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HomeArt & CultureIndia’s Rich Tapestry of Craft is Its True Unbroken Legacy

India’s Rich Tapestry of Craft is Its True Unbroken Legacy

Handicraft sector represents India’s only living heritage that has survived through ages. Though the sector is in a general decline, some young artisans continue to keep the flame of creativity alive.

– Shafaat Shahbandari

What does a human being leave behind when he or she passes on? His or her wealth, descendants or property? Could there be more to one’s legacy? There could be if you make a difference in people’s lives! Someone who has touched people’s lives, leaves behind something more beautiful and profound than the material inheritance, something that lives on with the people they have touched for generations.

Some people do this without even knowing that their work leaves a legacy that is larger than their life or creations. An artisan or a craftsperson leaves behind such a legacy, which goes way beyond the realms of the tangible.

Human creativity comes from the divinely endowed gift that shapes the human ability to mould or craft objects. An artisan’s creation stems from the soul’s urge to express itself in forms that are otherwise inexplicable. It is the perpetuation of divine beauty!

Whether a woodworker, a stone carver or a potter, an artisan gives life to a dead piece of wood, stone or clay carving out beautiful patterns and giving shape to objects through his boundless imagination and sheer skills.

To the untrained eye it is a simple act of chipping away some flakes from a dead piece of wood or stone, but in reality the beautiful patterns he is bringing to life are going to touch thousands of lives, bringing joy to the hearts of the beholder and filling colours into the dull fabric of our mundane existence.

Whatever be the art or craft, it is among the signs of the Almighty Creator, a minuscule portion of the divine creative expression blown into the creation by the All Powerful Creator. Creativity adds beauty to our gracefully diverse nature and is in harmony with a mesmerisingly synchronised universe that is constantly expressing itself under the divine command.

When a craftsman passes away, more than a person disappears from the scene. A portion of creativity that was unique to him or her dies with the artisan. When an artisan leaves the scene, he takes with him a significant portion of the art, if not everything, unless he has passed on his knowledge and skill to new generations.

With every master artisan passing away or every man or woman from the artisanal families abandoning their creative tradition, it is not just a family that is losing its legacy, it is the country that is losing its living heritage. A heritage that goes back hundreds of years.

India is a world in itself, with a range of languages, cultures and traditions not found anywhere else. It is this diversity that makes India distinct and truly unique and it is this assortment that needs to be preserved and promoted for the true prosperity of our nation.

Nothing in India represents its composite nature more than its craft traditions. There is so much variety and ingenuity in the Indian art and craft that the art of the whole world put together pales in comparison.

Craft is India’s real heritage and it is the only thread that keeps us connected with the ancient people and civilisations of the country.

Historically, India has always been an enduring, inclusive, mother-like figure, accepting in its nurturing lap traditions and practices from different parts of the world and eventually absorbing them and making them its own.

In an era when fast fashion and mass factory-produced goods are the norm, sustainably created handmade products hardly find any patrons. In fact, very few consumers are even aware of the existence of hand-crafted products.

Even if they do, the lack of affordability and accessibility of handmade goods turn many consumers away.

Yet, despite the dwindling demand and the shrinking cottage industry, much of India’s handicraft tradition continues to survive the onslaught of globalised homogeneity and industrialisation.

Every day, an astonishing array of artefacts are crafted by the skilful hands of master artisans who are the last torchbearers of the rare knowledge and skills accumulated over centuries.

From hand woven sarees and shawls to handprinted fabrics and handmade shoes and accessories, the world of handicraft is quietly churning out exquisite merchandise.

Despite the decline, handicraft forms the biggest employment sector in rural India, after agriculture. India is home to around 7 million artisans, predominantly based in the villages, carrying forward the ancient traditions of the country.

Nearly half of these artisans, inducing weavers, are women, hence the craft sector not only promotes independent small-scale enterprises but also ensures empowerment of women.

For a country of India’s size 7 million is not a big number for a sector that has traditionally been the backbone of Indian productivity and prosperity.

According to the data released by the government of India, the number of artisans in India has come down by more than 30 per cent in the last four decades and the slide continues.

Apart from the handloom sector, which is still doing decently due to the support from a few fashion designers, ethnic brands and some urban revivalist collectives, most of the craft sector in India is tottering.

Lack of demand for their products, poor marketing and low margins of profit are among the primary reasons behind many artisans giving up their craft or the younger generation not taking up their ancestral tradition.

Gujarat’s Kutch district is known for a range of crafts, but among its most renowned crafts is the rogan art from the town of Nirona. The town once had several families practising the craft, but now a single family is the torchbearer of this unique heritage.

The Khatri family of Nirona is led by Padmashree Award winning artisan Abdul Ghafoor, who began popularising rogan in the 1980s as it was until then just a folk tradition. Though, his efforts saved the craft from a certain death, but it has remained only a family affair.

In Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul, a GI tagged lock-making hub, only a handful of locksmiths practise the ancient trade now. Even those who are practising the craft are not training their next generation as they see no future in it.

In the ancient handloom cluster of Ilkal in Karnataka, it is obvious that the last generation of weavers are at work. Educated or otherwise, the younger generations are seeking opportunities in the city, that come in the form of globalised industries.

On the banks of Kozhikode’s Bypore River, a few haggardly old men are hammering and chiselling away at planks of wood. They are making traditional dhows that had kept Indian commerce sailing for millennia, but now their skills hardly hit the waves.

These are just a few examples in a few clusters, the state of craftsmen elsewhere in the country in not much different.

However, not all is lost. From the ashes of the crumbling traditions some young men continue to rise like phoenix. With every four youngsters abandoning the tradition, one is joining the force, keeping the wheel of the real Indian heritage rolling!

Their efforts will bear fruits only if we turn our attention towards their work. Our patronage could help these crafts and craftspeople from getting absorbed by the tide of industrialised homogeneity that is replacing handmade products with mass produced, tasteless and soulless goods.

Our apathy could further destroy the independence of millions of artisans and their livelihood, leaving them at the mercy of industrial greed.

[Shafaat Shahbandari is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru. He is the founder of Thousand Shades of India, an alternative media initiative that is founded on the values of hope, empathy and diversity.]


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