Shilpi

The easiest way to recognize a cluster is that you enter a town and be greeted by countless forms and structures of one particular material. Although all the forms are different in structure but from your perspective – watching from the entrance of the town, the work seems monotonous. This monotony in the  material and appearance helps in pointing out the place as a cluster of that particular craft.

While standing at the gate of Shivarapatna, a village in the Malur Taluk of Kolar District in Karnataka, a similar sight of massive stone sculptures welcomed me and my friend Sree Lakshmi, and helped us confirm that we were standing at the right place – the land of stone sculpting, Shivarapatna.

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I have to admit that traveling to this town from Bangalore is not very easy. We took a bus from Majestic to Hoskote, from where we got a bus to Malur. From Malur a bus to Shivarapatna gate and then an auto to reach the entrance of the Shivarapatna village. The deserted Shivarapatna gate leads to dumbfounderment as there does not exist any trace of public commute! Indeed huge autos which I have termed as ‘item’ autos (because of the way it is decorated from the inside) do follow this route at intervals of 5-10 minutes. These autos can possibly accommodate 20 people at once and cost Rs. 10 per person. We got into one of these autos and reached the entrance of the Shivarapatna village from the Shivarapatna gate in 5 minutes. Although this route seemed difficult to follow, on our way back to Bangalore, we did discover an easier route. We took an auto from the entrance of the village until Malur bus station directly. From here, we got a bus to Bangalore, which goes until Majestic but we got down at Krishnaraj Puram Railway Station.

 We reached Shivarapatna in two hours of journey from Majestic, Bangalore and were struck with amazement to see the whole village working on black and white stones. There were Gods’ sculptures all over made in black and white soapstone (steatite) and granite. We entered the village and stopped at every house to gaze at the stone sculptures done by the artisans and talked to them.

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 I discovered that stone craft is a rich craft and artisans were happy shaping the stones their way. I learned the process of stone carving which is a combination of drawing on stone with red oxide solution and giving finesse to the stone with repeated action of drawing and sculpting. I also identified that the artisans there worked only on orders and produced sculptures as per the designs of the customers. The raw material is bought by various artisans from different places in Karnataka.

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 For getting the feel of the hardness of stone and to understand the difficulty level of stone carving, I tried my hand on it and remarked the softness of the stone which made it easy to carve. Carving required muscular strength to give the initial shape to the irregular shaped stone. The minute details and carvings is generally done by the females which demand less strength.

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Shivarapatna is also a cluster for metal casting. The lost-wax method is used here for making brass sculptures. Artisans though work here only on orders and do not keep ready made pieces. Me and my friend walked along the street on which the village is situated. One distinctive thing I observed was the use of bamboo to create screen like shelters for work.

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It was an amusing and lively experience to gaze at the omnipresent stone craft. I and Sree Lakshmi walked back till the village entrance and waited for another auto ride. Never had I thought that the approaching ride would be like flying in the air. I stood on the foot rest outside the auto and flew in the direction opposite to the direction of the journey. I was delighted to be there and feel the air gushing in my clothes and my body while I stood on the footrest and was overwhelmed about the fact that there was no seat for me inside the rickshaw which was preoccupied with 17 passengers and my friend just managed to fit in. As always the case is, the road back to home is smaller than getting out. We managed to reach back to Bangalore by 7:30 in the evening and headed back home.

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ALBATROSS…A feeling for my work towards them!

On visiting the terracotta craft cluster based in Marasandra village which is almost 15 kilometers from the NES Quarters Yelahanka, I for the first time confronted the artisans who have spent their entire lives working in clay. I was eyeing the entire village on foot and observed that every second house was involved in terracotta work. All of them worked hard to make clay idols of deities and other human figures which had a particular season of sale (mostly during festivals). Most of them also worked on wheels where clay was thrown on to be molded into a pot. 

I and two of my friends spent half a day with an aged potter who was working towards the fulfillment of an order of 600 plantation pots. The first thing that caught my attention the moment I saw him working was his physical form which was involved in the rigorous backbreaking work. Never had I seen a potter’s wheel which was hand drawn and never had I witnessed a 75 year old laboriously standing, throwing, applying momentum to the wheel and molding. The site was compassionate for the plight of the artisan. I with the help of my Kannadiga friend, tried to start a conversation with him making sure that his work is not caused any trouble. Our conversation started with momentary dialogues until the artisan was convinced and comfortable about the reason for our visit to his workplace. I was content to have the potter smiling and laughing with us by the end of our stay there. My conversations with the other potters and artisans in town also lead to the possibilities and reasons for the intervention that I intend to have.

