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Crafts - Linking and Dividing

Tyabji, Laila, is a designer, writer and founder member and Chairperson of DASTKAR, a Society for Crafts & Craftspeople. She has worked in the craft and development sector for over 3 decades. In 2003 she was awarded the AID TO ARTISANS Preservation of Craft Award in New York – the 2nd-ever recipient.

Laila's work with artisans includes the Chikan workers of SEWA Lucknow, Kasuti embroiderers in Karnataka, Mahubani painters and sujni quilters in Bihar, regurs in Rajasthan, and Banjara and Rabari mirror work craftswomen in Kutch and Maharashtra. One of her most rewarding projects has been the creation of new employment avenues through craft for pastoral communities displaced by the Tiger Reserve in Ranthambhore. A recent intervention has been in Kashmir, working with women victims of terrorist insurgency, using embroidery as a catalyst for social and emotional recovery.

Previous to DASTKAR, Laila Tyabji studied art in India and Japan and worked as a free-lance designer in textiles, graphics and theatre. She writes and speaks regularly on craft, design and social issues.

April 2010, Craft Revival Trust
Last week I was in Kutch, at the annual Kala Raksha Mela at Vand - a wonderful confluence of craft, commerce, culture, and community. Among the milling colourful crowds, interspersed with an occasional camel, troupes of musicians, and amazing moustaches, were Rabaris, Meghwals, Mutvas, Sodha Rajputs and Garacia Jats. Communities who had spent much of their early lives in Pakistan – not Pre-Independence but comparatively recently; moving over the border after the 1972 conflict. New Pakistani ajrakhs, worn as turbans or scarves, and flashy, smuggled Chinese watches and transistors, showed that the border continues to be a porous one, and that people from both sides continue to illicitly communicate and visit.

Though the Maru Meghwal, Sodha Rajput and Rabari mirrorwork crafts women are Hindu, and the Garacia Jats, Mutvas, and Sindhi Bharat embroiderers of Futehpuri and Berpur are Muslim, their tribal deities, sense of community, language, aesthetic and the ardours of their shared, itinerant desert life still weld them together in a Kutcchi-ness that transcends religion or nationality. It is a curious, almost eerie realisation, seeing them, that just a couple of miles away are similar people, leading similar lives, practising the same immemorial skills – separated only by artificially created political barriers. Nevertheless, those barriers, particularly post- 26/11, have made enemies out of kin, and rendered whole peoples and traditions invisible. As Haroon Bhai, an old Khatri block printer put it, “The doors to our past are closed, and the windows of the present have frosted glass.”

As a result, though the mirror-work women can instantly recognise one of their old embroideries made prior to 1971 as coming from villages now in Pakistan, few of us really know what is happening in craft across the border. A friend going to Pakistan for a conference brings back a pair of butter-soft Pakistani juthis, the Rabaris wear their spectacular, smuggled Pakistani ajrakhs (very different to our own blander, more engineered Indian versions); THREADLINES PAKISTAN, a treasured, now out-of-print book on Pakistan textile crafts, gives tantalising glimpses of Pakistani phulkari, mashru and sindhi bharat in the 70s. The Pakistani stall at the Pragati Maidan Trade Fair is full of the glossy onyx bowls, table tops and boxes Punjabi Indians nostalgically adore; Pakistani carpet vendors vie with their Indian rivals in the export market, each touting their wares as the most “authentic” yet child labour free. The rest remains a mystery.

What has happened to the roadside potters who in India today make planters and lamp-stands for designer interiors, what are Pakistani meenakars and kani shawl embroiderers and handloom weavers making these days? Has the enforcement of Islamic strictures on depicting the human form affected the art of miniature painting? Have the stunning embroideries of Swat become a target for the Taliban along with the education of girl children? Are those wonderful naif pictorial gabba chain-stitch rugs still being produced?

The lush prose of a Pakistan Tourism site conveys little except that government copywriters on both sides of the border have a lot in common! –

“Handicrafts of Pakistan is just another precious stone in the bejewelled crown of Pakistani culture and heritage. Be it intricately decorated metal craft or some marvellous marble inlay work or some exquisite paintings, Pakistani handicrafts are going places with their ethnic designs and flourishing textures. The time stands testimony to the evolving of the art and craft as the civilization grew from cave to the modern cities and now Pakistani handicraft is the integrated part of the Pakistani culture leaving the whole world amazed and wanting for more.”

Crafts are a community tradition and trade, handed down from father to son, mother to daughter over the centuries. A huge percentage of Indian craftspeople are Muslim, with many craft traditions practiced exclusively by them for hundreds of years. For example, there are 45 thousand chikan embroiderers in Lucknow city itself – almost all Muslim, making the same diaphanous white-on-white kurtas, dupattas, topis their forefathers did in the days of the Mughal and Avadh court . What do their brothers and sisters across the border make and do? Craftspeople from UP and Gujarat that I speak to suggest that there is a far more rapid erosion in numbers abandoning craft as a viable activity in Pakistan than in India; though in India too we are losing 10% of our craftspeople every decade.

