Of Chiffon Phulkaris and Forgotten Nuances: Crafts in a Changing World

Kaul, Mayank Mansingh studied textile design at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. His interest in Khadi and the future of hand-technologies led him to be a consultant to the Planning Commission on the taskforce on Cultural and Creative Industries. He recently co-curated Monsoon Fashion, a celebration of the Indian rain through fashion at the British Council, and is involved at the moment in the launch of his signature line of clothing and home-furnishings in handlooms. His interests range from theatre, the creative and cultural economy, appropriate technologies to new paradigms of business and art. He is 23, and lives in New Delhi.

As the French President Jacques Chirac’s term comes to its end, the city of Paris is gifted with a new museum. The Musee du Quai Branly is devoted to the ‘arts and civilisation of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas - a home for the forgotten civilisations’. Amidst a range of controversies, the ambitious museum celebrates bio-diversity on its external walls, as 150 species of flora grow as a vertical garden. Close by, stand the headquarters of UNESCO. In 2001, UNESCO adopted the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, which the then Director-General, Koichiro Matsura hoped would ‘one day acquire as much force as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. Diversity is being seen as one of the most central challenges of our times, and in Matsura’s own words - ‘as necessary for the human race as bio-diversity in the natural realm’.1

On the one hand, diverse ways of living are being museumified. On the other, a call is made for their very future.

A young Punjabi girl hand-embroiders on mill-made chiffon; I gaze at samples from not so long ago, where the background cloth was hand-spun and handwoven khadi - enabling a lush Phulkari surface, exquisite in its colour and reflection of light. With no such khadi available today, phulkari undergoes a transformation. Traditionally embroidered by the mother for her daughter’s trousseau, as a rite of passage, they sell at Dilli Haat as insipid chiffon and synthetic dupattas and scarves. For a moment, as a light wind picks up, they flutter like Buddhist prayer flags, almost as if calling out for help: a prayer to prevent them from dying under our very own eyes.

What is lost, in this act of vanishing?

What is lost, in the loss of a craft?

In November 2005, Dr Jyotindra Jain narrated a fascinating personal experience at the inaugural seminar of the International Centre for Indian Crafts, at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. He spoke of a trip he had once taken to a master dyer in Rajasthan with a few foreigners. The foreigners were stunned at how batch after batch, the dyer was able to produce an exactness of shade with great ease, and at the same time, improvise spontaneously to achieve variations in colour. To the western mind, this was fascinating, no less than magic: how could someone with no visible measuring apparatus, or any seemingly ‘scientific’ procedure, accomplish this? ‘How do you know…?’, they asked. ‘How do you know when the dye is right, when the temperature is right…?’ The master dyer, miffed by the constant queries, could not explain how he knew in their terms. He responded by placing a drop of the dye on the tip of his tongue. He exclaimed: ‘This is how I know!’

Dr Jain’s account is more memorable than mine. However, for a person involved with crafts, this interesting account not only provides a perfect starting point for an enquiry into the what’s, how’s and why’s of crafts, but also explains a facet of the ‘Great Indian Tradition’ that needs to be recognised, understood and accounted for. It also prompts a deeper enquiry into locating the role of crafts within some larger spaces - be they material, intellectual, philosophical, spiritual, economic and cultural, or local and international.

What are crafts? What is their role in todays’s world? What is their location in the emergencies and requirements of a fast-changing world? How do we ensure their future? Why? Boring questions, that have been asked again and again. And yet, answers seem to elude many of us. It is time then, to go back to the basics of what crafts were and what they stand for. To look at them as a technology, as a means of livelihood, as an expression of a people…and yet, not just we designers, but each one of us who understands the increasing threats to diverse expressions and creative freedom, must ask these questions: consumers, businessmen, politicians…

This souvenir from Janpath that I take so proudly for my friends in Canada - who makes them, and what does he earn? Is it enough for the pride it gives me in being Indian?

How can I understand the structures of a hand-technology and product - perhaps the Jamdani - so that my innovation comes not from a surface motif variation, but the structure, the weight of fabric, the weaving process itself? This, might give rise to a new form altogether…

This rare technique of glazing, how can I use my business acumen to chart its future, as a differentiated product in an international market?

How long can we further marginalise communities to a level of such helplessness that leads to violent separatist movements…? Will we ever realise that there can be no peace unless we include all in the process of development?

Crafts have evolved as a natural technology of making and doing things of everyday use and value. The form and shape of a product emerges out of the combined act of observation, of use and function and of the nature of material itself. This is a careful process, where many factors came together to inform and imbue the product with meaning: meaning through its use, through what it invoked in the mind and being of the maker, and through what it invokes in the mind and being of the user. The maker, the material, the tools, the user and its use: all of these came together to give rise to those very material artefacts that we now preserve in museums and galleries.

