas). “Varanasi is a centre for spirituality. But it also has a great tradition in weaving which has been affected by Chinese silk imitations in the last few years,” says Jaitly. “Despite this, expensive brocade is still doing well and good contemporary work is also being done here.”

“There is a lot of innovation going on in craft,” she says happily. “In Uttarakhand, for instance, lovely stoles are being made from hemp since the past five years.”

“To work in the area of craft is satisfying,” she muses. “Ninety per cent of the workers come from the underprivileged section. Craft keeps them in touch with their tradition and provides them a livelihood.” But she is unhappy that the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) “is deskilling people in most parts of the country and has harmed the crafts sector.”

Does she feel the younger lot will carry on the baton of promoting crafts?

“Most of them are into ‘projects’ and ‘design workshops’. They want salaries like their friends in the corporate sector.” Many young designers are keyed into their computers and not into traditions, she feels. “That is why I end up doing so much designing myself. Being hands-on has given me the understanding to write the books. As for the samiti, I feel satisfied our work has spoken for itself. We have become self-sustaining. The Dilli Haat is flourishing. The haat idea has been introduced successfully in other cities too. In Chennai, I have been talking to various government officials about setting one up. In Karnataka, I have spoken about the idea of the haat to six chief ministers!”

As for the future of craft, she is full of hope and optimism. “Enterprising craftspersons are doing well. Crafts die but many also get a makeover. The Internet has helped craftspersons reach out and market their products worldwide.

But still the question lingers… “People are willing to spend so much in malls on other products (and they don’t bargain). Why not on crafts that help form our identity and culture?”

The Dastkari Haat has handmade creations of over 100 different craftsmen from across the country. The focus of the exhibition is on products that have strong contemporary design inputs.

The exhibition displays applications on metal, wood, clay, woven textiles and traditional art. Folk music and dance are also performed all the days. There are hand block-printed and embroidered textiles from Rajasthan, hand-woven textiles from Varanasi, terracotta from Kerala, leatherwork from West Bengal, Madhubani art, hand-painted and natural-dyed textiles in Kalamkari from Andhra Pradesh, Pattachitra from Orissa, painted wooden objects from Kashmir and plenty more to choose from.

Workshops

Creating wire toys, painting (Madhubani, Gond, Phad and pattachitra), and making thread jewellery.

Date: Till February 2

Time: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Venue: Kalakshetra, Thiruvanmiyur

Phone: 2452 0836