The few elusive glimpses we do have suggest is that craft skills have taken very different directions in these two very different countries –as have politics, the performing arts, and social attitudes. It seems, from what one sees, that craft traditions in Pakistan have changed less over the decades than their Indian counterparts. Those traditions that survive remain purer and closer to their original form and inspiration. Perhaps because in India craft is very strongly driven by markets and consumers, while in Pakistan craft is still a local commodity, made and sold and worn at the grassroots, and not much in demand elsewhere. The Pakistani elite very consciously wear and use “made in forrun” or imitatively Western-looking branded products, and there seems to be a prejudice against the handloom and handcrafted look – perhaps because it is too reminiscent of India? In the 50s and 60s, Pakistani diplomatic wives used to wear saris, not so any more...

We take it so for granted in India that it is stylish to wear ikat or mirrorwork, to sport an embroidered bandini shawl, or put chiks, chattai and dhokra metal ware in our homes and hotel interiors, or pay thousands for a pichwai, pashmina or kilim, that we don’t realise how much this aesthetic is the lingering influence of the Swadeshi Movement and Gandhiji’s emphasis on the value of handcraft versus the industrial process - of khadi versus polyester, bagru and sanganeri butis versus a polka dot mill print. A couple of generations of crafts-friendly Government policies, reinforced by craft-conscious style icons ranging from Indira Gandhi to Shabana Azmi wearing craft for their photo-ops, have further reinforced this philosophy. Meanwhile, across the border, Benazir Bhutto wore pant suits with stilettos, and the Nepali queen and Hasina Zia flower-splashed chiffons and diamante-encrusted sun glasses. Consumer profiles in India are changing rapidly, thanks to Page 3 starlets in boots and little black dresses and the endless mushrooming of shopping malls, each with their rows of identical, branded shop fronts. Nevertheless, craft is still sold, worn and used all over India, at all levels of society, in a way that is quite unfamiliar in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ceylon or Nepal.

Over the last couple of years, (while India and Pakistan were still in detente mode), several groups of craft-conscious Pakistanis have visited Dastkar – brainstorming trips prior to setting up a Dilli Haat-type complex in Islamabad, designers wanting to source chikan or zardozi or patti-ka-kaam patchwork appliqué, development types wanting establish their own NGOs in Peshawar or Sind.... There are differences between the Pakistani craft-y types and their Indian counterparts – some aesthetic, some cultural, some attitudinal; some trivial, some major. While Indian craft-y types tend to wear their profession literally on their sleeves – handloom kurtas or sarees, block prints, jhola bags, embroidered juthis or kolhapuri chappals, tribal jewellery, - the head of one Pakistani delegation wore what looked like an Armani pant suit, high heeled court shoes and diamonds, while another wore a headscarf over a flowered georgette salwar suit, an oversize Dior tote bag, and huge cultured pearls. The majority of Indian crafties are women and the few men in the sector (except Government types) dress the part in khadi or tussar kurtas, the style-conscious tossing a pashmina or angavastra casually over their shoulders. A recent Pakistani group had several male members, all in Western attire. One looked like a retired general with his handlebar moustaches and brass-buttoned blue blazer, the others in corporate-type suits and ties, spouting corporate marketing speak.

In India craft is generally considered part of the development sector, and the craftspeople we work with are friends and colleagues, referred to in NGO lingo as “partners”. We hug each other when meeting, stay and eat in each other’s homes, celebrate weddings and births like family. Little of that classless warmth or even political correctness seems to have trickled down to the grass roots in Pakistan apparently, despite Islam being a supposedly casteless religion! The attitude and language is a rather outdated ‘charity’ and ‘social work’ version rather than the ‘development’ jargon used here. Revival of the tradition and promotion of tourism is the expressed objective - not employment, earning, or the empowerment of craftspeople.

Of course there are exceptions, including the many grassroots NGOs who work in remote areas in Pakistan, (Jisti-Sungi and their work with jisti phulkari embroiderers in Hazara is one shining example) but their visibility, and the recognition and appreciation of their work in Pakistan, is very different to that accorded to SEWA, SASHA, Tilonia, the Crafts Councils, and Dastkar in India. Pakistani NGOs are often floored by the news that India has huge Government Departments, several National and State-level Corporations, a National Museum, numerous Government Emporia, and many highly ranked government officials, all exclusively dedicated to the craft sector. To say nothing of KVIC, our Government sponsored Khadi & Village Industries Corporation, solely devoted to the promotion of khadi homespun - the largest retail network in the world, with over 7000 outlets and 57,000 employees.

The post-Independence emancipation and economic empowerment of women has also played a huge part in the development of Indian crafts. Thousands of craftswomen – be it in Kutch, Karnakata, the North East, UP, Bihar or Bengal, who previously plied their needles or looms only for their dowries , have been actively encouraged to use their creative skills for employment and earning, creating a whole new stream of craft products – garments, home accessories, accessories, basketry – and subtly changing themselves in the process. As Ramba ben, a Banaskantha craftswoman told me, “The lives of my family now hang by the thread I embroider...”

