|Contributor: Bruce Harmon
“Timeless India,” as fixed in the Western imagination, is all bright, hot color, the baked red earth of Rajasthan, the chestnut toned bodies of half naked sadhus, their finger painted skin a chalkboard of unintelligible symbols, fires on the ghats that spell out in smoke mortal abbreviation, riverbanks set with a mosaic of ochre, yellow, red, and emerald cloth, laundry beaten clean and laid out to dry by village women. And everywhere, the inviolability of the wandering cow, sacred to all except the vegetable seller who’s leafy greens it eyes.
And this too: villages entirely made up of small shapely houses constructed of wattle covered inside and out of the plaster of the poor, cow dung, beautiful antiseptic cow dung, provider of shelter, fuel, even cleanser of wounds owing to its ammonia content.
But “timeless India” becomes elusive when the lowly street sweeper suddenly pulls from her sari a cell phone chiming a Bollywood tune, or a rich Indian woman forsakes a traditional sari from Gujarat woven with characteristic motifs of parrots, legible symbols of courtship and passion, to sport an Italian silk sari whose interlaced “Gs” shout of bragging rights if not indifference to the rural village weaver who, seated on a floor at his pit loom, bare feet dangling in a hole, sends his shuttle clicking back and forth for an entire month creating silk cloth that the Emperors of India once flouted and the ancient Romans valued its weight in gold. Indeed, Pliny, the Roman once complained that his county men were draining Rome’s coffers as they coveted their Indian togas, a comment echoed centuries later by Lord Macaulay, the 18th century historian who wrote, not without a touch of envy, that those attending the balls of St. James and of Versailles were covered in sumptuous brocades woven on the looms of Benares!
No tears, however, for the advances brought about by modernity ! Three cheers for it ! The spiritual relatives of today’s Gucci-sari wearer, the Babu's of 18th-19th century India who aped their British overlords by showing off their Western style palaces full of ersatz Tintorettos, crystal chandeliers, and Frenchy furniture, were simply truth tellers: there is no timeless India they tell us, never has been, only an ever changing, dynamic India.
And in this they are right. But modernity is and ever has been a moving target. Visit a Babu’s palace today and you will find there all that speaks of the passage of time. What was once modern is now sad and forlorn: water stains on painted walls that on a shirt would be called sweat rings, furniture whose marquetry has been bubbled off by humidity, ormoulu mounts dull of any sparkle, oil paintings sagging in their frames. The illusion of modernity is nowhere revealed so harshly as here, in places that sought long ago to stick a finger in the eye of traditional India.
But even in a mouldering Babu’s palace , look closely and a glance will serve up a piece of the real “timeless India.” It is in the cloth of the ticket taker’s turban, in this case tie dyed crimson cotton crafted today as it was crafted yesterday and the yesterday of yesterdays, with a knowledge transmitted father to son so that each dot of contrasting color, made possible by a tiny thread tightly wrapped around a pinhead-sized fragment of cloth in a way set to resist a bath of contrasting colored dye, is much more than the result of an isolated manual manipulation invented on the spot, it is a demonstration of inheritance, of knowledge perfected and transmitted over generations.
“Timeless India” is to be found here in its crafts. These are products, generated through an unbroken transmission of knowledge often stretching back centuries that truly deserve the moniker “timeless.”
There is nothing simple in a piece of hand loomed, hand dyed cloth. We cannot fix in time the first dying of cotton or name its author as, for example, as we can say of industrial products, ”Ah yes, it was Jones who came up with this contraption, or Doelger who invented that one!” Name the person who invented the dyeing of cotton, or the person or persons who perfected the range of colors that held fast to cotton fibers that, unlike silk, refused to bond with any color? Until the 17th century, these processes were known only to the Indians. They were the equivalent of modern day industrial trade secrets, and they had been handed down through a guild system over centuries.
