Together by Design

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

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

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

The Akshara experiment, carried out over five years, brought together 58 artists in crafts, textiles and traditional paintings on a journey of discovery into the world of letters, scripts and calligraphy, and texts. Guided by politician, social activist and crafts expert Jaitly, who founded and has been the president of Dastkari Haat Samiti since 1986, the idea at the heart of the project was to combine two of our finest, and most neglected, cultural properties: the wealth of Indian crafts and our unparalleled linguistic diversity.

The project had a long germination. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006, where India was the Guest of Honour country, Jaitly was asked to take an exhibition of 24 maps she had created to represent India’s culture of handcrafting, along with a showcase of India’s old manuscripts belonging to the Ministry of Human Resources Development. In addition to mounting her large, colourful maps, which introduced selected artefacts and craftspeople from regions across India, she decided to create graphics in the respective scripts over parts of the illustrations in order to blend the concept with the book fair. The result was striking.

Jaitly had worked on craft maps of India over a period of 14 years, an initiative that led her to work with artists, graphic designers, researchers and typesetters and which had become part of the Indian Crafts Journey Exhibition that went to London, Frankfurt, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Delhi, culminating in the publication of her Crafts Atlas of India last year. Aside from these events, the idea of Akshara was also a response from Jaitly to the constant laments she heard from very gifted craftspersons about a sense of inadequacy arising from their illiteracy. “The idea of Akshara began with the knowledge that craftspeople are not widely literate, and feel a lack of self-worth when the world around them is going the English-speaking and computer way. Also, we have a great civilisational history involving scripts. We have 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects. However, we do not do much to respect and preserve them as an important part of our culture,” Jaitly told me.

After the Frankfurt event, Jaitly wrote a concept note for a project combining crafts and texts and sent it to a number of corporate bodies. The note went unanswered for a year, so she decided to begin the process on her own. Over the next year, a trial exhibition was held with 20 craftspersons as part of Dastkari Haat’s crafts bazaar in 2009–2010 at the Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai. The essential curatorial brief to all the craftspersons was to approach their script with the eye of an artist, and writing as a measure of intellectual evolution. The responses ranged from tentative to stunningly direct.  Some created shawls, stoles and sarees with stylised letters adapted as design motifs, while others redesigned objects as familiar as a household lamp but slipped a layer of words and meanings into the regular work. The final pieces incorporated 21 different handicraft skills and scripts in 14 languages, covering 16 states of India. While some worked with guides, others were able to strike out on their own immediately.

The treatment of the language scripts and texts as design elements allows for new and productive ways of seeing and understanding the changing contexts within which craftspeople operate today. This also gives numerous “unlettered” craftspeople a way of establishing their presence in the rapidly urbanising new India. For one, the book shows that Indian craftspeople imbued with a strong sense of their place in a traditional continuum are infinitely more than just the faithful custodians of traditions. It also draws our attention to the great need for “saaksharta” or literacy, a huge and persistent missing link in India’s development story, a need more persuasively expressed because it takes place outside the political and policy planning arena. For it is in spaces such as the one occupied by the crafts that echoes of forgotten ideas like Gandhi’s “Nai Taleem” and socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia’s views on a more rooted education system and linguistic policy can be found—though the nation’s self-image today is openly antagonistic to such cultural values. Akshara can be viewed in this context as a reminder of the opportunity to make the transition from a feudal system, founded on social exclusion, to a more modern but also a more mature, compassionate society.

THE AKSHARA BOOK, which contains more than a hundred beautifully produced photographs of 24 craft-and-text projects, begins with two essays by Jaitly and Bhowmick. The first essay, “Inspiration for Crafting Indian Scripts”, presents a brief overview of the significance of books and manuscripts in various cultures before expanding on UNESCO’s efforts to preserve languages that express the total “pool of ideas” gathered over time. It also mentions the Art of Writing exhibition consisting of 50 panels mounted by UNESCO in 1965, which recognised the histories of language and script and the origin of art forms associated with writing.

