The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 8, 2002
'Art and Soul

Crafts and craftspersons
B. N. Goswamy

Base of a pillar by Shri Ganpati Sthapati of Mahabalipuram
Base of a pillar by Shri Ganpati Sthapati of Mahabalipuram

I was in Delhi recently, participating in what I think was an important event. It was obviously not important enough to make major news–only cursory notice in the printed media; but, for art enthusiasts it had a decided significance. Fifty years of the ‘Resurgence of Indian Crafts’ were celebrated; 10 master craftsmen, now designated as shilpa gurus, were honoured with awards by the President of India; and a three-day seminar on ‘Crafts, Craftspersons, and Sustainable Development’, involving the participation of several delegates from Asian countries, was held. The celebrations were, like most celebrations, a gesture and a proclamation, an occasion for self-congratulation; the awards ceremony had an impressive formal air; the seminar was where some serious business, involving both evaluation and projection, was being conducted. It was a crowded three days.

One of the things I was struck by was the remarkable contrast in the nature, and the tenor, of the different segments of the whole event. The awards ceremony at Vigyan Bhavan was as sarkari as can be. The routine security drill/s, the bustling and self-important air with which ‘event managers’ move about, the usual down-till-the-last-minute confusion of new wires being rushed in and microphones being tested ("hello! hello! check") with nearly the entire audience in its seats since long, were almost all predictable. Also predictable, but less than sensitive, was the manner in which the stage was occupied exclusively by sarkari figures – ministers and secretaries and commissioners flanking the President – with not a single figure of eminence, no expert, from the field of crafts represented there. And all that one heard in the speeches made from the stage was a recital of achievements and a string of statistics. All relevant in some, but presented with not a warm word about the crafts themselves, nothing about the craftsmen, not even a casual reference to what crafts and craftsmanship stand for in our lives. The speeches over, the 10 shilpa gurus went up, one by one, to receive their awards: some confident and self-assured, others shy and hesitant, still others positively meek and daunted by the occasion. And then it was all over.

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November 17, 2002
Portraying the Parsis’ past
November 3, 2002
Of girdles, sashes & patkas
October 20, 2002
Celebrating with the Lion Dance
October 6, 2002

An elegy to a bygone era
August 25, 2002
Those seductive jades
August 11, 2002
Gifts from an ambassador
July 28, 2002
Enigma of the Iron Pillar
July 14, 2002
Having a keen eye
June 30, 2002
Zen and the art of archery
June 16, 2002
Art from the south seas
June 2, 2002
To collect and then to donate
May 19, 2002
An estate of the mind
May 5, 2002
Rama’s journey in San Diego
April 21, 2002

The seminar, however, was an altogether different affair. Here, the atmosphere was informal, and one could see other levels of engagement, an intensity of passion. For, participating in the seminar, were not only those highly skilled craftspersons and their chosen pupils, but also distinguished men and women, who, working of their own accord, have dedicated most of their adult years to the field. People, in other words, ‘from whose brows beads of perspiration never seem to dry’, ‘from whose hands the fragrance of the earth seems never to depart’. Different issues were the subject of discussion here – museums as an agency, the role of NGOs, the education of craftsmen, and the like – but woven into the tapestry of ideas always were craft objects themselves, the persona of the craftsmen and women, and matters of integrity, quality, change, absorption, challenge, response.

What came up again and again was the issue of the status of craftsmen in our society, and their economic situation. There was pain everywhere, one could sense, and feelings of great insecurity. Certainly among those who are unwilling to bend with every wind that blows, for whom tradition, and traditional skills, is something sacrosanct. In little snatches in which most of the craftspersons spoke about themselves and their lives, one could almost hear the blunt pounding of the hammer of want. It was no comfort to any of them to hear that the situation of the craftsmen had always been like this: lowly and poor, life lived at the edge of desperation. What they wished to know was what could be done about it now, in our own times. These are not easy questions to answer, but at least thoughts were being thought about them in the seminar, and solutions sought.

When it comes to the situation or the status of the artist, I should perhaps amend what I have said above to an extent. For there were contrasting styles visible among the craftsmen, too. At the confident, self-assured end, in this group of 10, for instance, there was Ganpati Sthapati, the renowned architect-sculptor from Mahabalipuram, who is a scholar in his own right, and who has directed and executed colossal projects, including the building of whole temples in places as far apart as Hawaii and New Delhi, Pittsburg and Colombo; or, again, Kripal Singh Shekhawat from Rajasthan, trained in Shantiniketan and a commanding figure alike in the fields of pottery and fresco painting. At the other end were persons who were timid and shy to the extent of being completely self-effacing: Sona Bai Rajwar from Madhya Pradesh, for instance, who does wonderful sculptures in clay on village walls, and Jivya Soma Mashe from Warli in Maharashtra, whose simple paintings have all that one can ask for – poetry, wit, charm, intensity. But then that, I suppose, is the way things have always been.

Cold comfort

Speaking of the situation of the artist-craftsman in the past, whenever someone speaks of the titles they earned, or the respectful references to their shilpa as being the fifth Veda, I often wonder if these were not substitute gratifications, gestures meant to cover the fact that the reality of their lives was as bleak as that of most in the present generation is today. In any case, I am reminded almost always of that qita’a of Ahmed Nadim Qasimi:

Kitne suljhe huye sayyad ho, subhan allah!/qafas-i sang men kimkhwab bichha dete ho./

jab mujhe bhook sataati hai to kitne dhab se/thapakiyan dete ho, gaate ho, sulaa dete ho.

(How skilled are you as a bird-catcher, how clever, lining my cage of stone with velvet; and when I complain of hunger, with what smooth skill do you pat me, and sing to me, and put me to bed!)


This feature was published on December 1, 2002