Updated: Nov 20 2005, 05:30am hrs
Crafting India
Suman Tarafdar in New Delhi

India is a cultural superpower. This assertion by current ICCR chairperson Pawan Varma may be disputed by many on grounds of comparative merits with other nations and societies. But there is no disputing the fact that a crucial element in the diversity of India comprises its cultural heritage.

Indian arts and crafts have developed over millennia, and today not just each region, but even micro-regions have their own unique traditions. Whether it be performing arts or woodwork, metal casting or dyeing, the range is varied, and most forms have a highly developed theoretical basis, documented.

And yet they are today being challenged as never before. They are also living traditions, which became a way of life for those involved. For a Theyyam practitioner, it was not just a performance, but the individuals entire life and livelihood revolved around it. The slowly changing modes of life allowed the traditions to continue over generations, though occa- sional challenges like the intrusion of the colonial economy had already altered some aspects of the artisanal mode of production beyond recognition.

The current forms of economy, with their overwhelming desire to establish similar patterns in production and indeed our lives, are leaving very little space for these cultural forms to coexist. As the result, each passing moment is seeing the death of these age-old arts. As fathers encourage their children to study, and not follow the family traditions of being a kabutarbaaz, or a handloom weaver, there is a gradual, and imperceptible movement towards the obliteration of these heritages, which may remain only as museum pieces.

Kalchattis or stone pots are an art form of Tamil Nadu no longer in vogue. Kalchattis were used in cooking in ancient Tamil Nadu. It gave a unique taste to the food and was quite popular once. Kalchattis are no longer used by people, even in rural areas. They have been replaced by terracota and brass pots, says an art expert.

The Indian government, both post and pre independence, has been arguably the chief benefactor or patron of these traditional arts. But as the challenges before the nation, especially after 1947, have had more pressing issues to be addressed, the last five-odd decades have seen gharanas end, kothas wound up, machines replace human skill and artistry, and the artists themselves become construction labourers.

Yes, today there are agencies, government or otherwise, which are making efforts to preserve these forms. Exceptional films have brought alive the works, and lives of these artists, eg Susman or Anjuman, but except for a lucky few, there has been little change. The University of Mumbai has the countrys only department for performing folk arts. Though just begun, the course is attracting city students to it and that bodes well for these dying performing folk art forms, says Prakash Khandge, director of the Lok Kala Academy.

These are living arts, and those not in sympathy with their preservation argue that they too must learn to adapt. But in a vast majority of the cases, it is an entire way of life in question, and to alter that in many cases just means the end of that form. Skills are often learnt and perfected over decades, and to dilute the learning process, is often a distortion that changes the form.

This is not to say that there arent exceptions. It is almost unthinkable that a progeny of a leading artiste not take up that art form. But for the average artiste very few seem interested in ensuring that their children continue the tradition.

While there are a number of factors that are limiting furtherance of an art form, varying almost by art and region, there is an overriding factor too - the lack of viable economic sustenance, which has often created bitterness amongst the artist themselves. That the subject is alive is perhaps best indicated by the fact that the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad is organising a national seminar on the subject later this week, which addresses issues like crafts as and for employment generation, traditional identity vs economic viability and ethnicity and marginalisation of crafts among others later this week.

Here we look at in detail at some of these arts, some on the verge of being lost forever. A status report on some of Indias major arts and crafts. This is by no means a comprehensive list. We have not taken up any of the textile forms, which merit a larger space by themselves.

With inputs from Shabana Husain in Chennai and Sulekha Nair in Mumbai

Legacy for records
Satya Naagesh Ayyagary in Hyderabad

Andhra Pardesh has a rich treasure of arts and crafts. And as in other states, while some are surviving and even flourishing, others are on the verge of extinction or already extinct. The reasons range from lack of patronage for the performing arts, diminishing commercial viability to shortage of trained artisans.

Among performing arts, Burrakatha, which involves three artistes a narrator, a wise analyst and a jester for comic relief is a dying art in the state. Burrakatha was a popular medium for story telling from mythologies like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to historical stories of various kings and their valour. While earlier, it was regularly hosted during Dussehra, Ramnavami and Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, one hardly sees Burrakatha performances now, except in some rural areas.