An extract describes the meeting of crafts and calligraphy: “An artist-craftsperson and calligrapher are two sides of the same coin. They share the need to express themselves through ornamentation of their world.”

The second essay is titled “Brief history of Indian Scripts” and includes visuals of old artefacts such as traditional accounts books, janampatris, Tibetan prayer stone plaques, Malayalam palm leaf manuscripts, dastavej or archival documents on cloth scrolls in the Devnagari script, copper-plaque etchings of the nakshatras from Rajasthan, a pati-lacquered wood with Jain Nagri alphabets, a dastarkhan printed in Persian with luminous lines like “Yeh dastarkhan pe nehamat hai, kya dost to kya dushman” (His merciful treasure is laid out on the dastarkhan, then who is a friend and who is an enemy), Mal Boosul Afiyat (cloth of peace) woven in Arabic letters, ewers and handis with Arabic calligraphy from Kashmir and Gutka manuscripts in Sanskrit. These visuals provide a sense of cultural significance of the ways in which texts and crafts have enriched each other in a civilisation that has absorbed new influences into its style philosophy at every turn of history.

A practice sample from the calligraphy workshop organised for the Akshara contributors to prepare them for the final project. COURTESY DASTKARI HAAT SAMITI

The exhibit section of the book is divided into five subsections showing the crafts of east, west, central, north and south India created for the Akshara project. The book ends with a chapter titled “Calligraphy for Open Spaces”, a collection of wall writings, old film posters, advertisements and even funny messages on vehicles—all aligned with the theme of contemporary use of artistic handwritten scripts.

The sections on individual craftspersons in the book describe the traditions, techniques and processes followed by master craftspersons as they extend their creative frameworks for the Akshara project. Their products show humour, reflective irony, aesthetic exploration and political comment, achieved in often highly contemporary and individualised ways. These are attributes that craftspersons are presumed to lack when compared with modern and contemporary artists, especially those who have had the privilege of an arts education.

One of the most telling stories in the book is of women weavers from Assam, a state which has the largest number of home-based looms in the country, who chose to experiment with the typical red and white scarf or gamcha, which is used to welcome guests; typically, the host will offer it like a garland, draping it over the neck or over the folded hands of the guest. The idea is that the person’s visit is such an honour to the host that he or she has made the effort to weave something especially for them. For the Akshara project, the women invoked a specific offshoot of this social custom: the prayer scarf, used by pilgrims and prayer houses, which belongs to the namavali tradition where the name of God is woven on cloth as a depiction of devotion.

On these red and white scarves, the women worked in the words “Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare” in an unusual geometric pattern of cascading triangles. The mantra is part of a very tangible Vaishnav influence on Assam, where it is selectively used because of its religious significance. The women have been weaving this Vaishnav text as a design motif on these scarves for generations without actually being able to read or write; in other words they don’t know the letters and cannot use them in any other way. The very idea of the weavers serenely making these scarves as part of a traditional continuum, but not being able to read even after 60 years of being part of a modern republic, is a painful indictment and a symbol of a sharp collective failure.

A new nation had, within a few years, set up national academies and their local branches for classical art forms because they fitted in so well with the official need for a state-sponsored high culture. The political visibility of the crafts was enhanced by fresh associations with the freedom movement and leaders such as MK Gandhi and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who had recognised, and made intelligent use of, their political dimensions. But, as the openness of the early years of independent India began to narrow, and a notion of personal patronage by privileged cliques surfaced, the crafts gradually vanished from popular consciousness. The decline in their status in the real world simultaneously also made them an attractive cause to champion by the powerful and connected, leading ultimately to empty tokenism of the kind now practiced by state departments. What we collectively overlooked is the great potential of crafts as a measure of the invisible cultural processes that add colour and dimension to our ideas of our pasts and present. In reading Akshara, and knowing the creative leaps taken by the craftspersons involved, therefore, we are able to both experience and critique the validity of the sanctioned accounts of our history and nation building. We also see, in one case after another, the beauty of our scripts and crafts creating a new living aesthetic that speaks to us in sophisticated and intimate ways of our own identities as modern Indians.

