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STYLE 'N' substance

Pick up earrings and anklets at throwaway prices at the ongoing Gram Shree Mela, even as you learn a thing or two about the rich craft traditions of rural India. ADITI DE checks out the fair.

You don't have to pay designer prices to pick up what you like at melas like these. — Photos: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

"LOOK at our bead anklets," says Nirmala of Ahmedabad's Rural Development Foundation, holding up a pair in white, patterned with red and blue, edged with tinkling silver bells. "This is one of our `out' items, only exhibited at fairs. College girls outside Gujarat love them because they're so different. But in our State, girls wear only silver anklets."

Right on cue, local collegian Vatsala, 19, buys the Rs. 110 anklets in bright yellow to match her yellow salwar-kurta. "That's what I like about melas like this. We can become stylish without paying designer prices!" she says.

Nirmala is one of over 100 artisans participating at the Gram Shree Mela 2003 and National Folk Arts Festival, on the Government Arts College premises (till October 12). Drawing her pallu over the head, she shyly points to her other innovative beadware, typical of Surat and Rajkot: fringed belts embellished with cowries, with a tasselled head ornament and bracelet to match, white metal jhumkas and pendants that can be strung onto black cord in minutes, and dangling earrings at throwaway prices.

The event is organised by the Council for Advancement of Peoples' Action for Rural Technology (CAPART), South Zone Cultural Centre, Thanjavur, and the Department of Kannada and Culture. Its thrust is "to provide an opportunity to rural craftspersons to sell their products in urban markets... to understand their taste, preference and choice to upgrade their marketing skills," according to a press release.

The resultant upgrade is evident at a stall manned by Bhimo Sarma of an Imphal co-operative. The eye, immune to jackets with tribal patterns and heavy woollen shawls from the tiny state, suddenly spots a violet cotton sari, resplendent with peacocks and blooms on the pallu, at Rs. 800.

What triggered this change? Somo, an exhibition co-ordinator at another Manipuri stall, explains: "We have over 20 tribes in our state. Rural women weave these shawls in their spare time after domestic chores. Each tribe has its distinct set of motifs and colours. Only a Naga will weave these spear motifs." Shawls and beadwork are distinctive among grassroots products that crowd the fairground. Unlike more sophisticated crafts bazaars, this mela is marked by its affordable stocks. Such as Kerala-style mural paintings on paper, executed with botanical colours and arrow-grass brushes, papier-mâché Ganeshas and Kathakali masks by L. Krishnamurthi from Pondicherry, Natarajas fashioned at the bronze-casting heartland of Swamimalai, and single-flower stands and magazine-holders of cane and bamboo from Jorabari in Assam.

While visitors are entertained by folk troupes from Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Orissa, Pondicherry, and Goa every evening, the mainstay of the fair remains the crafts. The Sahitya Akademi and National Book Trust offer books at subsidised prices as you wander past pearls from Hyderabad, sungadi saris from Madurai, fine-painted palm leaf pattachitra from Orissa's Raghurajpur crafts village, string puppets in gorgeous outfits from Ahmedabad, caparisoned elephants and languishing nayikas painted on cloth at Udaipur's Shilpgram, and jowar rotti-chutney pudi from Davangere's Deepa Home Industries. It's the homey touch that distinguishes tooled leather bags at Rs. 275 from Nagpur and necklaces strung at Gwalior from Jaipur-bought stones.

Among the stalls, the tanka-worked kurtas and bedspreads brimming with appliqué from Udaipur's Sadhna Seva Mandir stand out, as much for their impeccable finish as for their reasonable prices. Spokesperson Jitendra Agarwal, who gestures towards patchwork backpacks, silk stoles, and light quilts or gudari, explains that each is done by a rural or tribal woman to augment her income. Begun with 15 women in 1988, today the group numbers 200, rendering motifs that yoke together folk symbols with mandala or rangoli patterns.

The Gram Shree Mela offers urban teenagers like Anwar and Vasu a chance to mingle with skilled craftspeople such as rug-maker Sheikh Chand Pasha from Latur in Maharashtra and Devendra Kumar Jha, whose family lives by Mithila paintings. "It opened my eyes to talk to the artisans," comments Vasu. "Besides, I could buy a gift for my mother."

Despite its slow take-off, the fair's common ground for rural-urban dialogue is valuable in our era of globalisation.

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