Books

Living Dolls: Story of Indian Puppet by Jiwan Pani. Publications Division, Government of India, 1986.

India’s Craft Tradition by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. Publications Division, Government of India.

Indian Embroidery by Jamila Brijbhushan. Publications Division, Government of India, 1980.

Handicrafts of Rajasthan by H. Bhisham Pal. Publications Division, Government of India, 1984.

Folk Metal Craft of Eastern India by Meera Mukherji. All India Handicrafts Board, New Delhi.

Vishvakarma’s Children – Stories of India’s Craftspeople by Jaya Jaitley. Institute of Social Sciences and Concept Publishing Company, New Delhi, 2001.

Painted Folklore and Folklore Painters of India by O.P. Joshi. Concept Publishing Company, Delhi, 1976.

Indian Ikat Textiles by Rosemary Crill. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Shamiana: The Mughal Tent. A catalogue of a project. Developed and coordinated by Shiren Akbar. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1999.

 

OF the clutch of books on craft that I received for review, five of the nine books were published by the Publications Division, a GOI venture set up to publish books on subjects which, even if not of commercial interest, represent important areas of research as part of our cultural tradition. Two books are by a local publishing house and two other are from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

A quick look at the books produced by the government confirms the pedestrian quality of the publications. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay had written a large number of books on crafts which had a relevance in the ’60s when hardly any book on the current situation of crafts was available. India’s Craft Tradition is, however, a rehash and abbreviated version of her other books, totally inappropriate in today’s context when so many in-depth publications are available.

Jamila Brijbhushan’s Indian Embroidery, published in 1980, is so full of errors that one is amazed. Kinnar is translated as half fish, half elephant! Beadwork of Kathiawar is described as using transparent and semi-transparent beads, inaccurate since the beads are opaque. The Baluchari sari is called embroidered sari. A typical Kutchi child’s kedia and salwar is passed off as phulkari work of Punjab/Haryana. Jamila Brijbhushan has a number of books on crafts listed against her name. We used to call them cut, snip and paste job from the Journal of Indian Art (an excellent publication of the colonial period) as well as the gazetteers, which provided the material for her, painstakingly gone through and reproduced (even with their errors) without any attempt to carry out fresh research. Here Jamila has tried to keep up with the new research by reproducing a Ganeshia, an embroidery from Saurashtra of ritual importance on the cover, but instead, mistakenly refers to it as Gujarat embroidery.

In comparison, Meera Mukherji’s Folk Metal Craft of Eastern India contains useful material. It is a work by a practising artist, who researched the traditional lost wax process of casting and later used it for making her own sculptures. Her recording of the regional differences in techniques, the drawings of the tools and equipment, the illustration of all the processes, provide not only an excellent record of our intangible heritage, which is part of the oral tradition, but will serve as a guide to practising craftsmen, unfortunately now taking short cuts in the production, little realizing that in the process they are losing out on the fine quality of workmanship. By the time they might try to recapture the old finish, they would have lost the knowledge, but for this kind of a detailed study. Fortunately, current researchers have further developed this methodology in their research and improved versions of such documentation should be on the government’s publication agenda.

H. Bhisham Pal’s book, Handicrafts of Rajasthan, another offering by the Publications Division is typical of work by an amateur! In the early stage of handicrafts development anyone and everyone could advise on handicrafts. In fact, most officials and their wives posted in the provinces imagined themselves as designers and later, writers. It is distressing that so many of the writers on crafts who produce coffee table books even today, neither carry out any research in the field nor study previous publications such as gazetteers, monographs and census reports before they venture into print. A number of dilettantes have taken to immortalizing themselves by writing on handicrafts and government departments are publishing them without even proper editing.

Painted Folklore and Folklore Painters of India by its very title warns readers that they are in for a rather ponderous journey. They might find a few nuggets of information after plodding through a fair amount of irrelevant, badly written text. A few examples are indicative of the rather obscure manner of expression or lack of it. ‘The study of visual and narrative art together is a difficult phenomenon to analyze.’ ‘The western social scientists have elaborately dealt with the methodology for studying narrative folklore, but no unified method for organising the study of narrated folklore and painted folklore has been evolved.’ It is amazing that such writing can be published. The only saving grace is that the book narrates the episode of the panels of the painted scrolls in one section and provides the family history of some of the painters of the Nathdwara Pechwai.

It is unfair to take up such a limited range of publications for a review of the literature available on crafts. Excellent research on similar themes have been published by Haku Shah and Jyotindra Jain, many of them government publications. The book by Jyotindra Jain, Painted Myths and Creation published by the Lalit Kala Academy on the Pithoda reflects erudite scholarship and is beautifully illustrated.

