For the past two years, I have been working with a team of folk artists and craftspeople to generate awareness about Indian folk art and craft traditions amongst schoolchildren in New Delhi. During the course of one such interaction, a teacher asked why we needed to do something like this? At first, I was totally perplexed -why did she feel the need to ask this question? Was it because of a perception that in this intensely technological world, there is no space for people who work with their hands? Are the artists and artisans seen as carriers of a fossilized tradition? In this wired and unwired world, are these people redundant? This article is essentially an attempt to answer the all-important why? Why is it necessary to create spaces where the young can view and learn aspects of their cultural heritage? Why is it critical that we work towards preserving and promoting the arts and crafts of India and the people who practice them? Why is it necessary to bring culture to the classroom?
Perhaps a closer look at one of my motivations to undertake such an endeavour will provide some clues. As a mother of an eight year old, I realized that with the children's quota of Barbie dolls (very hard to resist), Western and Japanese cartoons, video-games, studies and sports, art and craft was somehow slipping away. Sure, children saw some evidence of Indian art and craft when we took them to Dilli Haat or the Crafts Museum. - I watched how captivated they were at the lac bangle maker's stall, how eagerly they reached out for the clay at the potter's stall, impatient to try their luck at the potter's wheel. But these encounters were not too frequent and sadly, not for long - there were always too many people waiting or parents needed to be someplace else. Sure there were some schools which promoted art, craft and creativity but close encounters with living traditional practitioners was not a frequent occurrence.
The idea then was born that perhaps we could take these artists and artisans to the schools where the children could engage with them and learn not merely aspects of a craft or art but view these artisans with new found respect. Many children had little exposure to the finer nuances of India's vast heritage of arts and crafts and more frighteningly, they had very limited awareness and respect for the tremendous reservoir of knowledge present in our artistic and craft traditions. For instance, traditional folk artists and textile artists have a wealth of knowledge of natural dyes and colours while bamboo artisans know when and why certain bamboo need to be harvested. The artists have a wealth of information gleaned from various sources - oral traditions, epics and legends. In bringing the artists/artisans and the children together, we would be providing a platform where these knowledge systems could be highlighted, where children could consider alternative world-views.
Another reason why it is critical to promote such interactions is the whole notion of preserving our traditional heritage. Should traditional crafts and arts go the way of the dodo - become extinct because they no longer fit the paradigm of our times? This is a complicated issue because in the first place, who decides whether these traditions fit or not? Also, do these traditions remain static or are some of them dynamic, adapting to the times and changing accordingly? What are the parameters of heritage? All these are debatable but the fact remains that aspects of material culture can be preserved and promoted for posterity. One way to do this is to keep the material culture vibrant, to keep it visible and accessible. Even in these days of sophisticated plastic toys, children can and will take pleasure in a hand-crafted paper windmill or a simple wooden top. The various styles of folk art be it Madhubani, Warli or Patachitra can not be perpetuated in isolation - they need to be viewed as much as possible. Also, involving children in any movement allows for a great degree of success - they are committed, passionate advocates of the cause they believe in. The Say No to Crackers campaign is a valid example of how children can successfully bring about positive change. Similarly, if children see the need to preserve and promote Indian art craft, they will become committed to the cause and contribute to it.
Fostering closer ties between school children and traditional practitioners also contributes to the artist/artisans sense of self-worth. In fact, such interactions often serve to validate what the practitioner is doing and adds to self-esteem. Sometimes, during these encounters, one does not anticipate the tremendous response and goodwill generated, a spontaneous occurrence that leaves both the artist and the children spellbound. At a recent interaction between folk singers from Rajasthan and school-children, the entire junior school assembly began to clap and sing in time with the singers, even though they did not know the lyrics fully. That moment in time was beautiful marked by a harmony and empathy, a feeling of universality hard to describe. When the artist sees scores of children interested to how and why he paints something, there is a renewed pride in his legacy and in his ability. When the weaver sees the ease with s/he can weave, what is like second nature to them and what others struggle with, there is a heightened awareness of their skills and the value of it.
When children work with traditional practitioners using their materials and techniques, there is a vital flow of knowledge and the children are exposed to new materials and methods. Sometimes, these interactions open up new possibilities of working with familiar materials. The interactions often serve as catalysts, inspiring the children to go on exciting journeys of self-expression, creating in them a desire to explore their artistic abilities. At a recent interaction between school children and Madhubani paper-machie artists, the children were amazed that old paper and clay, when moulded by hand and painted could become such charming animals. The artists were demonstrating how to make turtle candle-holders but soon, the tables were filled with elephants, dolphins, monsters and even Pokemon candle-holders. The children's joy at crafting something with their own hands and the total concentration which most of them lavished on their lumps of paper-machie were simply awe-inspiring.
Creating awareness of cultural diversity and enabling better understanding of such multiplicity is another reason why it is critical to ensure that traditional practitioners and school children interact. In these divisive times, it is important that children learn to appreciate the differences and the commonalities between different cultures. It is critical to foster respect for others instead of hatred, to encourage a meaningful search for identity instead of highlighting differences simply to create social barriers. It is important to celebrate the differences and not decry them. When children interact with artists, artisans, folk singers, dancers from all parts of the country, they realize what makes India special and unique. The young mind gains a wider understanding of the world and also of his/her "Indian-ness" too.
I could go on with the reasons to promote such interactions including the fact that in this heavily wired (and now unwired!!) world, there needs to be some space for intangible stuff such as beauty and grace. These are fast disappearing from our daily lives as we chase our materialistic goals, and yet are inherent in our art and craft traditions. Let me conclude by saying that may these traditions, the fountainhead of joy, beauty and knowledge continue forever.