Over the last several years we have seen a significant growth in design experiments internationally, which combine the latest cutting edge technology with traditional hand-processes. As India and other developing countries with evolved hand-craft traditions grapple with more immediate questions of locating a space for them within rapid mechanization, and making available a better quality of life for the craftspeople; the world over, crafts themselves are being redefined through new technologies and individual expressions. This is giving rise to new forms and shapes, aesthetic and textural qualities and at times, to new functional attributes altogether.
For most western and developed countries this has been a natural process. With hand-manufacture having died as a mode and means of everyday production, hand-processes have acquired a considerable niche and novel value. This development has resulted in such products fitting into various segments of production, sale and of consumer use - one, through hand-crafted, high-end products of luxury brands and two, as products of antique and ethnic value. Third - and which I bring under discussion here - is the phenomena of such hand-processes having elevated themselves from such ‘everyday manufacture’ value to being art expressions; often seen as, and engaging with sculpture, painting and other fine arts. These are also often sold through art galleries and agents who are otherwise engaged in art trade.
Why such craft-technology has not developed in any form in the country shows the complex situations that the country faces with regard to mechanisation, and the search for what belongs to a community and to the individual in the Indian context. Intertwined within such situations, at every stage and level, are questions of choice. And these choices are critical in defining the future of Indian aesthetics and the role of our material culture in participating in societal debate and change. There is on the one hand, the need and value for a new breed of Indian designers and artists, for whom such crafts could be a medium of individual expression. On the other hand, are the fragile contexts within which these crafts have evolved and thereby find their unique place in the international context by strengthening diversity and cultural nuances.
There are an increasing number of Indian designers, who have begun to make their inroads into this uncharted territory, most often through specialized educational programmes in international design schools and universities. While on the one hand this is welcome news, there is also a need to pause and enquire into this phenomena. The discussion on the interaction between mechanized and hand technology gives rise to several questions in the Indian context. And the resolution of these questions can inform the very definitions of crafts in the country for their future. They could also help to forge new uniquely Indian aesthetics, showcasing the country’s creativity at its genius best through stimulating traditional-contemporary dialogues. Therein, can also lie India’s most defining opportunity and challenge.
Deeply embedded in any such enquiries and experiments must be an understanding of the affordances the mechanized and hand technologies have in the country, which are often socio-economic and cultural; and further which rest on precarious needs and realities of the Indian craftspeople. That crafts in the country must evolve is a valid argument, and indeed they cannot survive if they are to not evolve. But what does evolution mean in the crafts context? Is there one monolithic process of evolution around the world for hand-crafts? And most importantly, what does this evolution enable?
One view here can be that the way forward for crafts is to encourage their conversation with mechanized technology. This assumes that within an evolution of manufacture and production, mechanization is an inevitability where mechanized technology interventions are the only natural extensions of these crafts. There is no doubt here that dialogues with such technology can play an important role in articulating newness in product, process, design and expression, which are the constant needs and demands of any time. What is essential to assess here, is the role mechanised technology has played so far, and what its implications can be in the long run on the crafts sector at large.
We have seen that in most parts of the country, powerlooms have entered the manufacturing scene by their ability to provide handloom replicas at a much cheaper cost. The mushrooming of powerlooms across the country has rapidly begun to shrink the production, consumer and aesthetic base of handlooms. This brings me to my first concern: that through the process of such technology-craft dialogues, it is possible to provide the crafts sector with alternatives of replication, for doing what it does best through machine processes, thereby affecting its original textural and aesthetic qualities. We have seen the recent crisis in Varanasi with regard to the massive flooding of local markets with cheaper, machine-made replicas of traditional brocades. The Chinese have developed machines which can replicate Kutchi embroideries, and that they are already being imported into the country. Recently, there have been reports of Italian machines having mastered the art of Jamdani, the intricate labour-intensive skill which originally belonged to Bengal. 1Not too long ago, a famous international designer tried screen printing on warps to simulate the Ikat effect…
Such mechanisation is not restricted to textile manufacture alone. A trip to the Chawdi Bazaar market in Delhi will show you that even religious statues of Indian Gods and Goddesses are now being manufactured in China, with uncanny precision within a matter of seconds. (It is quite likely that your recent Diwali statue of Laxmi was made in China). Is it only matter of time, when our neighbourhood terracota potters will no longer be seen with their clay pots piled by the dozens in numerous shapes and sizes?