Amongst the books produced in India and made available to me perhaps the only one that deserves to be taken seriously is Jaya Jaitly’s Vishvakarma’s Children. It provides a glimpse into the everydayness of some of the craftspersons and the drudgery of their life. The downside is the continuous grey in narration, whether it’s the story of the weavers of Fatehpur Sikri or the dhokra metal workers of Jhigdi who make jewellery for the tribal people. The craftspersons rarely come across as creative people, with a multifaceted personality. True, life is hard, but it is so for everyone and yet there are moments of joy, of creativity, of celebration associated with the rites of passage, with the diurnal rhythms. These are often celebrated with greater vitality and generosity by the craftspersons. In the Catalogue of Master Weavers, Rta Kapur’s interviews with the craftsmen were indicative of the richness of their traditions, which sparkled through despite the fact that the many tribulations faced by the craft community were not ignored.

This random selection is not properly representative of the publications that have come out on the arts and crafts of India in the last 30 years starting from the period when research by Indian writers first began to be published. There is no book here by the younger group of Indian writers on crafts who began to write after the veterans, such as Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Pupul Jayakar, Kamala Dongerberry and others. Where is the work of Jyotindra Jain, Haku Shah, Amba Sanyal, Rta Kapur Chishti, Aman Nath, Aarti Agarwal, Lotika Varadarajan, Kalyan Krishna, Aditi Shirali and Ranjan, and many other Indian scholars? What about the publication by masters such as Ganapathi Sthapathy and other practitioners of crafts traditions?

In contrast to the books discussed earlier, there are two publications in the collection brought out by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The Museum has an excellent collection of Indian arts and crafts. The curators of the collection are well-known scholars and researchers who travelled to the traditional centres to carry out research. The two books though are different in their purpose. Indian Ikat Textile by Rosemary Crill is an in-depth study of the technique and the range of traditions throughout India. Shamiana: The Mughal Tent is a catalogue concerned with immigrant women from the subcontinent. The women were brought together to create a space, Shamiana, a marquee, using their imagination, their skills and community spirit. This project managed to bring these women together and break their isolation. It achieved, through a single person’s vision and effort, what the many government social welfare organisations could not manage over many decades! Though both the publications are produced by a government agency, they are well researched, well written and excellently produced.

What do we expect in the publications that are coming out today? The books on crafts are many. There are the numerous coffee table books being brought out for the eager affluent consumer. There are catalogues for exhibition, often excellent as they are focused on a particular theme and on objects, which can be seen. There are a number of publications for the researcher and for academics, but generally they are of uneven quality. But there are rarely any books for the craftsperson, for those working in the field and for the designers.

What we need are perhaps more technical publications. There are outstanding research projects being done by students as a part of their diploma projects, by masters students of textiles, home science, as well as diploma projects by professional students of design institutes, NIFT, and even in schools of architecture which gather dust in the academic libraries, are eaten by white ants and thrown out after a few years. These need to be published.

As a member of the jury for a number of such projects, I have come across first rate work by students, some of it better than the research by specialists. With good editing and a selection of illustrations, these could be published adding to our knowledge, besides providing a useful record of our intangible national heritage which may otherwise be lost. It is these publications which should be brought out or sponsored by the government publishing houses.

A large number of seminars are held by NGOs, educational institutions and the government. A selection of well prepared papers could also be produced through this initiative. Institutions such as NIFT bring out very plush publications, which are not only rarely seen at bookshops, but are uneven in quality and invariably too expensive. These should be discouraged and more appropriate publications that would be useful for the students, the practitioners and trade brought out.

We need small well produced publications that would disseminate knowledge on the craft traditions and create an awareness among the consumers of the range of products, the intricacy of the craft, its technique, significance and so on. What to look for when buying for the trousseau, for the home or as a thoughtful gift for a special occasion. These would help hone not only consumer appreciation, but also develop their aesthetics so that they become discerning buyers and help raise standards.

We need to promote books written by the craftspersons, as well as those which could be written jointly by the researcher and practitioner. We, in the crafts field – researchers, organisers, part of NGO networks – seem to pay little attention to the needs of educational and promotional material. This is an important area that has never been examined objectively and what better, if they are produced with the practitioners. Finally, we need books for our craftspersons to look at, to browse through, to admire, to learn from and appreciate the subtlety of the craft expressions of other traditions.

Jasleen Dhamija

 

LIVING TRADITIONS IN CONTEMPORARY CONTEXTS: the Madhva Matha of Udupi by Vasudeva Rao. Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2002.

