Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CRAFT: March 21, 1999
If the delicate Dhokraware figurine from Orissa bears a striking resemblance to Mohenjodaro's urbane dancing girl or the Arthashastra's description of a master craftsperson's atelier appears strikingly modern, it is because of the thread of continuity which binds Indian craft processes and objects to their beginnings, giving them that incredibly timeless flavour. Yet the face of Indian craft has been, through the ages, in a state of constant creative evolution, absorbing the art, design motifs, skills and textures of the various cultural streams which entered India to make up her fascinating mosaic. Despite "shastric" precepts, shilpashastra laws and those of the medieval "sreni" or guilds, the country's art and crafts - the line of distinction was much less formal in the past - remained eclectic, selectively assimilating influences ranging from Greco Roman to Assyrian, Persian, Arabic, Chinese and modern-western. As Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, doyenne of post-independence craft revival put it: "Out of a million coloured strands of diverse art traditions.... was forged a rich craft heritage".
Largely hereditary artisanal groups, later structured into "Jaatis" of goldsmiths, potters etc - carried forward and created these evolving craft expressions individually, in ateliers or karkhanas for the functional ritualistic decorative needs of both commoner and the rich "Jajmans" in ancient and medieval Indian society. In a sense the Mughal karkhana was perhaps the country's first modern studio-cum-atelier where a new philosophy of Persian art and craft skills was taught, gradually melding with, and shaping, the Indian craft ethos, to usher in one of the brilliant flowering of arts and crafts history has ever seen....
The fabled tapestry of India's hoary crafts - from sublime stone sculpture to the finest of muslins and silks, exquisitely carved ivory and marble, wonderously crafted jewellery, ritual and functional vessels and much else - suffered its first stinging blow with the coming of the industrial revolution. In the 17th century, writer-jeweller Tavernier wrote glowingly of India's fabled craft and Pyland de Leval referred to the "adroitly wonderous manufacturers of Inde". By the 19th century, Indian textiles had given way to machine made cloth, and factory made goods had pushed craft to near oblivion.
Independence saw a resurgence of pride. The setting up of the Khadi Board and the All India Handicrafts Board were landmark steps in craft development, quality control and marketing, along with the government's concerted efforts in the years that followed, to help craft and craftsperson through training schemes, opening of government emporia, the setting up of design development and tools and technology upgradation centres, marketing through government sponsored fairs, exhibitions and exposé.
Simultaneously, the entry of non-governmental agencies, as well as individual artists, designers, fashion and style gurus, architects and product designers has played a vital role in setting new directions for craft growth and development as well as created new palettes and textures of craft expression.
Defining these dynamics of change in craft expression and form are the atelier, unit and studio which have begun increasingly to chart the course of contemporary crafts. Skilled design intervention by leading designers whether in the individual or unit setting includes crafts such as brassware, textiles, dhurries, copperware, Nirmal and bidriware, basketry, ceramics and stoneware. Units generally address themselves to the revival of dying crafts, design intervention and product development to integrate traditional craft skills into the contem- porary milieu with an eye on market demands, as well as the marketing of crafts both in India and abroad.
Gurcharan Singh's Delhi blue pottery revival studio was the first of the ateliers of its kind, followed by block-printing textile units, marble inlay units in Agra and Jaipur, marble sculpture and brass units, Central and State Government emporia units in most crafts, Kantha, Zardozi and Ari embroidery units etc. Craft processes and forms practised in such units and ateliers are traditional - the design inputs by leading designers could be anything from the current flavour of ethnic-chic to thoroughly modern garden benches, to European Ari embroidered fleur de lise for a purely Western market. Product development to keep pace with emerging lifestyle demands has been an important by-blow of unit crafts. It has also been instrumental in the revival and successful marketing of many crafts. The unit-atelier movement has been greatly fuelled by the steady migration of skilled "Paramparic" craftsmen to urban centres for job opportunities.
Studio craft, a highly individualistic idiom of craft expression in which the artiste adapts the discipline of his art form using traditional craft skills, as also more skilful techniques, is fast gaining ground. In studio craft, concept mingles with a high degree of craftsmanship to create functional objects which have their own artistic vitality, shape and movement. Ceramics, pottery, textiles and furniture have moved effortlessly into the more controlled and high-tech environment of the studio becoming skills "to get the artistic message across." Stone sculpture, though formally designated as a pure "art" form could also be called studio craft since institutes like the Mahabalipuram School of Art and Architecture impart cohesive training in both the disciplines of art and traditional stone sculpture and carving. Many students of the school have set up individual studios, creating say, modernistic Ganeshas, or a Nandi which is more form than conventional detail.
But it is in pottery that a juxtaposing of techniques, firing methods and artistic expression have spearheaded a vibrant studio craft movement straddling art and function. Foremost in the ceramic studio pottery field are Ruby Jhunhunwala, Ira Choudhury, Lena Batra and Madhavi Subramanian. Ceramic and pottery studios in the metros turn out a fantastic range of terracotta and ceramicware running the gamut through artefacts, sculpture, garden and indoor forms, coffee mugs and tea pots, urns and much else.
Textiles and fabrics too, make interesting studio idiom expressions with weaves melding with art to create pictures and tapestries. Ahmedabad's Rajan with his compelling woven Krishna and cow tapestries using weaving techniques and Nita Thakore's abstract art woven pictures are a case in point. Sisir Sahara's glass sculpture pieces using craft skills are again fascinating examples of studio craft as are the works of Vasudev, Senadapathi and others which assimilate craft skills like copper tooling etc., to create a new craft idiom. A host of other artists and muralists too work skills like copper wiring, aluminium and metal work into their art expressions.
Furniture is yet another craft where architects, artists and designers forge new forms and interpretations of the past - from traditional to period, futuristic and post-modern - juxtaposing in the process laminated and lacquered wood, painted steel and annodised aluminium. This is exciting studio craft, which as Kirk Kauffman, American studio furniture maker, says really "redefines the object for the future...."
Do new trends such as studio craft and unit-atelier craft really redefine the face of Indian craft as it goes into the streets of the future? Many, like eminent potter Glenn C. Nelson find the eclectic style of studio craft regrettable and a negation of the unique growth of regional craft streams. And to Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay, the "alien" concepts of designer intervention worked against the "natural" response of the craftsperson "causing confusion in the unconscious background which is the source of the creative process." However, to many others, studio and unit based crafts are merely reflective of yet another stage of progression in the long, evolving journey of India's hoary craft traditions, taking us to the threshold of a whole new craft dialect within the larger language of the ever assimilating Indian craft ethos.
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