"A purple coloured bird, mighty, heroic, ancient, having no nest."
Insights into the ancient craft traditions of India reveal the anonymous nature of creation, direct perception skill and discipline as integral to the creative act, form as born of right relationship of matter to space and energy. The Chandogya Upanishad speaks of this abiding place of creation as - "That space here within the heart, that is the full, the non-active." Space where all the senses abide undifferentiated, where in the flowering of the senses simultaneously, the barriers of the within and the without, the seer and the sense object, dissolve. From this arises the supreme insight of the creator craftsman, who sees with a listening eye, sees unending space and the tiny seed; sees into the within of things. And so creates.
In India however diverse the forms and multiple the objects produced by craftsmen for the use of people in cities, in villages or for primitive man living in tribal society, the root of the creative process has always been the artisan tradition. To explore the roots of this tradition and assess its place in the aesthetic and social life of the country it is necessary to examine the norms that have moulded the vision of the Indian craftsman and dictated his vocabulary.
The pattern craft traditions in India were to take and which were to survive for 5,000 years appear mature and firmly established in the cities of the Indus Valley. Craftsmen in these cities had discovered the use of the wheel and control of fire: this had transformed their methods of transport and the tools with which they moulded their clay pots. The craftsman had learnt to cast and forge metals. Man had discovered geometry and the sacred nature of the abstract, and had evolved simple tools for the measurement of angles: this enabled him to build with precision and accuracy.
A vast number of amulets and seals have been discovered at the Indus Valley cities, miniature carvings in clay, faience, metal and semi-precious stones. Possibly used as portable shrines, they acted as holders of power and divinity, drawing the wearer of the amulet within the field of protection and giving him the magical powers depicted on the seals. The sacred form as image and icon is not readily recognisable. Rites and rituals anticipate the Gods. The recurrent symbols that were to fertilise the Indian unconscious, appear mature and fully developed on seal and amulet.
In the north lay the oldest road in the world, connecting Western China to Syria and Eastern Europe. Caravans with merchants, monks, pilgrims, and craftsmen, carrying myth, icon and artefact meandered over the vast land spaces of Asia. This road was connected through the Himalayan passes to India. Through the centuries, traders, craftsmen and warriors entered India-to trade or to conquer. With conquest came foreign craftsmen, new design vocabularies and techniques.
These in turn absorbed or were absorbed by indigenous craftsmen and their comprehension of form and technique. It was through these passes that Hieun Tsang returned to China, in the 7th century, taking with him six sculptures of the Buddha, which were to be the inspiration for the Buddha image as it developed in China.
Invasions of the nomadic Aryan peoples from the north brought into the ways of thought, into the way of art and vision, into the roots of the social structure in India, new elements and directions. They came, the song-lovers, with their nature hymns, their invocations to Aditya the Sun God, to Vayu the wind, to Usha the dawn maiden; new volumes of sound, new dimensions of Ianguage, new relationships with nature, new ponderings were being introduced into the consciousness of the peoples of this country. Into the prose-culture of the Indus, Gangetic and Narmada valleys, flowed the Sanskrit poetry of the Vedas. Vast volumes of sound chanted with the wind and the rain and thunder.
These Vedic hymns were sung-writing and scripts were unknown. Sound, word and meaning were received and held in the ear. The quality of listening was alive and sustained the quality of vision.
The Aryans were great poets and story lovers. With the epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and later with the Puranas, the Indian artisan gained access to a fabric of myth and legend, which became the material around which he wove his themes.
Panini, the first of the great grammarians, in the 5th century BC used the word shilpaas a generic word to include painters, dancers, musicians, weavers, potters and tailors. Later, the word came to include even acrobats. The word for the artisan was kari, a word which became synonymous with skill. From the earliest times, the art traditions in India have known varied directions. Panini mentions raj shilpins as the artisans who created crafts for the king and his court, and the gram shilpinsas village craftsmen. Five types of craftsmen were available to each village-the potter, the blacksmith, the carpenter, the barber and the washerman. In a contemporary Indian village the same five craftsmen supply the skills necessary to sustain the rural economy.
The early beginning of this era saw the inventions of a large number of tools or yantras. New functions demanded the development of a new technology with its own producer-consumer relationship. Definite principles of geometry and space perception were laid down for the craftsman, along with highly developed concepts of colour symbology. Indian texts are however silent on tools and their evolution, except for those concerned with tantra and alchemy.
