Crafting traditions for posterity

Kalamkari techniques involve a complicated process of drawing and dyeing in Andhra Pradesh. It uses both text and illustrations to tell mythological tales.  

Should India's traditional handcrafters occupy an elevated space in people's minds or should they remain on the pavements, bazaars, haats, and perhaps marginally in malls, to be looked at as poor street cousins of India's other cultural practitioners? Sixty years after three important Akademis were set up to promote cultural arts that come under the heading of dance, music, drama, literature and the fine arts, it may be time to take note of the huge reservoir of cultural heritage passing from generation to generation through the hands of craftspeople towards establishing a body that nurtures this heritage and builds respect beyond “marketing products” or subsidising “welfare”. A Hast Kala Akademi could be created as a more compact, private-public autonomous institution promoting all non-commercial explorations of the craft sector, while indirectly benefiting its economic prospects as well.

Crafts practitioners are repositories and propagators of India's folk and classical wisdoms, creativity, techniques, skills, and mythologies. They belong overwhelmingly to those social categories for which reservation is sought as a tool for empowerment. There are additional ways to offer them dignity and respect across the world apart from quotas and reservations. We can raise the stature and self-worth of these very people by providing institutions and platforms that go beyond a noblesse oblige style of patronage and a handful of departmental schemes that merely assist them in producing and selling better products in India and abroad. When the window through which we look at them is small, they will remain diminished when compared to other sections of society within the creative community. When they look helpless and unworthy of respect within our social and cultural parameters, they have to suffer customers who are happy to buy a foreign branded lipstick worth Rs. 900 in a mall without a murmur but who bargain with them to reduce the price of a Rs. 200 hand woven or hand-embroidered stole at Dilli Haat. Money is important, but money without dignity and respect leaves the soul impoverished.

Working groups and sub-groups on handicrafts and handlooms have spent many hours examining schemes in the Ministry of Textiles, and proposing new ones for the 12th Five Year Plan. The focus was on exports in the 11th Plan, with the Planning Commission having cut down a number of schemes to make corporate style assessment procedures easier for bureaucracy. Unfortunately, exports have been hit by recession abroad. New policies have now to be devised to include the burgeoning domestic market that has many foreign products on offer in competition. The decentralised, unorganised sector, in which a single family or a few dozen people may be carrying on a fascinating and rare tradition of crafts work, does not fit into a catch-all approach of cluster development and rigid outlays for administrative convenience. This time a wider consultative approach brought in many experienced activists, state organisations and thinking heads to contribute ideas for this sector: advocacy, marketing, design, promotion, entrepreneurship, brand building, education, health, and so on were all examined from the prism of existing schemes and suggestions invited for their improvement.

However, a cursory glance of all the subjects shows they actually come under two overall heads — marketing and welfare. The end result of the exercise, while useful and positive was still an exercise in tinkering with the existing situation rather than thinking bold and big.

Clear overlap

Since Independence, government agencies handling craftspeople and their work have been divided between the khadi/gramodyog department and various ministries such as Industry, Rural Development, and Textiles. Sometimes programmes are duplicated, some slip between the floorboards altogether,or crafts interests are crushed under the weight of bigger interests within the same ministry. These divisions have left crafts floundering in the cultural field since no ministry deals with such aspects other than the Ministry of Culture. A composite appreciation of the cultural world from which crafts emerge and a forum for their sustenance and propagation cannot come if crafts are considered merely a cottage industry, manufacturing merchandise that needs subsidies forever.

Although marketing is crucial for craftspeople, since their interests are mainly economic, a large number are greatly proud and conscious of their cultural heritage. They demonstrate an intimate knowledge of the cultural ethos of the region to which they belong. This involves history, ethnography, myth, legend, identities and meanings, which are in many cases on the fingertips of senior craftspeople as they have been inspired for generations from these wellsprings. Women and tribal groups among the more marginalised still live with strong cultural moorings even if they cannot express them articulately in “educated” ways. These important areas of cultural knowledge within the creative sector would be lost if we address only their economic concerns. Even buyers of handicrafts abroad these days ask for a “story” to add value to the product they buy in India to sell in their highly industrialised societies where cultural identities are issues largely concerning immigrant communities.

A Hast Kala Akademi could support many exciting activities like a) resurrecting dying crafts, b) encouraging skills that could come under UNESCO's list of intangible heritage, c) encouraging research into processes, skills and traditional technologies, d) commissioning studies linking objects to rituals, myths, legends, festivals and ceremonies, e) commissioning academic and informative publications to include documentation of rare crafts including region-wise processes of natural dyeing, f) commissioning documentaries of craftspeople in their own cultural habitat and, g) organising high quality exhibitions in museums of art and ethnology in India and around the world, demonstrating the relationship between India's crafts and its performing arts and classical literature. There are endless creative possibilities that will energise this sector and are quite apart from what any museum can do.

While it is important to compile India's major cultural heritage and creativity related to the arts, there is no august body of this kind set up for crafts. This is despite the fact that this area comprises a wider range of creativity emerging from our traditional cultures than those “fine arts” promoted under the Lalit Kala Akademi. It should be possible for the Government of India to set up a body constituted on the same — or even slightly altered lines — as the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Sahitya Akademi and Lalit Kala Akademi to bring crafts onto a higher platform. If there were a Hast Kala Akademi it would add just that missing component that leaves crafts behind in national and international minds.

The Lalit Kala Akademi was established at New Delhi in 1954 by the Government of India to promote and propagate understanding of Indian art, both within and outside the country. And at the inauguration of the Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1953, Maulana Azad said, “India's precious heritage of music, drama and dance is one which we must cherish and develop. We must do so not only for our own sake but also as our contribution to the cultural heritage of mankind. Nowhere is it truer than in the field of art that to sustain means to create. Traditions cannot be preserved but can only be created afresh. It will be the aim of this Akademi to preserve our traditions by offering them an institutional form...”. The Akademis honour all who have contributed in their fields.

The nation gives many awards that are officially listed, from international ones like the Gandhi Peace Prize to national ones like the Padma awards. There are civilian awards in the field of science, the arts and sports, apart from war and peacetime awards for the military. Even the Rajya Sabha has people from the art and film industry but no one to represent craft voices. The official list of awards does not even mention the national craftspersons' awards perhaps because, in handicrafts and handlooms, the national award is only for a particular piece of work submitted by a craftsperson and not for lifetime achievement. Some individual pieces of work are now presented through less than fair means.

No awards

There are no awards for lifetime achievements for consistent high quality or regular innovation, or awards for dedicated individuals who worked hard to propagate processes such as in natural dyes like a Toofan Rafai of Gujarat or a K. Chandramouli of Karnataka, even though they were not crafts persons themselves. Scholars of crafts traditions have written excellent books but only when interested publishers have taken the initiative. Others have dedicated their lives to ensuring that crafts skills in India do not die as they have elsewhere in the world. The lack of recognition or reward for their work de-motivates the younger generation who then concentrate on monetary benefits alone.

However, by now establishing a Hast Kala Akademi for India's craft traditions to raise their stature and bring them on a par with other cultural fields, we should make up for lost opportunities. If the Ministry of Textiles and the Planning Commission, apart from all those concerned with the development and dignity of handwork, saw this to fruition, it would be a major contribution to the 12th Five Year Plan and an appropriate way of honouring crafts persons.

The writer is founder and president of Dastkari Haat Samiti.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 4:22:53 AM |

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