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A rain of colours in crafts

The Dastakari Haat, which is on in Bangalore till June 9, presents a pan-Indian landscape of crafts. Just as one admires and appreciates the ingenuity of these nameless craftsmen, it is also perhaps time to ask oneself a whole lot of questions about the survival of these traditional skills.

Colourful jute artefacts at the Dastakari Haat Samiti.

OUR HOUSE, our work shed, everything collapsed during the earthquake in January 2001," recalls National Award winner Khatri Abdul Shakur Osman, surrounded by rainbow-hued dupattas, kurta lengths, and other bandhni creations during the ongoing Dastkari Haat at Basava Bhavan.

"Some officials came to survey the damage. But nothing has been repaired in Bhuj, Kutch. We've just shifted to Mandvi and started all over again."

Osman is one of dozens of craftspersons who have brought their ware — extiles and embroidered garments, pottery and copperware, exquisite saris, and miniature paintings to town from Kutch, Cuttack, Shanti Niketan, Kota, Delhi, and Lucknow. They present a pan-Indian panorama of handcrafted creativity. As one who has demonstrated Kutchi bandhej in Chile, in Brazil, even in Paris on behalf of the All-India Handicrafts Board, Osman holds out the five long nails on his hands, signs of the traditional practitioner. Reflecting on the Japanese Shibori tie-and-dye, which he gauged while participating in the 1997 International Shibori Symposium at the National Institute of Design (NID), he says: "The Japanese thought our craft was magic. While they practise Shibori with a needle, our only tools are our hands."

How does the Dastkari Haat Samiti, the brain behind the successful Dilli Haat, facilitate craft marketing? "The Samiti sees itself as a federation of craftspeople, more on the lines of a trade union rather than a non-governmental organisation... It attempts to link these unorganised workers with the organised workers in trade unions by promoting the use of craft objects and textiles for uniforms, office accessories, and corporate gifts," according to a press release signed by its President, Jaya Jaitley.

Do these words impact the lives of over 69 lakh Indian craftspeople? Jagabandhu Somarath, a weaver from Orissa's adivasi Koraput district, says: "Everyone of the Panda jaat in Koraput does this weaving. We never use chemical dyes. Our reds are from the roots of the aal tree. And our patterns have been handed down to us - diamonds, cat's paws, crabs, fish, butterflies... " As Somarath holds up an exquisite sari dyed in dusky pomegranate red, its borders earth brown and rich with abstract fish and butterfly motifs, he adds: "In Koraput, we adivasis are poor people. We till our fields seasonally and weave our cloth to earn about Rs. 500 to Rs. 600 each week."

Their best markets? At rural bazaars and in the adivasi belt of Chattisgarh. Each earth-hued sari woven by Somarath and his brethren, sells for between Rs. 550 to Rs. 3,000, the latter taking up to 25 days at the loom. Do the weavers of Koraput wear their own produce with pride, unlike the polycot inroads into the skeins of wefted life elsewhere? "These weaves have come down to us for generations. Yeh hamare baap-dada ke din se aa rahen hai," Somarath explains. "If we don't wear our own cloth, who else will?"

Leather chic: The lovely Kolhapuris.

Mesharam Karela of the Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti (UMBVS), formed in 1991, which brought together 170 families of traditional weavers in Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, offers a change of shade.

They produce and sell nearly Rs. 45 lakh worth of garments and soft furnishings each year — and share the profits. Products of the Urmul cooperative have studded urban homes in Bangalore for the past 10 years — throw rugs and bolster covers, kurtas and toilet cases, all in the vibrant hues of Rajasthan.

Mesharam, who's been with UMBVS for the past six years, says: "Originally, we used to weave only throw rugs. But as we travel, we come up with new products for the urban market... One designer from NID helped us out when the colours of our original products ran." Each of the Urmul homes boasts of a pit loom, the core of the earning cycle. Mesharam's father was a weaver, while his mother spun thread. "Weaving has to do with both time and speed," Mesharam points out. "A quick weaver can earn up to Rs. 4,000 a month. Most of us earn at least Rs. 1,500, even the womenfolk and the dalits." Mesharam acknowledges a debt to the late Sanjoy Ghosh, who founded Urmul, and Laila Tyabji of Dastakar Delhi, who has helped the weavers to evolve new colours, novel designs.

How do rural updates keep pace with the fickle urban market? "Designers from NID help us to choose two or three patterns for the market out of every 10 we come up with," he says. "Weaving earns us enough for our roji roti. In addition, we reap a single annual crop of bajra, jowar, moth, watermelons, and cucumbers, which is enough for us and our cattle."

Surrounded by stalls displaying paintings on old Rajasthani title deeds, beadwork from Rajkot via Delhi, dhokra figurines from Orissa, and delicate chikankari from Lucknow, Rajaram Shankar Satpute from Bahreshwar in Maharashtra displays his range of Kolhapuri footwear. One of the 50 families in his village engaged in the craft, he narrates: "All six men in our family make chappals from untreated leather that comes in from outside Kolhapur. In a good month, we earn about Rs. 1,000 to 2,000. But we can only work for six months of the year. It is impossible during the monsoons." Is chappal-making a male preserve? "No, no, our women do the stitching, the braiding of the toe straps," Rajaram says. And what of profit margins?

Each pair of Kolhapuris priced at a mere Rs.160 costs at least Rs. 100 to make, he points out. As Osman and Mesharam, Somarath, and Rajaram share their generations-old skills with Bangalore, a slew of unasked questions tremble over the Dastkari Haat.

Will their children tread in their footsteps willingly? Will urban demands distort traditional products beyond recognition on home ground? Would education help rural craftspeople to meet their urban counterparts on a more even footing? Isn't it time we listened to untold stories with every craft we buy?


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