THIS is a thoughtful, reflective, anthropological monograph on the Madhva matha of Udupi in coastal Karnataka, building on 18 months of fieldwork centred on this complex of monasteries in a town thick with numerous temples. The complex was founded by the saint philosopher Madhvacharya (1238-1317), and its doctrine and practices refer back to those promulgated by Madhva, one strand within the variegated Brahminical religious order. The monastery incorporates a temple around Krishna, with provision for complex rituals. By examining a sectarian monastery in its social setting, Rao is able to question several prevailing conceptions: about renouncers being ‘individuals’ standing outside the caste order and indeed outside society at large; about ‘sects’ cutting across caste boundaries; about the Brahminical tradition holding the world as an illusion; and so forth. As a monograph in anthropology, it will be appraised in social science journals; here I notice it from the viewpoint of a lay Seminar reader.

Successive chapters focus on introducing the enquiry in its intellectual and physical contexts; outlining the monasteries’ historical background, contemporary social influence, revolving leadership, physical layout, and patterns of worship; the meaning of food in the monastic complex as it is offered daily to the deity, and then as prasada, sacred food, to several thousand devotees (and ten times as many at special festivities) – in several ranked categories of foods and of devotees; the several sorts of teachers and of students in this complex, and the range of pedagogic resources and practices employed. One set of interpretations of the doctrine is maintained as authentic, and the themes here include the institutional practices through which alternate interpretations are marginalised.

The practices at issue include that of initiating adolescent boys into the order and training them to be future monks, though there is a tendency now to wait for them to be somewhat older and more mature; the contrast between (i) patha, lessons, when a teacher leads a group of 4-6 male Madhva Brahmin students in reading, and discussing, particular texts of the school closely, and stressing differences with other sectarian traditions, and (ii) upannyasa or pravachana, an informal religious lecture – a monologue – addressed to an audience of men and women of different castes affiliated with diverse sectarian traditions, bypassing the sectarian differences; the contrast, and the continuities, between the sannyas, renunciation, including that in the monk’s vocation, and the life of the householder in the Madhva tradition, which too at times aspires to renunciation without taking to monkhood; and, finally, the monastery’s responses to the not-so-gentle winds of change in its contemporary milieu in Udupi town and in the larger Indian scene.

The most notable in the latter is the proximity of the monks to the Bharatiya Janata Party-Vishva Hindu Parishad combine. This proximity is reflected in a widespread, passive sympathy, and one monastic leader is active in VHP’s Dharma Sansad. Rao attributes this orientation to the monks’ expressed desire to sustain the dharmic order amidst pervasive tendencies towards disorder – and a latent wish to buttress the Brahmins’ declining fortunes in recent generations.

Even as we thank Vasudeva Rao for giving us this insightful monograph, our gratitude would have been greater but for its deficits in matters of structure, editing, copy-editing, and proof-reading. Surely it is an act of rudeness to leave the reader to figure out that ‘addresses’ has to be read as addressee (p. 122), ‘neither world’ as nether world (148), and ‘touch open’ as touch upon (184)?

Satish Saberwal

 

KAMALADEVI CHATTOPADHYAYA: A Biography by Reena Nanda. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2002.

‘THE soft unevenness of khadi…’ is how the Mahatma once described the texture of the fabric inextricably linked to his name. On another occasion when someone told him the ‘trouble’ with khadi was that it showed up stains, ‘yes,’ he said, ‘khadi dislikes stains of any kind.’ I have often thought of both those descriptions of handspun in connection with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. There was a softness to her but no smoothness, her fabric a bit like khadi, with little irregularities of yarn and weave which made her completely unassembly line. And she could not abide the stains of cant or compromise – intellectual, political, or personal.

Not surprisingly Kamaladevi came to be admired and even extolled as an icon but never either fully understood or integrated into inner circles, whether of society or of the establishment. Stories grew around her, getting more and more garbled and imaginative with time, creating a legend, a mystique. Stories of how she outshone the brilliant Sarojini Naidu as her not-so-demure sister in law, how she raised her heavily bangled arm to show her turbulent husband the door, received but did not return the romantic gaze of some hugely famous dare-we-say-who.

A hush would descend on any gathering when Kamaladevi arrived. A respectful cessation of chatter, as people made aisles for her to pass. Few, very few, in the shallow gaggles of the New Delhi of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s would dare try with her the meaningless hug and peck so characteristic of its superficiality. Everyone knew she knew. Knew the ins and outs of our political struggle in the ’30s and ’40s, of our fumbling starts at nation-building in the late ’40s and early ’50s, of the rise and subsidence of socialism in the ’50s and ’60s, of the victory in the ’70s of chic artiness over the cottage floor integrity of hand-created objects, and the rise in the ’80s of salon patronage as opposed to grassroots support and, over the entire half-century since independence, the steady overlay of starch on stained khadi, its transformation from the livery of freedom into the attire of office. She knew it all.