Ask yourself how is it that a process of weaving tree-picked wild cocoons came about in the 7th century AD, giving us today Assam’s famous Muga silk, prized for its color and texture. What ancient knowledge goes into the making of Patola, the resist-dyed and woven silk fabric of Gujarat, once the exclusive garb of 16th century kings, woven today only by two families of weavers in Patan? Or what accumulated knowledge, known now only to one single family in Maharashtra, is required to make the exquisite Paithani boxes from Parthagban, assembled of ruby, sapphire and emerald colored glass -- colors resulting from the clever manipulation of paper foil -- and overlaid with insets of paper-thin gold that speak to tales endemic to the region such as the stalking of its once fearsome tigers?
Know-how transmitted over the ages is what has carried all of these handicrafts forward into our own day. Break this precious transmission of information, which in India often took place in the context of guilds, and the capacity to produce these products disappears. They are gone forever. Think for example, of a rare muslin formerly produced in Dacca, now in Bangla Desh, which laid out wet on the grass became invisible. It was called subhnam, “the dew of evening,” because it became invisible with the approach of the evening dew. Or think of another called ab-rawan, or “running water,” because it became invisible in water. This is the cloth of legend, and its manufacture has been lost to us forever. No longer will it be possible to do as did the ambassador of the 17th century Shah Safy, on his return from India, to present his master a coconut, set with jewels, containing a muslin turban thirty yards in length, so finely woven that it could scarcely be felt by the touch!
For all that we appreciate its wide range of handicrafts, India is unfortunately a graveyard of lost arts. In the case of textiles, much of the loss resulted from the destruction of weavers guilds brought about in the 19th century by the manufacture of cheap industrial Manchester cottons, which turned India from a net exporter of cloth to net importer.
Today’s Indian fashionists opting for industrial silk saris sporting commercial logos, are not helping to sustain the rural craftsman whose weavings were once coveted as keenly as precious gold. They are rather direct heirs to country men on whom, a century earlier, Manchester merchants forced the consumption of cheap cloth.
The India known and commented on by Greek traders, Roman historians, Muslim invaders, itinerant Chinese monks, and adventurers like Vasco da Gama, is the India of textiles, carpets, wood block printing, metal work, jewellery, perfume, the India that once excited desire and sparked wars of conquest.
This is the India that still sparks desire. Hold tasar and Muga silk and you hold 14 centuries of prized learning in your palm.
Today, according to the Government, there are an estimated 30 million weavers, crafts persons, and folk artists living in India who possess inherited skills by which they earn their livelihood. Offerings of their handiwork can readily be found in State emporiums, such as those that line Baba Karak Singh Marg in New Delhi: all feature handicrafts unique to their sponsoring State, for example, Gujarat or Tamil Nadu. These stores were created by the national Government as a way to sustain artisan populations that so directly connect Indian-India to its rich past. Equally ingenious in insuring that the artistic traditions of India’s rich past remain living traditions has been the establishment of the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Board, popularly known as the Crafts Museum, on Bhairon Road in the capital.
Set in multitude of low buildings that evoke an Indian village, the Museum consists of over 20,000 “rare and distinctive pieces reflecting continuing traditions of Indian crafts persons through painting, embroidery, textiles, various crafts of clay, stone, and wood. Galleries include the Tribal and Rural Craft Gallery, Gallery of Courtly Crafts, Textile Gallery, and Gallery of Popular Culture.
Some of its prized collection includes the 250-300 year old Bhoota Collection of rare sculpture from Karnataka, rare 300-year-old “dushalas,” hankies from Chamba known for their unique embroidery, rare brocade and Buluchari saris, Kutch embroidery, precious jewellery, and more.” For museum-goers, the Crafts Museum offers an almost unparalleled treat: its human proportions, the easy way it invites you to weave inside and out through shaded courtyard spaces punctuated by Indian architectural elements that merely whisper of their charms, and the undemanding way it presents its treasures, make the all too common aches of “museum fatigue” impossible.
