How has environmental degradation accelerated the decline of India’s crafts traditions? What role has the muting of emotions such as dedication, pride and ownership played in the process? That’s what the two young curators of an exhibition currently underway in Mumbai are attempting to answer.

“It seemed to us that not only was there a connection between nature and culture at the material level, but there is a deep connection in their emotive aspect too,” said Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil and Vaishnavi Ramanathan, who have curated From Nature to Culture: Crafts of India, which will run at the Piramal Museum of Art in Lower Parel until the end of August.

In an email interview with Scroll.in, the curators said that while consider the arts and crafts of India, it is difficult to view nature and culture independently because culture depends on nature for its form, philosophy and existence. Emotions and relationships between different people such as craftsmen and patrons, form the bedrock of the crafts of India, they contend.

(Photo credit: Piramal Museum of Art).
(Photo credit: Piramal Museum of Art).

United in peril

The exhibits in From Nature to Culture come from seven rare Indian craft traditions, each of which is typical to one of five landscapes – mountainous, pastoral, riverine, coastal and desert. From Rajasthan, there’s namda, the art of carpet weaving of Persian origin. There are also split-ply Rajasthani camel ornaments made using a braiding technique called split-ply.

From arid Kutch, roghan is a tradition of hand-painted fabrics. Bihar is represented by manjusha, a folk-painting style not dissimilar to the popular Madhubani. The Assamese floodplains are the home of sitalpati, the humble “cool mat”. The show also includes cherial, a form of religious scroll painting from Telangana. Kerala signs in with coir work, which includes the mattresses, ropes and mats that many Indians use daily.

Though all these come from disparate geographical and cultural contexts, these crafts all face the threat of extinction.

Evocative by design

At From Nature to Culture, each craft is represented by several exhibits and three main plaques. These plaques give visitors a succinct overview of the landscape, the craft tradition and most importantly, their interrelationship. Additionally, there are anthropological and economic pointers that help arrive at a more complete understanding of the subject.

Even bang in the middle of the glass-and-chrome corporate park in which the Piramal Museum of Art is located, the elemental exhibition design evokes a rural Indian landscape. Viewers learn how sitalpati production is suffering due to a raw material shortage caused by deforestation and how the cherial artists cannot make their traditional dolls because of the lack of light wood.

“An important aspect of the exhibition is the honesty and truth with which craftsmen approach and use materials and how there is an alignment between the design of an object and its utility,” said Gohil and Ramanathan. “Hence we decided to use the corporate space within which we function in such a way that they would evoke the five landscapes without masking the basic corporate structure. This strategy also helped us resist making craft an exotic and tourist item for the urban consumer.”

(Photo credit: Piramal Museum of Art).
(Photo credit: Piramal Museum of Art).

Beyond displays

As is the case with so many contemporary museums around the world, this exhibition tries to do more than just assemble artefacts. In July, the Piramal Art Foundation organised a residency in Thane to which craftsmen and contemporary artists working with craft were invited to work for three weeks. This interaction helped the craftsmen think about how they could develop their practices.

Several organisations working with crafts have expressed interest in working with some of the craftsmen whose works are part of the show. Support from the government and non-governmental organisations are vital to the survival and revival of crafts such as these.

In addition, a panel discussion on “Locating Folk Art in the World of Art, Design and Commerce” was hosted at the exhibition venue to understand the possibilities around the project.

In September, the curators will organise a crafts bazaar to help craftsmen reach a larger audience. During the bazaar, craftsmen will hold workshops for those interested in learning these crafts.

In the end, the exhibition hopes to that visitors will adopt ideas that will encourage the crafts to thrive. Among the pointers: Purchase the craft directly from the makers; do not bargain excessively with craftsmen; buy crafts made from eco-friendly materials; and recognise the socio-cultural and spiritual value of a craft in addition to its aesthetics.