Governorship, ministership, ambassadorship were like kaghaz ki kashtis to her, flimsy nothings meant to capsize. ‘A minister of state position was offered to me by Jawaharlal at the very start,’ she once said in a rare moment of autobiography. ‘I was too proud to take it. If Rajkumari was to be of cabinet rank – and quite rightly – I saw no reason why…’ she left the sentence incomplete. ‘In any case there was so much to do outside government!’

Reena Nanda has encapsulated in her designedly brief biography the essential ‘thingness’ of that compelling figure. Her refusal, for instance, to be taken for granted by anyone – parents, once-husband, son, colleagues, even – why ‘even’ – especially the leader, Gandhiji. She portrays the Congress Socialist Party phase of Kamaladevi’s story well, analysing within the space available to her the springs of that noble initiative. Jayaprakash Narayan emerges as a sensitive figure whom history kept nudging but not wafting up into power. Femininity and the centrality of gender issues in Kamaladevi’s life are explained well though the difference between her approach and that of some radicals is not defined. Also touched upon but only touched upon, not filled out, is Kamaladevi’s amazing large international constituency. She had the closest friends in several countries among politicians, artists, writers.

When I saw the title calling her Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, my heart sank. If the biographer can make that very common (but, in a biography, serious) mistake – of putting an extra ‘a’ at the end of her surname, what other carelessness was one to expect? But no, barring very few and understandable misspellings (e.g. C.R. Rajagopalachari for C. Rajagopalachari, Narendra Dev for Narendra Deva and K.M. Pannikar for K.M. Panikkar), the book is meticulous about dates, details, events. It also provides some carefully researched depictions of the epic story of this woman without turning her into a touch-me-not goddess. I liked the honesty of the biographer when she says she cannot understand how Kamaladevi could let an ugly building like the crafts museum (on Deendayal Upadhyay Marg, New Delhi) come up right under her nose.

The author admits, with admirable and becoming frankness, that she is not an academic. That in fact is the redemption of her effort. She has written the book with the simplicity but not the casualness of a conversation, telling the reader what this extraordinary woman was all about. I have no doubt if Reena Nanda was not writing a book designed to be concise, she would have investigated her subject more thoroughly. She would then have explored the complex equations of Kamaladevi with the ‘greats’ of the time, notably, Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose. And with women contemporaries like Kamala Nehru, Aruna Asaf Ali, Mridula Sarabhai, Rukmini Arundale, and Indira Gandhi. And she would not have let a person as crucial to Kamaladevi’s life as Srinivas Malliah go with but a feather touch.

Kamaladevi’s non-contemporary peer, Pupul Jayakar does not really figure in the narration. Pupul too was an extraordinary person, with an intellectual and spiritual depth her external sophistication hid. Sarcastically called ‘czarina’, Pupul reigned over the empire of material culture in Indira Gandhi’s realm. And reigned with elan. That was when Kamaladevi seemed like an ancient Sakuntala living among the creepers and creatures of her memories, the India International Centre being her Kanva tapovana. Did the slipping of her natural territory rankle? It could not but have. How did she sublimate it? Surface observers would say Pupul was ‘merely’ an organizer, Kamaladevi the ‘real thing’. Organizing is no ‘mere’ matter. Nor was Kamaladevi unendowed with organizing skills. Besides, Pupul had also been kindled by the Gandhi flame and was kept cerebrally and spiritually ‘awake’ by her access to J. Krishnamurti’s mind. Pupul was never lonely; Kamaladevi was. Reena Nanda says as much, honestly, simply. She hints at – and for me, this was news – Kamaladevi’s proximity to Satya Sai Baba. The equation, if it was strong, called for more than a hint.

Where Reena Nanda has made her most valuable contribution is in the handling of Harindranath Chattopadhyay. Kamaladevi was always reticent about that teaming. The subject was virtually taboo in conversations. Harindranath was a storm that raged all around her while she was ever the rock, achala. The book gives us a clear sense of that elemental mismatch.

The principal source for Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s life-story will remain her memoirs, Inner Recesses. But Reena Nanda’s little biography will be a valuable concordance volume, even as Kamala Ratnam’s earlier work performs that service in Hindi. A fuller story, uninhibited by word-limits, navigating the widths and depths of her rise in the Western Ghats like a proud but nourishing Cauvery, sometimes in flood, but often moving so low as to seem still and insufficient, will have to be told one day. Meanwhile, Reena Nanda’s biography will keep historiographic appetites whetted. And one has to be grateful for that.

Gopal Gandhi