Indian Embroiderer Receives the Best Craftsperson Award in Oxford

Prakash, Aditi is an industrial designer who works with traditional craftspeople in India. Aditi's product design skills, acquired at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, combined with her undergraduate training in the fine arts bring a unique aesthetic to the crafts sector. She regularly provides design input and market awareness to various artisan communities in India through product diversification and design workshops. She has also worked with craftspeople from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

CRT, September 2007

Everybody seems to be celebrating 60 years of India's independence, especially the British. This summer England is besieged with India inspired events throughout the country. It is against this backdrop that one son of India has done her especially proud. Shabir Ali Beigh, a sozni embroiderer from Srinagar was visibly emotional when his piece titled "The Divine Garden" received the Best of the Best award at Art in Action, Oxford, July 2007.

Art in Action is a craft fair held every year at Oxford for four days. Organised mainly by a team of dedicated volunteers, the thrust of the event is to experience the act of creation. This year about 160 artists from England in different fields ranging from textiles, calligraphy, glass blowing, wood working, and jewellery demonstrated their craft. There were performances by musicians and dancers from different parts of the world. India and China have been given a dedicated space for the past two years. Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national federation of craftspeople based in Delhi coordinated the selection and funding of ten Indian craftspeople to participate at the event.
The breathtaking piece created by Shabir took about three and a half years to complete. Every inch of the Pashmina shawl was covered with very fine Kashmiri embroidery. The design depicts a garden consisting of twelve different flowers made from eighteen shades of threads. The use of colour is very subtle; the stitches appear as little marks of colour making up the lines and shapes. Each motif is made from minute stitches which are hardly visible to the naked eye. A combination of stitches is employed using very fine thread on a minute scale which prevents any single stitch from standing out.
Shabir's stall at Art in Action was busy with designers, customers and admirers at all times. This was not only because of his work but also his enthusiasm to communicate even without knowing their language. It made me proud as a designer and a fellow Indian that a traditional craft piece from India was rated the best at this event which had some very well crafted pieces made by western craftspeople and artists. The award was special also because it was selected by votes of the artists participating in the event.
The process of selection of craftspeople for the event is very organic. Traveling to craftspeoples' villages to conduct workshops and organizing various marketing events through the year, one comes across many talented and keen craftspeople. One has to create an interesting mix of experienced master craftspeople to showcase the excellence of our crafts, innovators who show the possibilities for the future and relatively unknown craftspeople who need the exposure.
Participating in an event like Art in Action not only provides a platform to create awareness about the rich traditions of India among people who enjoy art and creativity but it also helps us get new perspectives about our own culture. In UK craftspeople are either highly professional and individualistic makers or hobbyists. It is rare to find community crafts especially traditional crafts handed down for generations. There craftspeople identify themselves through the material or technique that they use, whereas an Indian craftsperson always identifies himself/herself through his community and the place where he comes from.

At Art in Action, people showed a keen interest in traditional Indian crafts; they looked for intricacy and decorative details as they associate Indian crafts with a high level of craftsmanship (and yet they also expect it to be cheap!). Varanasi brocade, woolen shawls from Kutch, thread jewellery from Rajasthan and stone inlay from Agra were very popular. Here people attach a great deal of significance in buying directly from the artist who created the work. The craftspeople also get encouraged and gain confidence by interacting directly and receiving appreciation from customers.

On our return we received letters from the crafts people expressing their experience and we were glad to see that most of them overlooked the personal inconveniences to talk about larger issues. The pride they felt when their fellow craftsperson received the award, the inquiries they have received about their work since they returned, some of them had made special efforts to prepare new products for the event which received a good response. Given a chance they would all want to go back which means that they see this as a positive experience, whether this is a viable proposition in the long run is of course a different matter.

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