For more than 35 years, Rajeev Sethi has through his work in design and architecture, performances and festivals, exhibitions and publication, policy and program, identified ways to bring contemporary relevance to traditional skills of vulnerable artisan communities and creative professionals. He has been awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1995 and the First Indira Gandhi Life Time Achievement Award for conservation by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage) in 2010. He has been a scenographer, playright, curator, installation artist, documentary filmmaker, 'mentor' to the World Bank, and can fly a Mig-21. Just kidding about the last one.
‘Haath Bana Hastinapur…ungli panch Pandva’
My kingdom and its maker … all in my hand.
Please open your palms and look at them. What you see is a supreme instrument, one that has helped determine the ebb and flow of human destiny.
No, not palmistry but physical anthropology which reveals how the hand has played an indispensible role in human growth, determining our evolution from primates to human beings. The development of universal joints in this versatile limb is intrinsically linked with the development and agility of our brain. We have perhaps as many joints in our hands as a monkey, but if you decide to shake hands with a tame one, you will notice that its palms are longer, in order to facilitate its swinging on branches. No other being is really quite capable of what we can do with our thumbs and fingers. No other species possesses their near-universal dexterity.
In a sense, India, rich with its own language of ‘hastmudras’, continues to be the most hand-skilled country in the world. In the villages rapidly deskilling themselves with Government support and apathy, everyone is capable of making something with their hands for use in their daily lives. It is from this extended and humble base of skill or ‘hunar’ that India’s inclusive culture has to measure and sustain its growth. Of course, there will always be many who make for others, but what these others make for themselves with their own hands, will determine the health of our heritage as a nation.
The craftspersons, scattered all over the countryside know little else but what they can make with their own labour. They cannot jettison themselves into the 21st century of computerized machines or “contemporary livelihoods” with the same conviction and ease as some of us.
What would we do, indeed, where would we be, if this hand was left merely stretched for begging or had remained folded in prayer, or worse still, been used only to poke keys or press triggers? What do we do with this near perfect instrument in today’s age of awesome mechanization?
Now and even later there needs to be concerted action for the survival of those who’s body and mind are traditionally skilled. Even as machines take over as indeed they will, hand-work must also survive, not merely as a repository of man’s material culture or as an appendix of aesthetic standards or as an evidence of past civilizations, but as a basic human necessity, vital to our wellbeing and survival, whether physical, spiritual or mental.
I once asked a craftsperson why he continued in adversity and he replied, “An arrow shot from the bow of wisdom is lodged deep in my heart” – and yet the plight of a master so ‘wounded’ left on the street, unseen by those that pass by.
Man will continue to configure machines that will soon make anything, including that which is made by human hands. ‘Hand-crafted’ in India no longer implies the use of dexterous human fingers, informed by an agile mind, motivated by tradition and moved by the spirit. In the name of lessening drudgery or increasing production and promoting efficiency, labour-saving devices or machines are replacing simple handcrafted tools to the determent of skills that even the poorest of the poor with two hands can possess. ‘Made by hand’ is a much-abused tag that has a different meaning for different people.
Various craft endeavors dressed as export promotion organizations seek concessions and subsidies in the name of handicrafts, handlooms, khadi or cottage industries. The backyard of fancy showrooms making a bleeding heart pretense of helping the poor and promoting heritage, may sometimes hide exploitative working conditions and polluting machines that devalue skilled livelihoods, all in the name of healthy balance sheets.
Historically, labour has been deemed as best avoided and most civilizations aspire to substitute it with some sort of mechanization. The simplicity of a tool was best demonstrated by Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘takli’ or ‘charkha’ (spinning wheel) for spinning yarn between two fingers. This was ‘improved upon’ by the amber charkha with many wheels reeling threads from as many ends as possible, with or without electricity. Within a century, Bapu’s favourite hand spun khadi was replaced by mill-made yarn, which despite being woven on a variety of looms with varying degrees of mechanization, continues to be marketed as ‘handloom’. Within a decade, most handlooms have been made redundant by a range of power looms. These ubiquitous machines mushroomed in urban slums and village sheds in the 1980’s as a corollary to sick textile mills. Once the richest industry, its giant mills could not reinvent themselves with modern machinery. Thousands of workers were laid off as un-feeling governments and greedy mill owners closed down ‘satanic factories’ situated in city centers with an eye on their lucrative real estate. Power looms in nearby hovels was a cheaper alternative, circumventing factory laws with no overheads. Consequently, fat profits were made by the few and awful working conditions for the many. Unchallenged by reservations each power loom replaced six handloom workers.
