|Contributor: Carol Gouthro
Traveling in India has changed my life. It has enriched me, inspired and influenced my art work, broadened my vision and understanding of the world, and made me a better teacher and an artist.
My very first experience in India was a huge culture shock. We were on our own for much of the time trying to navigate this chaotic country with no guide and feeling overwhelmed by everything and everyone we met, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the onslaught of visual information. We felt like we were on a roller coaster of emotional experiences fluctuating between moments of sublime beauty and moments of sheer terror and everything in between. I could not absorb the onslaught of visual information.
We returned home not thinking we would ever return to India, but after a few months time, India started returning to us. I began dreaming about it and revisiting it in my mind and wishing I could go again armed now with my knowledge of what to expect.
It was my very good fortune that when I went again, it was on an Arts and Craft tour with Malathi, as our guide. I have travelled to India many times now, and every time as I leave, I still say to myself, well I have seen it now. I have really experienced India, maybe I don’t need to come back again. I have been to the north, the south, the east and the west. But I always return. India lures me back. Malathi our guide, teacher and friend invites me back and I can’t resist another opportunity to experience this endlessly fascinating, exotic, chaotic, sensory smorgasbord, a country unlike any other place I have ever been.
Malathi, has led us through her country that she admires and loves and with her we have met the people, the villagers, city dwellers, hotel workers, musicians, dancers, local guides and especially the many, many craftspeople whom she respects and admires and whose skill and unique abilities she strives to share with us and the world. We have travelled countless miles along desert roads with camels and along sea side roads by salt flats and palm trees, along lush green country roads with farmers using Brahman bulls to plow the fields, over mountain passes with terraced tea and spice plantations, all to visit these remarkable crafts people. Have along the way savored India’s charms.
The amazing architectural wonders, temples, palaces, mausoleums, and forts leave me breathless. The intricate pierced patterns and marble lattice work of a Sufi saint’s shrine, the encrusted carved and sculpted surfaces of a Jain temple, the ornate, colorful maze of figures on a Dravidian temple look like a giant confection. A night time visit to the temple complex in Madurai is a sensory banquet unlike anything I have ever experienced. It is a rich, dark, dense, loud, smoky, incense filled hive of activity, a riot of worshippers of all sorts, chanting, playing music, praying and carrying Shiva in a procession across the temple to spend the night with his consort Parvati.
India is a riot of colors, pattern and texture, where the hand of the craftsperson, and artisan is ever present everywhere you look. Colorful, expertly rendered, charming hand painted signs advertise mundane objects such as locks, hardware stores, dressmakers. Women at the flower market hand string thousands of flowers into mounds shaped like beehives, heady with scent, marigold and jasmine bound for weddings, funerals and hotel lobbies – for totally diverse purposes!
Truck drivers paint their vehicles in vibrant colors and cover them with images from the Ramayana and other fantastic tales of the lives of the deities. Small shrines, dedicated to various deities, hand painted, covered in patterns, color and encrusted with textural details pop up in every corner, in every neighborhood. Red, gold leaf, bold, shocking colors. Women in colorful saris walk down dusty roads with baskets on their heads wearing sarees of various colors - Saffron, Ruby, Eggplant, Ochre, Lime, and wearing elegant and simple jewels.
India’s crafts people are one of her many treasures and there are so many talented crafts people that we visited on our India trips. Weavers, embroiderers, wood block and tie dye masters, paper makers, metal workers, potters, sculptors, tile makers, painters, mirror makers, stone masons. Some have left deep impressions on me.
In 2006, at Golden Bridge Pottery in Pondicherry, in South India, we were privileged to see master artisans from a remote village build two 6ft tall Terracotta Ayyanar Horses. The building of Ayyanar horses is a dying art in South Tamil Nadu. I had first seen examples of these sculptures at the Crafts Museum in Dehli. and was very impressed with them. The horses are offerings to the village god Ayyanar who is a popularly worshipped deity in South India, particularly Tamil Nadu. He is known as the protector of rural village. From what I have read, the villagers belonging predominantly to the potter caste have worshipped Ayyanar since ancient times. Their religion, although Hindu, exists more as a clan based worship system.
Ayyanar Temples are generally found on the edges of villages, free from the usual monumental buildings found around South India. As village life revolves around nature and community, so too does worship which takes place in open grounds near trees and stresses the importance of family life.
Two years after I first saw the Terracotta Ayyanars at the Crafts Museum in Delhi, with the help of Deborah and Ray Meeker of Golden Bridge Pottery at Pondicherry, we were able to commission two artisans, Radhakrishnan and Subramani from the village of Malaiyur in Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu to come to Pondicherry and give us a workshop. They travelled from their village bringing their special clay and worked for several days before we arrived so that we could see this process as it evolved. The sculptures are built up spontaneously, entirely by hand, no sketches, molds or armatures of any kind are used. With amazing skill and dexterity they coiled, pinched and paddled the clay and the large horses came to life. It was obvious that this was a process that they understood intimately and the clay was magic under their fingers. Their clay is mixed with rice husks and that gives it the wet strength for building up rapidly in the South Indian climate which is moist but hot.
The giant horses took shape and they decorated them with stamping and beads of clay and they were ready to stand guard over the compound. We learned later that the Ayyanars were fired there in place and remain at Golden Bridge Pottery. They are known as the Indebo Ayyanars, named after the Travel Agency started by Malathi and her husband Rama in 1979. Indebo arranged our travels through India,.
In 2006 while we were touring Orissa we visited the village of Raghurajpur, a village occupied by craftspeople famous for Pattachitra paintings done on a starched cloth, palm leaf etching, colorful masks and the making of Ganjifa card (playing cards). In Raghurajpur, we visited with several of the painters in the village and met some of the very young apprentices who were learning the painting techniques using paint brushes made of mouse or squirrel hairs. This is a craft that is passed down through families from generation to generation and the time required to master this painting technique is years and years. We met the master of the village and purchased two of his wonderful patachitra paintings on silk. One a large pink Ganesh extravagantly decorated. It hangs in my kitchen and makes me smile every time I look at it. The other a lovely more subtle landscape scroll with mythical animals, very charming in its quirky rendering of animals. The quality of the line work, intricate repetition of patterns and color combinations are superb.
So, in writing my impressions of India, as I go back over my trips, and remember the many, many, craftspeople we have met, and think about the variety, depth and breadth of the traditional crafts that are still thriving in India, it becomes very apparent to me that the craftspeople are truly one of India’s treasures. India's traditional craftspeople are still passing down their techniques through generations and are devoted to their crafts, striving for excellence and creating wonderful unique crafts. We were fortunate to have had this wonderful privilege and opportunity to see, share and admire these very special and priceless crafts in distant corners of India.
1258 S. W. Othello St.
Seattle, Wa 98106
Phone: 206 762-4524
Pondicherry (Puducherry) - 165 kms south of Chennai
Places visited in Orissa : Bhubaneshwar, Raghurajpur and around
Small places cannot be correctly located in these maps. May we request/suggest that you look into Google Maps for the location of these places in the particular States of India. Thank you for your understanding.