In the case of master weavers Maqbool and Mohammad Yamin and their assistants, the group created a set of new designs using Kabir’s poetry on brocades of the kind they have woven for generations in Varanasi. On a deep red silk stole embroidered with zari thread are Kabir’s lines ‘Jab main tha tab hari nahin/ ab hari hai main nahin/ sab andhyara miti gaya/ jab deepak dekhyo mahi.’ The single word ‘Banaras’ was also woven as a smaller motif. The craftsmen also created an elegant bird by interweaving “Kargha” (loom), “Kapda” (cloth), “Kagaz” (paper) and “Qalam” (pen) in Urdu.

Master weavers Shahid Junaid and Badruddin, also from Varanasi, use the Jamdani weaving style to create script and calligraphy on cloth. The pair researched words, songs and phrases before settling on Kaaf, the Urdu letter for the consonant K. The words of the trade—“Kaagaz”, “Karigar” and “Kabir”—were used to create a contemporary poem in Urdu with the following text woven into the stoles.

Kaaf se kargha bane

Kaaf se bane kapaas         

Kaaf se kapda bane

Kapde bane libaas

Kaaf se karigar bane

Kaaf se bane Kabir

Ram Soni, award-winning Sanjhi artist, who practices this style of delicate stencil-style paper cutting steeped in the Vaishnavite culture of Vrindavan, created a lamp with a facade of Krishna playing the flute, writing on its glowing surface “Vriksh ki mati le” or “Learn from the trees”. This is part of a sentence from Gandhi’s hymn “Take thou a lesson from the tree”.

Master weaver Shahid Junaid of Varanasi works in the Jamdani weaving style. COURTESY DASTKARI HAAT SAMITI

Shabbir Beigh is one of the most talented practitioners of the Kani Sozni embroidery of Kashmir, which is a complex technique that covers the surface of a shawl with floral motifs; it often takes up to three years to complete a piece. Beigh has been awarded the Art in Action 2007 Best of the Best award in Oxford, England, and hails from a family that boasts of a large number of state and national awards. This singular focus on crafts, however, meant that education was given a pass in his home, so it is only after much training that Beigh could respond to Jaitly’s brief by embroidering a piece with 105 names of fruits and flowers of the state, their names in Kashmiri embroidered in wispy Persian running hand. Meandering through the delicate embroidery is the wistful line “Taleem aadmi ko insaan banata hai” (It is education that makes a person).

Master weaver from Shantipur, West Bengal’s famed weaving district, Ramanand Basak settled upon Tagore’s habit of doodling odd images on paper as he wrote and cancelled out text; inspired by this, the craftsman has woven strange but powerful shapes, including a human head and an oddly shaped, deliberately disproportionate bird, onto a stole and a saree.

Although the book is a reminder of the persistent discrimination that the handmade crafts have to face, especially when seen against the prestige and price associated with art in modern India, there is also a well-judged instinct for the sector’s possibilities as a business, and the satisfaction the work offers to its creator and his or her audience. A section of the market today does recognise the value of the handmade label, and many experts believe that a marketing effort grounded in the social contexts of the crafts products can prove successful. In fact, many of the craftspersons who participated in the Akshara project are masters of their craft and do quite well for themselves.

The fact remains, though, that in the modern urban order of art shows dominated by curators, catalogues and openings, craftspeople do not fit in in their own right. Even acknowledged shilpa gurus (crafts mentors) of whom many are unlettered, consider themselves inferior, especially when confronted with the disorganisation in their own sector and the fact that their buyers and patrons are from a world to which they can never hope to belong. Responding to such issues, the metal workers of Odisha created a statuette in dhokra, or the lost-wax method of metal casting, showing a tribal man covered in traditional ornaments confidently working on a computer, complete with mouse and keyboard.

