Akshara: Craftworks from the northern region of India

Dastkari Haat Samiti

Akshara - Crafting Indian Scripts
The Akshara project involves 58 artists in crafts, textiles and traditional painting on a journey of discovery into the world of letters, scripts and calligraphy.  It incorporates scripts in 14 languages and 21 different handskills, covering 16 States of India. Some worked closely with guides, but a few were masters of their own form and thoughts from the very beginning.  The individual stories of these journeys and the resulting art works contributed to the multi-faceted Akshara. 

The objectives of the Akshara project are: To enable craftspeople to appreciate a new facet of being literate by exploring their own scripts and cultural stories through their traditional craft skills. To use calligraphy in design to encourage non-literates to embrace literacy and explore the idea of crafting the written word. To develop a series of artistic works, in a variety of materials, embellished with regional scripts, through a collaborative process between experienced designers/guides and expert craftspersons. To demonstrate how the marvels of a computer and the principles of graphic design can combine with indigenous alphabets to highlight their many dimensions. To promote appreciation and interest in the diverse regional scripts of India.

The artists would showcase their art at a series of exhibitions, developing new craftworks for different audiences as they progress. The Akshara exhibitions will seek to inspire even as they instruct, inform and entertain.

Kani sozni embroidery - Shabir Ali Beigh, Mehboob Ali Beigh & Ghulam Mohammad Beigh
Kani is a technique of handloom weaving with bobbins of coloured threads to create floral patterns on shawls. Sozni is the name for embroidery with needle and thread. In recent times, elaborate and rich embroidery covering the entire surface of the shawl has been christened kani sozni as an embossed variation of the woven shawl.

Shabir Ali Beigh is a talented embroiderer in the little known kani sozni tradition of Kashmir.

The thick encrusted embroidery of a typical kani sozni decorates two ends of a stole in cream-coloured pashmina wool. Hidden from initial view is a message meandering through the field of flowers. It says talim aadmi ko insaan banata hai, meaning “education makes a man human".

Shabir’s skill with the pen did not match up to that of his needle. However, he agreed to learn to write and embroider some of the names of over 100 different motifs on a cream-coloured pashmina shawl. He added the local names by subtly surrounding the motifs with them to look like part of the design. His brother Ghulam Mohammad ably assisted him in his work.

The calligraphy on a lotus pink silk quilt cover patterned with water lilies and lotus flowers reads as da - wa - shar- na - ku - mu - dha, meaning “at moonrise the water lilies open, but the lotuses close.”

Wood carving - Mahavir Prasad Bondwal 
Master craftsman Mahavir Prasad was asked to write down his thoughts and the story of this particular elephant.   There is a holy place in Jind, Haryana called Pind Pindari where the Pandavas of the Mahabharata were said to have given holy offerings to their ancestors. At this very spot was an ancient kadam tree that had fallen and become almost hollow and filled with mud inside. It was discovered when the local administration decided to renovate the shrine and its environs. The local official was an enthusiast of culture and respectful of local history. He arranged for the tree to be sold to us woodcarvers, and used the money towards renovating the shrine. He told us the tree was of better use to us than others and we should use it well. The grain of this old tree was so beautiful that we chose to avoid carving over a large area.  Within one wooden object, the maker of this rare piece has scripted the history of the wood he has used, the elephant as a great animal, and the importance of literacy.

On its ears on the vertical side is carved chaukanna har aahat par meaning the elephant is always alert.

On different parts of the body, the wood carver places phrases meaningful to him. Akshar gyan sarvottam meaning “knowledge of the alphabet is of utmost importance” is carved on its forehead.

On its edges and feet is carved the story of the origin of the wood used to fashion the elephant and how the artist’s family came to obtain it.

Since pens had to be put to paper, kalamdans or pen boxes were the first among many artifacts that used papier-mâché as the base material. A large variety of kalamdans became a part of the collection of scribes. Consequently, the fine artists of Kashmir, trained by highly skilled Persian artists, found themselves in great demand. The need to write, however, was never quite linked to the lives of the artists who made the kalamdans. The Akshara project inspired Maqbool Jan of Srinagar to make a variety of kalamdans in which he chose to write inside the boxes about the history of papier-mâché and the use of the kalamdan. He decorated the outer part of the boxes with flowers, leaves and birds, but has tentatively added some script among his compositions.

