Monday, January 19, 2009

My Encounter with the Unsung Artisans - the Lifeline of the Indian Cultural Heritage.

This is another subject close to my heart. Therefore, I am penning down, rather blogging my thoughts.

It is said that 'the Ganga is the Lifeline of Indian Culture'. I do not dispute that. We also know about the current state that this great river is in. Rather forced to be in.

To my mind, the Artisans are 'the Lifeline of the Indian Cultural Heritage'. Not unlike the great Ganga, they too remain unsung and neglected. Sadly.

Across the country, artisans and craftsmen are leading lives under extreme poverty. This, despite the fact that their products sell nationally and internationally at inflated prices. Artisans work hard to keep alive our traditional art, handloom, handicrafts and other artifacts. These products are immensely popular due to their 'ethnic' touch and 'antique' look and feel. This explains the growth of an entire industry around them. But sadly, the artisans and craftsmen themselves are the last to benefit.

Infact, they are at the bottom of the handicrafts 'Food Chain' or maybe the 'Heritage Chain'.

The culprits are the 'middlemen'. These middlemen buy the products from the artisans at a minimal price and sell them to the buyers at exorbitant rates, thereby siphoning off all or most of the profits. A la 'Satyam' but with many more zeros added to the figure, perhaps! This 'channel' needs to go.

Unless and until craftwork provides sustainable benefit to artisans, it will be hard for them to carry forward their skills. These artisans and their skills are the custodian of the art, culture and heritage, in short, the rich cultural heritage of this great land, the future generations will have much to lose and will be much the 'poorer' culturally or heritagewise/heritagically. I am not sure if I have just coined these two words and have just contributed to the enrichment of the English language in my own humble way (unlike the current occupant of the highest office of the sole super-power!) But, I guess they clearly convey my point of view.

In India, the handicrafts sector is still the second largest provider of employment after agriculture, and a number of agricultural communities depend on crafts for their survival during times of drought, famine and other natural disasters. However, till date, there is no official figure of the number of people involved in the handloom and handicraft sector. Probably there is no 'concensus' over this 'census'! Even when we are stepping into the 63rd year of 'Independence'. Mind you.

In India, which has a rich cultural heritage, the arts and crafts of the land can contribute significantly towards the national economy and in raising the standard of living of a vast majority of its people. Truely, India would be shining then! However, that can happen only if the artisans are confident and self-reliant, and are given the chance to interact directly with the buyers of their products.

Is that asking for too much!? Perhaps. The slogan 'Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan!' is firmly in place even though the fate of both is uncertain. No 'Jai Karigar!' Legend has it that the craftsmen who built the Taj Mahal preserved their names in stone. These unknown masons never received publicity for their work. Perhaps it was the craftsmen's own attempt to preserve their memory down the centuries and defy the ravages of time.

Half a millennium later, the fate and circumstances of the craftsmen echo that of their ancestors. They still remain unsung. Whoever said 'Change is the only constant?'

I have been attending a few of the Handicrafts and Art and Artefacts exhibitions lately. About half a dozen in the last five months. Not too bad, even though I would like to be a more frequent visitor and am looking forward to the next exhibition. These exhibitions showcase craft items and artefacts from all over the country.

Let me share my thoughts and experiences.

Various kind of paintings were on display: The Tribal 'Gond' paintings from Madhya Pradesh, 'Madhubani' paintings from Bihar, Palm Leaf Engraving/Etching of Orissa, Pata Chitra/Icon Painting of Orissa, 'Kalamkari' hand paintings of Andhra Pradesh, Straw picture craft and many more. Madhubani painting comes from the villages of Madhubani and Mithila in Bihar. The main themes of Madhubani paintings contain images of deities such as Krishna, Ram, Shiva, Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. One can also find beautiful Madhubani paintings of sun, moon and tulsi or the sacred basil plant. Scenes of royal courts and social events such as celebration of wedding, etc., are also beautifully depicted in Madhubani paintings.

I came across a stall displaying 'Madhubani' paintings, but unlike the ones I have mentioned above. These depicted birds and fish in different backgrounds. The lady (from Bihar) who was at the stall was the painter herself and appreciated my curiosity. Infact, indulged it! I learnt that she was a state award winner for her art. The paintings were all made on hand-made paper and I was told that only hand-made paper is used for this type of paintings, else the colour will not catch on. The drawings are done with 'Kajal' or 'kohl' and then painted with herbal colours and vegetable dyes e.g., colours extracted from beans, milk of peepal and banyan leaves, turmeric, rice powder, kajal, etc., and retain their shine and texture for a very long time. I was fascinated!