 I questioned mainly about the range of products produced by the artisans, their target audience or market and the quantity of items created within 11 hours of laborious work every day (6a.m. to 5 p.m.). On my enquiry, I discovered that the products were mainly produced to fulfill orders placed by dealers from the cities (mainly Bangalore). The range of products was mostly limited to one or two types of plantation pots, piggy banks, coal stoves and God idols. Out of these, God idols were mainly sold during festival seasons like Diwali, Dusshera and Navratri. 

On questioning them about the non-innovation of products, they simply answered that the new products are not sold enough. The amount of time that is spent on doing the intricate and different style of work does not pay off because of less or no sale. One of the artisans, was greatly hopeless about the market for terracotta products. His opinion about the people who intended to intervene in this work was negative due to his past experiences. He felt that people come and go but never come back. He demanded long term development and was unhappy with short term earnings. 

I felt that my role as a designer can only be justified not by producing good designs using the crafts but in reality marketing the products and opening huge market opportunities and creating demands for the craftsmen. The terracotta pots have also got a competition against the cement pots. It is important to expose the advantages of the natural materials used in the handicraft industry which renders them more eco-friendly and non-toxic as compared to the other products. 

There are definitely a few artisans who have started developing contemporary products as a result of intervention but still, there exist a major percentage of craftsmen whose crafts are now endangered. Most of them have also started getting involved in other businesses like farming and construction. They work in terracotta only when they receive orders and during festivals. 

The visit and conversations with these craftsmen have burdened me with a larger responsibility and a greater role as a person who can create work and better opportunities for them. I do not wish to let their confidence down and make them believe that anybody who comes just comes and goes away and never comes back. Indeed I am a little scared right now but at the same time I know that the first step will lead to the next.

Marasandra

Dreams – they do come true! Not very long ago but nearly nine years, I used to fantasize about my life as a traveler. The kind of traveler I used to imagine myself as was not one of those wandering around spotting the tourist attractions and exploring luxurious hotels and towns but a traveler who is living with different communities, with various people, living with them, knowing their culture, learning their skills. While watching channels like Fox traveler and Discovery and others, I used to be awe struck about how each community in this world must be doing some or the other kind of artistic work to survive. As I was a child that time, I never even thought of India, that it could be one of those places where every region, nay every village, could have a specialty of its own, where the whole village strived towards working in one medium or one occupation. Nevertheless, I couldn’t think of a single huge group or community which could work in one profession. While daydreaming about such thoughts, I used to get filled with happiness and excitement and then eventually get my feet back on the ground.

It is blissful to fulfill your dream but it is phenomenal to realize that what you are doing right now was once your dream and you are actually living in your dream. A similar euphoria is flooded within me while visiting various villages to learn about their crafts and to also learn from them their own craft. 

Just yesterday (30th Jan, 2014), I visited a village called Marasandra which is a suburb of Bangalore and is some 25 kms heading north. I was not expecting anything  while heading towards the place in a bus with one of my friends, Aarushi. My intention of visiting this place was to learn about terracotta work so that I can use this work for developing my product range. I had heard that this village is a cluster of craft working in terracotta. The only doubt I had in mind was the communication barrier due to the regional language – Kannada, which I am unfamiliar with. At the same time, I was optimistic about finding at least one person in the whole village who would know Hindi or English – languages that I can understand well. That someone who is also willing to help us talk to the locals about their work. I was prepared to grant some currency in return of the role as a translator. 

While being occupied with these thoughts, I didn’t realise that twenty minutes had already passed by since we started from Yelahanka, and we hit the bus stop of Marasandra – a vilage which is on the Doddabalapur main road. I knew the landmark of the possible location of these workplaces which was the Suman School. After enquiring about the location of the school, we started walking on the main road moving further away from Yelahanka. While walking for 15 mins, we asked a person in a Bisleri shop about where the school was. The guy was generous enough to come along with us show us the school where he studied in and which we had crossed already and missed because of a tiny signange that was not visible. Fortunately the guy knew a little Hindi and in his language ‘shulp shulp’ Hindi. He took us to a potter’s house when we asked him the location for terracotta work. Although the conversation was difficult with Prasad, the Bisleri boy with his shulp knowledge of Hindi, still by using basic hindi words and understanding the basic Kannada words, we could communicate well with him to make him understand the thoughts and reasons for our visit. 

