Through history


I WAS once in a shop in Kumbakonam. Since I was working on handlooms, I was looking for traditional designs. The man took out an absolutely ‘razzle-dazzle’1 saree and said, ‘Madam this is the latest.’ I asked him if it had a name, and he told me, ‘Enter the Dragon.’ There was I looking for traditional crafts in the heart of the weaving belt and what I encountered was this!

We have a demand for crafts of this kind on the one hand, and on the other we have people who turn up their nose at such things and say, ‘this is not authentic.’ So what is it that Dastkar or a similar NGO to restore? There is a sense of identity that makes things uniquely Indian. At the same time Indian craftsmen are trying to tie in, somewhere and somehow, with the market factor, both in textiles and crafts. With this self-reflexive story as an entry point, I would like to take you down the road of Indian craft history beginning from what Indian crafts were like 2000 years ago.

The earliest archaeological evidence of crafts goes back to the pre-Christian era. Metals like copper and iron have been found at certain megalithic sites in Tamil Nadu. Copper rattles, rings, bangles and rods, dating back to the first and second century AD have been found at Arikkamedu2 in Pondicherry. T.V. Mahalingam, leading the archaeological excavations at the lower Kaveri valley megalithic sites, had unearthed copper objects at Tirukkampuliyur and Alagiri, both in Tiruchirapalli district.3 Kunnattur in Chinleput district4 yielded copper artefacts such as utensils, bowls, bells and rings. Sanur in the same district yielded iron objects such as spears, daggers, knives, hooks, bars, wedges, arrowheads and sickles.

It is, however, significant in the context of metallurgy in Tamil Nadu that bronze is not found at the early megalithic sites mentioned above, but is available in plenty in non-megalithic sites. Adichchanallur and Korkai on the banks of the Tamraparani river in Tirunelveli district are both major sites for bronze objects. Adichchanallur, datable to the second-first century B.C. has yielded bronze bowls, pots, highly ornamental cylindrical jars and a huge bronze vase stand decorated with four rams having long horns which radiate from the centre of the vase base.5 



In South India there are exquisite bell metal objects, characterised by their high content of tin. These crafted objects were not different from objects of aesthetic beauty. Beautiful things were not produced for their own sake. Everything had value and utility. Because man or woman is innately creative and cannot mechanically produce anything, what was produced carried its maker’s aesthetic tastes and worldview.

There are literary references to the existence of crafts through the ages. There is a poem from the Rigveda that says that day and night come upon us like a weaver moving the shuttle. In the Sangam period (early Christian era) texts, steel is used as a metaphor in poetry. References to the use of furnaces and bellows made of goatskin in the melting of iron and the making of steel is also referred to in Sangam literature. The perumpanattrupadai describes the kollan (blacksmith) blowing the bellows made of fine animal skin.6 The Jain religious epic Perungadai7 uses the burning of raw metal in the furnace as a poetic metaphor for mental purification. The raw iron mixed with sand was heated along with coal. The sand used in the smelting process was of a special variety.8 



Crafts were a part of the everyday vocabulary of the Indian people. I would like to briefly quote from a poem by Andal, a 7th century mystic saint, a Vaishnavite. The following lines are from her composition Nachiyartirumozhi, meaning ‘the sacred words of the Nachchiyar’, i.e. Andal. She is referring to Krishna:

‘My beautiful lover, it is as if he has put clay around me and poured molten metal into my heart.’

