Chronicles of the hand

The hegemony of mainstream design sensibilities and market threaten the very survival of crafts and craftspeople

Chronicles of the hand
Every morning after taking a bath in the Ganga, Shyamsundar Vishwakarma worships the image of Lord Vishwarkarma in his karkhana before starting the day’s work. On the day of Ayudha pooja or Astra pooja, like all other craftspeople, he also worships his tools with incense, flowers and unhusked rice. After all, his materials and tools are not a mere means of livelihood equivalent to our disposable laptops, but more significantly, they are the seats of particular sacred powers. The Indian craftspeople conceive of their art, neither as their own nor as the accumulated skill of ages, but as originating in the divine skill of Lord Vishwakarma himself. Therefore, neither the words ‘artist’ or ‘artisan’ nor ‘craftsperson’ are appropriate translations of shilpin. The shilpin manifests the principle that is the Vishwakarma himself through his artefact. He wilfully becomes only the medium of manifestation, rather than the source of the manifestation. Hence, it is not surprising that while the manifestation is celebrated, its maker dies in a nameless grave.

In the blinding light of the glittering mall the Banarasi saree adorns a mannequin, while its weaver commits suicide in the karkhana. The Rampuri chaku may send a chill down your spine on the tinsel screen of Bollywood, but the hand skills that forge them are dying a slow silent death at the hands of a government ban. Ironically, the market is flushed with its Chinese imitation. Of course, the import of cheap Chinese knives never threatened the safety of our dear towns. Rumours are that just a single family of Ganjifa card makers survive in Sawantwadi today. The rest plough the land, drive cycle rickshaws or else, wait for their MGNREGA wages.



In recent years, many questions have been raised on this situation. Paul Polak, in his book “Out of Poverty” questions why 90 per cent of the world’s designers work exclusively on products for the richest 10 per cent of the world’s customers. His concern for the other 90 per cent is once again born out of the white man’s burden of the brown-black world. Human race, this time has been split into the deserving versus undeserving communities, the top versus the bottom of the pyramid and many other such divisive nomenclature. Sadly, this approach often derides some significant aspects of such communities.

First, 90 per cent of the world’s customers have their own system of designing and producing, besides the 10 per cent of the world’s designers who may design for them in their spare time. Secondly, the resilience of these communities has helped them to survive even in times when they had not been identified as a lucrative market segment.

After all, craft design and technology were invented and have been sustained by illiterate producers of hardly any means for centuries. A glimpse into the hundreds of grassroots innovations archived by the National Innovation Foundation designed by tinkerers of hardly any educational distinction would surprise you. Technologies ranging from low cost washing machines to gadgets with which you can walk on water are a common sight on the archive.

These forgotten vestiges of development are alternate systems of designing and engineering that are breathing their last under the heavy weight of the computer numerical controls (CNCs) or the fully automated machines, and MNCs.

Though many sympathetic accounts of crafts miss out the design and technical prowess of the grassroot design communities, they are correct in pointing out their footprint. These communities form the largest section of consumption as well as production all over the world, either in traditional design production like crafts or in modern manufacturing services in MSMEs. In Uttar Pradesh alone it is said loosely, every fourth person is a craftsperson producing for consumers at the bottom of the pyramid, as well as for those at its pinnacle.

Craft is the second largest sector after agriculture in terms of employment generation in our country and contributes 8 per cent of the GDP in the manufacturing sector. Unfortunately, faced with the unprecedented challenge of changing and adapting their skills for an unfamiliar modern consumption and pace of production, the death of crafts is leading to a huge loss for the manufacturing sector and an irreversible damage to the Indian design knowhow. This loss has led to a discontinuity in the centuries long tradition of knowledge and skill transfer in craft communities. With the link broken between the older and new generations, there is no method of passing knowledge or skill. The repercussions are easily observable if you step into any craft community.



Antique brassware from Uttar Pradesh, (above) National award winning artefact hancrafted by master craftsman Muhammad Tughlaq. At Rs 11 lakh, it remains unsold

For instance, Uttar Pradesh has witnessed disparate levels of craft skills over the last decade. The veteran aging master, Muhammad Tughlaq of Moradabad brassware cluster, decorated with many state and national awards, prides in his skill and lineage. His face glows as he speaks of the immense time and efforts he has invested in his work. He took 11 years to make a jewellery box, which later won him the national award. Priced at Rs 11 lakh (as on February 1, 2013), this unique artefact has no replica. The highly respected master simply picks up his tool and the image flows through his seasoned hands. But in the absence of an ‘Indian buyer’, the box is lying in his workshop for over a decade. He is obstinately waiting for an Indian buyer, because he considers it India’s asset. Despite the interest of many foreign clients, the piece lies wrapped in a satin cloth. His sons await his death to sell the piece and earn their fortune. On the other hand, Ramkumar Vishwakarma, a metal craftsperson in Mahoba only makes fake castes from the older design samples of his forefathers. These have a ready market, fuelled by growing cultural tourism.