Soon, however, power looms also got into trouble, made cumbersome by capital-intensive computerised machines requiring hugely subsidized centralized facilities.
Moral of the story? Efficient machines and automation are inevitable. Legal redressal, sector quotas and reservations, trade unions or cooperatives have few teeth, if any.
The hand-made will have a future if it can continue to produce what the machines can’t do better. This will entail the survival of evolved aesthetic and functional sensibilities that match the warp of skill with the weft of insight. For the moment, there are several such examples … artistic weaves with natural dyes, varying textures and hand block prints and ‘Kalamkaris’, asymmetrical loom embroideries and interlays, unique double ‘ikats’, hand-spun organic cottons of very fine counts, wild silks with exotic structures, blended toosh-like fabrics that thus far can only be woven by the most dexterous. Machines on the other hand can concentrate on making amazing new Geo textiles, fused and cast fabrics and other revolutionary techno textiles for a variety of emerging needs.
On a recent visit to a huge stone work factory in Ahmedabad owned by a Sompura family of traditional carvers I found amazing machinery imported from all over the world that could quickly replicate almost anything hands can do. Surprisingly, the same machines could also make things that hands could never make! Boring fine holes through thin or thick marble slabs in oblique diagonals in the most complex of grids was breath taking. Why must sophisticated computer laithes be underutilized to make carved Moghul jallis and bas relief Jain sculptures be scanned from hand-made prototypes? Why can’t owners of mechanical marvels instead pay designers to explore many new exciting vocabularies? Can we legally prevent copying ideas that have come from the anonymous makers of the hand-made?
What ‘use’ is the Taj Mahal? As a timeless symbol of love? As a tangible proof of our rich past? As a cultural icon for tourism? Yes, and more. Its healthy presence also suggests the vital function of a repository of formidable skills that are still being kept alive by thousands of craftspeople who need their neighborhood point of reference to better their hunar. The Taj serves a unique role as a veritable manual and stunning poster positioning the continuity of several skilled generations following those that built the Taj. They need to profit by making the still exquisite pietra dura inlays, stone carvings and even the latticed bric-a-brac that crumbles in the suitcase of the tourist. Although the architectural usage of their skills are becoming scarce, the Taj with its unique foundations floating on an erratic river bank, suggests a virile science that we seem to be forgetting.
Today, it would be difficult to expect the building of unique public art works initiated by private desire and built by thousands like the sublime memorial to Mumtaz. The Taj only shows what can be done by one patron for a small part of India’s skilled community of builders. Can the mahopatras of the east of India, the ramgarias of the north, the sompuras of the west and the sthapatis of the south – all traditional experts traveling from place to place making incredible temples and palaces and steeped as they are in centuries of equating with the ‘Shilpa Shatras’ – be content with employment guarantees, breaking stones for the road in this age of concrete temples and steel furniture?
Should the anonymous and intimidated castes of charis, mosari, santraj and vishwakarmas be forced to switch their professions or should our architects and public work builders reflect on their ignorance of traditional skills neglecting indigenous resources? The marginalized thousands trained in scores of building arts are on the verge of disappearing but our booming building industry, with the connivance of the Government, is yet to take any cognizance. The knowledge systems using traditional materials like mud, wood, bamboo, stone etc., do not feature in local engineering codes or contracting norms.
Could an ostentatious talisman like the Taj have ever been built if Shah Jahan was forced to call for tenders and pick the lowest quotations? Do the promoters of such one of a kind project need to put out a price-driven supply chain programme before justifying its expense? Who will support the logistics of commissioning visionary public art programs if they are merely driven by cost-effective project profiles to generate great statistics on employment?
Two plus two need not always be four if we drive stridently to achieve new standards defining excellence. Our endeavors to promote the handmade have to be cutting edge even if they are for the few of the few, and by the few. There is a sustained growth of global markets for high-quality products made by hand with rich geo-cultural context. Any retailer will know the value of stories that explain the making of a product. Those playing the numbers game need to watch and learn from projects pursuing particular points of perfection that reflect the aspirations of a proud people. Compromising designs with half digested forms, poor material and workmanship will demote the brand equity so difficult to create in this sector.
Instead, more and more designers dedicated to create high-quality products for low-income groups taking up price as a design challenge is the need of the day. I repeat if quality and design are not linked, the machines will wipe out everything that the hand can’t make better.
