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In search of a craft heart

An assorted group of craftspersons is being showcased in Shoppers' Stop as part of its promotion programme, Parikrama. But can such an effort, lacking in vision and quality control, bring the exquisite Indian crafts any honour?

A sculpture by on of the artisans

HIS WEATHER-WORN hands are swift and sure as they hold a piece of turned wood to the lathe. The machine grinds and whirrs, sending up a shower of wood shavings. The planes of the wooden block grow more rounded, a sharp nose at one end, as he sandpapers them smooth. Next, he picks up a stick of blue lacquer and holds it to the sharp point, which gradually assumes another hue as the heat of the machined wood melts the colour. The gentler outward curve below it takes on shades of red. A hairline circle appears on it as a sharp metal tool is held against it steadily. When it comes off the lathe, it's a neat wooden top. Typical of the lacquerware produced at Channapatna, en route from Bangalore to Mysore.

Even as M.A. Basheer works at the lathe, turning out colourful nodding dolls and kitchen sets, dolls-within-dolls and wood-handled skipping ropes of milkwood, the pride in his hands reflects the essence of century-old Indian crafts, honed to a smooth finish down generations. He's worked at this craft for over 35 years, most recently at the Regional Design Centre on Church Street. Proudly, State Award-winner Basheer - who has demonstrated his craft at Paris, Frankfurt, and Munich - picks out a stick of colour from his bulging plastic bag. It is made of concentrated turmeric. Another stems from pomegranate leaves. A third is derived from the chilli component in rasam powder. In keeping with our eco-friendly times, each is non-toxic and child-safe. But even as Basheer holds up the spinning top he has just created with a flourish, contradictions in his temporary situation come to the fore.

He is one of the craftspeople currently being showcased at the local Shoppers' Stop as part of its nine-store, all-India Parikrama promotion from August 9 to 25. As Basheer crafts his ware for interested lookers-on, a uniformed attendant from the swank store sweeps away the shavings of wood as quickly as they form. Are the dichotomies inherent in the urban attitudes to craft skills being swept away by the hasty strokes of the broom? Surrounded by toys from Funskool, Lego, and Fisher-Price, Basheer seems puzzled by his own presence amidst the glitzy ambience where established brands rule.

M.A. Basheer: Craft is his life.

A floor up the escalator, amidst big menswear labels such as Allen Solly and Park Avenue, another craft is revealed to the eye. This time, it's Pankaj Moghe from Nagpur. Around him are framed pictures, each a 3-D landscape. He points to one, revealing a river in spate rushing out of distant, cloud-kissed peaks, while trees and red-tiled houses line its banks, bare of human presence. What's special about his pictures? The fact that Moghe uses natural elements such as leaves and bark, dry grass and flowers, petals and stones, to give each visual a three-dimensional effect. The banks are moulded of clay, the rocky inclines of broken stone, each carefully placed on plywood mounts, on which the rest of the scene is painted.

The choices regulating their companions in craft at the exposition are puzzling. They include a batik artist who has replicated Ajanta frescoes rather crudely on cloth. And a mediocre Tanjore and glass painter, sternly guarding her renditions of Raja-Rani frames and a portly Ganesha, who has passed her skills onto students since 1990. And representatives of the Hot Rhythm studio at Bilekallahalli, seven graduates from Orissa's colleges of fine arts, who offer hand-moulded terracotta derivative of European art, metal-crafted dhokra-style figurines, even scenes from Indian myths painted onto foldable palm leaf scrolls."We can't make a living from being academic painters," explains Santosh Mahapatra, one of the seven-strong Hot Rhythm group. "We occasionally do murals for architects, or try and combine art and craft. Some of my unusual silk paintings have been displayed at the Right Lines Gallery in Indiranagar," adds his colleague, Sudhir. "This is our time for a struggle to survive."

What is the upshot of this art-craft-commerce interaction? A Shopper' Stop handout explains the 17-day exercise thus: "The design team has created exclusive merchandise taking inspiration from the five treasures of India." Thus, enhanced by occasional live performances by drummers from North Karnataka, folks dancers and workshops on Ayurveda, the lifestyle store presents short kurta outfits in summer hues like hot pinks and dazzling yellows, enhanced by a dappling of embroidery. Whether by labels such as Kashish or Urban Trio, or Satya Paul, the fabrics are decidedly ethnic, the mood contemporary urban. The signs that flutter around the store send out confused signals: "Tribal Art. For the civilized." or "Outdate your wardrobe. Age-old designs. For today's people." But will this attempt to link merchandising to crafting skills work, as it did in similar expositions at the store from 1997-99?

It might have, if the finest Indian workmanship was on display, not this eclectic mix of neither high art nor quality craft. Such a melange, lacking in vision and quality-control, does neither exquisite Indian crafts any honour, nor enhances the appeal of branded store merchandise. As we scan food mega marts that have opened small craft counters, as the exploitation of craft practitioners by middlemen continues countrywide, as the buyer-seller equations in rural India change dramatically with the vanishing barter system, we wish we could cross the art-craft divide and learn to honour qualitative merit in human terms. Perhaps by opening an all-India chain of high quality craft stores with the profits reaching the practitioners directly. Or would that be too Utopian a dream?


Photos: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

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