Here Krishna is the craftsman and she the crafted object, the object of his love. The metal casting technique referred to here is what is called ghanam in Tamil, which is solid casting. Andal came from the heart of the metal craft producing areas: Nachiyakovil, Tiruchirapalli, Swamimalai, names we are familiar with. So this was a metaphor that was not far removed from her life and from the lives of people around her. Similar metaphorical usages occur in the writings of the eighth century philosopher Shankara. In his Brahmasutrabhasya (1,2,12) he uses the phrase ‘like images wrought of copper and other molten metal poured from a crucible into the mould.’ The parable of molten copper assuming the shape of the mould is used by Shankara as an illustration of the mind flowing into and taking the shape of objects comprehended by the senses.9 



In India, crafts was the specialised work of certain caste groups or communities. Moving directly to the period of the great temple building activity of southern India, I would like to show how a particular group or community would go up or down in social status depending on the economic importance of the craft work that they were doing. For instance, the earliest reference is to the rathakaras or to the kashtakaras because quite a few of the early buildings or temples were made of wood. When the technology changed from wood to stone, the carpenters or the takshaka (who were also known as the rathakaras) got socially pushed down and the shilpis moved up the social ladder. This shows that there is a nexus between the status a person or community occupied, the kind of work they did, and the kind of economic importance they enjoyed.

In the great temple building era temples were not merely sacred centres; they were also seats of power. When state formation took place every important kingdom would assert its grandeur through a deity who was larger than life, through a temple complex that virtually replicated the palace. This was something that began from the seventh-eighth century onwards: the sacred bolstered the secular. Hence the Brihadeshwara temple dedicated to Siva in Tanjavur is an example of the power of Rajaraja Chola being reflected in an enormous temple structure.



When a temple came into being it was not just a temple, but also a temple town. It had craftsmen, weavers, musicians and dancing girls. Almost every kind of professional was settled in and around the temple and the tirumadaivilagam that Tamil historians translate as a temple town emerged as the centre of craft activities. So began the process of what historians call rurbanisation,10 because these towns despite their urban morphology had a strong rural constituent in terms of their resource base. There were agricultural areas all around and the craftsmen would be given small pieces of land in lieu of the services provided by them. In the midst of these would arise the temple town, with its many streets radiating from the temple and occupied by various craft/artisanal groups. Even to this day in the interior of Tamil Nadu in places like Nachchiyar Koyil (celebrated for its brass/bronze lamps and bells), one can find the streets of Kammalas (communities or caste groups identified with craft work in South India) where craftsmen still live and practice their profession.



Building the temple would require masons (kal tachchan), carpenters (tachchan), and smiths (karuman/kollar). Gold smiths (pon kollar) and jewel stichers (ratna tayyan) who would make jewellery for the Gods and makers of icons or images of Gods (depending on whether the medium was bronze, wood or stone) had a special place in the society and economy of the temple building era. All these craftsmen were associated with the temple. Those craftsmen who were not part of this temple building were socially pushed down like the village blacksmith. There are inscriptions that refer to categories of stones that are revealing in terms of craft expertise and specialisation. There were male stones, female stones and neuter stones each of which could be used for different purposes.11 There was in fact a category of craftsmen called ‘Shila parikshika’ whose task was just to examine these stones.

Another interesting fact about these temple sites, some of which continue to be regarded as sacred places apart from being archeological sites, is the presence of masons’ marks on many of the stones. They appear like scribbles, but it is very rare to find inscribed names of the craftsmen who built the temples. Sometimes you find the name of the sthapati, the chief architect or the master craftsman, but not of the craftsmen working with him. In history, craftspersons were by and large anonymous; they did not sign their names. If I found a single name in a temple it was thrilling. Out of 300 inscriptions I would occasionally find the name of the patrons but seldom of the person who actually sculpted or crafted the object. The system of signing one’s work is a practice that is of recent origin.

In South India, from the earliest period of icon casting in bronze, which would be from the seventh century onwards, that is the Pallava period, solid casting was the established practice. This is also known as ‘cire perdue’ or ‘the lost wax’ technique. In this process the object is first made in wax and then a thick clay layer made of special clay called vandal in Tamil is applied around it and allowed to dry. The mould is then heated and the molten metal poured into the hollow so that it fills every little crevice. The perfection of the icon would depend on this. After breaking the mould the finishing touches are applied to the idol with chisel and mallet.