Interestingly, the government used Burrakatha to spread the message of family planning and even to communicate their policies and programmes.

But today, barring an occasional government-sponsored social message, this rich art form is rarely seen.

We are trying to get intellectual property rights (IPR) protection for arts as well. We are exploring the possibility of getting geographical indicators. says K Subodh Kumar, counsellor, Technology, AP Technology Development and Promotion Centre.

Fading colours
Sulekha Nair in Mumbai

Chitrakathi painting is an ancient form of art. It developed during the 16th or the 17th century in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. It is an oral form of narrating the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, through story boards painted with vegetable dyes. The tradition was carried out by families in Paithan and Sawantwadi in Maharashtra. The families toured the country with the painted cards which graphically told the story of the epic.

These paintings are to be seen today in museums only. Or, when you come across that rare artist who preserves the art form and follows it, albeit with changes.

For instance, in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, Chitrakathi has been now styled on leather puppets which retell the ancient epics.

The tradition of painting is no longer followed there. In Sawantwadi, known for its wooden toys, the stories are now told through them.

In Mumbai, Jayashree Patankar is the sole artist who is carrying on with this tradition of painting with vegetable dyes. I havent heard or met any other artist in Mumbai who follows this art form. Patankar learnt the art form during a visit to Pingurali village in Sawantwadi district. I have seen Chitrakathi paintings in museums in the country and was taken up by the art. When I saw it in Sawantwadi, I decided to do it the traditional way.

Patankar is a trained artist from Sir J J School of Art. Curiously, she does not do Chitrakathi with epics. I think the paintings conveying the epics were in keeping with the times they were done in. I feel, Chitrakathi should reflect the times that we live in. So I tell modern stories through my paintings. Like Aaj ka Raja, which shows a modern day Ram going off to work in a train or a car and then working with his computer. Using vegetable dyes, the paintings are done on 8x10 canvases. Patankar has had exhibitions of her work in Mumbai.

I feel this art form should be preserved. There is an urgent need to do so, before it becomes part of folklore or history, avers Patankar.

Shadows loom large
Arindam Sinha in Jamshedpur

South Jharkhand, particularly its majority Oriya-speaking district of Seraikela-Kharswan, is home to the rich but slowly dying tradition of famous Chhau dance. It is also home to two of the four major recognised Chhau styles the Seraikela and the Kharswan styles. The other two Manbhum Chhau (also known as Purulia style) and the Mayurbhanj Chhau have their origins in the adjacent districts of Purulia (West Bengal) and Mayurbhanj (Orissa).

A Chhau team generally comprises 10-25 dancers and musicians who carry a large number of musical instruments. While one group of experts says that the term Chhau could have been derived from chhaya, indicating shadow or mask, another group associates it with a certain colloquial Oriya term meaning a war dance rather than a masked dance.

According to Chhau exponent P C Rauth, founder-general secretary of the 30-year-old Singhbhum Sanskritik Nrityakala Sangh, while the other three Chhau forms, including the Kharswan-style, are performed by a group of dancers, the Seraikela-style Chhau is usually performed solo or as a duet.

Also, while the individual dancer in the Seraikela form hides his face behind the character represented by a mask, the Kharswan Chhau blends with it the local martial dance form Parikhanda Khela, thus making it a vigorous martial art form of dance.

Chhau dance is performed in Jharkhand as a ritual during the last four days of Chaitra (usually falling on April 11-14) to invoke the blessings from Lord Shiva for a bountiful harvest.

Rich and colourful costumes add charm to Chhau dance which make a lively presentation of stories from epics, mythology, legends, historical episodes and even dramatic scenes from actual life.

Though the Jharkhand government runs the Seraikela Chhau Nritya Centre in Seraikela town and a number of Chhau exponents as well as students are associated with it, most feel, it is not enough to support the art form as a majority of the artistes live in the villages of Seraikela-Kharswan district and as such hardly have access to the centre.

The erstwhile royal families of Seraikela and Kharswan were great sponsors of the art form. One of the Seraikela royalty members, the late prince Sudhendra Narayan Singhdeo, himself performed Chhau in Europe in 1938.

It is only passion that has kept the art form alive, as individual artistes hardly get anything even when the team is invited for a performance, rues Rauth, popularly known as Nanaji.