Papier-mâché - Nazir Ahmad Mir
The artist, Nazir Ahmad Mir, is the recipient of a national award for his intricate and fine art on papier-mâché and wood.  Although his usual repertoire consists of only typical replicas of age-old papier-mâché designs, his ability to innovate when given new ideas is unmatched. During a period of political unrest in Kashmir, young men began pelting stones at symbols of State authority. When it was suggested to Nazir that he collect smooth rounded delicately-hued pebbles from local streams and paint them with flower and bird motifs to offer a response of peace, he readily did so. 

Public response to this message of non-violence was excellent. The artistic stones fetched a good price as paperweights and an alternative to papier-mâché Easter eggs used as tabletop decorations.

A platter with a stand was designed in papier-mâché. The front-page news item in the local daily Rising Kashmir about the artist and his creative contribution to peace and non-violence was the inspiration for his decoration. This is the first time that newspaper, normally used only to cover the raw papier-mâché mould during its making, has been converted into the final art form itself. That the artist should tell his own story on his work is another pioneering step.

Nazir painstakingly replicated the page of the newspaper as art, embellishing it with a few flower motifs.

The stones of his story are painted with words and motifs. The words on them are names of flowers, the word “Kashmir” and emotive words such as “beauty” and “peace”. These can be found on the underside of the platter as well.

Kangra painting - Sneh Gangal
The miniature artist is adept at painting images with a fine squirrel-hair brush. When this art is transposed onto a mirror, the work faces the challenge of needing to be painted in reverse. The process involves pasting a mirror sheet at the back and removing the calligraphic portion carefully by hand.

Artist Sneh Gangal has chosen the Kangra school of painting to fill the spaces within Geet Govind, the famed poem of love describing and dedicated to the deity Krishna written in Devanagari calligraphy.

The intricate designs and inlay patterns on the surfaces of the Taj Mahal have inspired hundreds of artisans over centuries. Semi-precious stones and many varieties of marble are used to cast a rich glow on surfaces of tables, boxes, platters and even chessboards. The dramatic and graphic use of a single letter “k” in Devanagari and Urdu, demonstrates how letters when graphically presented can transform Agra marble work into contemporary objects of simple beauty. The designs of inlaid calligraphy on the lids of the two stone boxes have been inspired by the workmanship on the Taj Mahal. The Devanagari letter is inlaid with a hard black stone locally called “belgium” on translucent white alabaster, which is a soft stone. The black box is made of ‘”paleva”, a popular soft stone used widely in Agra. The inlaid Urdu letter is in mother-of-pearl

Kani handloom weaving - Majid Ahmad Mir & Altaf Husain Mir
The younger generation of kani shawl weavers in Kashmir became fascinated with the idea of bringing words into kani weaving.

Inside the paisley are words of 17th century Mughal emperor Jahangir who is famously said to have exclaimed gar firdaus / ruhe zamin ast / hamin asto / hamin asto hamin sat on seeing the beauty of Kashmir. It means, “If ever there was a heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”

For many months Majid and Altaf drew designs on paper, worked out the talim (instruction sheet) to weave the shawl on the kani loom, and came up with single and multi-coloured experiments in calligraphy and calligrams (called as such when letters are artistically placed within a shape, such as of a horse, bird, or deer).

Sanjhi - Ram Soni
Sanjhi is a stencil-style papercutting art derived from religious ceremonials associated with the tradition of Radha and Krishna. Its origins are in Vrindavan, Uttar Pradesh. A community of goldsmiths, sonars, took on the role of ornamenting Radha and Krishna statuettes during auspicious festivals. They also began to design elaborate patterns with stencils, coloured powder and a cloth base. Over a period of days the pattern would build up and finally be consigned to the river. The context of the festival is Radha’s love for Krishna, and pictorial images are built up of flowered gardens, idyllic settings with parrots, peacocks, monkeys and cows living harmoniously in the service of Radha and Krishna. Krishna’s flute is a sound and a symbol that repeats itself in many manifestations of Vrindavan’s Sanjhi art.

The sentence on the opposite side of the four-sided lamp is agar bheetri batti jale to sare jagat ko prakash deti hai, meaning “If the inner light shines, the entire world is illuminated.”

Ram Soni, Sanjhi artist, cuts the words and images with a pair of specially designed scissors using handmade paper.

