Together by Design

Akshara project is a stunning reminder that Indian craftspeople are more than just custodians of traditions

01 February 2013
Satyanarayan Suthar from Chittorgarh works on a kavad: a mobile-painted wooden box with multiple facades.
COURTESY DASTKARI HAAT SAMITI
Satyanarayan Suthar from Chittorgarh works on a kavad: a mobile-painted wooden box with multiple facades.
COURTESY DASTKARI HAAT SAMITI

IN PARTS OF EASTERN BIHAR AND NEPAL that are associated with the birth of Sita, Ram is not considered a good husband. Folk songs from this region, which fell under the kingdom of Mithila, recount at length the grief of the common people at Sita’s mistreatment by Ram. The poignancy of this grief is also strikingly conveyed in ‘Sita Ki Kahani’, an embroidered wall hanging by Savitri Devi, a seasoned craftswoman from Bihar. In this 90 cm x 70 cm tapestry, text and images are used to create beautiful domestic snapshots of the life Sita could have had had she married a potter, a shepherd or a fisherman from Mithila. The scenes are laid out in picture-book style with the text running alongside illustrations. In each scene, Sita appears with a different husband, whose trade is clearly depicted. In one panel, she welcomes a fisherman husband returning home with nets slung over his shoulder; in another, she seems to exchange glances with a potter husband while playing with a baby in a field, from which a path winds up to a simple hut. There is palpable happiness in these scenes, which contrast sharply with two final panels that mourn Sita’s marriage to Ram. The text below the one showing a fancy royal marriage under a canopy says: “Raj Path Se Kichu Na Mel” (Royalty gave you nothing). The last panel shows her sitting alone by the river in the forest with Laxman turning away from her; the text says, “Sita Janam Viroge Gel” (Sita’s life was spent in waiting). Sita would have been showered with love by a commoner husband, who would have remained by her side forever, suggest these parallel narratives of the Ramayana.

Devi’s wall hanging is among the craftworks featured in Akshara: Crafting Indian Scripts, put together by Jaya Jaitly and Subrata Bhowmick, a book of such varied and emotive artistry that it is hard to believe it began as a catalogue for an exhibition. But the show itself, organised last September at Delhi’s India International Centre by the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a dynamic association of craftspeople, was less an exhibition than a pan-Indian crafts experiment.

Politician, activist and crafts expert Jaya Jaitly stands with maps showing various Indian crafts.. SIPRA DAS / THE INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES Politician, activist and crafts expert Jaya Jaitly stands with maps showing various Indian crafts.. SIPRA DAS / THE INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES
Politician, activist and crafts expert Jaya Jaitly stands with maps showing various Indian crafts.
SIPRA DAS / THE INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES

Devina Dutt is an arts writer, translator, editor and curator based in Mumbai. She is currently shooting a documentary film on the music and musicians of Dharwad.

Keywords: tradition rural India textiles Akshara project Jaya Jaitly Dastakari Haat Samiti Indian handicrafts craftspeople
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