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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Scented candles are manufactured at multiple units in Pondicherry.
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.
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.