He neither takes pride in his traditional work nor makes an effort to acquire new skills to explore alternate livelihood options.

Craftspeople like Ramkumar Vishwakarma no longer make a distinction between the design of a native Nandi and an imported bison. Both are mere means of livelihood and not the ‘manifestation of the Vishwakarma through their hands’. They, like Tughalq’s sons are willing to craft the whim of any client.



Bison skull, cast in aluminium; export item, Uttar Pradesh

In 2008, the proprietor of Peetal Farms (name changed to protect identity) — an export unit based in Moradabad bought the skull of a bison from Europe. He observed that bison skulls make a lucrative market amongst the bohemian section of the European youth. Grabbing the opportunity, the proprietor placed an order of hundreds of bison heads to be cast in aluminium from a real bison skull. These skulls were a far cry from the traditional abstract or floral Nakashi of the brass vases for which masters like Muhammad Tughlaq are renowned. It goes without saying that the skulls were a triumphant hit in the European market. Of course, these bison skulls were invisible in the local Moradabad market because Islam forbids graven images. In fact, they were never designed to satisfy the domestic demand in the first place, but were produced for a foreign customer to earn a livelihood.

Is this degradation of thinking and hand skills akin to our times where the hand of Tughlaq is an exception, or is it simply a naturally viable level of gradation in a larger spectrum, of which other craftspeople and others are only a part? Has the economic hegemony of the machine monopolised the markets or are crafts languishing because they are evolutionarily unfit for the changed modern urban situation?

The hegemony of the mainstream design sensibilities and market questions the possibility of the very survival of the craft and craftspeople as they juggle between shifting sources for livelihood and tradition. In such circumstances, it is not surprising that many craft communities in India have either adapted their skills completely to the western sensibility loosing their status as handicrafts or are languishing because of dwindling consumption of the traditional artefacts in the modern urban context.

As Malocolm Ferris laments, it is ironic, but of course symptomatic, that the wider interest in the idea of craft is occurring at exactly the same moment in which many of the crafts are acquiring the status of ‘endangered subjects’. At a point where the ‘endangered subjects’ in India are either committing suicide, loosing their skill or switching their profession, markets, educationists and policymakers the world over are showing renewed interest in the skill of the human hand.

Contemporarily, craft is being understood as a dynamic process of knowing and learning through material. Craft displays not only a practiced skill, but also the ability to improvise decisions in unpredictable circumstances, for instance, on the floor of the factory itself. While craftwork is often considered repetitious, it also regularly involves unanticipated problem solving, lacking fore planning. Therefore, despite rudimentary technology, material-specific skills, low literacy and an absence of fore planning on the drawing board, craft thinking still produces an astonishingly well-balanced result and a close fit to the needs of the user. Such thinking through the hand is being looked upon as a cognitive skill for solving interdisciplinary problems.

Hence, its applications as a novel pedagogical method are being explored at multiple levels, in which, craft, craftsperson and methods of crafting are re-emerging in current discourse as an alternate method of thinking and visualisation.

Craft is also emerging as a viable decentralised model of production against its popular centralised alternative. Its suitability as an organisational structure for forming knowledge communities in companies has lately been a matter of interest in management studies too. Craft today is a story of nonspecialist grass roots DIY or ‘do it yourself’, feminist ‘craftivism’ and slow movement makers, projected by broader alternative models like the transition movement, urban farming, decentralised markets and glocal initiatives. The humble hand has even made inroads into space. Today, some design of space shuttles use origami to economise space. Yes origami that insignificant craft taught in schools or in hobby classes!

However, as we speak of and for crafts, we are often told that we are fighting a battle lost way back under the British yoke. But it just takes a visit to the craftspeople to reassert the belief in the human hand, which can only grow stronger. Despite the machines, MNCs and the markets, the resilience of the craftspeople is yet to die. This is an opportunity to understand craft practices in a new light; may be as a habit of action, a living tradition, a method of problem solving, an action-based pedagogy, as well as in the spirit of the new political flagship — Skilling India.

(The author is assistant professor of humanities at IIT Kanpur)

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