Co-existent with the emergence of new technologies was an intense interest in alchemy and tantra which in turn motivated many new discoveries in metallurgy. Yantrasor crucibles were evolved to withstand the intense heat for use in alchemic experiments. Within the laboratory there was an active involvement with colour chemistry. The colours emanating from the flame by the burning of different metals were observed. Copper produced a blue flame, tin a pigeon-coloured flame, iron a tawny flame, peacock-ore a red flame. These observations of alchemy andtantra became the symbols of the Goddess as primeval energy. The investigations of the alchemist into medicinal herbs generated discoveries in the art of dyeing. Many of the ancient processes of dyeing are to be found in the early Ayurvedic pharmacopeias.
We have seen that from the earliest times the Indian mind had probed into problems of vision and into the possibilities of extending the horizons of perception. A few centuries before the beginning of this era a great flowering in the field of poetry, music, the arts and philosophy had enriched man's sensibilities. His concern with meditation and self-knowledge had revealed vast dimensions of consciousness and had brought to art comprehension of space and stillness, of movement and passivity. This revolution at the roots of the human mind generated a new craft vocabulary. Racial memories and yearnings were given iconic form and attribute, myths and symbols concretised in stone. As in all monumental art it was vision, the direct seeing, listening, feelings that projected the image, later to be followed by complex theories of art. For no theory precedes and gives birth to great art, but follows it. And so in India too, the torrent of visual forms witnessed in the first thousand years of this era were followed by theories of aesthetics to modulate the work of future artisans. As these theories grew fixed and relied less for their sustenance on a living vision, art forms became repetitive mirrors of tradition.
What made an art object was rupa or shape, pramana or proportion and varna or colour. Perfection of forms came to be based on certain rules of measurement, of length and breadth. These rules of measurement were applicable not only to architecture and sculpture but to function-al objects like textiles, gold ornaments, mule-chariots and weapons.
Each varna or colour had its rich nuances of emotion and association. Colours reflected the tones of the changing seasons and of the songs evoked by them, the abandon of spring or the joy of harvesting. But rupa, pramana and varna when put together did not make an object of art. What brought the object to like was its fillings, its permeations with rasa.
Rasa was the essence, that fullness of seeing, listening touching and feeling-that element that permeates, transforms and quickens to life. Rasa was the very quality of 'seeing', "listening", "feeling". The rising wave of beauty without which the object of perfect proportions and colour remained lifeless. At the core of the complex theories of art lay the comprehension that creative expression sprang from one source. No art form was the outcome of the operation of a single sense like the eye or the ear. Great art emerged from all the sensory perceptions acting fully and totally as in one stream and not by one sense acting alone. Chitrasastra, the art of sculpture and painting, was the first amongst the crafts. Just as rivers poured into the ocean, so all arts were dependant on chitra. But knowledge of chitra could only come from knowledge of vocal music, instrumental music and dancing. The starting point then for the serious artist was the study of vocal music. The ear is awakening to listening, to sound, to volume, to meaning. From vocal music there came the comprehension of instrumental music. The awakening to space and sound, to movement without known meaning, yet with form and harmony.To the understanding that art is not dependant on word meaning or form meaning, recognisable to the ear and the eye.
From instrumental music emerged dancing, the art in which music was projected into movement and physical form. Dancing that contained sound and movement, poetry and abstraction. To an awakening of the understanding of mudra, the symbol as gesture in which is concentrated meaning.
From dancing emerged chitra, sculpture and painting, in which sound, movement and meaning were frozen into form. And to the sensitive eye that perceived and the ear that listened was revealed not only colour, form and meaning but the music, the "sound-form", the dhvani that lay frozen within it. Chitrain which we have seen is contained the complete vision, within which all the senses operate. For here is meaning, movement and the freezing of movement, symbol and poetry, space, volume and form.
The craftsman who had deeply understood this was the rasik or rasadhari, the holder of the essence, the kalakar capable of mastery of vision and technique.
The classical craft tradition had flowered around the kings and their courts and the temples built by the kings to glorify the Gods. Craftsmen who had inherited the technical mastery of tools and materials that was the genius of the peoples of the Indus Valley, to this had been fused that awareness of nature and the elements and that quality of comprehending space and sound that were the gifts of the Aryan people.