The exclamation point for any visitor emerging from the museum collections is what awaits them outside, an entire village of stalls in which 50 crafts persons from all over India busily demonstrate their crafts and put on offer their latest creations. Here you can watch a glassblower fashion the glassware of everyday life, or whip from molten sand a fragile Ganesh for worship on the family altar; or weavers from all regions of India, a woman from Naga land busy at her handloom producing the distinctly patterned cloth evoking China and Burma to the East, or a Gujarati carving the teak blocks that will be used to print the cotton in patterns that inspired European and American fashions for centuries; or metal makers hammering jugs and dishes of brass chased in motifs that evoke Madras or Kashmir; or the potter from Tamil Nadu constructing figures of horses from coiled and moulded clay: or the shadow puppet maker who with the flick of a sharp blade over parchment brings to life heroes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Here too you will see practiced, a craft that brings you closer to the bone of rural India than any other, the Mithila painting of the women of Bihar, with antecedents dating back to a time in the 14th century, when their ancestors began painting gods and goddesses of fertility on the walls of their homes. Today, the art is practiced on paper and brings to life the imaginings of villagers long shaped by circumstances of harsh isolation and the numbing, one imagines comes of lives lived in relentless repetition.
The work is positively joyful.
A brief history. In 1934, a British colonial official, William G. Archer, inspecting the damage caused by a violent earthquake in several Mithila villages in eastern India, discovered and photographed paintings on the walls of damaged houses, paintings of a type barely known outside the region. The central imagery of these works, painted, using pigments derived from the likes of local flowers, burnt straw, lampblack, and using goat’s milk as a fixative, included gods and goddesses painted with the purpose of creating auspicious settings for the families rituals; scenes of marriage that included pairs of parrots, lovebirds, as well as fish and turtles evoking the fertility to be found in local ponds were also popular subject matter.
A published article containing Archer’s photographs brought these works of art to the attention of Government officials and art lovers. Some years later a ruinous drought left the Mithila region reeling. In order to help the local people develop a new source of income, Pupal Jayakar, the then director of the All India Handcrafts Board had the brainstorm of encouraging these often illiterate, rural, artists to transfer their ancient artistry to works on paper.
The Bombay artist, Baskar Kulkarni, was sent to initiate the effort. He arrived with handmade paper, paint and basic instruction. The first paintings went on exhibit and were put up for sale in New Delhi, this after a considerable effort spent in gaining the confidence of various caste communities (the highest Brahmin families shunned him). According to David Szanton and Malini Bakshi, authors of the most informative book on the subject, MITHILA PAINTING, THE EVOLUTION OF AN ART FORM, “several women among the…lowest Brahmin sub castes and the Karn Kayastha community – and one Chamar woman, Jumana Devi…took up his suggestions.”
The work was both popularly and critically received. A new “old art” was born, or to put it differently, an old art form found a new medium of expression. The once secret world of paintings on mud walls found new walls to adorn, those of private art collectors, and as commissioned murals, those of State buildings. In neither case did this expansion of repertoire dilute the creative force of the earlier work.
The story of Mithili painting since those early exhibitions is one of continuity and evolution. The list of artists earning national and international recognition for their artistry has expanded from its earliest pioneers, Ganga Devi and Sita Devi to include many others. Moreover, the Sudras, historically known as “untouchables” but now referred to as Dalit, were introduced to painting on paper in the 1970s by Erica Moser, the German anthropologist who settled in the village of Jitwarpur to study the crafts and rituals of this community, and they have brought a whole new dynamic to the tradition.
Of particular interest, Dusadh artists, who typically painted animals and gods on the walls of their houses, have created a prominent new style based on the protective tattoos called `godana' that many in this group wear on their arms and legs. Drawings of this genre, which show columns of dancing comma-headed figures, parades of elephants, flowers drawn with the invention expected of Saul Steinberg, are some of the most charming of all Mithila drawings. Of interest too, many Mithila artists, whether Brahmin or otherwise, have taken to copying a Dusadh innovation, paper washed with gobar or cow dung that gives the appearance of the original mud walls from which this tradition of painting was derived.