Ananda Coomaraswamy once quoted William Morris, who pointed out that the objects we now exhibit in museums were “once the common objects of the market place…and amongst all those whom we dare to call ‘uncivilised peoples, ‘art’ had no other meaning than the ‘right way of making things’, ‘things’ being anything whatever required by man to serve his needs, whether physical or spiritual.” 2

In young, shining, modern India, such methods and processes might seem archaic, unnecessary and perhaps even retrogressive to some. For a young nation, making ‘high-technology’ strides, what do these ways of doing and making represent?

In these times, the word ‘technology’ is normally used to describe a fast-paced and mechanised ways of doing things. Often, this word is prefixed by ‘high’ to denote ‘high-tech’. This implies that if there is a high in technology, there must be a low. These ‘lower’ ways of making and creating become the last priorities in a nation already under heavy stresses and pressures. However, technology can be simply defined as a way of doing things, and in a country like India, that lives in so many centuries, and in so many eras, all these kinds of processes acquire a place. Technologies are of all kinds, of different capabilities. They all contribute to the diversity in India, giving India its unique character.

Language, script, motif and technology: the tools with which we converse and live become critical agents in keeping diversity alive. In many ways, I find craft a lot like language. A Kumaoni from Nainital would be helpless at translating words such as ‘bal or ‘thera’ into English…there is no equivalent to such words in English. And neither are there equivalents for the experiences and life that inform the evolution of such words; the experience of certain emotions may not exist in another place, and therefore will not find expression in the language of that place.

Crafts, to go back to Dr Jain’s story, cannot in their totality, be understood on the same terms as other technologies. If they need to be enquired into, they require a familiarisation in ways that respect its ethos. An exporter demands 500 cushion covers that look exactly the same: a hand-process cannot, and must not even attempt such exactnesses. Human processes of dyeing may not use ‘scientific’ apparatus, but need not see the use of such apparatus as being a more evolved method of dyeing. Everything has its own intelligence, a nature of its being, of its innateness.

The knot in a handmade textile tells you of the yarn that broke in the process of weaving. A slight variation in a carved statue from another, tells you the maker thought of something different at that moment (perhaps he was for a minute distracted by a sound somewhere far?). In these ways, crafts help us connect to the maker, to hear a story… (romantic notion, you might say). And yet, such are our times of increasing virtualisation that we crave for such human contact. ‘…We are always behind this glass and metal, that we crash into each other just to feel something…’, begins the Oscar-award winning film Crash. We fight, so we can hear and be heard…

We find new ways of keeping the same emotions alive so we remain who humane, not merely human. What is craft then, if not an experience which invokes and enables these emotions? Does not the play of light in a jade box, so intricately carved, evoke the same sensory experiences as a highly accomplished piece of music, or the leap of a ballet dancer? Is this not the same rasa as that aroused in a sensational performance? Crafts, to me, represent those last vestiges of the nuances of a culture, that is fast eroding, yet which we still have access to. This is what I call the experience of craft: a process, not unlike tasting wine or single malt scotch and imbibing the environment in which it was made, or appreciating the nuances of a custom-made perfume. An experience that has to be felt to be known and one that has to be connected with…

The other aspect of craft today is craft as a mode of production. The number of craftspeople in India today is estimated at 23 million. 3 This represents a large number of our working force, and seeing them as critical contributors to our nation is important. This skilled hand-production, important to domestic and export markets, ensures that, luckily, even today, mechanised modular furniture and standardised sizes of windows and doors do not dictate how we build our homes and live our lives.

And yet, these skills are fast becoming ‘labour’. The special place these crafts have, as a mode of production, is that they have the potential to employ skilled people on a large-scale, and in the process keep alive and further enable a creative culture that is not restricted to a few. Such skills can ensure a livelihood that not only offers economic security for the basic necessities of life, but also self-worth and dignity. Let us recognise, that these needs of human dignity and respect are as basic as roti, kapda and makaan.

The country has focussed immensely on the importance of craftspeople to our exports - but has that meant a better quality of life for the craftsperson? Or more respect for him or her as a skilled contributor to the country? If craft is seen as an export industry, it is not unlike any large export corporation with a large workforce, each member of such workforce contributing to the corporation in some way. Why cannot each craftsperson then contribute to the crafts sector in the same way?