Depictions of different forms of trees, a special feature in most Vrindavan imagery, support the calligraphy. In the image of Krishna playing his flute, the paper is cut to bring out the words of a Krishna bhajan.

The image of Krishna and Radha standing in a well-recognized pose has a bhajan flowing within the water of the stream at their feet, while animals and birds complement the blissful scene.

Blockmaker and calligrapher Mohammad Ayub is proud of his skills. He makes geometric patterns, birds and other elegant forms with any words you may suggest to him. Calligraphy was always in his blood. Mohammad Ayub chose Kabir, the poet, weaver and social reformer from Banaras to inspire him. Familiar words of one of his favourite hymns kahate Kabir, suno bhai sadho / mai sadho were carved into a wooden block, accompanied by a series of tiny letters. Waris, a young zari and zardozi embroiderer who uses his skills with the needle, uses a wide range of threads and sequins to embroider these words and letters after printing impressions of the blocks on shades of velvet to create cushions with an antique look.

Papier-mâché - Hakim Ghulam Mohammad
Learning for a rural child means carrying a wooden slate to school. In a changing world where computers are reaching classrooms at an early age, a slate is a symbol of another less technologically connected world that still exists. 

Hakim Ghulam Mohammad has reproduced the shape of the traditional slate in wood and given them a coat of blackboard paint. Decorating them delicately with silver alphabets in Urdu and the vibrant flowers of a Kashmir summer, they become objects of artistic value as well.

The serving tray is designed specifically with the aromatic kahwa tea of Kashmir in mind. Saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, green tea leaves, and almonds go into the brew. Botanical impressions of these ingredients have been painted in the fine papier-mâché style and the name of each ingredient is painted in Urdu to identify it.

Papier-mâché - Fayaz Jaan
Papier-mâché has provided the base material for thousands of fine artists to decorate plates, boxes and many other kinds of decorative artifacts and accessories. National award winning artist Fayaz Jan has won many laurels for his delicately wrought wall plates. However, by turning them into clocks, the object gained greater utility. By adding words of wisdom in Urdu calligraphy, he believes he is now not merely a decorator of surfaces, but a communicator of thoughts and ideas to whoever looks at his clocks to tell the time. 

This clock says in different floral patterns, waqt kisi ka intazar nahin karts, a translation of the well-known saying “time waits for no one”.

Another clock says waqt waqt par hi phool khilte hain, meaning "flowers will only bloom at their appointed hour”.

Book Binding - Naresh Kumar
Paper, brushes, and pens or pencils are the lifeblood of writers and calligraphers. Notebooks of different shapes and sizes are always a welcome addition to the work desks of those who love scripts. Naresh Kumar has embraced the concept of reading, reusing and recycling by collecting newspapers and journals in many regional languages to cover notebooks, some of which are bound with bamboo and jute thread.

Naresh Kumar, a bookbinder and stationery-maker, does all his work by hand. He has bound tabletop accessories in printed cloth with motifs of Kannada letters decoratively arranged within a leaf shape. Knowledge has always been ranked highly in Indian culture with the teacher or sage taking precedence over the king. In rural areas those who cannot read look forward to sharing the news of a daily newspaper at a group reading and the literate often pass a newspaper around from one to the other so that as many as possible are well-informed about important events.

Kani handloom weaving and embroidery - Shawkat Ahmad Khan, Mushtaq Ahmad, Nisar Ahmad & Ghulam Mohammad
Few people outside Kashmir notice the hieroglyphic quality of the weaver’s instruction sheet. Known as the talim (which also means education) it tells the weaver which colours to use to formulate a particular pattern or design. Kani weavers who use kanis (bobbins) of different colours listen as their helper “reads” the talim sheet by calling out the colours in a musical cadence. This tells them which colours to use to create the pre-set patterns on the shawl or carpet they are weaving. Each motif of the talim indicates a particular colour and number so that it would read as “three blue, four yellow, six red, four black…”

It was a fascinating challenge for them to weave the talim ‘script’ as a pattern since the instruction sheet itself became the design. They had to prepare a talim of a talim.