However, the tiruvasal or circular halo around the icon, pitha or pedestal and the vahana animal mount used as a vehicle by the deity, were done by the hollow casting technique. In this process the entire details of the icon is worked out on the wax itself. A fine layer of clay that can make a clear impression of the wax model is built up. In the last stages of the heavy outer clay mould, a clay crucible is fixed. The mould would be provided with holes to facilitate the flow of the molten metal. The mould after drying is placed in the furnace heated to a relatively low temperature of about 300 degrees centigrade. The molten metal is poured into the space left between the original clay model and the outer clay covering with its fine wax impressions. After cooling the mould, the outer clay shell was broken and the hollow cast metal polished and refined.

Pallava bronze sculpture had its own distinctive characteristics of ovoid faces, tall headgear, and a tendency towards ornamentation as well as emphasis on looped waist girdles. One feature exclusive to Pallava sculpture was the yajnopavita (sacred thread) going over the arm. The Pallava images were also much smaller in size compared to the Chola bronzes. Some fine bronze specimens of the time of Nandivarman Pallavamalla (eighth century) are to be seen in the Vaikuntaperumal temple at Kanchipuram. The bronze Somaskanda image from Tiruvalangadu (now in the Madras Museum) represents the transitional phase from Pallava to Chola.



The Chola bronzes mark the golden age of bronze sculptures in South India and more specifically in the Tamil culture. The bronze efflorescence happened under the patronage of the Chola queen Chembian Madevi in the eleventh century. Some of the most impressive bronze icons in the whole of India have been found at Tiruvalangadu (the most famous being the Nataraja icon), Gangaikonda Cholapuram, Dharasuram and Kumbakonam, all in Tanjavur district belonging to the 10-12th centuries. The creation of bronze sculptures under the Cholas is divided into three distinguishable periods – early Chola, mid Chola and late Chola. Some of the chief characteristics of Chola icons were the rounded faces and tight modelling of the bodies. This fineness and refinement of features perceivable in the early Chola bronzes, however, gets blunted in the icons of the later Chola period.

The bronzes of the Vijayanagar period although prolific, are somewhat mechanical and listless in contrast to the early bronzes. Some of the finer examples of bronze sculpture in this period are the portraits of Krishnadeva Raya and his consorts at Tirumalai or the image of Parvati datable to the 16-17th century which is at the National Museum, New Delhi.



During the Vijayanagar and later the Nayaka period, the bronzes became somewhat florid. One of the distinctive stylistic features was the numerous threads of the yajnopavita becoming more sinuous and ornamental. The elaborate shoulder tassels and circular decoration on the buttocks known as prishta chakra also constitute special features of the Vijayanagar bronzes.

Unfortunately, going back into history we can only talk about craftsmen. The craftswomen were not visible. They played a subordinate role. The woman was not the potter, but she was the one who kneaded the clay, and helped set up the kiln. In metal crafting, she did the polishing and the final details of the ornamentation. There is a reference in the Sangam period 2000 years ago to a woman potter, Veni Kuyattiyar, who was also a poet. But then, the Sangam period was unique in terms of the visibility of women from different walks of life.

There was some traditional industry where women dominated, like spinning. You do not find male spinners except in the hills among tribes like the Qazis or the Gaddis and here men usually use spindles when spinning. By and large, women always did the spinning, whether in India or in Europe. In fact, that is where the term spinster originates. In England the woman would spin and spin for her livelihood till she found a man to marry and protect her. The woman who did not find a protector or provider was a spinster. Basket weaving and mat making are other areas where women dominated. But historically if you asked where women figured in inscriptions as craftpersons, I would say they did not figure at all.

There were certain industries, which are now nonexistent, like armoury, where craftspersons were important. The making of swords was a work of art. The sword was not just a weapon, its scabbard was beautiful and the hilt jewelled. A lot of crafting went into the making of weaponry. Another such area was the mint. The salyodharas were socially important. They lived not in the temple complex but in the complex close to the palace. Neither of these crafts exists today. The place to find a jewelled sword now is the museum.



