I am tempted first to relate a story heard among the Devangan weavers of Chattisgarh about why the weaver remains poor.
Weavers are Devi worshippers because when Ma Durga was fighting the Demon, the only way to vanquish him was by fighting him with the pure energy of her nakedness. After her victory she felt the need to be clothed. The Devangan, from the word Dev (God) and Anga (pant of the body) was asked by the Goodess to prepare a cloth suitable for her with fibre taken from the stem of the lotus, which he dutifully did. She was extremely pleased and granted him a Platter full of Gold that would serve him for generations. The Gods were in the meanwhile very troubled by this boon, for then the weaver might stop weaving and they decided to do him out of this benefit. So, Vishnu disguised as a Brahmin presented himself to the Devangan, who respectfully left the seat for him. As a result the Gold Platter went by default to the Brahmin. The weaver complained of this to the Devi, she was angry, cursed the Brahmin for his greed and gave the Devangan a 'Mani', a gem that on touch would turn all into Gold. When the Devangan weaver took this home, his wife was enraged at this measly stone for what they needed was rice and dal. She threw the 'Mani' at the wall where promptly another doorway was created and the 'Mani' lay broken into two. The winds just pass in from one door and out the other. He was condemned to live by his labour and live according to his experience.
Today, has the artist-waver retrieved the 'Mani', the illumination from within and perhaps the Gold!?
Till fairly recent times, where ever the community remained a cohesive unit the role of the craftspersons, particularly weavers, was that of interpreters of the community, its ideation actively contributing to its critique and its artistic furtherance. The process was integral and not separated by caste occupation. To that extent the identity was confirmed and not questioned. That this 'Mani' - the right to create, was thrown away, was also inbuilt into the contradictions of the craftsperson's position vis-à-vis the rest of the community. The 'Mani' was too potent a symbol of authority, but the Brahman, wily as he is, foresaw perhaps the reaction of a starved wife.
The potential of the 'Artist Craftsperson' has always been there and one could extend the meaning to include the practice of any art.
The separation of the Artist and the Craftsperson is of recent origin. Maybe more acutely since 'Division- of - Labour' took on a drastic meaning, and since atomization became the thumb rule for efficiency in production. This also created distances and gaps in communication. The unit started becoming self sufficient and a world unto itself - with its own vocabulary, its own syntax that was not easily understood by the outsider. The speciality clubs with 'insiders' and 'outsiders' clearly demarcated, continue till today.
Coomaraswamay felt, "Our modern system of thought has substituted for this decision of labour a spiritual caste system which divides men into species. Those who have lost most by this are the artists, professionally speaking, on the one hand, and laymen generally on the other" 1
Today though, at the turn of the century, we are in the midst of experiencing the need to melt down boundaries, reach out and bridge some of the gaps, cross-communicate and penetrate alien territories. Probably it is the fear of total emasculation that prompts this need. This is so even amongst the distinct branches of science, even amongst separate cultures, even within the various art forms.
New age science is toying with ideas like the interdependence of environment and man to the extent of shaping each other simultaneously as opposed to one shaping the other. The bench marks of evolution are being perceived as those that were most efficient for community interdependence of the species- basically symbiotic, rather than the survival of the fittest. The other day, there was a report in the newspapers of a professor at Delhi's Zakir Hussain College working on the concept of a 'fuzzy-wuzzy' world where vagueness was a positive attribute of adaptability in natural processes. One could liken it to the Zen bamboo leaning in the wind (and not breaking!). Also to retaining a sense of humour!
The world in your drawing room is also violently tearing down demarcations economically, politically, culturally. The individual is uncomfortably jerked out of his safe niche and is being forced into a constant state of self-evaluation. Infact, no evaluation is possible from a static position. The evaluator has to shift perspectives to be able to take cognisance of the self. In this state of constant movement, a lot of cross-fertilization is also taking place and hybrid genes are multiplying. This is throwing up its own dilemmas. Fundamentalism being one response. The other being a desire to search out a deeper way to establish communication, to seek out commonalities without being homogenised to the extent of losing all sense of the particular. Infact it is to place the particular in perspective.
