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Artisans and Academics

McComb, Jessie F., a Fulbright Scholar, was in New Delhi for a year studying the lost wax casting process of the Bastar region in Chhattisgarh and the surrounding areas. Back in America, she is going to contribute to our website in a new series Letter from America. Ms. McComb received a BA in both Art History and Physics in 2003 from Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York. In addition to her interests in Indian folk and tribal crafts, she has worked extensively with Contemporary Indian Art.

Although many people are involved with craft in America, both in terms of creation and purchasing, few are intimately entangled in the scholarly discourse of these Asian craft objects. The professors, curators and critics that do venture into the academic world of Indian craft often remain so far removed from the public sphere that little of this discourse ever becomes accessible to the public at large. This leaves most Americas with little information about the crafts they view in catalogues, high-end stores and import shops.

As I have written before, there are certain organizations, such as Aid to Artisans that attempt cultural explanations with their sale of craft objects. However, these explanations barely breach the academic line, for lack of time, space and attention span of the buyer. There are also a few magazines that cater to the general public and are widely available at common venues such as book stores and magazines stalls. Ornamentations, one such magazine, recently featured the culture and jewelry of the Naga's from Northeastern India. Although much of the article focused on the dwindling art and the need for preservation, it proved to bring more of an explanation about the rich heritage of one of India's largest tribal areas.

Among scholarly journals, available to the public only through personal subscription or large libraries, there are a few that focus on Asian arts and crafts. These journals, often published through universities with extensive doctoral programs for Asian art, create the majority of the American discourse around Indian art. The Freer Gallery of Art in the Smithsonian Institute and the Department of the History of Art at the University of Michigan publish one of the best journals, Ars Orientalis.

Ars Orientalis has a wide spread readership among scholars and it is published as an annual volume of articles and book reviews focusing on all of Asia including the ancient Near East and the Islamic World. Fortunately, for scholars of Indian art and craft, the most recent publication is focused on western India in the 11th through 15th centuries. The volume contains articles with topics with a wide range, but mostly focused on textiles and trade. The contributing scholars, mostly from America and Britain, also included a professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi). However exciting an entire volume on Indian crafts truly is, the fact remains that most scholarly journals focus on ancient technology and production of these items. Even at that, the academics also tend to concentrate on what we in the craft world would consider classical pieces, e.g. Gandharan sculpture, Rajput paintings and Company School paintings.

To find a discussion on more recent creations from artisan in India and elsewhere, often scholars must look to Anthropology journals where discussions of artifacts are mingled with stories of development and ethnographies. And these journals are perhaps even harder to obtain for the general public. There are, of course, occasional features in more accessible magazines or journals where India's contemporary crafts are highlighted. In the most recent summer edition of the journal The Subcontinent, which usually focuses on public affairs, the editors decided to feature articles dealing with the institutionalization of Indian arts and culture. A few of these articles concentrated specifically on some disappearing crafts such as puppet making and performance and hand-made paper creation.

However, even features in more commonplace journals rarely reach the public in mass quantities. Perhaps the most successful way to introduce and educate the public about Indian crafts is through museums. In Washington, D.C., America's capital, the Smithsonian Institute has done a remarkable job of designing and filling museums that focus on non-western art and craft. The Freer and Sackler galleries are a part of this effort. Together they house some 1,200 objects from South Asia and the Himalayas that range in age from the 1st century B.C.E. to the present. They also show contemporary exhibits that highlight a scope of objects. In 2003, for example, the museum hosted an exhibit on Pakistani painted trucks (HTV's).

Another fantastic museum located in the nation's capital is The Textile Museum. Through their gallery spaces, library and events, they promote knowledge of Indian craft to the public and academic classes alike. Currently the museum is hosting an exhibit on Kashmir shawls and the development of the buta design found on these spectacular fabrics. Also, this past October the museum held a conference on Indian Textile Traditions hosting speakers for such topics as carpet design, the impact of Kashmir shawls on Persian rug design and the disappearing flower motifs in Indian shawls.

Museums such as the Freer and Sackler Galleries and the Textile Museum, as well as others throughout the United States, are perhaps the only ways through which the public can be educated about the vast array of Indian crafts. These museums and galleries are accessible, well advertised and contain easy to understand information on everything from wall paintings to rug weaving. However only so much information can be dispensed through didactic panels and catalogues. For people to have a deep understanding of Indian crafts they have a lengthy search ahead of them.



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