Craftsmen rarely had visible individual identities and always functioned within craft communities. Not any one could become a craftsman: he had to be born into a particular way of life. There is a quotation from Karl Marx in Capital about the Dhaka muslin weavers: ‘It is only the special skill accumulated from generation to generation and transmitted from father to son, that gives to the Hindu, as it does to the spider, this proficiency.’12 This is probably the most backhanded compliment that Indian craftsmen could receive, but it does show crafts to be a skill passed on from generation to generation.

Marx quotes with approval the account of Hugh Murray and James Wilson (Historical and Descriptive Account of British India, London, 1832, Vol. II, p. 449) ‘The Muslins of Dakka (sic) in fineness, the calicoes and other piece goods of the Coromandel in brilliant and durable colours, have never been surpassed. Yet, they are produced without capital, machinery, division of labour or any of those means which give such facilities to the manufacturing interest of Europe.’ Marx goes on to point out that the division of labour even though it exists, is of several generations of craftsmen living at one time, and working together at the manufacture of a given article, the trades being hereditary.13



Crafting techniques constituted an oral tradition based on traditional knowledge systems. Many of these traditional techniques were reflected in high tradition, essentially Sanskritic, texts on crafts. In the course of my fieldwork I did get the impression that master craftsmen were quoting from Shilpashastra although the verses they chanted seemed to be received texts rather than something they had direct access to.

From the cultural viewpoint, what is also important is that for craftspersons, their tools were objects of worship. The loom for the weavers was sacred. On Vishwakarma day, which is the day of Saraswati puja during the navratra, no craftsperson will touch his tools. The tools are worshipped and divine blessings obtained for carrying on the craft. It is interesting that throughout India no industrial factory will work on Viswakarma day and car/scooter mechanics will not repair vehicles!

So far I have elaborated on the setup where in pre-industrial India craftsmen were comparatively free. They moved within communities, but these craft communities enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. Traditional Indian craft society operated within a kind of guild or sreni but that was nevertheless different from the European guild that was essentially an economic institution. The Indian craft guilds were corporate organisations grounded in social and cultural needs.

These craft and mercantile guilds were unique organisations that played a pivotal role in the socio-religious lives of craftsmen. The craft ‘sanga’ were important because they were a form of community support, a self-help institution of craft groups. If there was a marriage in the family of a poor craftsman, the rest of the community would come together and help him out. If there was a dispute in one family or between two artisan families, it was taken before the craft court – the sangha court, which usually held its meetings in the temple. These community courts would decide cases using their own standards for meting out social justice. Even today there are pockets in southern India, and possibly in the north, where craft panchayats function.



The guilds would use collective bargaining as an effective weapon especially against heavy taxation but their economic objective does not seem to have extended beyond this. I would like to quote from Abbe Carrie, a 17th century French priest who travelled through India. He was exasperated with the behaviour of craftspeople, and what he called their community arrogance. ‘Among the kammala craftsmen – goldsmiths, blacksmiths and carpenters, there is a firmly established custom that if one of them is offended or wronged all the others shut their shops and abandon all their work.’14 So collective bargaining was a powerful weapon in the hands of these corporate organisations.

Another point I would like to touch upon is the karkhanas or craft workshops. Moving to the 16th century Mughal karkhanas, the situation was very different from medieval South India. As in the Deccan Sultanates, the karkhanas were meant for turning out luxury products in the Mughal Empire too. These were not for the consumption of the ordinary man. Absolutely exquisite work was produced in the karkhanas. There was meenakari, or in Hyderabad the bidri work. In Golkonda diamond mining was always a state monopoly, and diamonds were produced in state karkhanas. But a craftsperson needs his freedom; and ironically these karkhanas were a high quality trap. If the craftsman was not seen working he was liable to be punished; there was a supervisor holding a stick over him and telling him what to do. There was excellence combined with low wages or virtually non-wages. There was no innovation. This was the situation in most of the karkhanas. Graphic accounts can be found in the Ain-i-Akbari. Along with the Akbarnama, there is a description of the lives of craftsmen, the wages paid and the discipline they were subjected to. The high quality trap of the Mughal karkhanas would equally be applicable to the Deccani Sultanates of Golkonda or Ahmednagar or Bijapur.