The hierarchy of art forms, the sperateness of art forms is also being challenged. The classical, Folk, Bazaar and also the Crafts which were nomenclatures denoting their hierarchy, are now being absorbed into contemporary artistic sensibilities, leaving behind their hierarchical connotations. But where does this leave the practitioners of the original? Is the economic factor which divides on art from another as unimpeachable as it seems? This brings one to the specific situation of a country like India. The traditional crafts are still a part of the life style of the more coherent traditional communities, inspite of major sociological changes that are taking pace, even in the rural hinterlands. Crafts are being absorbed into the larger urban and metropolitan markets, where their social value has been diminished and reduced to being ethnic images without specific meaning. The role of the craftsperson as interpreter of social norms, values, and persona has also been usurped and he is now only a reproducer of like- images. But as I said, inspite of this massive shift of place in society, the traditional craftsperson, in pockets, still clings to the social significance that was ascribed in the more tight knit community patterns.
This role is now being simultaneously appropriated in the contemporary-urban context by the artist-craftsperson. What is still problematic and disturbingly so for the urbane artist in India is the continuing economic divide. So the 'Mani' is still denied to the hapless Devangan who made the first cloth to clothe the Devi and from whom the meaning in craft was derived. This discomfort has been largely assuaged in the industrially developed part of the world as the 'hand-crafted' phenomena is reduced to a specialized niche in the economic system and is practiced by the very few. So a nomenclature like 'artist-craftsperson' is not at odds within the existing practice of the crafts. This is not the case in this country where Handicrafts is one of the largest employment sectors next only to agriculture. Gandhian economics envisaged a continuing role for the handicrafts as an essential and meaningful part of the economic tie-up, but that was never taken seriously as an alternative in development theories. So now we find these roles losing significance on the one hand and also losing energy on the other, to give a new meaning which might re- instate an intrinsic purpose to the activity.
This is the context within which an exhibition of Artist-craftspersons could be poised. The trust is towards establishing a position of emotional consolidation. The critique is of decades of experiencing the slow draining of purpose and meaning. The re-capturing is of the sheer joy of crafting as an essential act. As an art it places itself alongside the most tactile of the arts.
The 'Chaunsath Kalas' the 64 vocational art forms as reported by Coomarswamy were all of angelic origins. The 'Silpas' were vocational arts and generally reported to be 18 in number. Significantly in these were included the potter, architect, painter, weaver and barber 2 . Today, how would we club these various arts and what would be the criteria of segregation?
The journeys taken for assessment, have not only been in the mind, these journeys had to be taken physically as well to regions of non-context; the inner discomforts have to be worked upon and continuously; perspectives are layered for prismatic vision- this is perhaps not the age for single and forceful statements. Please bear with me, I'd like to re-tell another story, quite abridged, originally unearthed by Heinrich Zimmer 3 . There was a Rabi in a Polish town called Cracow, who had this dream that he should go to a particular bridge in the capital /city of Prague, under which at a specific location he would find buried a treasure. He disregarded the dream. But it kept coming back to him several times. Finally, the old Rabbi pushed himself out of his lethargy and made the trip to Prague. There he found the bridge heavily guarded. He visited it everyday to assess if there was anyway of approaching it. A young guard noticed him and asked the reason for his daily appearance. The Rabbi told him. The guard laughed and said that if dreams came true he himself should be following his own, recurring dream that told him to go to the town of Cracow, where there was a man by the name of Eisik S/o Jekel, and in this man's house, under the dirty stove lay this buried treasure. The guard said, "Can you imagine my going to look for this man with this common name? Every other person is called Eisik or Jekel, how would I find him?" The Rabbi realized who he was referring to and rushed back home to dig under his own stove.