Artisans of India

When I was a child, I had a collection of wooden toys. There were dolls made from wood, all painted in bright colors. I still remember their faces. They were representative of the aesthetically rich characters that donned the rural Indian landscape in the past. Male dolls with turbans and thick curling moustaches that were perhaps representative of farmers, merchants, potters, blacksmiths and the millions of other characters that we saw all around us in those times. There were ministers and kings too. And then there were female dolls draped in sarees and ghagras, tending to their work in the farms and in households, representative of the women of that era. All the dolls were happy, vibrant and so full of life. They were unique and could not be substituted, for each represented a unique real life character. I loved their diversity and the emotional spectrum they treated me to. In addition to the dolls, there were toy utensils crafted from wood. I still remember a bright colored traditional grinding stone and a traditional mortar used for pounding rice in that collection of toys. Whenever we visited Mysore, I would look forward to buying a wooden toy and adding to my collection.

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We would weave stories with these dolls. The father doll, mother doll and the children. Their story of working in the fields, weaving in an imaginary conversation between them. The mother doll cooking with the utensils. Using leaves and pebbles to represent food. Chopping the leaves with a blade. Pretending to cook them. Laying them out on the table. Father doll appreciating the food. Mother doll washing the utensils. All the dolls sleeping on an imaginary cot. And then a new story for the next day. Perhaps those dolls played a big role in reinforcing the stories we saw all around us.

Today, those toys and characters are a nostalgic memory. The toys of the modern world are sophisticated and without warmth. As with everything else in society, toys also have transformed into a status symbol. Instead of nurturing curiosity and cognition through the joy of simple perception, the toys of the modern world seem to interfere with the child’s ability at perception. Children lose their ability to find joy in simple pleasures for sophisticated toys have increased their happiness threshold.

It therefore thrills me when I come across indigenous Indian handicrafts displayed at exhibitions or stores. Exhibitions have also transformed over the years. They are driven by consumerism, and therefore the handicrafts take a backseat. It was after a very long time that I came across an exhibition that reminded me of what exhibitions used to stand for, once upon a time. That of promoting the creativity and craftsmanship of local artisans of a region and providing them a wider platform for their work.

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Thanks to Kairali, this exhibition promoted such artisans and introduced us to the crafts that are rooted in the tradition of Tamil Nadu, Assam and Rajasthan.

Functioning under the aegis of Handicrafts Development Corporation of Kerala, Kairali is the brand name of showrooms that promote traditional arts and crafts from the State.
“We are trying to help our artisans, who know only how to make things, but not how to procure material or market their products,” says Sudhir from the Ernakulam branch of Kairali.

Clay Crafts of Tamil Nadu are famed for making terracotta items with a wide range of variety ranging from utilitarian items to decorative pieces that catch the fancy of modern and urban people. The prominent centers of Clay craft of Tamil Nadu are located in Chennai, Kanchipuram and parts of Arcot district.  Panruti in south Arcot is renowned for an array of clay works that ranging from large figures of deities to toys and other items. The exclusivity of this particular type of pottery lies in its creation of highly artistic shapes, use of vibrant colors and brilliant adornment. The artisans give the toys a modern look by decorating these toys with modern dresses and oscillating-heads.

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Also, waste paper pulp is mixed with local clay and beaten in to a soft substance, which is then rolled in to thin malleable sheets. Life sized dolls; scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana, images of gods and goddesses are among the many paper – mache items that are made in Tamil Nadu. After moulding the papier – mache pulp, the articles are dipped in a thin solution of paper pulp and white clay and then painted in oil or watercolor.

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At kanyakumari, whether it is sea shell craft, banana craft, artificial gem cutting, bamboo craft or dried coconut (copra), through the self-help groups, women are trained both by personnel in the organization and by officials from the government departments, on skills in handicraft. Each region where the SHG functions, have their own specific units churning out products that are sold across cities in Tamil Nadu and even in other states.

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The art of dry flower arrangement is an ancient one in Assam. Flowers are collected from as far as Shillong, Mizoram and Nagaland, dried in the sun, and then treated with natural and synthetic chemicals.

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Lac jewellery comes from the princely city of Bikaner in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Lac or wax is filled in the hollow silver foil piece to give it strength.

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Scented candles are manufactured at multiple units in Pondicherry.