Patronage was an integral feature of the history of craft. Craftspeople were poor and needed someone who would appreciate their crafts and give it value. This was usually the job of kings and queens. Queens were important as great patrons of crafts. It was their patronage that made the Chola age the golden age of bronze icon making. Apart from royalty, military generals and upper class officials encouraged the crafts. Sometimes people commemorating the death of someone close would install an image in the temple. Sometimes a war hero was commemorated. Unfortunately, inscription after inscription gives the name of the patron but seldom of one who crafted the object. With the downfall of independent kingdoms and the death of the monarchial system this kind of patronage was no longer forthcoming. The colonial stranglehold over Indian crafts and industry compounded the stasis that already existed in the sphere of craft production.



In modern times, patronage has come from organisations such as the Crafts Council or NGOs like Dastkar. Powerful and culturally sensitive individuals like Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay or Pupul Jayakar lent patronage to many a dying craft, bringing about a revival. A significant step in this direction is Dakshinachitra, which attempts to recreate traditional crafts in its original milieu. The experiment is the brainchild of Deborah Thyagarajan, Nalli Kuppusami Chettiar and others oriented towards culture care.

Freedom of expression is a vital aspect of crafting. This was possible only so long as craftsmen continued to work in their own habitat and had control over time and the products of their labour. During the colonial period however, governmental agents gained control over their production by the system of advances, what is known as the ‘putting out system’. The greatest sufferers were those who were forced to weave according to the requirements of foreign markets.

This was around the 17th century by which time craftspersons had moved into the ‘black town’ located in the Company Presidency, whether it was Fort St. George of Madras or Fort St. William of Calcutta. Those of them who worked for Company wages were no longer in their own habitat. There was a strong sense of physical alienation arising from the movement away from the village to new craft towns. Further, to a large extent the craftsman was alienated from his own imagination.

This is where the Birdwood exhibition comes in. The imperial authorities felt that the Indian craftsmen had great ideas in their heads but they were not quite efficient. There was a need to recover and sort out ancient designs, classify them and use them appropriately. This function was performed by the Birdwood exhibition held around the 1850s. In some ways the exhibition organised by George Birdwood did laudable work, bringing together rare designs on print blocks from various parts of India. But it ultimately hit insidiously at the creativity of craftspersons.



In the Company records, a phrase begins to occur from this time onwards: ‘Please make them weave to the perfection of the pattern.’15 The perfection of the pattern went against the very ethos of the craftsman, for whom the craft object represented his worldview. If a weaver or craftsman digressed from this perfection of the pattern, what he produced would be rejected. As he worked on the basis of an advance, this could push him to desperation, even to the extent of committing suicide.

Asymmetry was and is an important aspect of the craftsperson’s work. Symmetry on the other hand is in a sense artificial, as it breaks the natural beauty of asymmetry. I have an example of a saree produced by the Saurashtra weaving community from Uraiyur, an ancient weaving centre going back to the Chola period. The weaver of the saree had put together two absolutely asymmetrical objects. One was an East India Company ship, and along with it, a traditional flower found in the south Indian conventional weave – a connection that only existed in his mind!



I would like to conclude with the freedom struggle in the 1940s. In between, for about 200 years, the craftspersons went through a grim period of anonymity and abject poverty. What was needed from India was no longer textiles, but raw cotton. There was unemployment and famine, a really black period for the crafts people. Lord Bentinck the then Viceroy, known for his humane treatment of Indians, stated that the bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India. But during the freedom struggle, the charkha became an important symbol of the resurgence of Indian identity. Gandhi not only used it as a metaphor, he also used it as a powerful assertion – the right to a way of life. It was part of the Indian National Congress flag. There was a song of those times that my mother sang for me:

charkha chala chala ke

lenge hum swaraj lenge

mulmal jo hai videshi

us ko hum jala denge

It was a song every Indian knew, it was in the popular imagination, it was part of our identity.

