Thursday, July 14, 2011

Artisanal Livelihood During Industrial Growth

Yesterday I went to the annual crafts fair, not really to buy things, but just to get a feel for the kinds of crafts on display and to see the craftsmen. One of the most interesting stalls for me was that of a person from Agra who displayed marble carvings (some intricate carvings and others, inspired by the Taj Mahal, inlaid with semi precious stones) and also a section of glass work. I was his first customer that day (a very auspicious thing) and perhaps he was also relieved at meeting someone who was familiar with Hindi, for he launched off into a description of several of his creations - what he had in mind when he made them, how specialized and difficult the work was and what the final product was intended to be - some were pieces of art and others objects that could be used in unique ways. For instance, an incense holder in the shape of a carved box; you would not see the incense or the burnt out dust, but just smell it through the tiny carved holes. Another beautiful piece was a carved hollow cylinder of flawless white marble - the carvings were all of different wild animals arranged such that it made a logical sequence. The marble was translucent and there was an arrangement for a small bulb to be placed inside and he was trying to explain to me the effect of the light and shadows that would appear on illumination. Finally he explained how he had to pack each of his pieces carefully and bring them by train (at least a two day journey) for this exhibition and how very few people want to continue this work because it is time consuming and a lot of marble dust is inhaled so one can only do it for a few years. This set me thinking once more about artisans and their lives - and how we are barely aware of all that is involved in making some of these beautiful objects.

The traditional crafts are no longer a preferred means of livelihood in many places - and perhaps none have been affected more than the weavers. The rising prices of raw materials and the lack of interest by the younger generation in carrying forth the tradition (a factory or call centre job pays much more and doesn't require the tremendous concentration and skill that craft demands) has led to a notable decline in woven materials and related crafts. In addition, the rise of a new breed called 'designers' has severely affected traditional forms and patterns in an unfortunate way (I think). This is most evident when one goes saree shopping. I have the onerous task of taking women visitors here to buy sarees and it is always unfortunate how hopefully they begin and how dismally it all ends. Bangalore, a place with few tourist attractions, has always been known for its sarees - many which come from Mysore and from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. But now the original styles and colours have vanished and are replaced by fairly hideous and uninteresting mix and match combinations. Many are designed by (you guessed it!) and the feeling I get on looking at the sarees is that they have been designed by people who do not wear them. In other words, the long woven pieces may look pleasant when hanging on a wall, but will not look nearly as nice when draped on a person.

Another area that has been coming under threat is local traditional farming. This is much in the news as these land acquiring schemes often become maelstroms of political and corporate power play (as the Singur histrionics have revealed). The news is often incompletely reported and it is difficult to understand why land must be acquired in non transparent and radical ways for industry. One of the recent commendable battles has been in Orissa where the Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO), the world's third largest steel maker by market value, is trying to acquire fertile fields to set up a steel plant. The government claims that this will provide jobs and money to people in the area, but it turns out that the farmers and landless labour there are actually very content with their current livelihood of growing betel leaves (a highly skilled job) and continuing with traditional farming and fishing. The villagers confronted the local police and government officials successfully in the first round, but it may not end as positively. It is ironical that people in power don't understand what we stand to gain and lose in this process of development - the loss will be something irrevocable and the gain - well, that's a matter of personal opinion. There is a nice article on life in the vineyards of Orissa in today's newspaper here, the site is

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