Look at a Mithila painting and what do you see? India. Traditional, rural India. You cannot get closer, not only to its vibrant colors but also to its village’s rituals, the legends of its castes, their epics, their songs, the timeless India as it is communicated ear to ear, whispered fresh to a child while pushing the shuttle of a loom or plowing a field, or said with a glance to an elder adding wood to the coals beneath the evening meal, an elder in whose head all that is suggested has been long graven as in stone.
But look closely at a contemporary Mithila painting and you just might be confronted with another characteristic of its evolution: modern social commentary. A wall painting in one of Archer’s early photographs prefigures this development: above the traditional figures of Vishnu and his three Avatars, the fish, tortoise, and boar, floats, improbably, a huffing passenger train, a railway station, and a ticket taker. Even to this isolated village painter in the 1940s, the world hinted at something much larger than religious piety.
To quote again the authors David Szanton and Malini Bakshi, “Starting in the 1980s and 1990s, several…artists began painting images depicting or commenting on social life in their communities...Shanti Devi did a large multi-panel painting commenting on a village election, complete with sound trucks, flag waving crowds, party symbols, ballot boxes, and soldiers guarding a voting booth…Krishnanand Jha did twenty three paintings over a ten year period chronicling the murder of a local village boy and the subsequent investigation, trials, and acquittal of the murderers.
In the last few years, growing numbers of women have been using their paintings to critique their society. Feminist paintings are now ubiquitous. Most deal with the constraints, heavy workloads, and responsibilities women face. Others point to the disparities in male and female education and medical services, with boys and men always receiving better treatment. Several of Rani Jha’s paintings deal with the constraints of marriage, but also gender specific abortions, problems of the elderly, and women whose husbands have abandoned them… Many young painters…are producing powerful paintings…proclaiming new possibilities for women.”
If painting has always been a dialogue between artist and viewer, the language spoken these days in Mithila art has become much richer and much more exciting over the last decades, a window not only into the unchanging ways of village life but also a mirror of what its people expect of their lives in the future. Think of these works as the Gallup Poll of painting.
The term “timeless India” entered the Western imagination probably in response to the velocity of life in the industrialized world and the need to find somewhere, anywhere, a stasis, a sense of immutability, hence the quietly murmured response of the tourist zipping past the nearly naked sadhu on the dusty road (a man whose lack of possessions should suggest, again to Western thinking, someone at the margin of disappearing), “Ah, now there’s permanence!
“ This is what India does to Westerners, puts them into a pinball machine and shoots them bouncing against all sorts of unexamined ideas. That is the pleasure of it. That said, I hope it is not too shaky a notion to look for a semblance of permanence in the traditions of rural India’s handicrafts, the origins of many of which have been documented for centuries. Quantifiable time gives at least some flesh to the word “timeless.”
Excuse the first person, but come back with me to the vicinity of the village of wattle and dung-built homes mentioned at the start of this essay, a village in rural India that I visited long ago in the company of the incomparably knowledgeable Mrs. Malathi Ramaswamy, then guide, now friend, who first introduced me to its crafts people, experiences that stay with me to this day because one of these encounters brought with it an unexpected shock, the shock of humility.
It happened this way. On the outskirts of this village we visited the house of a weaver. The building was thick walled with a single small glassless window and an open door serving as the only source of light into the front room. A wooden chair, a table nailed of rough wood and holding a grimy ballpoint pen and an account book completed the room’s décor. On a shelf was the weaver’s recent output, saris neatly stacked and secured with sheets of newspaper and string. Various colors peeked from behind the folded paper, but not enough to animate the overall dun of the room or to excite the fly that twitched on the windowsill.
All was still, except for the sound that floated from the next room, a clicking whose pace, lulling and evenly spaced, evoked nothing other than the satisfying ticking from a metronome.
