I have known Malati Ramaswamy for over forty years, when she brought two well-known jewellers from the USA to meet me. We had an interesting afternoon sharing insights. Then she set up Indebo, which organised tours for craft specialists. Malati made special efforts to reach out to the master craftsmen so that the designer/crafts persons from abroad could get access to the finest Indian masters. Because of her interest, her warmth and genuineness the masters opened their homes to the visitors and shared their knowledge. Travelling with Malati became a special it was like entering into another world. The world of creativity, the world of living culturing traditions, mirroring the very core of our intangible heritage.
This publication is a collection of the articles written by 46 designers/crafts persons, who were a part of Malati’s exploratory trips. One of them very rightly says, “When the roots are strong, the tree grows well. A craft tradition like a tree must be cared for so that it bears fruit…” Well it more than bears fruit, it enriches our daily life.
We who have spent our life time working with crafts have learnt that working with the hands is an enriching and healing experience. There is a meditative quality about it. Gandhiji learnt to spin and made it an important part of the freedom movement. Everyone including the leaders of the freedom movement at the very height of the struggle set aside time for spinning, for they felt that it gave them strength and a peace of mind to cope with the challenges.
Today in the hurly burly of our lives when we are pulled in so many different directions the ability to work with our hands, to give voice to our emotions, to move in rhythm, is what gives us the ability to face life’s multi-faceted challenges.
All of us undertake different journeys in life; we bond with fellow travelers during these journeys usually because of circumstances and sometimes through common interests. Malathi and I share such an interest - our love for Indian crafts and textiles. It is entirely coincidental but interesting that the same person, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, probably inspired us both in this shared love.
Malathi has recounted to me how it was at Kamaladeviji's suggestion she started organizing 'craft' tours which went on to become such a success. And it was a rather fleeting encounter with Kamaldeviji which encouraged me to become part of the Crafts Council movement that she had founded.
Every traveler to India is struck by the colours, the multitudes of people, the chaos and the noise. These are fleeting impressions. Only a few are fortunate enough to see an India which leaves a more lasting impression, that seen through the eyes of the artisan, that which is the world of crafts and craftspeople. When one reads the many articles in this volume, it becomes obvious that these kinds of experiences are indeed what people treasure most about our rich and complex culture.
We are fortunate in India that we are still surrounded by crafts. Some of us may take this for granted, but the situation requires serious attention for it to continue and grow. It is a sad reality that despite being a repository of tradition knowledge and despite providing ecologically sustainable employment to millions in our country the artisan community is being increasingly marginalized. The decision makers of our country seem to be mired in indifference and misunderstanding in their approach towards this critical sector.
It is in this context that this volume assumes significance. It presents a fresh way of looking at the picture. There are some moving first-hand accounts of experiences with individual artisans as well as communities. Most are written by travelers from countries where almost no crafts or craftspeople, in our sense of the term, exist today. This should serve as a wake-up call for all of us serving the interests of crafts in our country.
I congratulate Malathi on bringing out this volume; it is a testimony to her fantastic energy and will power! In her inimitable way, she has managed to energize so many of her friends the world over and got them to write down their recollections.
My personal good wishes to Malathi for the success of this book. I hope it will reach out to as many people as possible and serve as an interesting record for future generations.
Delhi Crafts Council
116-A (First Floor)
New Delhi 110049
India is a land that is rich in handicrafts. Over the past twenty seven years, we at Indebo, have encouraged and facilitated several "Crafts Tours" that took a large number of travelers through the many states of India, to explore their different arts and crafts.
Speaking with Hands is the book of these tours, told by these travelers. It is about how important our hands are and what they have done through the ages in the Indian subcontinent.
Handicrafts - be they toys for children, beads and jewels for women, earthen pots for cooking, woven cloths or hand printed fabrics - are 'one of a kind', unique. They have also been, traditionally, hereditary occupations. Over the years, each part of the Indian subcontinent has specialized in some art or craft form.
From the humble earthen pot, to metal work, the weaving of cloth in cotton, linen, wool and silk, dhurries and carpets, embroidery on cloth and other media… the list of crafts that are made in India is long, unending. Many of these crafts are declining today. Indeed, they have been declining ever since the world has become more and more industrialized. Fortunately for us though, some have survived. Crafting with hands is a passion, and an occupation passed down through generations and has been fiercely guarded!
We have also been blessed with visionaries and thinkers like Mahatma Gandhi who understood the importance and the value of handcrafts for the people of the land. His personal example of spinning and weaving cotton encouraged and promoted the hand woven cloth Khadi. Since Independence the Government of India,and indeed all the State Governments, have consciously encouraged a set up in Delhi and in all the States of the country, that includes Crafts Councils, Handloom and Handicraft Boards, Weavers Service Centers. Furthermore, Crafts persons are recognized, honored and rewarded for their excellent skills. This has helped in the revival of some great art traditions.
It has been a wonderful experience for me to put together these articles and essays. All the contributors have traveled with us over the years, some of them having revisited India several times to explore the many-sided splendor of Indian arts and crafts. Each of the authors brings her or his unique perspective to our crafts and this has been a very special way in which we have been able to explore the uniqueness of India, by seeing the country once again through their eyes.
My heartfelt thanks to each one of them for their time, enthusiasm and contribution. But for them - and the Crafts persons of India - this book would not have been possible.
The articles in this book are first hand accounts of participants, many of whom are craftspersons themselves, and who first traveled to India out of curiosity and to to meet their Craft counterparts! Many have returned several times over, in order to understand India's rich and varied cultures.
Two persons who have been an early influence are Michael Scott (Editor of Crafts Report, Seattle) and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, who had established the Crafts Council of India in 1964. Michael had asked Indebo to organize his first group tour to India that was focussed on Indian textiles, arts and crafts, and he facilitated our meeting with Kamaladevi. When we met her- she was in her 80s at that time- her generosity was overwhelming, and her enthusiasm for reviving textile arts and crafts at the grass roots level was infectious. She addressed that first group of ours, and explained the importance of crafts in our culture, and the role they played in the lives of the marginalized millions. Her talk was an inspiration, and she urged us to learn more and promote many more such tours. But for them, this book would not be here today.
We thank all these friends for their thoughts and contributions, and hope that this effort of ours to document these travel experiences will rekindle memories of the tours past, and also provide an opportunity to see how India and her crafts have evolved in the past few years.
Many people have helped in making this book possible and we would like to thank them all. In particular, Santosh Narayanan of EasyLink, our website designer and compiler, who has worked diligently with his team for over a year and a half to make this book a reality. Rajesh Kumar, Lilly Kurian, Yengkhom Ibotombi Singh and Manmeet Narang at Indebo who have helped in collating and reviewing the scripts, inserting pictures, maps and compiling addresses of the craftspersons.
Above all, we hope that this book is, in a small way, another tribute to the craftspeople of India.
Malathi Ramaswamy and Lt. Col. Ramaswamy (retd)