Even before we could ask him to help and accompany us to look around for some artisans who work in terracotta,  Prasad was with us, taking us to various craftsmen’s houses to show their works. It was intriguing to watch the film-like village and the small thatched workplaces and houses of the craftsmen. The first place that we went to was the house of a very old artisan aged 55 years, who was preparing his clay for work. He was taking out small pebbles from a huge lump of wet clay. The whole scene was very fascinating and the space was cool because of the wetness of mud and shade of the thatches. With a lot of effort, we tried to understand the whole process of procuring raw material. The basic material – mud was being transported from the Marasandra lake or kere to the artisans’ houses. The artisan was not going to work on the wheel or model that day. He asked us to come down the next day or the day after that.

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While watching his dedication towards work and the long ten hours of work a day, I felt that the amount he was earning by selling his pots at a meager price, was unfair. I observed that the range of products which were being produced was limited to plantation pots of a specific kind and God idols which were produced during festive seasons. On my next visit, I would learn more about the market of the products and the reason for limiting the product range.

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 As that artisan was not working on his wheel, Prasad took us to around 3-4 terracotta artisans who were working on idols and show pieces Unfortunately none were working on wheel. We came across one family which included the artisan, his wife and a son who must be in his late twenties who worked only for making God idols. The artisan said that there is no money in making pots. We get twenty times more money by selling these idols. The method of joining two moulds of clay to form a volumetric figure was fascinating. That artisan agreed to teach us the modeling of figures in clay and called us later for the same.

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The next house that I went to, was the workplace of a family who used to make Plaster of Paris moulds themselves for making the idols for the festivals. I observed then what a kiln looked like. A huge floor level well surrounded by bricks and on which pots were kept for heating. It took one full day for all the pots to be burnt and made strong. Due to the language barrier, there was less conversation but I believe that the next time I go there, the journey would be more fruitful.

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The visit was great to get acquainted to the region and its people. Indeed these people are welcoming and are more than happy to share their work and craft. While walking inside the village, I was held back with the thought of my daydream, when I realized that I was living in it – walking through the interiors of a village, talking to various people, knowing about their culture and learning  from them. I had never ever thought that this research and study will lead me to the least expected thing that could happen to me.

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Prasad was a great help and I felt that he was a physical form of my optimism. His non-selfish motive of not expecting anything moved me and let me believe that there are still people who are ready to help when needed without thinking of any benefit.

Looking forward to visit Marasandra yet again to know the people more and learn their craft their way.

A Road Trip! First official visit to Channapatna

I was all prepared and set to have my first official visit to Channapatna – a town nearly 80 kms from Bangalore which is famous for its toys crafted by lac-turnery. I was heading towards the bus stop for venturing into my new project of development of products by the use of the Lac-turnery craft of Channapatna when I received a call from a friend who with her family (husband and kid) wanted to join me for my excursion. Soon enough, the four of us including me, my friend her husnband and her 5 year old child left for the ‘toy town’ or ‘Gombegala Ooru’.

 Heading towards the south-west of Bangalore we reached the destination in an hour and a half while enjoying the beautiful Bangalore-Mysore highway.

 We landed at the Lacquerware Craft Complex which is looked after by the Karnataka Government. This is a factory which produces the traditional lac-turnery crafted objects and toys for the Cauvery Emporium.

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Although this was my first official visit, I had visited Channapatna very recently for getting acquainted to the area and the place. The artisans working there recognized me easily and were very welcoming. I thought that this was a good start to intervene and know more about the artisans, their craft, their tools, their life, their problems their way. I started taking photographs of the factory where the process of toy-making was happening. I recorded all the tools and the process of their work for my documentation.

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It was an interesting observation to see how these artisans had a competition among themselves to sell their products. I saw the way everyone opened their ‘pitaris‘ (boxes) and surged towards my friends to sell their products. The same thing happened with me the last time I visited them. My excited was short lived when on talking to them I discovered that they get their money based on the sale of their one product and not collectively by completing their order.

After various visual recordings of the processes we moved further into the village to map more people working on the craft. While I walked, I felt refreshed to be in a typical village and watch the streets filled with huts and mud houses. Although the sun was radiating scotching heat, but this could not let my enthusiasm down. It was the peak hour of the afternoon and thus the streets were barren. Somewhere here or there we could see some Muslim ladies walking and reaching their places. The whole place seemed like being dominated by the Muslim community.