An even more nuanced and forceful statement comes from Satyanarayan Suthar from Bassi, Chittorgarh, in Rajasthan who makes kavads: mobile-painted wooden boxes with multiple facades that fold into each other and open out like doors. They are progressively shown alongside a spoken narrative keeping time with the flow of the story. Although the traditional material for this form of folk entertainment are the epics and their extended stories, their efficacy as narrative devices has been recognised by those looking for an effective means of communication with a group. NGOs working in the fields of sanitation, health and education use the kavad for a wide range of themes including the role of the United Nations. For Akshara, Suthar redesigned the kavad as a multi-purpose cupboard; the narrative is of a contemporary craftsperson’s quest for space and recognition as he travels from his village to India’s many cities.

The traditional bright colours of a kavad have been retained, but they are used as codes: cream tones signify the rural world; a soft orange is for scenes of urban India; green is used to outline the route of his journey; and Prussian blue for specific areas. Suthar also makes a comment on the question of arts versus crafts by including in his kavad his impression of an art gallery, at the side of which he opens a facade of his original creation. Through this kavad-within-a-kavad, Suthar is able to effectively juxtapose his art against modern city-based art. The green path of his journey is filled with Devnagari writing, through which he makes a plea for taking the good from both sections of society, the rural as well as the urban:

My quest to merge myself with the whole of society is depicted on this cupboard. I am traditional. My roots are in the village. My art takes from traditional stories. But I am a young man. I live in today’s world. I am as modern and contemporary as any artist in the city. I wish to find my true place as an artist of India not only of a village or a tradition. Why do city artists have more respect? Why do city artists earn more for their works of art? Is it because theirs is not traditional? How can that be ... I travel to different cities. I compare lives, buildings and people. I am searching for my own space. I am looking for recognition as a contemporary artist because I have painted from my own thoughts...

Jonnalagadda Niranjan, the son of Kalamkari shilpa guru J Gurappa Chetty from Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh, has painted the familiar Kalamkari motif of the tree of life. Using a fine black pen and elaborate dyeing processes, his work offers a fundamental twist to the motif. The leaves, fruits and birds are not made of straight and curved lines with the fine pen; instead they are composed of Telugu poems rendered with the roundedness and curvature that the script demands. This gives the lyrical phrases and the attempt to read them a sense of hide-and-seek. Found in different parts of the tree and the birds that sit on it are lines such as “the marigold resembles the turmeric coat on the face of a wedded woman”. A compelling display of imagination, the piece has already been bought by the Museum of Sacred Art in Brussels.

In some cases the crafts sector, too, has expanded to include practitioners who come from a decidedly untypical background. Clay artist and painter Adil Writer was an architect in Mumbai before he moved to Auroville, close to Puducherry, over a decade ago to work in a space outside the confines of a city. Clay has taken Adil and his ceramic works to various Asian cultures since, such as Shigaraki, Japan, last year on an artist-in-residence programme to make works for the local museum, as well as to try and understand the art and craft of clay in Japan. For the Akshara project, he illustrated and fired a large stoneware pot created in collaboration with Palaniswamy, a traditional terracotta artisan from Pudukottai. Palaniswamy is the last master craftsman in a long lineage of experts who make the tall terracotta Ayannar horses that guard deities outside villages in Tamil Nadu.

The imagery on the pot is simple and shows people holding hands; it could be read as languages holding hands too, says Writer. Red dots and smears on the pot are inspired by street architecture and roadside shrines in Tamil Nadu. “Inna seitherai oruthalavur nana nannayam seidhu vidhal,” says the Tamil text, meaning “To people who cause harm, shame them by returning it with good”.

