Size. It’s that four-letter word that Crafts Atlas of India author Jaya Jaitly seems to have overcome with élan, while working on this tome, which can best be termed as overwhelming, at first glance. Or even later. The social and political Indian activist and founder of Dilli Haat in the capital took it upon herself to document India’s crafts since the early 1990s. What ensued was a challenge that traversed milestones, boundaries, language, castes, communities and above all, an exhaustive diversity which, in her own words, was near impossible to encapsulate due to its sheer vastness and fluidity. In an email interview, Delhi-based Jaitly revisits this fulfilling journey, the many stories that bind tradition in India, its near-forgotten arts and why creativity is intrinsic to our culture.
The crafts map of West Bengal features the jharna patachitra and Kalighat forms of folk art combined by artistes Bapi Chitrakar and Bahadur Chitrakar. The gods at the upper end of the painting signify that festivals provide all artisans with work throughout the year Pics courtesy/ Crafts atlas of India
Tell us about working on this atlas.
I am not a scholar and my knowledge comes from associating with crafts people and their skills for 45 years, in different parts of the country. I began the concept and coordination of creating a series of crafts maps in 1993, till 2010. Inputs came from different artistes and researchers (including me). To create this atlas, I had to rewrite it all and add to the brief textual material provided on each map. Each year we did two or three maps till all the states were covered. Overall, it is my project but many people worked as a team to get the final result.
A weaver in Andhra Pradesh weaves Pochampali ikat in bold colours and graphic designs.
Conceiving the idea is one thing, but to anchor this humongous project from start to end, is another — how does it feel, looking at the final product? How did you ensure you were able to oversee every element of this book? How long did the entire process take — right from ideation to the final product?
The maps took from 1993 till 2004 for all states except Delhi, which was done in 2010 for the Commonwealth Games. Monuments were added in the last map at the request of Delhi Tourism. As for anchoring it, well, I take one step at a time rather than envisaging something huge all at one go, which becomes difficult to implement. The art works took three-four weeks, the texts took three-six months from researching, travelling, writing and editing; while typesetting and printing took another three months. That’s how each map was done. It took two years to rewrite all the texts from sketchy travel guide language to proper chapters. The photos have largely come from our own collection (my organisation, Dastkari Haat Samiti) and were captured during work we have created, designed or identified. When complete, it does look like a huge work but it came together in stages that took quite long.
Women in Karaikkudi in the Chettinad district of Tamil Nadu process, colour and weave palm leaves into baskets.
Initially, I made maps for students and travellers who could not afford expensive books but needed to be given knowledge about crafts. After the maps were all done, people suggested they should all be in a book because the art works were beautiful. Many artistes became famous after having worked on a map! The enthusiasm and suggestions of the publishers made it text-strong and with plenty of photographs, so that it finally became like a directory or compendium of crafts in India. I am really happy it is finally done. If it gets a good response from art, craft and India lovers across the world, my satisfaction will be complete.
A cow depicted in Sanjhi paper art from Uttar Pradesh
Which states were most challenging and time-consuming to document? Why?
Rajasthan, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh had the most crafts and textiles to document. Art forms were difficult to find for Haryana, Punjab, UP and the North East because traditional representative art could not be easily found. Maharashtra was tough going as it is more industrialised, with a few art forms left.
In fact, one of the most interesting facts that emerged in our journey was that India had so many art forms that there can be no such thing as a single defining Indian “art” applicable to the whole country.
Paithani handloom saris are woven in silk and floral patterns
India’s different tribal communities amount to a minuscule percent of our population — yet their contribution, as is evident from this book, is immeasurable. How can we ensure that their treasures continue to remain in safe hands for the coming generations?
They need opportunities to showcase their work with respect, and multi-faceted platforms that give them dignity and exposure. We neglect our treasures (people and their art forms) because of a sense of glut, apart from callousness toward our own cultural heritage and marginalised societies.
What, according to your observations, has ensured that these forms have managed to survive centuries and generations?
The caste system has locked many artisans into their known skills without having allowed upward mobility into other fields. In some cases, this has been a strange saving grace. The British ignored those skills, which provided no competition to their industrial products, and therefore left them alone. The strong cultural rooting of our practitioners is another reason they have hung on to their skills.
Tell us about the breathtaking design of this book. Every chapter on a different state exudes a different texture, symbolic of its art and craft.
I wanted a contemporary feel that would attract young people who like dynamism and colour instead of staid classical design elements which are there in plenty already. I also wanted to convey that crafts are forever morphing within their own cultural space. I am happy that you feel this comes out in the design. The real credit goes to the graphic designers who put all these ideas together.
Any interesting discoveries along the way that emerge for their uniqueness, be it attention to detail, nature of material, method of work or any other aspect?
Gosh, that’s a question demanding a long answer! Maybe I can name some as general discoveries over the years. Our traditional textiles, to a large extent, have meanings in their designs, use of colours, motifs, and even according to who should be the wearer. Even the poorest of the poor (men and women) like to bring creativity and beauty into their lives by fashioning artistic things out of everyday utility objects. Fine carvers and artistes enjoy intricacy of design and will go to the extent of carving a tiny bee sitting under a leaf. Small seeds and even dal grains are used to make jewellery, displaying a strong sense of recycling and use of natural materials.
Better details will emerge from reading the book. I shouldn’t spoil the fun!
Crafts Atlas of India, Jaya Jaitly, Niyogi Books, Rs 4,500