A POLYPHONOUS CANVAS WHERE MATERIAL MEETS IMAGINATION
– by Rajeev Sethi
India continues to be the most hand skilled country in the world and has even evolved its own language of hast mudras;
where the hands speak in the vocabulary of dance, ritual and eloquent gesture. Although rapidly de-skilling itself, with an unfeeling lack of official support, half a million Indian villages are still capable of making something they need for use in their daily lives.
A woman in the Thar desert weaves sturdy saddle stirrups for her husband’s camel while waiting for his return; the
tribal in Orissa commissions ploughshares from the local metalsmith forging waste iron; the farmer in Uttar Pradesh has always got his custom-made footwear, jootis, from the village cobbler, who can be persuaded to insert a particular seed in its sole, which makes a sound that scares the snakes away; the householder of Assam puts together a light-as-air
winnowing tray from local grasses to separate the wheat from the chaff; the womenfolk of Punjab thread a needle the day a daughter is born, to embroider a shawl with visual narratives celebrating the good wishes of a mother; a housewife wakes each morning and consecrates the space of her threshold with diagrammatic patterns made with rice powder—to be consumed later by ants—known as kolam in Tamil Nadu, muggu in Andhra Pradesh, alpana in West Bengal, aripana in Bihar and mandhna in Rajasthan.
FINGERPRINTS OF INDIA
Many regions of India have traditional wall paintings made to welcome the seasons and propitiate the deities during festivals or as a rite of passage, and these have now found their places—transferred onto paper or textile—in the collection of connoisseurs. Legal safeguards, in the form of geographical indicators, protect the original from being copied; thus such work is recognised as the Madhubani School of Bihar, Warli of Maharashtra and Gond pictograms of Madhya Pradesh. Before the advent of television and cinema, live performative formats of storytelling and balladeers used phads and patas—painted picture scrolls with ancient and contemporary themes—to illustrate dramatic
enactments. The jadupatkars of the Santhals, the patuas of Bengal, the pabujikaphad of rural Rajasthan, the cheriyal of Andhra and mata ki pachedi of Gujarat are a few of the many traditional skills persisting through the shrinking world of interpersonal communication. Marionettes likewise, whether string, rod, glove or body. Those made with translucent
goat hide magically light up as shadow puppets on dark nights, with tales of chivalry and divine interventions. Wood and stone carvers or masons are renowned, such as the Sthapatis of the south, Sompuras of the west, Mahopatras of the east and Ramgarias and Khatis of the north, all making architecture come alive with crafts. Churches, mosques, temples and whole towns bear witness to their incredible understanding of material, skill and context. An inlay of stone on stone, wood on wood, metal on metal, even plastic on plastic and dozens of other innovative permutations and combinations have created decorative surfaces for ornamentation and utilitarian objects that now find places on museum shelves all over the world. Cast metal images of gods and goddesses lit up with oil lamps in inner sanctums are awe-inspiring, touching light with air. Delicate trellises with myriad patterns carved, cut or assembled from every possible material adorn hotel lobbies, homesteads and sacred shrines. And what to say about India’s most incredible merchandise, which made it rich and famous. In the realm of textiles, pehchaan—a little more than mere recognition—is the direct encounter with the fabric, its count, weight and feel. What matters is the telling detail, the restraint and understatement, the abandonment in modulations of colour, luster, and sheen. Pehchaan indicates an understanding of when and how the fabric surpasses its kind; where exactly it falls short and why. It signifies a sense of proportion
and purpose. It implies the ability to visualize the fabric lavished, draped, accented, and at its most subtle, to foresee the grace or lack of grace with which it will yield itself to the softening and maturing of the ageing process. Like a woman in a sari, the equation transcends time but also changes with new applications and sensibilities.
Completely handmade textile will continue to exist if they can produce what existing machines can’t produce, or produce better. Evolved aesthetic and functional sensibilities that match the individual’s warp—their hand skills—with their weft— personal insight—will survive. For the moment, there are several such examples: artistic weaves with natural dyes, block prints and kalamkaris, asymmetrical loom embroidery and interlays, unique double ikats, handspun organic cottons of very fine counts, wild silks with exotic structures, blended toosh-like fabrics that thus far, can only be handspun and woven by the most dexterous.
I once asked a craftsperson whose children refused to follow the ancestral profession, why, while his skills were so devalued, he continued to work in adversity. He replied, “Lodged deep in my heart is the arrow shot from the bow of wisdom we have inherited. My hands link my heart and my eyes to my spirit.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rajeev Sethi is a renowned designer, art curator and scenographer, and a recipient of the Padma Bhushan. He is curator and founder-chairman of the Asian Heritage Foundation and a pioneering member of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).