Surcharged with ideological concept, rich in symbol and myth; elegant and sophisticated-the classical stream was responsible for the creation not only of great sculpture and architecture but of objects of daily use that in their concern for beauty of form and in their understanding of the functional problems of materials and technology have rarely been equalled.
Within the craft tradition, the artisan community with its srenis or guilds had taken shape. Great schools of hereditary craftsmen flourished. The media of learning were formulae in Sanskrit verse and diagrams and sketches. The tradition was the alphabet, the training in the syntax of ornament; in the comprehension of geometry and complex yantras structured on the point, the bindu; in the discipline of tool and material. The tradition was also the great source to which the craftsmen came for sustenance and contact with the sensibilities and aspirations of the community. Knowledge was communicable from father to son, form master to disciple. The craftsman was both designer and craftsman. The division between the fine arts and crafts had no validity.
Craft objects that emerged within this stream bore resemblance to the forms that preceded them, but the intention was never imitative. With change of patron came change of form and some times of technology. In the craft communities that evolved around temples and places of pilgrimage, however, a stability of form, technique and idiom continued. Religious rituals demanded that only the finest without blemish could be offered to the Godhead. Craft guilds of weavers, sculptors, chitrakars or painters, dyers, goldsmiths flourished. The patrons were the temples and the pilgrims who came to offer and to take back icon and artefact to their distant homes.
Srenis or craft guilds occupied a unique position in the social, economic and religious life of the community-in a way similar to the role of large industrial houses in India today. There is mention of guilds of weavers, grain dealers, donating cloth and grain to the Buddhist monasteries it of Ajanta and Nasik. Ivory carvers were the donors of the carved railings and gateway that form the pilgrim's path around the main stupa at Sanchi, 1st century BC. A record exists of the silk weavers of Gujarat having built a mighty temple to the sun at Mandor, Rajasthan, in the 7th century AD.
With the establishment of Mughal rule in India new elements were introduced into the consciousness of the craftsman and into his relationship with his materials and tools. For the first time in the history of Indian art, a new function, that of designer, was established dividing the craftsman from his inspiration. In the royal workshops the anonymous nature of the creative act was replaced by the individual name of the painter and craftsman. In the royal textile workshops with the introduction and assimilation of Islamic influences and an aesthetic that turned to the flowers and fruit of a more temperate climate, a new delicate-hued palette-the green of meadow grass, old rose, pistachio-replaced the indigenous lacreds, madders, indigos and myrabolams. With these colours a new plant chemistry was introduced to the dyers of India.
Miniatures of the period reveal textiles of an extraordinary beauty and richness of texture and pattern. Heavy gold cloth was often used for end pieces in the finest muslins. As the goldsmith fashioned the beaten sheet of gold and glowing, jewel-like enamels, so the painter, weaver or embroiderer used his skill to bring life to the jewel-like ornaments on the heavy gold end pieces.
A great flowering of craftsmanship was witnessed in the royal workshops. Jewellery, enamelling, jade and marble inlay, ivory carving and other crafts flourished. Objects of sophistication, elegance and beauty were produced, drawing their inspiration from the love the Mughals had for gardens and for hunting. With this a fundamental change in design vision was inevitable. In the ancient tradition, the integrated approach to all forms of creative expression, the religious nature of craftsmanship and the concern with problems of mass and volume, had given to the object produced, depth and dimension. In the Mughal courts the emphasis in design concept shifted from the living form to calligraphy and inlay, to elegance and preciousness. The wedge had been introduced that was to divide craft production from the major arts of sculpture, painting and architecture. Except for isolated centres in south India where the powerful temples and religious mathscontinued to be sources of ancient craft patronage, the major expressions of the artisan tradition declined in the rest of India.
The rural or desi craft idiom was based on the vernacular forms of the artisan guild. Inherent in it was a total anonymity of name. Negating the liner movement of history, of progress, of evolution or development, it revolved around a cyclic sense of time in which agricultural magic, ritual, symbol and myth as repositories of the archaic past and the existential present existed simultaneously.
It was and art that was not concerned with imitation. It took new elements that entered into its environments and restated them in the vernacular idiom. Rural art forms were precise and free of the inessential. It was as if the peasant craftsman saw directly into the heart of the object and then expressed the "seeing" with the utmost economy of line.
