Even as we marked World Environment Day on June 5, India is no stranger to the ghastly effects of climate change. But a scarcely recognised form of damage to our degrading environment is the one that traditional Indian crafts are facing. Most Indian craft forms depend on natural resources to stay alive. This, in turn, affects the collective culture of its originating region.
This special relationship is being highlighted at an ongoing exhibition, Nature to Culture: Crafts of India ongoing at the Piramal Museum of Art. The exhibition brings to light endangered crafts from different parts of India and their interdependence with nature. For example, the rogan form of textile painting from Kutch, is known for interweaving bright colours and intricate designs. Artists (the Khatri family of Nirona being most renowned among them) traditionally used boiled castor oil as a solvent. Since the fumes from castor oil can turn toxic in the arid environment of Kutch, artists would travel to the closest forest to burn it, using the dense coverage of trees to absorb its toxic fumes. Unfortunately, owing to deforestation, rogan artists can no longer burn natural ingredients, and use artificial colours and solvents instead. This affects the longevity of their products.
The visual arts researchers behind this exhibition, Vaishnavi Ramanathan and Brijeshwari Gohil, spent a year traveling to various parts of India searching for crafts in need of a voice. Ramanathan says, “The deeper we dig through traditional handicrafts in this country, the more we [can] gauge the impact of our actions, not only on the ecology but also on its subsequent culture. Many of the craftsmen we met have given up their craft and are trying to pursue more monetarily beneficial professions. This is not only a result of the dying demand for handicraft products but also due to lack of natural resources.”
The coir handicrafts from Kerala on display at the exhibit are testimony to this. Woven using coir from coconut trees, this is one of the oldest craft forms of Kerala. However, industrialised mass production of coir mattresses using synthetic material, and the subsequent drop in coconut cultivation in the state have been huge setbacks for this craft form.
Finding traditional craftsmen was the greatest challenge Ramanathan and Gohil faced during their journeys. While in search of split-ply camel belt weavers of Rajasthan, the duo spent weeks trying to finding traditional craftspersons in Jaisalmer. According to Ramanathan, the unanimous sentiment noted by all the craftspersons they encountered was the revival of their respective crafts. In the face of impaired production and declining resources, craftsmen find this to be a near impossible task.
Not all is lost, however. The tech-savvy next generation of craftsmen are finding innovative ways to bring traditional crafts to the general market. Ramanathan elaborates, “A Cherial doll (traditional to Warangal, Telangana) craftsman’s son is using social media to research about adapting traditional crafts to urban markets. He has also been selling his products online. So, using technology in the right way can certainly aid in reviving these art forms.”
Apart from these, the exhibition also highlights the natural roots of crafts like Namda from Kashmir, Sitalpati mats from Assam and West Bengal, and Manjusha paintings from Bihar. Shedding light on what one can do to preserve dying art forms, Ramanathan says, “We can start by not bargaining from craftsmen. There are no middle-men. They earn what they create. Secondly, we need to raise as much awareness as possible about the intersectionality of ecology and culture. There’s a need to act in an ecologically conscious manner, even if it’s something as simple as refraining from using plastic or conserving water. The repercussions of damaging the environment eventually falls on the rich culture we are all striving hard to maintain.”
Nature to Culture: Crafts of India ongoing at Piramal Museum of Art, Lower Parel until August 27