A work of symbolic power was created by Nazir Ahmed Mir from Srinagar, the recipient of national awards for his expertise with papier mache and wood. During a period of political unrest in 2011, when young men were pelting stones at symbols of state authority in Kashmir, Mir picked up smooth, rounded, delicately-hued pebbles and covered their surface with beautiful paintings in the Kashmiri Nacquash style, incorporating the words for “love”, “peace” and “Kashmir” in Persian script.

Mir’s pebbles were presented to the chief minister and written about in the language press as well as in the local English newspaper Kashmir Rising. For the Akshara exhibition, Mir translated the newspaper article into Persian and painted over it wisps of vegetation and flowers that seemed inserted into the print. A  newspaper, which is usually only used to wrap the papier mache mould, was thus given a new artistic use as it covered a thaal on which the pebbles rest, as if to say that the choice to exercise peace and love is simply there for the taking at all times.

FOR THOSE WHO STILL ASK if the crafts are a separate category from the visual arts, the Akshara project can be a persuasive reiteration of what many leading artists have called an artificial divide. Artists in post-independence India and institutions such as the Santiniketan, Baroda and Madras schools have had a deep understanding of and engagement with the crafts. J Swaminathan, who set up the Roopankar Museum of Fine Arts at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, showed contemporary urban modern art and tribal art side by side.

Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, one of the members of the Baroda school and a highly respected artist, teacher and thinker, had a significant solo exhibition last year that showed more than a decade of his intellectual and artistic works. Along with other artefacts, he used an enlarged kavad that opened out to viewers, who could walk and be enveloped into it. Sheikh rubbishes the idea that while art is creative, not all craft is equally so. As a teacher at the Maharaja Sayajjirao University in Baroda in 1984, he started a year-long workshop with the idea of bringing traditional skills into the existing curriculum, calling it a course for artists and craftsmen.  It included Kalamkari painters from Andhra and Gujarat, weavers from Manipur and Chhota Udaipur, clay muralists of Kachchh and Molela in Rajasthan, Phad (scroll) painters from Bhilwada in Rajasthan and Pat (narrative scroll) painters from Bengal and Madhubani painters from Bihar who worked on the campus and interacted with students and the faculty.

Nilima Sheikh, who is currently engaged in a project with several crafts resources in Kashmir, told me that she regretted the unfortunate divide that exists between the two fields, pointing out that the ideal is a more total and equitable engagement where the artist and craftsmen meet as equals. She added that under present structures, even when she is in dialogue and collaboration with craftspersons, it is she as the artist whose work it finally is. “Can I do an honest and total one on one collaboration with craftspersons? I can only say that I would like to and I am learning and trying to do that,” she said.

At some point in the art-versus-craft discourse, it comes down to crude questions of valuation and an uninformed viewing public. Some years ago, at Tina Ambani’s annual Harmony Show in Mumbai, Writer, who was exhibiting his paintings as well as his ceramics, said a wealthy collector willingly paid a reasonable price for a painting but began to haggle over a ceramic item’s cost, which was less than half that of the canvas,  arguing that the platter in question was only mud. “Yeh to sirf mitti hai,” she said, to which he responded by asking her if the canvas she had paid a small fortune for was “...also just kapda?”

Many other narratives in the Akshara project point to this ingrained Indian tendency to disregard indigenous art, a collective misjudgement that is all but legitimised by official attitudes. Since independence, government agencies handling crafts have been divided between the Khadi Gramodyog department and various ministries such as Industry, Rural Development and Textiles. Sometimes programmes are duplicated, or slip between the floorboards altogether, or crafts proposals are crushed under the weight of bigger interests within the same ministry. A real appreciation of the contexts from which crafts emerge, and a forum for their sustenance and propagation, cannot materialise if crafts are considered merely a cottage industry, manufacturing merchandise that forever needs subsidies. The power of Akshara lies in the fact that 60 years after planned development in a modern democracy, the project shows the way for a new institution for old ideas.