Mapping India’s Crafts was a mammoth task that took eleven years. During this period many new crafts were born skills rejuvenated and some may have languished and faded away. The nature of crafts production in India is both ephemeral and resilient. India’s crafts journey resembles the progress of a river from the mountains to the ocean picking up material depositing some changes course, disappearing underground to surface somewhere else. Yet the tradition continues forever.
The Dastkari Haat Samiti a national association of craftspeople undertook the enormous task of documenting whatever skills and crafts it could find and created artistic crafts maps of each state of India. Three new states were born during the process. A traditional art form of each state provides the backdrop for information meticulously gathered from first and second hand sources. The maps provide resource material to people working in different disciplines and a source of aesthetic joy to anyone who uses them as wall posters.
The vibrant illustrations and academically rich content are recreated as an atlas of India’s crafts handmade textiles and traditional arts covering India’s cultural history crafts Atlas of India is therefore a unique documentation and a rare visual treat.
Jaya Jaitly belongs to Kerala and graduated in English literature from Smith College in Northampton Massachusetts USA. She is the Founder President of the Dastkari Haat Samiti a Nationwide association of craftspeople. It trains promotes and organizes its members for better marketing through many innovative strategies. Part of this work involves bringing together artisans of India with counterparts in different countries. She is responsible for the creation of Dilli Haat a well known and popular marketplace enabling sustenance of traditional livelihoods and cultural heritage.
She has created unique artistic crafts maps that document all the crafts and textiles as major exhibitions of India’s crafts culture at London Frankfurt, Delhi, Ahmadabad and Chennai. She regularly speaks and writes on crafts and has published five books on handicrafts and one as selected writings on crafts women’s empowerment human and animal rights, social and political issues.
She was in mainstream politics for twenty five years and was the general secretary spokesperson and later president of the Samata party. She currently publishers and edits a political monthly called the other side.
All civilization have been through the same early phases of hunting fishing and then farming along with their many related offshoots of artisanship. Each life sustaining activity required implements just as cold climates necessitated clothing and the vagaries of nature required man to provide himself with shelter.
The simple fishing net or basket made out of common reeds indicated the possibility of using grasses for clothing. Stone wood, clay and later metals and fibres all lent themselves to man’s ingenuity and creativity so that has hands could work in conjunction with tools made by him in order to keep himself alive both in the barest physical terms as well as in harmony with his mind and spirit.
Never in his or her universe did a person live merely to eat and survive. Very early on the creative soul and energies of human beings began to manifest themselves. This creative spirit in the midst of the struggle for survival is one of the unique and significant distinguishing features between men and beasts. Why else do the most primitive of communities even today lay so much store on painting the inside or outside of their homes adorning their bodies with decorative tattoos or ornaments? Why are people affected by and often spiritually guided by colors? Why does a woman fashion an attractive handle for the broom she uses to clean her home and why does she spend time invoking the blessings of the gods through her painted designs on the kitchen floor?
India has been greatly blessed by having a many layered culturally diverse rich heritage of craft skills imbibed through the ebb and flow of historical events that rest upon societal practices and religious beliefs. Changes and enrichment have taken place from trade movements such as those on the old silk route, which brought demands and resources from the Middle East and central Asia to the Fat East up to China. The infusing of carpet and superior forms of shawl weaving came into Kashmir through the Mughal King Zain-ul-Abedin. Persian artisans enriched those of India for courtly needs.
On the other hand the static nature of the Hindu caste system has kept many crafts forms alive merely because the artisan had no opportunity to move away to other professions since social boundaries were rigid and hierarchical. The courts of the various maharajahs encouraged excellence in many courtly crafts connected with the making of armoury or jewelry.
Temple kept alive the finest metalwork stone carving, mural, painting and even textile weaving right across India and particularly in South India where the Kammalars who claimed descent from the five divine artisan sons of Lord Viswakarma the architect of heaven followed the shilpa shastras the technical tomes on the practice of art in Sanskrit. The high priests among the artisans follow these even today when creating large vessels out of metal alloys for the ideal through the dedication since the practice of their art is seen as a striving for the ideal through the dedication of their skill to the gods. It is seen as man’s process of reaching the acme of his own capability in the pursuit of excellence and doing this by dedicating it to a higher being. The silken temple cloths in south India are woven to drape on the stone images of the gods and the Gharchola and Patola of Gujarat are mandatory purchases for a trousseau and are valued highly partly because the weavers belongs to high caste families.
Even old and torn pieces are used to cover religious objects in the prayer room of a house. In the same vein, artists paintings religious epics on walls or cloth would never affix their signature to the works as self abnegation was a part of worship.