I also spoke with the persons at the stalls selling the 'Madhubani' paintings, palm leaf engravings and pata chitra. Needless to say that they too were the painters and engravers themselves. And yes, they too indulged my inquisitive behaviour. I feel that these artisans, craftsmen and painters appreciate queries on their art - something that they create so painstakingly. It is not just the monetary consideration which inspires them to do and carry on doing what they do - but a genuine love for their craft. And a pride in their creation. All the artisans I met and spoke with have been in this trade for generations and even now their entire families are devoted to these crafts. I am now the proud owner of several 'Madhubani' paintings depicting tales from our great epics 'Ramayana' and 'Mahabharata', some on mythological stories, village life/scenes, life under kings rule and tribal life and customs.

Palm Leaf Engraving/Etching of Orissa: It is believed that the craft emerged during the construction of temples and converted into hereditary craft for some families. Well known tales from the epics and other mythological stories are etched on palm leaf. I own one such painting depicting Lord Vishnu's 'Dasavathara', and some depicting scenes from our epics and mythology. The artist even showed me how they drew on the palm leaf. Usually, a needle is used for the purpose, since there was no needle in sight (even though we were not on a haystack!) he used a sharp-nibbed pen for the same. Once the drawing is done, the palm leaf is soaked in water, for the black lines or the contours of the sketch/painting to come forth and be visible. Once this happens, the leaves are dried and then colour is applied. Here again, herbal colours are used. These palm leaf engravings are sold even without colour and are equally popular.

Patachitras are known for their bold lines and brilliant play of colors. It is a hereditary art practiced by the family of the painters usually living in the vicinities of the temples of Orissa. The preparation of Patachitra involves a double coarse white cloth pasted together with an adhesive made with tamarind seeds. The tamarind seed powder is soaked in water overnight and then boiled to provide it with a gummy consistency. Sometimes, the artists adds rice powder to the mixture to give a stiffer feel to the canvas. It is followed by a coat of tamarind paste, which is applied on both the sides of the cloth and the cloth is then left to dry. On the front side of the dried cloth, a coat of soap stone powder mixed with tamarind paste is applied. Finally, the canvas is burnished by rubbing coarse grain and polished stones. When the canvas is ready, the artist marks the border area and outlines the central composition. The central colors used in Patachitra are red, brick red, yellow, white and lamp black. These too depict scenes from the epics and mythological stories (Sita haran by Ravana, Kalia mardan by Lord Krishna, Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Shubhadra, to mention a few). Today, the fame of the 'Orissa Patachitras' for their brilliant colors and designs have spread all over the globe and they are considered as collector’s item. I did my bit too and quickly collected a few!

To quote Rabindranath Tagore, " In Art, man reveals himself and not his objects". How apt!

Even toys: Coir toys of Orissa - The local artists collect the fine and the rough coir from the coastal areas of Orissa for this craft. Sometimes the coir are coloured to make them attractive. I saw these toys in different shapes: elephant, rhino, cow, Lord ganesha, etc., and they are washable too. Apart from being durable. 'Channapatna toys' from Channapatna (a town near Mysore in Karnataka) are a particular form of wooden toys and dolls. As a result of the popularity of these toys, Channapatna is known as the 'toy-town' of Karnataka. Ivory-wood was the main wood used in the making of these toys, though rosewood and sandalwood were also occasionally used. The craft has diversified over time; in addition to the traditional ivory-wood, other woods -- including rubber, sycamore, cedar, pine and teak - are now used as well. Vegetable dyes are used in the colouring process to ensure that the toys and dolls are safe for use by children. These toys come in various shapes: ships, bullock carts, cannon, engine, different type of dolls representing rural life and what have you! A bullock cart caught my eye and promptly made it to my collection!

Cloth and wire dolls of Karnataka were on display too. These dolls convey the traditions of Karnataka and also some of the figures are that of Indian legends. Dolls are made in many different patterns, such as wire dolls, soft dolls, cone dolls and stuffed dolls. The artists first make the frame of these dolls by bending wires, then the figure is wrapped tightly with cloth and stitched into a 'skin' of brown poplin cloth. Designing and decoration is done once the 'main dress' is put on the 'skeleton'.

Dokra: Due to lack of patronage and modern design ideas this is a dying art. What a pity! I love Dokra. 'Dokra', or 'Dhokra', indicates a nomadic group of people scattered over West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The term, along with the people, are now famous all over the world for the beautiful handcrafted metalware that originated out of their traditional craftsmanship. It is a typical tribal art form and practiced by tribal families. 'Lost wax technique' (one of the oldest form of metal casting) is used to cast beautiful designs of lamps, bells, carts, tribal figures, Gods and Goddess, various symbols of tribal folklore, exquisite tribal jewelry, and many more. The motifs are mostly inspired by the folk culture. Dhokra is an alloy of nickel, brass and zinc. When mixed in the right proportion, it gives an antique look to the interiors of our homes. This 'lost wax' process or ‘Cire Perdue' is implemented to cast brass, bronze, or any of the noble metals. We also call it 'Chach'. A replica of the desired product is made with wax on a clay core with all its finer details of designs and decorations. A few coats of finely prepared clay paste is applied over the model and dried in the shade. Then the core of wax is removed and replaced with molten metal by the traditional hollow casting method. The craft of Dokra is unique in that no two Dokra products are similar.

