Art & Life

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Image caption: 
Rabari woman with patchwork embroidery
Image credit: 
Nalini Jayaram

Mankind’s intimacy with nature and his quest for beauty seem to have been food for the soul since time immemorial. The ability to visualize, to imagine, to use one’s head and hands and feel intuitively about forms of nature and materials around us has led to expressions which are diverse, and has resulted in rich craft traditions all over the world.

We certainly appreciate handcrafted objects far more than machine-made products for the personal touch, care, skill, discipline and the effort that goes into its making.

Be it a cup with a motif or a carved wooden comb, or folk paintings, a metal-cast artifact, finely crafted jewelry, a hand-crafted basket, a hand-woven shawl; they bring joy to our daily lives as they aren’t merely objects of functional use, but are also highly aesthetic.An exploration of the value of art and crafts, and how they need to be a part of sustaining cultural diversity as well as local livelihoods in a world that will be compelled to change by the climate crises.

No wonder people who lived close to nature became artisans. Living in coastal areas, in deserts, in hilly terrains, they learnt through observation the extraordinary diversity of forms, colours, texture, design, shape and function existing in nature and were inspired to be creative with their skills and chosen mediums. They learnt about the flora and fauna, seasons and their own relationships with them. It is also true that the materials used for making artifacts, taken from Nature, were used with intelligence and respect –a sense of responsibility towards Mother Earth.

In other words, the artisans though illiterate, had “eco-literacy”: they were more knowledgeable about the value of our ecosystems and their conservation. Hence the class of people who practiced rural or traditional crafts formed a very important sector of society in bringing about a culture and heritage, apart from being naturalists and environmentalists, without the tag of being educated!

Artist Nandalal Bose has said, “Fine arts liberates our mind from the constraints of sorrows and conflicts of our daily lives into a world of aesthetic delight, while, with its touch of magic, functional art brings beauty to the objects of daily use, and to our lives, and provides us with a means of livelihood. In fact our country’s economic decline has followed closely the decline of its functional arts. So to exclude art from the sphere of our needs is harmful to the economic well-being of the country as well”

People who couldn’t be involved in such disciplines, but had refined tastes, became patrons who nurtured and respected the Karigars and the craft communities. One cannot forget that the hands that build the house or grow our food or mends our slippers can never be replaced by technology. Far from the cities, living silently in the villages are the weavers, farmers, sculptors, painters, basket-makers and so many more who enrich our lives in many ways.

Nurturing Art in the 21st Century

In our present times, where consumerism rules and industrialization has taken over, where concrete jungles are mushrooming at an alarming rate, we are denying ourselves the touch of earth which has always nurtured our artistic sensibilities.…the artisans though illiterate, had “eco-literacy”, they were more knowledgeable about the value of our ecosystems and their conservation.

We are slowly letting a mechanical society evolve, where the artisans are giving up their traditional craftsmanship to find ways to merely survive. Sadly, valuable vocations like weaving are disappearing, and so is farming. Today one sees that the few handlooms left are being given up - sustaining a vision and sustaining a livelihood from craft are not appealing enough to the next generation of craft communities for many reasons. Power looms have taken over, where production is more important than the diversity, charm and ecological sensitivity of the weavers.

We need art villages in each state, as valued as universities, where art practices are treasured, where the progeny of the traditional artisans continue to learn with regard and depth in their own disciplines. Otherwise, we would only be allowing a whole range of repetitive, imitative, gaudy products to replace the authentic class of skill and workmanship.

Where the kings of yonder years always patronized arts and crafts, today we are fortunate that there are a few NGOs and individuals who are sensitive to their role and find ways of nurturing them. Many are actively working to provide platforms to showcase their works and help in marketing, design and innovations to ensure their survival and sustainability.

It seems important to acknowledge the role of every vocation to suit various needs and sensibilities of human beings and recognize that they all are interconnected in a very large context, helping individuals live holistic lives. With the range of diverse cultural and traditional craft practices we have, we need to find more ways to make them sustainable.

One of the ways to set the rhythm would be to bring artisans to schools and have workshops. The very presence of crafts persons working in the school community is an educational process - learning about the craft, the artisan and appreciating both. Indirectly, there is an awareness of heritage and culture and the artisan feels valued enough to persist in the craft he has inherited. If high carbon life styles are to be minimized, a diversity of human vocations would become essential. Art and Craft will have to be an important part of community life.

Most significantly, with the recognition of the havoc wreaked by large MNCs, globalization and the non-ecological economic paradigms, the importance of the ‘glocal’ – global thinking and local action, is emerging. If high carbon life styles are to be minimized, a diversity of human vocations would become essential. Art and Craft will have to be an important part of community life.

It is meaningful, then, that educational institutions value the role of art and craft in school curriculum, and foster mutual interactions between craft communities and students so that art practices and craft traditions add to the ecological aesthetics in one’s life .

A Craft Community Enterprise

Kanya Kumari Kalai Koodam (K4) is one such NGO that supports women skilled in palm-leaf weaving to have a sustainable livelihood, by helping revive the dying rural crafts in the villages of Kanyakumari. Women work with palm leaf and shells, and showcase their craft in the form of workshops. It helps in refining their skills and quality, evolves and creates new work, and brings a conscious awareness of the natural material being used, with a sense of care and respect for earth.

They appeal mainly to the contemporary educational and artistic needs of children and youth and accrue socio-economic benefits to crafts persons by way of improved income, expanded marketing network, recognition and solidarity. The materials they work with are: palm leaves, natural fibres and sea shells. To know more about K4 please visit