The panoramic view of Indian crafts is a patchwork quilt of many hues and shades of meaning, reflective of interactions with social, economic, cultural and religious forces. The craft world is full of contrasts, a universe of utility products and sacred objects, articles for ritual use and ephemeral festival crafts, representing many levels of refinement-from the simplest to the most technically advanced. Likewise there are many perceptions of the term ‘craftsman’, ranging from a manual laborer to a worker of high artistic excellence. Craft, then, is situated in a complex milieu, a dense matrix of many strands and elements.
Stories unfold in material with the skillful wielding of tools and application of intellect and the product is a mirror of the society that produces it. It is uncanny how we can see traces and signs of culture frozen in stone or clay and metal and wood, all of which echo the roots of a particular cultural system that produces or uses the craft object. The belief systems that determine that form could be from the religious source or from some body of ancient folk wisdom.
As rightly said by someone, a craft is a true reflection of the creativity, proximity to nature, command on thought patterns, clarity of right mixture to turn a piece of wood or a piece of brass or some other make to a masterpiece.
Thus, the huge terracotta Ayyanar horses stand as watchful village guardians in Tamil Nadu. The temple, the mosque, the church and tribal gods have all contributed to the shaping of artifacts of worship and the votive offerings that are part of the rites of passage in so many communities in India. Birth and death, marriage and adolescence are all occasions for community joy or sorrow, and these create the context for the release of creative energies and the demand for the highest degree of skill that the crafts person can bring to the occasion.
There is a variety of expressions: some are elaborated with decorative motifs and surface ornamentation, in some others a pristine sense of peace with the material and sublime proportion that evokes soft feelings even when the object is made of metal, like in the massive cast charakku vessel from Kerala. The simplicity of the Jain turned-wood paatra, utensils, and the elaborate and ornate meenakari, enameled metal ware from the Islamic north stand in stark contrast, each reflecting the ethos of the community and the purpose that it serves. In the hills of Nagaland, the baskets, headgear and other accessories of the wearer tell us about his or her world view and identity.
India has been at the crossroads of civilization for over 5,000 years. The various waves of interactions from the Northwest and the subtle trade interactions from the South and the East have brought in new ideas and practices, skills and applications. Internal migrations and trade transactions took skills from one location and planted them in new and alien settings. For example, the bandhani textiles of Gujarat find new expression in the sungadi of faraway Madurai. The arrival of the Mughals brought in the fine Iranian artistry in metal, silk and carpet weaving. The coming of the British and the Portuguese in South India introduced the carved wooden traditions of the West. In addition, the hot humid climate called for a sensible design of shaded verandas of Pondicherry, coastal Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
Indian handicrafts are a storehouse of classical motifs and patterns that have evolved over centuries, many of which have been passed on from trading cultures over eons of interaction. The motifs and patterns once absorbed by a culture get disseminated across a variety of media, from stone to wood, to metal to cloth; from weaving to print and from painting to inlay; each technique bringing to the pattern its unique signature, an amalgam of material and tool limitation. The floral motifs and the creeper, the bel, can find as many expressions as there are materials and contexts as also the keri or aam, the stylized mango.
The human form too has been depicted in great variety. The rough and ready whittled shapes of the Naga warrior contrast strongly with the elegant statuettes of the Chola bronzes while the wrought iron tribesman from Chhattisgarh differs from the expressive occupational toys from Kondapalli in Andhra Pradesh.
Several crafts are a form of pure service and the craftsman plays the role of facilitator of some critical function of form giving or repair. The mochi or cobbler and the potter, the tile maker and the carpenter fall into the category of those who work to serve the community with their skills and knowledge. In the age of mass consumption, it may be a good idea to bring back some of the values of this service to ensure that our products are recycled and repaired rather than used and thrown away long before their active life is over. Craft and the use of craftsmanship could bring in new values for a sustainable future and a new attitude towards the proper use and abuse of materials in the coming years.
Traditional and modern settings exist for showcasing the craft heritage across India. The bazaar is the closest to the maker while new forms of exhibitions and trade fairs promoted by the government and non-governmental bodies represent the new formats for contemporary action. The craft heritage continues to evolve into modern times and the objects too are finding new and contemporary expression, while the old and the traditional is still valued for the refinement that they represent. That the crafts understand and respond to the variety demanded by its clientele can be seen in the profusion of jewellery, clothing, footwear and hand-held accessories that are used as part of our daily costume. The Kolhapuri chappal, leather footwear, is one such product that comes to mind. The Warli and Madhubani painting are two prominent examples of everyday art that is part of the living culture of the land.
In the changing context of a global market-driven economy and ideology, traditional crafts offer sustainable practices that need to be revisited and imbibed. Craft development needs a paradigm shift from promoting the karigar, traditional craftsperson, to, karigiri, quality of craftsmanship, since whoever imbibes this quality becomes the craftsperson in perpetuity.