The craftsmen have eventually left their nomadic character and settled down in some areas of Burdwan, Bankura and Midapur districts of West Bengal. I met one such craftsperson at one of these exhibitions. He belonged to the 'Santhal' tribe and had come all the way from the Midnapur district of West Bengal. We chatted in bengali and he was more than happy to converse in his mother tongue. I was surprised as he spoke in 'proper bengali', like we in the city do, minus the tribal or village touch to it. On being asked, he smiled and said that he had studied till the tenth standard, had been to various places all over the country, apart from travelling all over West Bengal and had interacted with many people. Hence these could have left their mark. But, his parents spoke in the tribal lingo and lived the typical 'santhal' tribal life, where they sang and danced in the evenings, his father (who had passed away recently, even wore his dhoti high above his knees). This artisan wore trousers and a full sleeve shirt. He said that he too lived the usual tribal life albeit with some changes. He explained to me the process of making 'Dokra' in detail. His entire family and relatives are dedicated to this craft and his father was the recipient of the National award four years ago. He too was trying his best to follow in his father's footsteps. He was proud of his father's award/achievement and showed me the award winning works. The skill and aesthetic sense of these simple tribal people, untrained in any formal institutions, bowled me over. The great poet Rabindranath Tagore had said, "The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence". To quote him again, "What is Art? It is the response of man's creative soul to the call of the Real".

A very enriching encounter for me, indeed!

I bought quite a few Dokras - a bell, jewellery, tribal figures, the famous 'Bankura Horses' and other show pieces. I was doubly pleased to get the famous 'Bankura Horses' in Dokra. They are now the symbol of Indian handicrafts and famous in their own right and they came to me in their dokra form. Three Cheers!

Other items on display: Clay, terracota and ceramic figures, colourful masks, bamboo and cane artefacts from the north-east, sea-shell artefacts, filigree work, wood carvings, brass items, glass and wrought iron figurines, wood and cane furniture, paper and papier mache articles, fibre glass figures. Colourful stone, wood, sea-shell and terracota jewellery, jewellery made from jute as well as the popular lacquer/lac, fibre glass and wooden jewellery from Rajasthan. I bought a clay vase, with tiny ceramic tiles on it; sea-shell artefacts, one depicting a fish jumping up from the sea and about to dive back in. A few wooden articles from Rajasthan, a wrought iron figure of a villager and some terracota items, like, Goddess Durga's face, the Sun God, Lord Ganesha on a peepal leaf and a wind chime. Apart from these, I also bought some colorful masks and bamboo and cane artefacts from the north eastern states of India. I now have a flower vase, two pen stands, a flute, two fruit trays and other show pieces, in their cane and bamboo avatar. A cane side table, a wooden side table with an antique look and a fibre glass figure of a Rajasthani type turbaned man with a luxuriant moustache and beard, beating on a drum became a part of my collection. I have named this turbaned drum beating figure, 'Hukum Singh'. My nephew, all of three years and finding this name quite a tongue twister calls him 'Dummu Tata'. 'Dummu' is this three year old's version of 'drum' and 'tata' is the common kannada word for 'grandfather'. Cute, isn't it?!

Reminds me of yet another quote of the great Tagore, "Don't limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time".

Amazing Leather crafts as well. Leather embroidered footwear, Kolhapuri Chappals/Sandals of Maharashtra, Leather Mojari/Footwear of Rajasthan, bags, purse, diary, folders, et al. Shanti Niketan leathercrafts was yet another attraction. 'Shanti Niketan', an 'Abode of Peace' was founded by Maharishi Debendra Nath Tagore, father of the Nobel Laureate, Kabiguru Rabindranath Tagore. Shanti Niketan is responsible for reviving many a craft forms and is the pioneer in making modern leather items which has a unique style of its own. Though most Shanti Niketan leather products include footwear and ladies hand bags, other items like ornaments, diary, folders, are also available in contemporary designs and colors. The style of the shanti niketan footwear is like the open sandals, but their modern footwear is beautifully colored with sophisticated designs. The designs made on products of Shanti Niketan leather have geometrical patterns or in batik. At times the designs are motivated from alpanas and embroideries.

Handloom: Different types of garments and other handloom products were on display. Pashmina shawls, Cashmere shawls, the red and black Naga shawls (each denoting the design of a specific tribe), colourful shoulder bags, dress materials (with 'bandhni' print among others), kurtas, colourful bedsheets with 'block print' on them, sarees of all types; silk sarees, printed sarees, zari sarees, batik sarees, bhandhej sarees, shanti niketan sarees and more.