Theirs is the success story of Indian crafts in transition: the traditional hand skills of communities, used to craft products for themselves and their families, gradually changing into a contemporary, urban, market-led product, but still strongly reflecting the cultural identity and individual skills of the makers. The shift in the balance of power within the family and the changing perceptions of the community to women as they become earners, mirror the transitions in the craft as it reaches out to wider, new markets.

But, as I said earlier, all this is not entirely cause for self-congratulation. Well meaning NGOs and government bureaucrats, (and of course the notoriously self-serving middleman) have fiddled with, distorted and cheapened many wonderful craft traditions beyond recognition. While their Pakistani counterparts remain un-sung but true to their indigenous roots, Indian craftspeople with the potential to make exquisite, one-of-a-kind masterpieces have been encouraged to mass-produce cheap bric-a-brac and tacky souvenirs for the tourist market. The skills that made the Taj Mahal are extant today, but used to make crude, useless little pill boxes and coasters.

Even worse, with the coming of globalisation and liberalisation and the entry of international brands into the Indian marketplace, an indifference and lack of respect towards crafts and craftspeople is gradually permeating Indian society as well. Instead of recognising its potential and unique power in an increasingly industrialised world, a senior Government official called crafts a “sunset” industry. Highly skilled National Master Craftsperson Awardees sell their wares on footpaths and are bargained with; master weavers in Varanasi and Andhra commit suicide for lack of yarn, bank loans, and marketing channels.

Nevertheless, craft has a place in the Indian consciousness that is very different from that in largely Islamic Pakistan. The craftsman in India traditionally had the status of an artist, tracing his descent from Vishwakarma, “Lord of the Many Arts, Master of a 1000 Handicrafts, Carpenter to the Gods, Architect of their Celestial Mansion, Designer of all Ornaments, the First of all Craftsmen.” Crafts had a religious and cultural significance, with motifs, colours, and functions carrying their own symbolic meaning - consecrated by tradition to temple ritual or court ceremonial, the seasons, birth, marriage or death. Even materials were imbued with meaning: each textile, wood or metal had its ascribed attribute. According to an ancient text, the Kalika Purana, for instance, gold removed “ the excesses of the three humours and promotes strength of vision, ” silver was “favourable and inimicable to bile, but calculated to increase the secretion of wind and phlegm”, bronze was “agreeable and intellectual, but favourable to undue excitement of blood and bile”, brass was “wind-generating, irritating, hot, and heat and phlegm-destroying”, while iron was “beneficial in overcoming dropsy, jaundice and anaemia” !

Successive dynasties of Muslim rulers adopted these indigenous Indian attitudes, introducing new skills from abroad, and adding their own lavishly imperial patronage. Craft products were associated with festivals, ceremonies, and other rites of passage, and remain an indispensable part of these events even today. Difficult to imagine any Government function without the lighting of a lamp, or a wedding without a Banarsi saree and sets of kundan jewellery. Difficult to imagine brothers and sisters, however Westernized, not exchanging rakhees. In the eclectic Indian way, most Indian crafts have “adjusted” (in our favourite phrase!) to contemporary needs and tastes and therefore survived, just as Zardozi craftspeople have embraced and incorporated Swarovski crystals into their own embroidery techniques, instead of being displaced by their onrush.

National identity is inextricably linked with culture and aesthetic, but when the dividing lines have been hacked brutally overnight by bureaucrats and politicians rather than limned in by the gradual, gentle hand of history or geography, it is difficult to say where Pakistaniath begins and Indianness ends. A few years ago, I was part of a series of meetings regarding the setting up of a SAARC Museum, intended to exhibit the arts and crafts of the countries of the region. The discussions, initially intense, faded out over the insuperable problems of “ownership” of indigenous traditions that were common to all. The jamawar shawl was fraught with the emotion and divisive politics of Kashmir, and was kantha from Bengal or Bangladeshi? How did you position the Harappa and Mohenjadaro Indus Valley civilisation when writing the history of the two countries? Could anything strictly be called Pakistani or Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan or Indian? Terrible wounds open when these issues are raised. Sadly, chauvinism, paranoia and xenophobia prevail.

Sumrasar, where the Kala Raksha project in Kutch originally started, is a village of re-settled Maru Meghwal refugees from Sind in Pakistan. The women do exquisite suf and kharak embroidery. The older women, who can no longer stitch the intricate counted thread technique embroidery, make colourful patchwork quilts. After the 2001 earthquake which convulsed Kutch, killing hundreds and rendering thousands more homeless and bereft, the patchwork women began making extraordinary pictorial wall hangings; initially as a cathartic way to work the tragedy and trauma out of their system. Rani Ben Rati Lal Bhanani was one of those women. She had left her native Sind in Pakistan to settle in Sumrasar in the 70s. Elderly now, her memories and moving tapestries eloquently convey a life riven by the aftershocks of both events; a life conducted with humour and acceptance, but nevertheless “partitioned” in a way that is inevitably crippling. Indian crafts and their Pakistani counterparts too, have suffered this emotional and physical severance. Both would be the richer had it not taken place.

This article was originally written for the India International Centre Quarterly, February, 2009



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