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The handicrafts industry was perhaps one of the worst hit by the advent of technology. As machine made toys, crafts and fabric replaced hand crafted ones and provided in the markets cheaper substitutes for the hand crafted works of art, these traditional artisans lost their market. Creativity and skills that had been passed on and preserved across generations, now faced the threat of being permanently lost.

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When one thinks back in time, one feels a deep ache. Every art represents the creativity, persistence and enormous struggle of an artist. An artist sometimes translates the entire meaning of his life into his discovery of an art form- a painstaking process that only an artist can relate to. And yet, when his work nurtures the souls of millions of people, all his struggle becomes worthwhile. It only takes a minute to wipe off his creation- to unlearn all that was painstakingly learnt over years. As technology replaces handicrafts, it is also erasing a big chunk of the potential that our genes and environment endow us with and that we are capable of. As we erase such creative possibilities from the face of the earth, we are amputating a part of our mind for its purpose has been abolished. And thus, as we unknowingly amputate more and more of our minds, there is only emptiness that resides in our minds. Life has long abandoned it.

An entire family of artisans is compelled to quit what has been a family tradition and migrate in the search for ‘greener’ pastures that can fetch them a livelihood.

Despite some instances of well-known design houses using handmade products and successful crafts-based businesses such as Fab India and Anokhi, the majority of craft production remains unorganized and informal with its full market potential untapped, especially by the artisan, who more often than not struggles for sustenance. Propelled by loss of markets, declining skills and difficulty catering to new markets, a large number of artisans have moved to urban centers in search of low, unskilled employment in industry. According to the UN, over the past 30 years, the number of Indian artisans has decreased by 30%, indicating the need to re-invest in artisans to safeguard history, culture and an important source of livelihood.

http:// http://social.yourstory.com/2013/06/crafting-a-livelihood-a-snapshot-of-the-indian-artifacts-sector/

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Lonely in the crowd

All my days are full. They are packed with thoughts, activities and interactions. And yet, it is to an emptiness that I return every day…

An emptiness that resonates with the emptiness of the lives all around me.

No. I am not talking about the emptiness that comes with being single. I am talking about the emptiness that persists, no matter what we do. The emptiness that drives us to take up a job, to marry, to have children. Only to realize that we haven’t rid ourselves of it. More often than not, it only gets worse. We travel in order to escape from it, but find ourselves returning back to the same void. We eventually end up ignoring it and drowning it in the illusion we create with social networking, activism, drugs, alcohol, partying, lifestyle, and what not. But the emptiness remains, stealthily gnawing at our minds, erasing all residues of who we are and where we were meant to go.

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In the modern world, I prefer solitude over the company of people. Simply because it is in my moments of solitude that I feel. Feel with freedom. With people, I am either defensive or i am thoughtful and analytical. With my closest friends, I cannot recollect a single moment in recent times when we connected to each other the way we used to, once upon a time. For one, we are all rushed, multitasking and forever in forward gear. Thinking has become our natural reaction to everything.

We don’t wait to feel; we don’t allow the feeling to linger and brew itself into a mood- a mood that bonds us to people…that we carry forward within our hearts…that causes us to miss people in their absence. In the modern world, all our interactions must have a reason and a goal, for we lead such busy lives. We never meet to just spend time together, for we cannot afford that ‘nothingness‘. The idle strolls, the idle conversations, the idle hobbies- they are obsolete in the modern world. Even hobbies must have a goal and timeframe. But we forget that it was in those idle spaces that emotions resided. Sublime, yet very much there.

In the modern world, even love has a goal. Love is a thought. But in those days, love was an emotion…a raw emotion. An emotion that made us see eternity in the moments we spent together. That taught us to derive contentment from simple gestures. We would sit and stare at the stars in the sky endlessly, hugging this feeling that was love. We would hold hands and take long strolls in the moonlight, hugging this feeling that was love. We never spoke about getting married; we were into an unspoken commitment. It was understood that falling in love meant you had found the person you wanted to spend your life with. Marriage only legalized it.

As science/technology replaced art, thought replaced emotions. Today, emotions are defined, have an objective, and are expressed in very specific and concrete terms. What we lost in the process, was the emotional spectrum and the feeling of being alive. And so, it is in my moments of solitude that I feel more alive.

That there is more loneliness in the company of people than in solitude, is the sad irony of the modern world. The title of an old movie comes to mind: Aall koottathil thaniye”.