There has always been plasticity latent in the craft situation as it operates in rural societies. A plasticity of soft materials, clay, wood, the use of the lost-wax process in casting metal objects and a plasticity of form which is free of the classical imperatives of proportion and attribute. With this there continues a spontaneity, a rapport between the community and the craftsman a functional even poetic appreciation of the craftsman's skill.
The potter as the most ancient creator of form, the earthen pot of the icons of the Goddess, is also the priest who moulds the clay horses that guard the earth and her shrine. At the festival of the Goddess it is the potter-priest who sings the primeval ballads of the Goddess, of her ancestry and her exploits.
Primitive metal-smiths in the valleys and heartlands of India have continued, through centuries, to forge ritual metal objects using the ancient process of hollow and solid casting of metal. Earth, fire bees-wax and molten metal are used in a transforming alchemy. Taking shape in darkness, the metal images with inner bodies of sacred earth are later hammered or chiselled into final shape. Miniature in size, the lost-wax process predestines the flow, the weight and the rhythm of the coiled withes, which outline the sacred forms.
Though no woman is a member of the craft guild, it is through her that an archaic people's culture survives in rites and fertility rituals known as vratas. The vratas with their varied symbols permeate every stage of the cycle of man's life, north of the Vindhyas, providing the ritual bound base that conditions the life of the Hindu house-holder. Untouched by the Brahamanical canons which demand discipline and conformity, the vrata observances free the craftsman and the woman participator from the inflexible hold of the great tradition. Multi-dimensional in approach, the rituals bring into operation song, dance, the visual arts of picture, an image-making, magical formulae of incantation and gesture. The demands of sex and fertility, wealth and prosperity, are translated into minutely detailed rites expressed through craft, icon and painting, which give to the vast country a common ritual, symbol and vision.
Colour is life. Expressing itself in the oral ballads of India; in the sun-faded red cloths worn by women as they work in brilliant mustard fields. In the songs and vrata rituals that herald the seasons, the fragrance of mango blossoms, and the sound of humming bees. Colour transforms the village hut or the earth with the painting of mystical diagrams, or the imprint of palms of a woman's hand on walls, to ward off evil.
This delight in colour and a living participation in the lives and wild adventures of the Gods is visible in the paintings with which, wherever possible, rural people surround themselves. The walls of huts, the street, the shop and the market place become the canvas on which the records of the race, the exploits of God or hero are recorded. But the paintings are transitory and anonymous. They appear on walls, fade to be white-washed over and to re-appear with the cyclic movement of the seasons and related rituals.
Five colours are used by women to paint. The black of burnt grain, yellow from turmeric or chunam mixed with the milk of the banyan tree, orange from the wild Palasa flower, red from the Kusum flower and green from the pomegranate rind; a tradition of brewing magical colours from plants that has remained unchanged from the time of the Sarada Tilakin the 11th century AD.
The gradual decay in design vocabulary and the emergence of hybrid concepts in the main craft centres of India did not at first affect rural vision. Eventually roads, transistors, plastics, infiltrated secluded village societies, shattering their isolation "Progress" is today gradually changing the village environment and the craftsman's resources of material, form and function. The linear time stream of technology-based societies is inevitably taking over the rural craftsman's cyclic sense of time.
Challenged, the craftsman in city and village responds with ancient pride and skill. Fine craftsmanship is dormant but alive, quickening the craftsman's eye and hand. He responds to right patronage with vitality and magnificence.
At Trichur in Kerala, the Marars, the Chakiars re-enact the legends of the Goddess. On a dark night in the light of flickering oil lamps an image of Bhagvati Kali is drawn on the earth with coloured powder. The Goddess symbolising the power and the abundance of the earth and nature, its tranquillity and its savage ferocity, is portrayed holding a flame in one of her many hands. To the thunderous sound of chanting and drum beats the magician-priest dances the destruction of the Goddess. With his feet he wipes away her limbs, her eyes, her breast, her face, till only the form of the fire held in one hand remains. For, there is no ending to primeval female energy; fire is eternal. As the form of the Goddess finally disappears into the dust from which she emerged, in the distant darkness, an oil lamps is lit. The fire from the hand of the Goddess, symbolically leaps across space, to light the oil lamp, so that her victory over the demon can be re-enacted. The drums reach a crescendo. Creation, destruction, the cycle of birth and death, whether in the great tradition, seen in the bronze image of Natesa or in the hands of the village painter in his dust image of Bhadrakaali, the eternal dance begins.