I often wonder, whether given the same economic success and equal opportunity, would the children of craftsmen and women aspire to their parents’ professions? For there can be no meaningful answer to the future of crafts, unless we know the aspirations of these craftspeople for themselves and for their children. As more and more of the next generation leave their ancestral professions, I wonder if the aspiration to learn a craft would be a more common phenomenon today, if 60 years back India had recognised craftspeople, not as belonging to a disadvantaged sector in need of ‘social’ responsibility alone, but also as belonging to a strong sector, capable of individual expression and local development - a sector not unlike any other industrial sector.

Why do we know ‘industry’ only as the chimneys of smoke, or the gutters of effluents ruining our rivers?

Traditionally, crafts grew and evolved and reached their high levels of excellence due to a system of patronage which understood the value of its role in a society and economy. Is there not today the need for a more discerning patron? Cannot industry and business, which has sold us everything under the sun, sell us this too? Something enriching for the soul, safer for our skins, and which affords a better quality of life for its maker…?

Why cannot our visionary business houses, taking their international strides, and explaining India to the world in diverse ways, transform the shanty sheds of our craftsmen into healthy and creative work environments? Why has not an IKEA come from India, making an Indian the richest man in the world, instead of Ingvar Kamprad of Sweden, the owner of IKEA? 4 William Morris created a company out of a movement which attacked the aesthetics of a ‘modern’ industrial age. Forget nurturing a new aesthetic, in a post-modern age, we have still not even understood what modernity means.

Why can we not see the daily wage labourer across the street in his make-do tent home as the person he really is - a potter capable of fashioning the most sophisticated forms out of clay? The success of our management students is a sham if it has taken them so many decades to discover ‘the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’. 5

Having discovered them as a potential market, let us now feed the craftspeople. Finally.

The real reason for our loss lies deep in the loss of pride we face as a nation - across the land. We need the tableaus of the Republic Day parade to remind us of how great we are as a nation, and cover stories in glossy magazines to show us how Indians are the emerging rich and famous around the world. If we do not find a reason for something, let’s blame colonialism. If colonialism is not an answer to this procrastination, let us look deeper in history. Let us find, what is it, at its root that prevents us from knowing our own strengths. And let us then take a historic leap - to forge strong partnerships across the board - involving industry, society and government, to claim a unique position in the world.

I sometimes hear doubts of relevances, of craft as an anomaly to the ‘technological’ strides India takes. Rahul Jain, textile scholar, spent the last ten years going back in history and reviving a craft which had been dead for two centuries. Today, these Meenakaris inspire awe and beauty, they sustain a rare craft.

Lost for two centuries, and yet a modern resonance…

I am often amazed at the way the Japanese have invented the most cutting-edge technologies, and at the same time kept rare hand-craft traditions alive, so often within traditional patronage systems. India’s future lies in not adopting one monolithic position, where handmade is threatened by the mechanised sector, and the mechanised so stunted in its growth due to subsidies to the handmade sector. The future lies in understanding the affordances of both these technologies, and in negotiating the space for both to exist, not in opposition, but in relation to each other. In this process might begin the genesis of a new aesthetic. And yet, to me the development of printing technology to simulate the careful work of Ikat offers no more than a cheap substitute… perhaps there is something new that artisans and designers can discover together, in the process of Ikat…something which is an altogether ‘other’. This would be pushing the frontiers of innovation and creativity.

Many say, crafts will find their own future, just the way they have always. Who are we to decide or know better than the craftspeople. Crafts will change with changes in geo-political situations and cross-fertilisation of cultures. Potters in Ahmedabad start selling plastic statues of Jadoo - the famous alien from the Hrithik Roshan film, block-printers print dinosaurs…

Understanding the opportunities globalisation provides, and the immediate concerns of poverty alleviation and making available a better quality of life, India has the chance of a lifetime. Let us not give lip service to the carriers of the most sophisticated knowledge and skills without understanding and knowing the immense role they play in keeping our country creatively alive. Gandhi once said ‘there is an art that kills, and one that gives’. Let us celebrate the birth of a new culture that nurtures all.


  1. The Economist, June 15th 2006; The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity: www.unesco.org

  2. Essay: ‘The Love of Art’ by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Published in Temenos, London 1992

  3. Crafts as Sustainable Livelihood Option in Rural India, by Anubha Sood; M.Sc. Social Policy and Planning in Developing Countries, September 2002, London School of Economics and Political Science

  4. In 2004, Ingvar Kamprad, owner of the international brand IKEA replaced Bill Gates as the richest man in the world, with an estimated wealth of US $ 53 billion, compared to Gates’ US $ 47 Billion. Published in the Business Weekly, April 2004

  5. Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid is 2005’s best-selling book by Economist C. K. Prahlad.

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