Corporates like Tata Steel, says Rauth, occasionally sponsor troupes like his, but its hardly enough.

In search of new hues
Dilip Bisoi in Bhubaneswar

Raghurajpur is a village of artists and art is a way of life here. Be it performing arts or fine arts, the village boasts of talent of national repute. So, no wonder it has given birth to famous Odissi dance gurus like Kelucharan Mahapatra and Gotipua Nritya guru Mguni Charan Das.

In this village, everyone is an artist practising one or more of nine art forms Patta Chitra, Talapatra Chitra (palm-leaf painting), Matha Chitra (painting on tussar silk fabric), wood carving, stone sculpture, papier mache mask (mask made of paper pulp), cow dung toys, coconut painting and Ganjapa playing cards.

But, it is the art of Patta Chitra which put Raghurajpur on the world art map. Seven artists of the village have so far won the Presidents awards for their excellence in patta painting and palm-leaf painting. The word patta means canvas in Sanskrit and chitra means picture. This miniature painting art form is defined by its rich use of colour, its creative motifs and designs, and its portrayal of pure and simple themes, depicting a combination of folk and classical elements.

The artists use brushes made from mouse hair and colours prepared from vegetables and mineral extracts. They use mostly bright green, red and yellow colours for their work.

The classical art form flourished under the patronage of kings and art connoisseurs. Everyone in the village used to be busy in artistic creation throughout the year. While male artists would be busy in painting, women were engaged in preparing the material.

Patta Chitra, however, lost its shine with the advent of modernity. Artists found it difficult to eke out a living from the art in the absence of patronage from the temple administration and art lovers.

So, many of them fled the village in search of jobs. The colourful murals painted on the front doors and the outer walls of the village houses faded in neglect. Raghurajpur became a museum piece. A gallery of ancient art form which attracted curious tourists.

Realising the tourism potential of the village, the Government of India accorded it the heritage village status in 2002. And, since then Raghurajpur is on the way of recreating its past glory. Now, a lot of focus is being trained on to the place and the exquisite art and craft churned out of here, says Santosh Sarangi, director, Orissa Tourism Department. The state tourism department with the financial assistance from the Centre has spent Rs 58 lakh to make the village tourist-friendly.

Adds Biranchi Narayan Mishra, joint director, Orissa Tourism Department, The tourism initiatives will certainly help bring back the past glory to the village.

Hit abroad, flop at home
Sreya Basu in Kolkata

It is almost impossible to believe that the end products of a soft-stemmed plant growing in the marshy areas of Burdwan have found their places in the Eastcoast Museum of New York and Anthropological Museum of Frankfurt.

Talking about Shola plant, the rising demand for sholar protima and sholar saaj in the West is really remarkable, although the art form itself originated from the interiors of the villages of West Bengal in the late 19 century.

The poor clay modellers used to colour their idols with chalk, turmeric, vermilion and lac, and decorate them with the easily available fibrous Shola, which grew abundantly there.

The artisans used to peel off the back of the Shola plant the white flexible inner part, when dried in the sun, becomes as thin as paper.

These were easily cut and turned into different ornaments for the idols during festivals like Durga Puja, Lakshmi Puja, Saraswati Puja, Kali Puja and Jagatdharti Puja. Later on, urbanisation, the popularity and sober look of the sholar saaj spread to the cities also.

But how can these generations of malakar (as the Shola artists are called) thrive throughout the year just on the earnings from the puja months, which are the prime time of their business.

Bengal celebrates thirteen festivals in twelve months, and in every festival 60-70% clay-modellers use expensive Shola for decoration. Moreover nowadays, shola saaj is not the only fruit of Shola. To popularise this folk art, the malakars are trying their creativity at carving idols, puppets, toys and wall-hangings alsowhich are appreciated moderately outside West Bengal, and greatly outside India. So, in a way the malakars are never out of job, says a malakar, Mohanbansi Rudrapal.

To popularise the art form, the Centre has taken up a two-fold scheme. Under the first scheme, Shola farmers are divided in several self-help groups (similar to cooperatives) and provided subsidy as per requirement.