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While walking through one of the streets, I spotted a person through a small door who was working on his power lathe. I wished to enquire more about his practice and then I knocked and entered. To my amazement, the man was working on the power lathe in about a volume of 336 cubic feet (8ft. X 6ft. X 7ft.). As I entered, I was choked with the dust and other small particles of wood which were entering my nose and mouth as I spoke. I came out for a breath and felt pity. On my enquiry, the artisan informed me that he worked there for 10 to 11 hours a day. I could only think of the health hazards that were being faced by these craftsmen. In a larger space, these are not evident, but in a smaller space, the hazards seemed deadly.

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(The two extreme ends of the photo are the extreme walls of the room)

I was made to acknowledge the presence of zinc compounds in the lacquer sticks for use in the turnery craft. Recently, the use of zinc in lacquer has started due to less prices of the zinc mixed lac over the vegetable dyes lacquer. This information about the lacquer sticks, made me worry about the toys for the children. I was further told that in the toys the vegetable dye sticks were used. The zinc lacquer was used only in the utility items which were used by adults for home decorations.

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After listening to all this, I could only think about the words by Jaya Jaitly where she mentioned that the crafts of India have a greater importance – that of being environmental friendly. I thought to myself, if I really succeed in providing a better market for this craft, I might just be able to improve the economic conditions of these artisans. This may lead to solving their problems related to the availability and prices of raw materials. This still solely depends on the ethics of the craftsmen.

Further, as the day was passing by, I with my small group that day kept walking towards the interior of the village to discover something that I had read about in text books, which was being used by only the women – a hand lathe for producing lac-turned products. I read in a case study based on the Lac-turnery craft of Channapatna that women’s position in this craft was deteriorating because of lack of technological inputs and training. I had read that women were not given a platform to keep themselves involved in the lac-turnery craft as much as the male counterparts.

Before going for this field visit, I had a perception that there is a need of women upliftment in this craft and if I impart knowledge to these women in terms of the market requirement and design, they could probably establish themselves better. To my horror, when I visited Channapatna officially, to observe various things, I became aware of the current fact that women no longer work in this craft. They have stopped their work in it completely. I couldn’t see a single woman working in this sector. On my enquiry to people about whether women work in this craft all I could be answered was, “Madam, aurat isme kaam nahi karta, sirf aadmi karta hai. Wo aurta sab bidi banata hai.” (Madam, women don’t work in this field, only men do. All those women make cigarettes). This was indeed sad but true.

The women in the town of Channapatna have shifted their profession from being a craftswoman to being a cigarette filler. Despite having infinite adverse effects due to inhaling tobacco which is filled in the cigarettes, these women have chosen to work there because of better incomes. On being questioned about the reason for not working as an artisan, all they had to answer was, “Paisa nahi milta madam, bachha paalna hota hai, ghar sambhalna hota hai, ghar rehke bhi bidiyan bhar sakte hain. Isme paisa achha milta hai.” (Don’t get money madam, have to grow kids, have to take care of the house hold, can make cigarettes from home. Get good money from this.)

Indeed, the cigarette factory pays Rs. 150-Rs. 250 to their workers per day for making 1000 bidis daily.

I learnt about this scenario when I went inside the village with the help of a local 12 year old kid named Zishan, who showed me a house where a man with his wife worked on a hand lathe machine to prepared lac-turned items. I could not see any woman working in the whole village. The range of items produced by the hand lathe is limited to three products due to the use of the hand machine. They only produced 10mm diameter beads, 10-12mm disameter flat buttons and some keyrings. On being questioned about the non usage of the power lathes, they simply answered cannot afford it and they get a lot of orders for the these items. I could only gaze at their way of working and limitation due to which they could not grow much.

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I took some photographs with Zishan, his sister and a few more kids who had gathered around getting attracted by the camera and may be the language and attire. But they all were smiling and yet welcoming. There was a conversation problem due to the language which could not be solved even by my Telugu friends. Thus, I could not question them more and just thought that next time I will get a Kannada speaking friend with me.

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My next step was to interview the artisans to know how they felt working, if there were any problems that they were coming across in any context of the craft or due to it. On speaking to a about three-five people, it came to my knowledge that the main problem is the raw material procurement. The artisans had a huge problem getting the material from the forests as they had to pay taxes to government which they said they couldn’t afford. Their other problem was they had no growth in the field. They were producing goods as per the demand but did not get any profit. By the time money was transferred to the bottom of the supply chain, it was over. The last layer of the chain – the artisans had to convince themselves with the wages that they earn generally.

I was thinking throughout, that will increasing the market solve any purpose for them? I thought that I have to find a way to eliminate intruders from the supply chain so that profit can be made for the artisans. The other aspect for development that came to my mind was the enhancement of the product range itself. A range that has immense demand for its aesthetics. But the hurdle for my thought was that only developing a new range won’t solve the purpose. I simply thought about the things that will happen once I leave this place. I don’t think that the artisans will continue producing new products.

