Traditional Indian crafts with new life

Usha Prajapati Varia, the founder of Samoolam, emailed me about an upcoming event in the city. Since she is busy working in London could I attend it? Why not? Of course, anything Usha suggests is always unique – and so it was!

IMG_0057I read up about Jiyo from their website, it says there:

JIYO ! LIVE IT: An Indigenous Brand An empowering enterprise creating new livelihoods in Creative and Cultural Industries amongst skilled but economically vulnerable communities of India, Jiyo! – a design-led initiative of the Asian Heritage Foundation – signifies the arrival of India’s Swadeshi (Indigenous) Brand for the 21st Century.

The event marked the decade long work of ‘Jiyo’ by Rajeev Sethi through his Foundation which had brought together crafts communities and designers through creative engagements leading to an interesting colloborative dialogue – without the latter looking down at the former.

IMG_0177It was delightful to meet some of the Sikki grass artisans from Bihar. Initially they were shy to talk but when I showed them the photograph of the panel they had created for the Buddha Smriti Park (BSP) Museum at Patna they were elated and said another large creation of theirs is at the Bihar Museum, also at Patna.

I had worked with some of them on these panels while consulting LCR and the Bihar government on the BSP Museum. This Museum, based on the life of Buddha, had involved the crafts communities of the state in creating large panels using their crafts for narrating life events of the Buddha.

BSP MuseumThe Sikki grass artisans for the Museum had been a group of about 20 women who had confidently represented Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath through bright coloured grass – the first time in India! As the research coordinator on this project, I remember collecting information based on Buddha’s life events as visual references for the artisans – it had been quite a challenging task as the prime idea had been to provide multiple depictions of the story in various materials. It had been amazing to watch how the artisans translated these stories into their own idiom, decided which colour represents which aspect of the story and how each grass would be fashioned into the desired form. For this, they had to understand the entire story themselves, draw out what they felt was important and then attribute a particular colour and form to each element.

One of the Sikki artisans, Najma was giving a demonstration of her work at the 2016 Bodh Gaya Biennale. She had said, “yes, we’re all in it together. We are now organised and not only work from home but also travel all over the country for various exhibitions and craft demonstrations.” This attitude of taking everything in their stride, giving a new dimension to their traditional expression would ensure they keep experimenting and discovering new aspects to themselves.

Luckily the Nalanda weavers KapilDeo and Vivekanand Prasad were present. I had once at a Patna exhibition stumbled across cotton and silk textiles made in the distinctive weaving technique called ‘Bavanbuti’ meaning 52 motifs. Inspired by Buddhism, the weavers of Baswanbigha of Nalanda district in Bihar have been weaving motifs like ‘dharma chakra’ (wheel of law), Mahabodhi tree amongst others. The Jiyo initiative mentions they have built a motif directory which has helped the weavers go back to their hundreds of year old traditional motifs and produce new textiles that are contemporary and sustainable.

Their motifs in extra weft and colours will strike out as something so different from the range of cotton or silk hand woven Indian textiles that our eyes have grown accustomed to. These 3 photos are from a bedsheet in this technique. It’s rare to see happy weavers today 🙂

For the uninitiated, Nalanda was one of the most famous Buddhist monasteries of the world. It was highly respected from 5th to 12th centuries, attracting students, teachers and monks from all over the world. It was home for some of the most erudite personalities for 700 years, and an active production centre for stone sculptures. Bronze sculptures from nearby Kurkihar are regarded as some of the best in the world. These stone and bronze sculptures portrayed Buddhist, Jain and Hindu gods and goddesses. You should visit the newly opened Bihar Museum to get a chance to appreciate their stunning splendour! The middle photo has the Nalanda university woven in ‘Bavanbuti’ !!!

IMG_0145Shyam Sharma, the miniature painter from Nathdwara, Rajasthan, spoke about his 35 year long association with the foundation. How he had met Rajeev Sethi and how he can paint anything from a small painting to the large screens displayed there. You can spot them behind him.

There were several crafts people demonstrating their techniques, raw materials and inspirations to a commercialised and mega metropolis audience.

I so loved the large creations by the Dokra artists from Jharkhand. They usually talk about their lives, its daily routine of work and home through metal using the lost wax process. Do see the cute bat hanging upside down 🙂

Thank you Usha 🙂 so enamoured by Usha’s ideas and work… had written about her some years back:

Thank you Hitesh for explaining the exhibition in such details 🙂 it is always a delight to share the perspective of a student who is now an established designer. May your experiments with the block printers at Bagh, Madhya Pradesh, be super successful!


All event and Nalanda photos by the author.


6 thoughts on “Traditional Indian crafts with new life

Add yours

  1. Hi Poulomi, was very interested to read this blog and will be reading more! Am very interested in woven crafts and also ceramics but overall very interested in Art, culture and Heritage and how different countries are going about preserving ,promoting and nurturing it I have a niece doing similar work in Kolkata.
    a fellow MGDian Anita Guha – MacGillivray


    1. Thank you Anita Jija – this is very encouraging… are you on Instagram? I could send you some links there. Please tell me about your niece and what she does


  2. Hey, It’s an amazing post As we all know Indian handicrafts represent the dignity, style, tradition and beauty of Indian culture. That’s why it’s too famous. By the way, I liked the photos because it’s clearly showing the labour art.


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