Tribal communities comprise about eight per cent of the population of India and consist of different racial groups Dravidian, Mongoloid and central Asian. Spread out in different parts of India they have continued with ancient cultural practices related to their specific ways of life and probably are the most timeless and continuing layer of India’s multicultural societies.
In Jammu and Kashmir the Gujjars and Bakarwals are mountain tribes who spend their lives crossing over from one side of the mountains to the other in search of grasses for their sheep and goats. Their jewelry, blankets embroidered caps and tunics, saddle bags and sundry animal accessories exhibit a distinct boldness and vibrancy akin to the artifacts of the people of Afghanistan, Iran, and the Smaller countries of Central Asia.
Mirror work in Embroidery which stems from the use of mica from the desert sands, appears in the garments of those who liked heavy and shining ornamentation but being nomadic needed to wear all that they had on their person. They found that the sun reflected in the mica making this an accessory that embellished their garment suitably without any cost.
Each group developed its own style of the embroidery and the color and cut of the upper bodice worn by their women. As communities move in search of greener pastures for their sheep cattle and camels across desert sands a mere glance is enough to identify their tribe and even their profession as grazers hersmen cultivations or traders.
The mongloid tribes inhabit the northeast of India and live among the rich bamboo forests where the finest quality of skill in the weaving of bamboo cane and other wild grasses can be seen. This racial groups links itself culturally to the people of Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and even Japan and china where mat weaving and basketry display some of the finest hand skills in the world.
Handloom weaving too is a common skill of this region. Apart from weaving ceremonial shawls and lungis headscarves and waist belts, small scarves for ceremonial greetings are woven in almost every household. These cloths are revered for many reasons they establish the identity of the tribe or the status of the wearer they serve as welcome scarves to greet a visitor with honour they hour the achievement of a chieftain and they are passed on as skills from generation to generation through their womenfolk.
The partly Negroid tribes are found in central and south India spread across the states of Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and to some extent in Kerala. In each region they may adhere to different cultural practice and their proximity to urbanization would have affected the extent to which they continue to make or use handcrafted objects. In they live and their spiritual association with all forms of nature have enabled them to retain a distinct style of making bamboo items such as bows and arrows musical instruments and baskets. Their metalwork incorporates the world of trees animals and human beings as if they were all forged from the same shapes and impulses of nature. Earthen vessels and toys are painted with bold black and white stripes. Winnows for grain take on wondrous hues with stripes of bamboo dyed in brilliant yellows and magenta pinks. Palm leaf brooms the trousseau of the bride to her new home are capped with plumed birds in bright colored strips of bamboo. The making of craft items is at once a daily practice a ritual, and a celebration of creativity in everyday life.
The textiles of the tribals of central India too have their own distinct identity. Clothes were designed to establish identity. The tribes of central India Spin and weave thick ivory colored yarn with madder red borders and end piece reflecting images from their lives birds, flowers, trees, deer and even airplanes decorate these cloths. In Odisha ceremonial cloths to be worn by the priest or priestess are required to be of a certain color. Each color has an auspicious meaning and unity of community is expressed through the similarity of dress and adornment.
Tribal and indigenous arts related to specific cultural traditions of various communities could be termed as people’s art as opposed to the more stylized classical arts that evolved within the Hindu social system. These forms were the result of influences from different parts of the world. Some of these were the result of influences from different parts of the world. Some of these came from trade and historical events. There was also a gradual change in craft practices because of industrialization and technological and cultural pressures from dominant economic groups within and outside India.
Despite the many changes India’s crafts have been cradled and nurtured by the caste system which divided professional groups into sections that unfortunately became vertically hierarchical. Those who worked with their hands in artisan skills were denied easy access to the asks assigned to the upper castes. While socially and psychologically detrimental it locked artisan skills in place and ensured the transmission of this knowledge from generation to generation. In the absence of any alternative it thereby preserved techniques and processes that might otherwise have been lost by the wayside. Even today the prajapati or Kumhar the Vankar or bunker the Ashari, and all the other identified and categorized artisans are divided and recognized by the caste groupings whether they continue to practice their skill or not.
In the arts of India by GCM Birdwood the author cites the nineteenth chapter of the second section of the Ramayana the Ayodhya Kanda to list the inhabitants of the city who are represented as participating in the procession with Bharat to seek Ram. They are the trade guilds of artisans the jewelers, potters, ivory-workers, perfumers, goldsmiths, weavers, carpenters, braziers, painters, musical instrument makers, armourere, curriers, blacksmith, coppersmiths, sculptors, crystal cutters, glassmakers, inlayers and other all in the form of guilds.
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