I am not a 'connoisseur' of any kind of sarees. Hence, bought some bedspreads and a couple of colourful, hand woven, cloth jackets from the north east stalls.

Copper Coated Wind Chimes: The stall selling them had them in various shapes and sizes, e.g., the sun, in the shape of the sanskrit version of the word 'Aum', etc. Each wind bell had an antique finish. There were bamboo wind chimes too. I preferred the former and bought four of them. Simple and tasteful, these wind chimes add a lovely background sound/music to (where else?) my garden. My Terrace garden! Now, with just the slightest breeze, each of our wind chimes sing a beautiful song to us! One of them has taken pride of place right outside our main door.

Tribal artefacts from Uttaranchal: I was also intrigued by the stall selling tribal artefacts from Uttaranchal. Musical instruments used by various tribal groups in Uttaranchal were on display, apart from the wood and bamboo crafts. Bamboo wind chimes, wooden axe with patterns and drawings on them, wood and bamboo carvings, metalware, etc., were on display. The musical instruments are very unique: tambura, bansuri (flute), thali, drum, dhol, hurka, to name a few. The tribes here believe that these instruments increase their crop produce besides helping them in keeping wild beasts at bay.

There were other 'unique' crafts on display here, made out of the 'outer skin' of vegetables, like pumpkin and gourd. The outer skin of these vegetables are dried and treated to prevent decay. Thereafter, it is treated with fire or burnt. Finally, on this 'vegetable canvas' the artists draws or sculpts beautiful sceneries, depicting village life, scenes from everyday tribal life, tribal festivals and social events, etc. I bought one of these and have hung it up outside our window.
There was another bamboo item resembling a rectangular cylinder, a little over a foot long. Both ends of this 'instrument' were sealed. On being tilted to either side, one could hear a sound. The sound of rain! The gentle pitter patter of the rain drops! The light tapping sound of rain drops on a window, on dry ground, on tiles or on sheets. Fascinating!

I try not to miss these exhibitions. Handicrafts and tribal artefacts fascinate me. These exhibitions are like a one-stop shop to experience the rich cultural heritage of this land. By interacting with the craftsmen and artisans, one can learn so much, no book reading, visits to the library or classroom lecture could ever teach.

But, I am still looking for the terracotta version of the famous and popular 'Bankura horse'.

Photograph: Terracotta versions of the famous 'Bankura horse' from Bishnupur, district Bankura in West Bengal. The 'Bankura Horse' is also the logo of All India Handicrafts. It was the Kumbhokars or potters of Panchmura, 16 miles away from Bishnupur, who started to make the famous Bankura horses. On close observation, it is found that the Bankura horses have more erect neck and ears and look more dynamic. Their jaws are wider, their set of teeth can be seen, eyebrows are drawn and their forehead is decorated with Chandmala. These horses are of different sizes ranging from 6 inches to 4 feet. Biboda, Kamardiha, Bishnupur, Jaikrishnapur, Nakaijuri, Keyaboti are some of the places were terracota horses are made regularly. Besides terracota, these artistic horses have been cast in dokra and wood because of their growing demand.


  1. Yes, the artisans are fast losing out to the pressures of globalization. Some affluent countries however are preserving their wares and the skills of artesans to preserve their cultural heritage. The Ganga is the lifeline in case of the clay pottery because much of the terrific clay comes from the Ganges. But they are not of much use without their makers. Hope that changes. Here are two books on the Ganga.
    1. The Ganges in myth and history / Steven G. Darian
    2. The Hungry Tide / Amitav Ghosh

  2. I have a passion for handloom textiles myself. Mostly I wear only handlooms - preferably cotton. I've travelled all over India and have gained an understanding about Indian textiles. Just Andhra Pradesh alone has so many types of handlooms. All exquisite.

    The truth however, is that handloom weavers are living in poverty. I read some years back about some weaving families who died of starvation. The government does try to promote handlooms but these efforts are not market savvy - the way that some of these big brands are.

    But all is not lost. The idea of Gram Haat is catching up. Other cities are creating craft exhibitions along the lines of Dilli Haat. And you, dear blogger are also doing your share to raise awareness. Great job!

  3. @ Rajdeep: Very true. :(

    Let us hope that there are enough people like us... who love handicrafts. Amen!

  4. @ Deepa: Thanks! I have a passion for handicrafts... the age-old art and crafts of India. Glad to have found a kindred spirit :)

    I visit craft exhibitions... whenever I can. But my knowledge on them - these treasures of India - is still very little. I am still picking up pebbles and shells by the seashore... while the boundless ocean of India's art and culture lies undiscovered before me...

    You have a passion for handloom textiles and you've travelled all over India and gained an understanding about Indian textiles... Great!!!

    Why don't you blog about your travels and findings...?? I would love to read about it and so will many others, I am sure.