In a fast-paced, opportunistic world, I find myself forever in thought mode or action mode. So much so that when I come back to my solitude, I am unable to switch to ‘feel’ mode. At such times, music and movies come to my rescue. A good movie is more alive to me than the people in my life today. For a good movie is packed with the emotional spectrum that defines human life. A good movie abruptly instills in me emotions that I have not felt for a long time in the real world. It is with relief that I discover that I have not lost my ability to feel. I suddenly become deeply sensitive to all the emotions that the movie takes me through, for I have not experienced them in a long time. I cherish such moments that help me rediscover lost emotions. I hold on to them and cherish the mood they create. That is when I become aware of the emptiness in my life… for I have not felt so alive in a long time.

In the companionship of a good film, I can cry. Something I am unable to do in the real world. All my reactions to adversity and stress now take the shape of thought and action. I rarely allow myself to feel sorrow and pain. It is through the experience of a good film or music that I feel all the sorrow in my own life and shed the tears I have never shed in my life. A good film abruptly sensitizes me to the magnitude of the sorrows I have survived, bares me of the defenses that refuse to accept my vulnerability in the real world, and marvels at my survival. It is these moments of vulnerability that make me feel alive again.

The modern world has indeed robbed us of our ability to feel. We are no longer sensitive to the simple joys of life for we never give them the time that is needed to brew them into happiness in our minds. It takes us a lot to feel happy or sad these days. Also, happiness today  translates to excitement or exhilaration. We are no longer sensitive to the infinite sublime tones in which this emotion spoke to us all along, many years ago. Sorrow has been replaced by anxiety and fear, for we never process these enough to reach the plane of sorrow. We even ignore our fears, and these build up over time into what we label as ‘insecurities‘. Perhaps the answer to all our insecurities lies in acknowledging and addressing our fears and transforming them into sorrows. We must perhaps relearn the art of crying in solitude. In the modern world, we find ourselves only driven by happiness that is erected on spite, jealousy, resentment and bitterness.

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The graph of our life today is a straight line with occasional peaks and troughs. We feel alive only at these peaks and troughs. But in the past, the graph of our life was a tremulous line, the tremors reflective of the persistent sublime emotions that filled our lives. Those sublime emotions that made us feel alive every wakeful moment of our lives. The peaks were only perks.

Films such as Noketha doorathu kannum nattu, Sreedharande onnam thirumurivu, Golanthara Vartha, etc are very much reminiscent of our lives in the 80s and 90s. An era when fences were only between houses, not between the minds of people. The very word happiness in my mind is stored as the imagery that characterized my life then. When warmth, affection and a million other sublime emotions filled the spaces between our words and interactions, giving no room for emptiness. As a child, the house in which we lived was never synonymous with home; it was only a place where we slept. Home was the entire locality, with its houses and open spaces- the playground, firing range, streets and parks that I so loved. We divided our time between houses and the outdoors. My friends’ houses were no different from mine. Even the dogs in the locality were our friends. They were a part of our emotional lives and we were concerned about them. We kids grew up together, in a world of safety and security, lit up by the warmth and affection of an entire community. We experienced such a strong sense of belonging in that community that loneliness would have been hard to fathom. It would have been impossible for me to imagine a world like that being replaced by a world of emptiness and insecurity.

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The sublime moments from 'Noketha doorathu kannum nattu'

Today, we define our spaces sharply…

Our house, our family, our car, our happiness.

We guard them fiercely, never letting down our defenses. The houses that we call homes are dead structures filled with an emptiness that is so alien to human life. With the materialism we attach ourselves to, we also end up building layers of defense. This defense then drives our behaviour, as opposed to those times when human behaviour was driven by the raw human being within. The raw being whose vulnerability was deeply loveable. What have we earned with our obsession for materialism? Only defensiveness, emptiness and mental illness. The mad pursuit for materialism has reduced us to beings who have chosen to drop their consciousness to the things that really matter, for only then can we fool ourselves into believing that all is well with us and the world, and continue our pursuit for materialism.

There is an urgent need for change. Change at all levels of the community- our schools, our homes, our governments, our offices. There is the urgent need to raise the collective consciousness of a society to the deep mess they have led themselves and this planet into.

The answer to all our challenges- from climate change to growing violence, lies in transforming minds at the ground level. Teach human beings to pause and feel- a sensibility that was once natural to us. Teach them to feel without defense and create a whole new world from what they feel. Sow the seeds for a new culture that shall again rest on human behaviour driven by the raw human being within all of us.