We are now at a crossroads. There is a tremendous consciousness that Indian crafts are important. But how do we assert its importance? How much do we yield to the needs of consumerism, the needs of the market, and the demands of global requirements? To what extent do we retain what is ‘authentic’ in Indian culture? This is where the larger question of ‘culture care’ comes in. The debate must perforce be an open-ended one.


* The fieldwork on the South Indian craftsmen was made possible by a grant from the Indian Council of Historical Research.



1. Razzle Dazzle is the name given to the design that has zigzag lines somewhat like the effect of lightning.

2. B.B. Lal, Report on the Arikkamedu excavations, Ancient India, no. 2, p. 104.

3. T.V. Mahalingam, Report on the Excavations in the Lower Kaveri Valley, Archaeological Survey of India, Madras, 1975.

4. A. Ghosh, An Encyclopaedia of Indian Archaeology, Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, Two Volumes, 1989, pp. 243-44; 392-93.

5. Alexander Rea, Catalogue of the Prehistoric Antiquities from Adichchanallur and Perumbalur, Madras Government Museum, Madras, 1915.

6. Perumpanattrupadai 199-200 and 206 in Pathupattu ed. P.V. Somasundaranar, Saiva Siddhanta Kazhagam, Tirunelveli, 1971.

7. Perungadai cited in S. Velusami, ‘Tamil Nagarigattil Irumbin Pangu’ (in Tamil) in R. Nagasamy ed., Tamil Nattu Varalattru Karutharang, Varalattru Peravai, Chennai, 1979, p. 201.

8. It is noteworthy that iron and bronze melting techniques in South India have shown a remarkable degree of continuity. Hamilton Buchanan, writing around 1800, describes iron and steel smelting at Chennimalai in Salem district in an almost identical manner and says that the special sand was obtained from Viracholapuram in Gangeyam district. Iron was then sold in the form of blocks or steel frames. See Buchanan, Hamilton, Francis, A Journey from Madras Through the Countries of Mysor, Canara and Malabar, 2 vols., London, 1807. The section on mining in the Salem district in volume one contains the above information.

9. Shankara’s Brahmasutrabhasya is cited in C. Sivaramamurthy, ‘South Indian Bronzes’, Marg, vol. 33, pp. 56-72, 1979-80, p. 57.

10. This phrase coined by the economic historian Frank Perlin is a pithy and effective description of early towns, which had a strong rural component to them.

11. An interesting discussion regarding this aspect is to be found in J. Brouwer, ‘Riddles of Raw Materials: Aspects of the classifications of stones and wood used by South Indian artisans’, Man in India, Vol. 67, No. 2, June 1987, pp. 147-159.

12. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I, the English translation of the third German edition by Moore and Aveling edited by F. Engels, Moscow, 1958, p. 340.

13. Ibid. For a discussion on the impact of the caste system on craft production see my article, ‘The Masterweavers in South Indian Textile production’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 28, part 3, October 1985, pp. 296 to 300.

14. Travels in India of Abbe Carre edited in two volumes by Charles Fawcett, Hakluyt Series, London, 1948, vol. II, pp. 595-96.

15. This phrase occurs often in the Company correspondence but one instance is the letter dated 1696 regarding the musters sent to the weavers through the Company’s Agent Mr Ongley – I.O. Archives, Letter Book IX, 466. This is cited in John Irwin, ‘Indian Textile Trade in the Seventeenth Century: South India’, published in Studies in Ind-European Textile History, ed. John Irwin and P.R. Schwartz, Calico Museum of Textile, Ahmedabad, India, 1966, p. 37.