The other scheme involves inviting malakars to communicate with the government, which in turn, will help them to sell their products inside and outside India.

However, it would be wrong to depend completely on the government to market the products. Artist Indrajit Basu is all for arranging exhibitions on Shola art in every state and invite all art lovers, to promote the slightly declining market for Shola items. But who will take this huge responsibility is still unsure.

Survival not cast in stone
Reema Jose in Bangalore

The art of stone carving in Karnatakas Shivarpatna village seems to be waiting for a tombstone. Says Chandra Jain, founde of Bangalore-based nonprofit, Kadambari, Our survey has found that though Shivarpatna (55 km from Bangalore) has been traditionally known for stone carving, business has dwindled during the past years. We feel there is a need to update the designs to suit contemporary needs and to boost marketing efforts. The grammar of tradition needs to find a connection with the contemporary urban needs.

According to her, while most of the craftsmen have been practising the art for over 350 years, the new generation is migrating to cities in search of more lucrative jobs.

Orders come to Shivarpatna occasionally these days, only when new temples or projects with traditional designs are built. Apart from this, the village craftsmen also find it hard to source the raw material.

We want to sensitise the architects and builders to use craft from the village. Besides this we also aim to hold workshops for the villagers to help them evolve their designs with changing market demands. Exchanges with some urban designers will help them evolve the new ideas themselves. New tools and designs can be taught through the workshops.

Kadambari will be initially raising funds for saving the art of stone carving and then address larger issues related to improving living standards of over 500 stone carving families and also reviving tourism in the village, she adds.

Fierce gods dance meekly
M Sarita Varma in Thiruvananthapuram

Folk arts, which serve a stiff cocktail of night drumbeats, country liquor, angry jungle deities and ancient spirits, usually strike a quick chord with the worlds collective conscience. Yet the contemporary Indian cultural connoisseur has not woken up to the possibilities of the 2000-year-old ritual art, Theyyam, in Malabar in North Kerala.

The most recent bid for bringing up Theyyam was from Kerala Tourism. The dance has started getting more frequent mention in the Gods Own Country brochures. Its golden moment was when a Kerala actor who played the life of a Theyyam artiste in Kaliyattam got the National Award for best actor.

Eight years later, the number of artistes is not going up. Nor is the quality of life of these artistes. The dance form ruthlessly demands the dedication of a lifetime profession and has nothing of the glamour and money that computer education or electronic media can give the modern youth, says Lakshman Peruvannan, a Theyyam artiste.

Sorrier still is the academic attention. While classical art forms like Kathakali enjoy well-documented history, no scholar has paid attention to tracing the period of Theyyams origin. The oral tradition vaguely suggests that it could be older than Christ. But trust a Muchilottu Bhagavathi Theyyam or Kathivanoor Veeran Theyyam to behave less coldly. In majestic headgear and menacing face-paint, the Theyyam performers swing to angry goddesses. Thanks to the local deities or native long-dead heroes, about 450 extant legends of the exploits of the tiger-slayer or the vendetta with the jungle serpent enliven the storyline.

The word Theyyam is a corruption of Daivam, meaning God. It is a night-long performance staged before a shrine or households. The audience seeks boons and pardon from the performer. In a staggered sequence, a supernatural power enters the body of a Theyyam performer through the flaming torches and the crescendo of chanting invocation around. It was hard to believe that a frail gentle boy I know could grow into this fierce god, says Pepita Seth, noted photographer, who had tried her hand at introducing Theyyam to the western world.

If cultural socialism has a repertoire of comic ironies, its twist in Theyyam is that the prophetic god-stature comes to the artiste, who conventionally hails from lower rung of Keralas caste-ladder. A hundred years ago the caste-apartheid meant that a Theyyam artiste in his humdrum daily existence could pollute a Brahmin priest by his sheer proximity. Yet, when he grabs a draught of coconut toddy and gets fully possessed in the gear of Parassinikadavu Muthappan, the world, including the priest, is at his feet.

The era of classical arts has now put the shoe on the other foot. The only way Theyyam can survive is ensuring livelihood income to the dwindling tribe of new entrants. Government fellowships to young artistes or an occassional Padma award to a veteran artiste could go a long way to give a new lease to the forgotten heroes of Theyyam.