I believe that I now have to train these men. For developing on their own. Educate them to an extent that they think anew, afresh.

While I was on these thoughts while listening to the artisans who were speaking to me, my thought process was interrupted by an artisan who was very eager to show around the various factories that his nephew was working in – stone and lac-turnery craft. I and my friend initially started with that person thinking that we will be back in 10 mins but that small visit slowly converted into a voyage. A voyage to the village on foot – exploring various kinds of factories of lac-turnery craft and wood craft which produced different varieties of products – some were small scale like key rings, small toys etc.and some were a little bigger utility items like jars, flower vases etc. Some were artists who were painting with poster colors and then turning them with lac and some were carpenters who developed school trophies and other items on their own.

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Throughout the expedition, I was filled with energy and happiness to look around so many people. My friend, Ankita, was there to continuously instill in me with the do’s and don’t’s that could possibly be in terms of work and surrounding.

This visit to Channapatna was a very informative, fruitful and thoughtful journey. Suggestions and comments from my friends who were with me were worth seeking answer to and also to keep in mind further.

Will be continuously going ahead to seek and develop something that comes my way from my research.

Being a friend of the Environment

While researching for my diploma project which is about developing interior elements from the handicraft industry and aims at developing the industry and the markets for the Lac-turnery craft of Channapatna, Karnataka, I came across a research paper by Sharmila Wood.

 In the paper, Sharmila wood, who is currently a consultant at New Delhi, who has worked with the creative and cultural industries in India and has also written and edited the Designers meet Artisans for UNESCO and Craft Revival Trust, examines the current state of craft sector in India, exploring how a growing interests of consumers in ethical and sustainable materials, processes and objects, is impacting Indian artisans and craft workers.

 The paper brings out various aspects of the craft industry like the resources use and availability, the growing fondness towards handcrafted products among the urban consumers, the feeling of the artisans in terms of backwardness, importance of training women in the craft for their wise use of the livelihood and also the importance of the aesthetics or beauty of the handicrafts as compared to the technological copy of the same. All these aspects have been brought out by the arguments and quotes of various people associated with the craft industry like Jatin Bhatt, Jaya Jaitly, Maggie Baxter, Lucy Donkin, Ashoke Chatterjee, Mayank Kaul Singh, etc.

 Ever since I started involving in the craft industry which is not long but a couple of months ago, I kept coming across all the aspects mentioned above but one, which took me aback. I never thought about the crafts that way.

 In the paper, Jaya Jaitly has been quoted extensively and one such quote acquired my attention. As Jaya Jaitly has observed; ‘In the area of handmade goods, both crafts and textiles, even as countries like India are learning to convert their weaknesses into strengths, in China mechanization is efficiently organising itself to imitate the hand work of India to encroach upon the market for India’s special skills.’ In contrast to industrial production, the handmade qualities of craft, suggest a deeper engagement between, the maker and his or her product, a relationship in which the artisan has a personal history, and is materially aware of the processes, and techniques of production.

 Jaitly argues that this aspect of craft should be emphasised in marketing discourse. She says: ‘Handicraft and handloom bazaars should not be popular just because we get ‘arty’ things at a fairly inexpensive rate but because health, environment, education, self value, exposition of cultural diversity and other such vitally important areas are linked to the need for sustaining crafts.’

Jaitly uses the example of how, if the government adopted a policy where the kulladh – the earthen cup made by potters all over India, was to be used in all government institutions, and services, has both employment and environmental benefits. She writes: ‘The mud of the kulladh goes back into the earth without harming it. Hygiene is maintained by ensuring that it cannot be reused. Paper is saved and non-­‐degradable plastic is avoided.’

 Proponents of the Indian craft industry,  such as Jatin Bhatt argue: ‘Handicraft is a  production process and a wonderful, indigenous technology, not an outmoded tradition. The raw materials (cane, cotton, clay, wood, wool, silk, minerals) are not only indigenously available but also environmentally friendly.’ 

The sense of being environmental-friendly and entering the craft industry not only for developing markets and creating livelihoods for artisans but for sustaining the craft and nature and using natural material for crafts was inculcated in me. The reason for using naturally available products in the various products of the craft industry is now known to me. I had never looked at the craft that way – was only engrossed in the beauty of it. 

This thought and learning will never let me fall towards solutions which involve toxic material use or non-environmental friendly technologies.

 I am happy I cam across this paper when I have just started with my craft association.