Living in NYC for the major part of the year; having to sacrifice the joy of the festive season, away from friends and family, upon the altar of a better education is difficult, achingly so... But being away also whittles me down to my very core, allows my "Indian-ness" to shine forth as my primary identity. To be Indian allows for an extension of my individuality, and what is de rigueur in India becomes an expressive assertion of the self.
I am sure my classmates find it overbearing, perhaps even propagandistic, the manner in which I imbibe cultural pride in my design practice and draw from our shared visual heritage for inspiration.
In my studies, I have embarked upon a quest for the definition of Indian-ness and two words have seemed to have been settled upon in discourse, two words which define India without being reductive, without reducing our diverse nation to homogeneity.
deriving ideas, style, or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources.
made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.
In understanding Indian Culture I have come to understand there is little point in trying to limit its definition, and thus, this Diwali, I find it appropriate to expound on the nature of India's culture, and of its crafting traditions, by borrowing from scholars dedicated to its study, and far more experienced than I am.
Lets Talk of रस "Rasa"
A tradition of craftsmanship is a recurring, ever-present part of life even within the rapidly modernizing cities of India: a constant connection to a past of heritage and art.
What remains the allure of these crafts? Why do they retain importance, both historically and contemporarily within the geographies that they have timelessly inhabited?
The significance of handicrafts remains in their highlighting of the essence of life, what we Indians call “Rasa”: they exist to exalt quality and are measured in thus, not assessed in a logical economic manner by cost or weight or size.1
“Rasa” is difficult to translate into English, perhaps its usage in other contexts will help illustrate how it means vaguely: juice, or a squeezed out, fluid emanation. The word, “Rasa”, is also found in other Sanskrit‑derived words like “Somrasa” meaning divine elixir, or popular Hindi words like “Rasa Malai” a dessert consisting of a cream cake soaked in sweet “Rasa” milk.
Nevertheless, there remains force within these objects for humanity has created something beautiful for itself. It is such single‑minded patience, purposeful but utterly non‑commercial, to bring wealth to life out of an inherent pride in quality (Rasa). 2
The importance of these objects- whilst insignificant to the art world if looked as akin to tradecraft, or an economic commodity- lies within the fact that they show some diversion from a life of necessity: when practiced in an ancient, non‑industrialized world or even today in an impoverished one.
Handicrafts have a positive contribution to daily life, by strengthening the “Rasa” of life, by alleviating the mundane sterility of ordinary life.
These crafts show the “cultivation of sensitivity and the stirring and mellowing of humanism”3 in the cultures they inhabit. These objects transcend the usual barriers to our understanding of civility, transcend the barrier of education to give life to the humanity of the ordinary citizenry: it is the visual marker of the democratization of aestheticism, of objects‑common becoming objects‑cherished and objects‑functional becoming objects‑joy‑giving.
By understanding such rich heritage crafts, we can understand the ordinary people who created them, not just the powerful who used them: the histories of a people and a greater humanity.
In understanding our crafts we harken back to a life of simple joy, of decoration for purpose no-other than its own existence. In looking at the histories of our crafts: Ikkat with its Balinese heritage, Ajrakh with Persian and Mongolian influences, Bagru with indigenous tribal roots and others, we see an Indian tapestry resplendent in threads accumulated and curated over millenia.
It is a testament to the encompassing nature of India’s culture: an extraordinary capacity for combination and assimilation. Throughout many distinct periods- the exuberant joy of India's craftspeople, their passion for "Rasa" and creativity, has allowed for an intertwining of cultures in the melting pot of India: beginning with the crafts of the Indus Valley Civilisation, up through the Vedic and medieval period, especially upon the synthesis of a concrete Islamic Visual Language between the 13-16th Centuries CE and continuing even today.
So storied are India's heritage crafts that they are treasured in our ancient texts and they garnered fame even in the distant western world:
In the sacred Vedas, night and day are said to envelop the earth in darkness and light in the manner weavers throw shuttles on a loom and even within the bible, Job claims that wisdom is even more enduring than the “dyed colours of India".4
Born against the backdrop of India, a land of a polytheistic, diverse religion, against a topography of deserts and snow-clad mountains and fertility:
“Her people rose, nurtured by profound theories of life, visualizing the universe and time as rising from chaos through millenniums, to sink back again into chaos, then to re-emerge, contracting and expanding, until yesterday and tomorrow were telescoped in this continuum.”5
To conclude, India’s capability to assimilate cultures, and its unique proclivity towards ornamentation led to an increasingly rich heritage of functional, aesthetic crafts whose motif repertoire grew alongside humanity’s visual languages, being non-static, ever-changing and reflecting a tapestry woven from threads taken from cultures spread not just geographically but also temporally.
1 Chattopadhyay, Kamaladevi. “India’s Craft Tradition.” In India International Centre Quarterly 25/26 (1998): 76–81. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23005531.
4 Irwin, John. “Indian Textiles in Historical Perspective”. In Textiles and Ornaments of India, edited by Monroe Wheeler, 25-31. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1956.
5 Jayakar, Pupul. “Indian Fabrics in Indian Life”. In Textiles and Ornaments of India, edited by Monroe Wheeler, 15-23. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1956.