Instead, the sound rose from the operation of a pit loom manned by a small man seated on the floor, who pushed right to left, left to right , eight hours a day, seven days a week, four weeks a month, twelve months a year, a small wooden shuttle, glistening dark from his hand oils, which he sent sailing through the silk threads of the warp, caught, pushed through the warp again, repeating these motions endlessly until the sun finally set, the light bulb overhead was turned off, and the other necessities of his life were attended to. Put to sleep were the spools of colourful silk standing like toy soldiers in dress uniform gathered at his side in a wooden box.
“What does he think all day,” I wondered? What life does he imbue to his shuttle in order to salvage his own life? How does he survive the repetition, the aching monotony that is his lot?
As the back of this small man was to me, I noticed the collar of his anciently white shirt. The collar was frayed. It has always stuck with me that the cloth maker I was standing over, wore a shirt and that was coming apart at the seams. Had he sat in that hunched position for so long that he hadn’t noticed?
“Where is the reward in all of this, thought I?
And then Malathi addressed the man. He quieted his shuttle, stood, shook my hand with the grip of a bird, a hand of skin patinated mahogany with the feel of a river stone rubbed smooth by endless torrents of water, and led us back into the dun colored room where he pulled from the shelf his newspaper wrapped work.
I have never seen a man untie a string knot as respectfully as he did, as though it were something holy. The newspaper too was handled with the same care. He removed his handiwork, handed one end to his speck of a daughter, and the two of them slowly unfolded a sari.
It was then that I knew his reward. The man’s whole life was dedicated to one singular purpose, that of creating beauty. Dung had no place in his imagination or in his simple quarters, filled as both were with emerald greens, ruby reds, shades of saffron, yellows, turquoise, all color-fields in which he could revel and on which, for the month that it took to make a single sari, he could in gold thread set parrots to chattering in trees, think of Lakshmi as he wove the lotuses associated with her, play with sprigs and bushes, and plant wherever he wanted six-petal jasmine.
My shock (his reward): to be in the presence of a lived life that leaves in its wake beauty with a capital “B,” as opposed to abstractions with a small “a.” What a comeuppance. What awe. How humbling to be in the presence of a life lived thusly, a life capable of giving such pleasure.
In the hour that followed, we visited the nearby village of wattle and dung houses alluded to earlier. It was here that a village woman making chapatti outside her front door invited us into her one room house which, though lacking much more furniture than a trundle bed stung of rough rope, was one of the most memorable living spaces I ever recall having seen. Floor, walls, shelves, the stove, the altar, were all of a single undulating piece, seamlessly shaped by hand, with bulges and protrusions formed as though of hardened liquid, appearing where necessary, retreating where not, the whole showing a plasticity very modern in spirit. And this, made of cow dung and mud resembling nothing less than the smoothest leather and across which bare feet could glide without resistance or sound.
Here again, a view of timeless India, or at least the India where know-how passed on from generation to generation could instruct a person, when faced with the meagerest of materials, how to craft something that not only served its purpose well but was aesthetically pleasing to boot.
My mind wondered at the capacity of the Indian imagination to both cherish information and to pass it on over time in a way that sustains its people, whether, weavers, cloth dyers, woodblock carvers, metal makers or builders.
The valuing of fragments of learning, the steady accretion of bits and pieces of new learning, the passing on of the greater and greater whole to a new generation, this is what underlies the crafts of rural India and makes them worthy of our admiration. What happens when this essential transmission of knowledge is broken, when people become unconnected to all that has gone before them? For this we had a sharp lesson when we stepped outside of the dung-wattle house.
A foreign tourist, urbane in appearance, had appeared and was, without success, struggling to make himself understood to its owner. He had a simple question, he told us. Malathi kindly offered to be his translator.
The man had noticed the cow droppings that were to be used by the old woman for fuel. They were flattened, wafer shaped, and set to dry in rows high on the buildings vertical walls.
“How,” he wanted to know, “did the cows jump on the wall?”
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