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Posted at: Nov 4, 2018, 2:40 AM; last updated: Nov 4, 2018, 2:40 AM (IST)

Stories, frame by frame

Love for labour drives Kirrt to document narratives of artisans from across Punjab through photography

Sanjam Preet Singh

The hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour.”
— Frederick Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

The German philosopher foregrounds the importance of hands in the development of the brain which, in turn, developed other organs.

Over the centuries, “labour… have given the human hand the high degree of perfection to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of a Paganini”. (Engels)

In India, labour has long been seen through the prism of “purity” and “impurity”. Even today, hathin kamm karna (to work with your hands), though considered honourable in Sikh ethos, is looked down upon and thus goes unrewarded.

A case in point is Rajesh, a woodcarver from Hoshiarpur. By his own admission, he is one of the last two surviving artisans in the city who are into inlay work. He gets Rs 300 to Rs 400 a day for his work. But his handmade products fetch lakhs of rupees.

Every village, town and city has such stories — stories of people, of their labour and their art. These people live among us, unnoticed. They remain in the shadows. To know them, take a break from the humdrum existence and keep an ear to the ground.

Kirrt is an initiative in this direction. It documents the stories of kirrtis (artisans) and kirrts (their works), word by word, frame by frame. Kirrt is a Punjabi word with roots in Sanskrit word krit or kriti. It means manufacturing and creation. Guru Nanak placed kirrt first in his three commandments: Kirrt karo, naam japo, vand chako (work, pray and share the produce).

As a project, Kirrt is an online platform started in May by Gurdeep Dhaliwal, a writer and photographer, and Navjeet Kaur, a costume and book designer. Jasdeep Singh, a translator and editor, and Satdeep Gill, who is pursuing MPhil in Punjabi, joined the collective later.

The project took shape with the fusion of two ideas. Gurdeep was already documenting walls of young people who wanted to settle abroad. “I was interested in knowing what these people pasted on their walls. At the same time, my attention was on the older generation that did not go abroad. I wanted to know their reasons for staying back. When (Punjabi poet) Amarjit Chandan came to India in January, he talked about kirrt being ignored. His concern and my idea of documenting old people fused into a plan,” he says.

So, the first story was that of Kulwant Kaur from Nim Wala Maur in Barnala district. She has been making toys for children and ornamental objects for girls for 10 years. She lives alone in her one-room house. Sometimes, girls visit her to learn the craft.

Like hers, there are stories about Harbhajan Singh Ajimal, a carpenter from Banga; Lakhvinder Singh, a cobbler in Rahon (Nawanshahr); Abdul Majid, a potter in Manimajra; and Gagandeep Singh, a palki maker in Amritsar, among others.

Most of the stories are from Punjab, while a couple of them are from Pakistan. Ono Kaori, a Japanese teacher in Pakistan, pitched in for Kirrt.

Jasdeep says, “We don’t probe kirrtis, but talk about their life and experiences. We listen to them. We don’t interpret what is told to us.”

Besides linking the present with the past, Kirrt fills the vacuum in an age when people are trying to find meaning in everything. “People think in terms of utility. So our initiative is to show people a non-utilitarian approach to life. Art, as such, doesn’t benefit anyone. It is experiential. For example, we have printed postcards with photos of kirrtis and their tools. People may not buy them, but they appreciate the art work,” Gurdeep says.

Navjeet, who has designed costumes for films such as Chauthi Koot, Qissa Panjab and Soni, says “My heart is into understanding the evolution of art – how art evolves in the present times. It is moving for me to see artists and artisans adapt with time and technology. Through Kirrt, I can feed my drive of keeping these creators in focus in this world of mass production.”

Love for labour has brought four youths from different regions of Punjab together. They have planted a sapling that hopes to grow into a publishing house and an art gallery. Such are their plans.

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