Evolution of crafts can also mean, apart from such ‘obvious mechanisation’, an evolution in its consumer and market bases, its uses and functions and in the nature of the economic structures which support it. It could also mean reinstating the relevance of their original forms, examining such qualities and the reasons for their survival. Is it not a matter of enquiry, why in spite of several developments which could have changed the vocabulary of traditional designs, they survive in their original forms in the country? While there is a constant reference to the ever-changing aspects of craft traditions, the Indian example has shown that in spite of such changes, it has been in fact the common non-change which has characterised it more prominently. This shows a deep-rootedness of the Indian culture, which in my view, both defines us as a people and cultural system; and further gives us our special place in the world. It is also this very rootedness which can propel innovation using individual creativity, enabling artistic journeys which use community-knowledges. Within such an argument, those technologies and processes considered most primitive by many present standards - hand-spinning, vegetable and lac dyeing, hand-made felt, and so on, acquire a special space. These ancient technologies give India a unique space, both notionally and materially. While we, within the country might find them stale and retrogressive, their role internationally can be enormous.
The second aspect of such craft-technology dialogues is related to the above discussion: How different can such craft-technology experiments be in India? When the tools of mechanised technology remain largely the same throughout the world, what is it that differentiates Indian products on aesthetics in comparison to those in Japan, Scandinavia, in the UK and Vietnam…? There is a common tendency in many attempts to contemporarise crafts in India and elsewhere, to highlight more universal forms, colours and forms to enable them to find space in international markets. The use of traditional motifs, colours, and forms are often seen as too ‘ethnic’ for global audiences. The result has been that very often, products from India may not look different from those made in other countries. Such attempts therefore do not help in finding any unique space for Indian designers, artists and their expressions; in the process they contribute to only heighten those very homogenising influences that crafts are in a position to challenge.
The third aspect is the employment imperative. In such arguments it is easy to forget that a big challenge facing most countries at the moment is unemployment; and the role of such creative, skilled manufacture is enormous. The questions to be asked in such light are also on the implications for such experiments - which if introduced on a small-scale today, could take on mass-scale proportions tomorrow. What are the human costs of such displacement - economic, cultural, political - so caused?
The beginning of one such success in India, perhaps the first (I, of course will be delighted to know more of such experiments!) of its kind has been shown by the remarkable work done by Jigisha Patel Singh, a fresh graduate of textile design from the National Institute of Design. Her fascination with the crafts of Kutch led her to explore technology-hand process dialogues in felt-making in Gujarat. In this, the intricate skill of hand laying layers of felted wool and dyeing were combined with the more mechanical process of felt-making itself. The result was a range of felted rugs which are rich with hand improvisations and combine the durability and steadiness of machine-made felt. While many such experiments might have been carried out in smaller ways by Indian students, what places this experiment at the vanguard is how it has shown the possibility of an assured revival of the dyeing and felt appliqué processes in Kutch, at the same time an improvement in Indian felt qualities for export and new markets which might not have absorbed hand-made felt. It has also, done away with the more mechanical part of the traditional process by focusing on the affordances of the hand to place, cut, dye and lay in layers with spontaneity and improvisations, thereby retaining those creative parts which offer scope for individuality and personal expression.
The challenge before us is manifold, but can be addressed at different levels. For designers and artists, it requires a more careful consideration of the contexts of the traditions they are working under. The question of the individual placed within larger cultural constraints can be an exciting and much-needed discourse. Both hand-processes and machine-processes have their own attributes, their own capabilities and their own unique possibilities. And as much as the phenomena of finding cheaper, mechanized methods of doing labour-intensive work has its own advantages, such intentions must not hamper the chances of an even-playing field for intricate and sophisticated hand crafts.