Fruits of fine craftsmanship

It is the earthy appeal of Chattisgarh handicrafts that make them stand out. — Photos: V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

"THE MAHUA tree is central to the adivasi culture of Chattisgarh. At our weddings, we take the soil from its base to cleanse the mantap. Do you know, even its flowers, when dry, taste as sweet as kismis or raisins?" asks Jaidev Baghel, one of the two State artists honoured with the Shilp Guru Samman this year, amidst the long-necked figures that have long been his hallmark. "Even when there are no rains, we can live off its fruits and survive. We make a sabji of the mahua fruit peel, while the fruit oozes a Vaseline-like substance that we use in winter. And, of course, the mahua rasa or juice is used at all our celebrations, whether birth, death, or weddings."

It is the mahua that Baghel celebrates in his magnificent dhokra or bell metal Tree of Life, over six-feet tall, at the ongoing Shabari exhibition of Chattisgarh crafts at Safina Plaza, which will go on till December 29. No wonder this soft-spoken, unassuming man in a khadi kurta has been recognised with the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya National Award in 2000, the Shikhar Samman Award in 1982 and the Master Craftsman National Award in 1977.

His rendition of the mahua, ringed with people in myriad postures at its base, breathes life into the metal through leaf, fruit and flower, even in the alloy of brass and bronze that he mastered under his father's tutelage. Baghel's sculpture, which makes an easy transition from craft to art, is exquisite enough to have recently been acquired by Infosys for Rs. 1 lakh.

Baghel, whose work has acquired an audience in Russia, Germany, the UK, Australia, the US, Japan, and other places abroad, has taken his sculptures, including a long-torsoed Mahadeva astride a celestial Shivanandi, from Kondagaon in Bastar to art galleries in New Delhi and Mumbai regularly since the early 1970s. And it is through his intercession that Mumbai-based artist Navjot came to collaborate with the adivasi sculptors of Kondagoan since 1998 in a celebrated project that blurs the artisan-artist divide.

Around Baghel, little stalls with bright red and green awnings adorned with tribal drawings in white, host bell metal traditional lamps with stylised figures, terracotta masks and animals, tribal jewellery, and unusual embroidery in earthy colours. What makes the craftsmanship of Chattisgarh stand out? Its homegrown, earthy appeal, above all - a far cry from sophisticated, but often crude, urban products.

Shy Phagni Urao, for instance, was trained to extend her cottage craft of embroidery on tussar to a wider market through the Marwahi Art Co-operative Society since August 2001. Like 10,000 other women practitioners, her family has for generations adorned themselves with old cloth brought alive with birds and beasts, people at work, fruits and foliage. Realised on saris and jackets, scarves and shawls, the craft has found a ready market in Patna, Delhi, and Raipur so far.

"Phagni is in Bangalore to gain some bazaar ka pehchaan," explains Gitanjali Patel of the Lokshakti NGO's initiative. "While working on women's empowerment projects, we found that forming self-help groups of people who could embroider boosted their self-esteem and earning power immediately, even during a drought." She adds that some of the beautiful saris on display have been executed by women serving terms at Raipur's central jail.

At an adjacent stall, National Award winner Ramlal Jhare, honoured for a wrought iron Ramayana panel, waits patiently behind a table laden with dhokra figurines done by the lost-wax process. Past tortoises and elephants, festively-embellished chakri jhoola or merry-go-rounds and lamps, our eyes come to rest on an unusual offering - a dinosaur, priced at Rs. 700.

Fruits of fine craftsmanship

Why a dinosaur, I ask Ramlal. Referring to his experiences at the Dilli Haat and the Surajkund Mela, he responds: "We want our products to sell. These dinosaurs do well in the market." Then, pointing to the three tiny human figures astride its back, he adds: "But they are trying to kill it."

To the urban mind, images of the Chattisgarh adivasis are inevitably adorned with heavy silver jewellery. "Without ornaments, they feel incomplete," says Suresh Jain, whose family has practised both the craft and the trade in Raipur for over 40 years. Lifting a heavy silver lachcha or knotted neck ring, he explains this essential sign of marriage (akin to a mangalsutra or sindoor), though the designed hoops vary from region to region.

His stall boasts of hair ornaments with raised patterns, often made in gold. And an ornate belt that's 60 years old, its links fastened by an elaborate clasp. Isn't it too heavy at 1.2 kg.? "The older belts often weighed 4 to 6 kg.," Suresh laughs, picking up a snake-like silver bajuband or armband.

What other innovations can Chattisgarhi craft offer to the Bangalore buyer?

At a stall hosted by Saathi, an NGO that has been working towards sustainable income generation for Bastar artisans since 1993, we come across hand-carved wooden combs in fibre baskets. That's when our minds fly to the ghotul among Bastar's Muria tribals, where youths woo their future brides with embellished combs. If she accepts his proposal, she adorns her hair with the comb. Isn't that more romantic than modern interludes with platinum and diamonds?

Across the room, Deonath of the Ghasiya folk demonstrates how fine-toothed his wooden combs, embellished with red and black thread, are. "We work with the trees," he explains. "If you use our combs every day your hair won't turn grey easily, and you'll have no lice." Then, he adds as an afterthought: "Plastic combs draw blood out of your roots; that's why premature greying sets in."

Like Baghel, whose folk wisdom is matched by his fine art, Shabari - hosted by the task force on the Promotion of Rural Industries in Chattisgarh and the Chattisgarh Tourism Board - brought fine fruit to our urban tables.

But will our jaded urban palates appreciate the sweetness of the gift?