The state of the arts

Jan 06, 2013, 10:13 IST | Moeena Halim

The rich craft traditions of Gujarat take pride of place in the new book, Handloom and Handicrafts in Gujarat

Think sustainable and recyclable crafts and chances are that a number of contemporary designs will pop up in your mind. One of the many things the book, Handloom and Handicrafts in Gujarat, reminds the reader is that recycling and using sustainable raw materials is part of life for rural craftsmen in India.

According to Villoo Mirza, the book’s co-editor, the focus on these aspects is the most beautiful thing about the products these craftspersons create. “For instance, remnants of worn-out clothes are used to create gorgeous quilts and home linen in many homes in Gujarat,” she explains.

A Dhaneti Jat woman wearing a vindho

Commissioned by the Gujarat State Handloom and Handicrafts Development Corporation (GSHHDC), Handloom and Handicrafts in Gujarat recognises each of these rich and sustainable craft traditions of the state.

The chapter dedicated to the stonemasons of the Sompura community takes you on a tour from the famous Somnath Temple near Veraval to the Jami Masjid at Champaner, and from the Rani ni Vav (the Queen’s Stepwell) in Patan to the Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara. The tree-of-life jaali in Siddi Sayyad Mosque in Ahmedabad, an intricate carving decorating one of the mosque’s arches is surprisingly intricate.

Kathpootali or puppets were an important part of folk traditions of western India

In many ways, the book serves as quite the cultural guide to Gujarat. The state’s famous bandhani work, the ubiquitous wooden chabutaro (bird feeder), ornamental kathputhalis (puppets used for storytelling) also find their place in the book. The book concentrates on the details of how and when crafts were introduced in the specific regions of Gujarat.

It is fascining to know that several crafts, including most of the clay work, emerged from the Indus Valley Civilisation. While stone masonry dates back 4,000 years, kamangari (a tradition of wall paintings that thrives in Kachchh) is considered to be our inheritance from the Mughals.

A wooden chabutaro or bird feeder, which has now gained curio value

“The craft traditions of India are intricately woven into the cultural milieu of each region of our country. It is impossible to talk of crafts without locating them in this setting. To separate them from their cultural roots would mean telling an incomplete story,” explains Vinutha Mallya, co-editor of the book and senior editor, Mapin Publishing.

The handiwork of the craftsmen serves as a metaphor of their identity. This is most obvious in the metal jewellery that is worn by the people of Gujarat. For instance, the silver wrap wire torque that Muslim Meghwal women wear is an essential dowry item. Different communities across Gujarat wear the torque differently.

A tailor stitches a rogan garment

“All traditional crafts in India are embedded in specific communities, be it religious or caste-specific, which has been practiced by them as a vocation and a means of livelihood over centuries. New political influences resulted in ushering in new crafts or modified existing practices. The Embroidery section in the book illustrates the different styles categorised by the communities that produce them. In the case of Textiles in Gujarat, the extensive trade links between Gujarati merchants and countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and Arabia, helped create unique new textile varieties. Crafts are expressions of community identities, but they also demonstrate the evolution of community practices and lifestyles,” explains Mallya.

A colourful leather fan from Khavda

The book also relies on previous studies carried out by researchers and experts in the ’80s and ’90s. “There is a lack of professional and accessible documentation of the contemporary state of the sector in its entirety. The reports produced by government agencies focus more on numbers, scheme-related information,” reveals Mallya, who was keen to not limit the book to traditional, museum pieces, which have already been documented and published. The idea was also to “give a view of the scene today — especially of the changes that the craft practices now undergo.”

The 274 photographs in the book provide an element of human interest, something that the text lacks. Most photos show older craftsmen, but Mallya says it doesn’t mean the younger generation isn’t taking up the craft. “It varies based on the success of the elder craftsperson, demand for the craft in the market, changes in lifestyles and so on. Many young people, not from traditional craft-making families, are receiving training under government schemes to learn some of the crafts as means for livelihoods,” she reveals.

This leather and embroidery bag was designed by a foreign designer and executed by Gujarati artisans

Mirza, a veteran in the Gujarat handicrafts sector, doesn’t mind contemporary designs sneaking into the traditional. “The designer must be sensitive to the traditional craft and not dilute the vocabulary of the motives,” she adds.

Mallya believes that the crafts sector in our country is struggling to survive, but Mirza is determined to be positive. Institutions like NID and NGOs like SEWA and KHAMIR are working with craftspeople to help them. The government in Gujarat also runs livelihood schemes whereby bamboo and jute crafts are taught in workshops.

“At the core of it, the domestic market craves for traditional Indian items. Even if Walmart comes up, let’s hope they promote Indian handicrafts,” concludes Mirza.

Author by the minute

What is your design desk/space like?
I have my own home office attached to my apartment. I have two desks, wall-to-wall book cases, reference books open next to me, my iMacs, and that's it.

What went behind choosing it -- the location, objects you need around you to write, and so on.
The noise and bustle of family life, comings and goings, the dog barking, children playing (when my kids were small), VH1 blasting in one room, Israeli trance in another room, vaccuum cleaner going in another room. I like my writing environment to be as noisy as possible. I keep the door open, anyone can come in and out. Even the construction noise from outside, traffic sounds, children yelling downstairs, it's all good.

Which book are you currently reading, and how do you find it?
Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society And Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine. Science fact and neurobiological findings now prove beyond doubt that the so-called 'differences' we are indoctrinated into believing about men being from Mars and women being from Venus are nothing more than sexist claptrap. The fact is that both men and women are created equal, biologically speaking, it's our upbringing and brain-washing of parents, elders, community and society that indoctrinates the genders into believing they are born different. She uses humor to leaven the scientific explanations and the result is a fun book that explodes the myth of gender differences.

Is there a book/author you keep going back to? Why?
The dictionary. Because I discover something new and wonderful everytime I open a page at random!

What is your writing routine like?
Most of my days are spent reading, watching long TV series on DVD, and letting my subconscious mind figure out books. Very little actual writing. I live with a book for decades, adding minute details about character and place, looking up facts, researching it in a random manner for years, and slowly, it all comes together. Then one morning, I begin writing, and it's like reporting on a live event from the scene. I then write daily till the book is done. I can rarely work (or eat) after sundown. I have too much focus, so constantly need distractions otherwise I would write non-stop. My favorite distraction is working out. I enjoy going to the gym, it's the highlight of my day. Because I don't network or use social networks I'm left with hours free and plenty of time. I avoid using cellphones or phones unless absolutely unavoidable. Basically, books are my life. I always joke: 'So much time, so few books!'

What is the best and worst writing advice you've ever received?
The only writing advice that works are these six words: ‘Read. Read. Read. Write. Write. Write.’  

Go to top