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Crafting a way of life

Talk about rural India, and ‘weaving’ is what immediately pops up in our mind, along with images of picturesque villages, cattle, and simple living. Weaving is one of the ancient-most and common crafts of our country, yet it’s ironical that more than 200 types of this exotic craft are on the verge of extinction today. A lot of handmade artefacts and their craft have already faded into oblivion. Why? Because of the presence of cheaper market substitutes and trendier goods, handcrafted products fail to attract buyers. However, in today’s time and age, it is essential to save these remnants because losing them would mean losing an important part of our culture.

Back in January 2012, while facilitating a cultural fellowship for a non-profit organisation, I visited a crafts village called Samode, near Jaipur, with the aim of enabling an exchange of ideas, thoughts and traditions in order to facilitate a change in the lives of the villagers. The whole idea was to encourage an exchange of ideas between the rural and the modern, to give a wider scope to the artisan to think and an exposure to urban-dwellers into the world of crafts. While working with the artisans on lacquerware (lac), leather, miniature paintings, bandhani and pottery, I realised there is so much that we could do to promote these exquisite forms of art. It was fascinating to see how the process of making lac started with heating the core material and repeatedly kneading and hammering the parched ingredients to form a dough-like mass. The shaping was done by suppressing the length of lac into grooves on every side of the mould. The lac then takes the shape of the groove into which it has been forced. This process, which requires great precision, produced the most beautiful pieces of jewellery that we wear today.  

The knowledge of these artisans is extremely profound and how well can it be used if they are properly educated about modern designs and packaging techniques. Shyam Lal, a lacquerware bangle-maker said, ‘We want genuine buyers of our crafts and this can only be possible through proper marketing and packaging of our products. The government needs to exhibit these works through national and international trade fairs.’  

That said, it is common knowledge that various government and non-government bodies are taking keen interest in trying to intervene into an artisan’s work. Barring a few, most of them are trying to provide a genuine platform for the artisans to showcase their work and help find them better markets. But what is a bigger issue that needs to be addressed at present? Arpit Agarwal, a designer working with Indian Institute of Entrepreneurship, Guwahati on the traditional jewellery of Assam from the Rontholi cluster says, ‘It’s very important to understand the skill sets of the artisans, and act as a facilitator to them’. He says that his experience with the jewellery cluster has made him realise that artisans need to go through gradual changes and sudden changes could be intimidating.

Multi-retail brands are trying to copy the designs and sell it using cheap materials. They try to lure the artisan to work for them at meager salaries. For artisans, something is obviously better than nothing! To somehow maintain their livelihood they have to let go of the quality of their original work and resort to such ‘cheap’ measures!

Bhanwar Lal, an artisan who works on brassware says, ‘I am above 80 and probably the last man alive on earth who knows this art. After me nobody will make brassware. The new generation doesn’t want to learn this fine work as it consumes a lot of time, involves a lot of hard work and moreover after completion there are no rewards.’ Pointing to some of his masterpieces, which had taken years to complete, he said, ‘I want these masterpieces to be displayed in a museum. Considering the present scenario, this would be the last of its kind. There was a time when kings used to reward us for our work. Time kept changing and this is probably our worst time.’

By giving the craftspeople the respect that they deserve, as well as the means to keep their age-old traditions intact, we will be creating a precious inheritance for future generations. The broader objective is to create an environment that is right for the craftsmen to create his craft. The biggest challenge is to ensure that the skill remains relevant and alive. Their economic well being is linked with the continuation of their traditional skills that are generations old. If we do not listen to the voice of craftsmen, soon there will be no craftsmen left to talk.

Neha Jain is a senior copy editor with Millennium Post
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