Teaching and learning of skills that the machine can’t easily match up to, means a much longer period of gestation with multi-dimensional workshops for training and orientation. Government-approved schemes to create or upgrade skills are not at all realistic or market-driven; least of all, inspired to deliver a new vocabulary for consumers more and more discerning with greater access to E-commerce.
Qualifying and mapping the existence of skilled clusters is a critical pre-requisite to any strategic planning. Then with a product in hand, promotions, promotions and more promotions will make these resilient enterprises visible and open to public scrutiny. Creating a pehchan for the handmade is hugely demanding and crucial for the survival of this vulnerable yet tenacious sector that has to run twice as hard to stay abreast with the current flux of popular tastes. Precious little has been done to evolve pedagogic curricula at the primary, secondary or university levels, creating an understanding of India’s formidable creative and cultural Industries at their best. The real challenge is capacity building while reaching out to the young with something that is worthy of becoming old.
Design, even in its basic and unselfconscious presence, is essentially the pre-occupation of the elite. One can appeal to the designer in everyone but not everyone can be a designer. An artist is born and is creative when provoked or nurtured. He must, despite indifference and ignorance, remain alive to context and jog jaded perceptions. Designers more than most need to be driven by the delivery of increased robustness, dedicated to natural and social ecology, propelled by a gain-sharing approach, and of course be obsessed with reaching out. ‘Showing off’ innovative interventions that are simply unique and startlingly different must remain a constant task. All this can take a lifetime to put into practice.
The Jiyo! brand started by The Asian Heritage Foundation (AHF) with the help of the Japan Social Development Fund and World Bank, has reached only 12 clusters in two states with five designers in three years. Jiyo! must soon break its umbilical cord with AHF and become an independent commercial entity reaching out to introduce new lines and present unique collections each year. For now I believe, the major part of the enterprise will continue to be possible only through serious investment and/or realistic grants in aid.
There are hundreds of areas seeking Jiyo!-like intervention. The Jiyo! experiment taught us that sustaining achievement can only be practical with longer periods of gestation and generous support systems in place. Sporadic grants that serve little more than paying lip service to skill development, or aspire to generate maximum quantity of livelihoods, need to be scrutinized. Structured assignments obsessed with numbers of poor people that need to be “empowered” provide good statistics for a report, but are ill conceived with conjecture.
I have come to believe that the South Asian subcontinent must take the lead in breaking down the divide between Arts and Craft as well as end the debate polarizing ‘traditional’ versus ‘contemporary’. This can only be done by varied pursuits of excellence, and making seamless the creative and cultural enterprises with a long-term approach to their development.
Major Institutions for the arts like the Mayo College of Arts and Crafts, the Madras Presidency College of Arts and Crafts, J J College of Arts and Crafts were all set up by the British decades ago. Why did the term ‘craft’ and the traditional disciplines they taught earlier disappear from the name and syllabus of these Institutions? Ironically, this phenomenon happened after the Independence of India!
I believe we now need to open all educational institutions – especially colleges of fine arts, design and architectural schools – to ensure easy entry of highly skilled individuals and members of craft communities, even if they have had no formal academic training or are of any age and pedigree. We need to be proactive to map and enroll children from performing art families into drama schools forming them into appropriately supported professional repertories travelling to schools, colleges and having a neat niche in public broadcasting. We need to evolve curricula for at least 300 artistic skill sets within the next five years with institutes or ‘Gurukuls’ for vocational training in each. Korea boasts 4000 skills enumerated, classified and catalogued, and has developed a muscular Content Development Authority with serious investment in traditional knowledge sector in the last decade.
In the future clever machines and their skillful operators will remain the only ‘artisans’ left. Electronic media will be everywhere with their cast of few colourful protagonists who will continue to grab headlines.
No words like handicrafts, handlooms or folk performance will survive beyond 2020. These terms only suggest the origins and scales of production, at a given time of our history. The generic nature of creative activity will need to be reclassified. Just as healthcare will evolve from its isolated disciplines such as allopathic, ayurveda, homeopathy, naturopathy etc. and be known as integrative medicine, the legacy of our skilled sector will see synergy in the term Creative and Cultural Industries. Training of traditional skills as a panacea for unemployment? Perhaps. That depends on who makes what and how… and more critically, for whom.
Whether it be culinary arts, healing practices, indigenous sports or local innovations, whether they be by individuals or as a group or as a community seeking creative expression, a true cultural renaissance will mean letting a million flowers bloom… the Indian seed is not shy of germination.