Fair art at work
Women artisans are forging new links among South Asian nations,
writes Madhusree Chatterjee

Members of the four-woman team from Myanmar showcase their lotus fabric scarves and lacquerware
Members of the four-woman team from Myanmar showcase their lotus fabric scarves and lacquerware Photo: Manas Ranjan Bhui

Women are the new driving force behind the colourful and rich South Asian crafts traditions. The power of women unfolded at Dilli Haat, the Capital’s ethnic mart, recently when 70 women artisans from seven South Asian nations unveiled their wares at the 24th annual Crafts Mela of the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a handicrafts promotion forum.

The two-week showcase, "Crafting Friendships", has brought ethnic handicrafts from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka while nearly 190 craftspersons from across India are also displaying their traditional products at the fair.

Up for sale is an array of embroidery traditions, apparel, fashion and lifestyle accessories, home decor, wood and metal craft.

The Dastkari Haat Samiti, an initiative by politician and crafts activist Jaya Jaitely, who was instrumental in setting up Dilli Haat in 1994, has been engaging with South Asian women to promote regional crafts and forge linkages for revival and strengthening of the largely unorganised sector since 2004.

The fair is supported by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and the Jamia Millia Islamia. "The focus of the fair in 2011 is to understand crafts and create new friendships through crafts. Women in South Asia have a major role to play in the development of the region, promotion of peace and to help stop violence. They will spend two weeks together to understand diverse regional skills and identify marketing avenues — building solid linkages in the process," Jaitely said.

"This is a sector which is still largely decentralised. In India, there is a will on the part of the government to encourage crafts, but the way to about it is too rigid. The government does not want to know the heart and soul of the sector," she said.

"I wish the Indian crafts could see some of the boom in Indian art industry. The craftspersons in the country should be given due recognition both in the Indian market and abroad," veteran crafts activist Laila Tyabji, who manages the Dastkar Nature Bazaar, said.

Inaugurating the fair, ICCR president Karan Singh said the "the 21st century belonged to women". When women do something together, it yields productive results, he added.

Mina Sherzoy, the head of the delegation of craftswomen from Afghanistan, voiced the concerns of women artisans in her country.

"Handicrafts is still in a revival state in the country after the war. Unfortunately, the war has done so much damage that handicrafts are the last thing on the government’s agenda. The country needs so much help. Fifty per cent of the Afghanistan’s population is women and 90 per cent of the population is illiterate. The government does not realise that without reviving handicrafts, one cannot revive Afghanistan," Sherzoy said.

A California-based Afghan arts promoter and heritage textile conservationist, Sherzoy is trying to contemporise vintage Afghan clothes.

Rural women artisans in Pakistan are finding a ready market across the country and even abroad, thanks to the efforts of several women-oriented non-profit organisations, which are linking the rural development programme in Pakistan with public and private initiatives.

One of them is the Thardeep Rural Development Programme, located in the Tharparkar district of Sindh. It works among rural women artisans in four arid areas of Sindh — Umerkot, Dadu, Kairpur and Tharpakar.

"We provide enterprise support to 300 Hindu craftswomen from the Meghwar tribe, who embroider cotton apparels, craft leather shoes and make bead accessories. We are also reviving several dying crafts," programme resource person and textile designer Madiha Kazi said.

The Asasah Microcredit, a Lahore-based micro-credit firm, has brought a collection of "gota" and "kundan" (traditional crafts) embroidery, along with Pakistani "truck art" accessories, which are sought after in India.

Nangmyaoo, a lotus weaver, is a member of the four-women team from Myanmar, who is showcasing her lotus fabric scarves and lacquerware.

"It is one of the most popular ethnic crafts of Myanmar. I extract the fibre for my products from the lotus blooms at my workshop in my home," Nangmyaoo said. She lives in the middle of the Inle Lake, one of the biggest inland fresh water in the Shan Hills of Myanmar, with more than 70,000 people of the Intha community.

For the ICCR, this is the first engagement with South Asian crafts. "Culture goes much beyond performing arts — it has to touch people. This is a small step for the ICCR in a new direction," ICCR director-general Suresh Goel said. — IANS