Another challenge was in trying to create a shawl in the colours of the pigeons that sat on the windowsill outside the room in which they kept the loom. Shawkat tried to capture an image of a pigeon on his mobile phone but the pigeons kept flying away. He was told there were many pigeons at the Maqdoom Sahib mosque situated near the Kohimaran Fort at Hariparbat in Srinagar. There, the caretaker told him that among the large flock of pigeons one had just died after a scuffle with another pigeon. Shawkat gently carried the dead pigeon in a piece of cloth to the dye-master and asked him to dye the yarn for his shawl in its colours. The dye-master examined the pigeon carefully. He then dyed the yarn in a range of grays perfectly replicating the pigeon’s body, with an added salmon-pink shade – the colour of a pigeon’s feet. Embroidery in shades of gray and salmon-pink has been added to the “talim” kani border.

Copper work - Abdul Rashid Baba 
Copper has always been a popular metal in Muslim communities. Kashmir’s tradition of using copper vessels, kettles, samovars, serving spoons, cups and other such artifacts was influenced by Persian artisans during the time of Emperor Zain-ul-Abedin in the 14th century. Since Islamic art traditions would not allow the depiction of human figures, the art of calligraphy was highly developed and came to be seen in many handcrafted works. In Kashmir, while the language is Kashmiri, the words are in Arabic, as many art forms in Kashmir still adopt Arabic or Persian lettering. In the narrow lanes of Srinagar’s old city, copper shops and copper workers create items of traditional use as well as replicas of antique pieces.  

Abdul Rashid Baba, a young coppersmith of Srinagar, reproduces an antique box with calligraphy around the upper edge of its base. In past times such boxes would have been used to store important family documents.

The words are of a love poem in which the lover asks when he will see his loved one who is more important to him than life, and asks his god to fulfill all his desires by allowing him just a glimpse of her: dekhoonga kab use / jo mujhe zindagi se bhi badkar hain / yeh khuda mere dil ke saare armaan poore honge / agar ek nazar use dekhoon.

Copper engraving - Manzoor Ahmed Naqishgeer
Copper work is a popular craft in many Islamic communities all over the world. Coming to Kashmir from Persia in the 14th century, it became the preferred material to fashion vessels for cooking and related customary practices in offering hospitality. Elaborately carved samovars to serve tea, basins and water jugs with which to wash one’s hands before a meal, and large pots to cook the vast wedding feasts that take place in Kashmiri society are still plentifully made and used. Platters and bowls are part of everyday use. Occasionally, inspired by old copper artifacts, a copper engraver will add some Urdu script with some significant religious poem or thought. Apart from everyday articles, wall plates are engraved with portions of the Koran, to be hung inside the home. 

Copper vessels are lined with an alloy that prevents harm from acidic foodstuffs. They are usually decorated with motifs of flowers, trellises and chinar leaves.

Manzoor chose a prayer to Allah, embossing the words ya khuda mujh par bhi karam farma / uth kar bazm-e-jahan ka aur hai andaaz hai / mashrek was maghrib mein tera hi daur ka aagaaz hain. The supplicant asks his god to direct his pity towards him and give him the care and attention he has given people everywhere.

Woodcarving and inlay work - Arshad Kafeel
Pilakhuwa and its adjoining areas in western Uttar Pradesh have, for centuries, been home to woodcarvers who sustained the printing industry by making patterned blocks. As screen printing and industrial printing took over most of the market, their finely honed ability was put to wider use. Families like that of Arshad Kafeel began to make carved boxes or inlaid them with brass, white metal and copper wire. Picture and mirror frames, vase holders, lamps, low tables and wall plaques with intricately laid designs have earned them national acclaim. While tentatively exploring calligraphy, Arshad was encouraged to communicate something of significance for his family. 

When such an object is fixed to the entrance of a home, the hidden scripted welcome to a guest in Urdu expresses the old Indian tradition of unconditional hospitality.

Within the peacock are hidden the words aane wala ka swagat hai.

The message in Urdu script within the inlaid design of the mirror frame is handcrafted.

It says darpan jhoot na bole, which means “the mirror never lies”.

With his daughters in mind, Arhsad devised a tribute to learning by carving talim insaan ko farsh se arsh tak uthaata hai on the branches and foliage of a brass inlaid tree on a wooden notebook cover. It means, “education lifts a human being from the earth to the skies”.

It means, “education lifts a human being from the earth to the skies”.

Carpet weaving - Mohammad Abdul Kalam 
Mirzapur is an area in Uttar Pradesh with a high population of carpet weavers. Most of them replicate old Mughal designs, copy abstract art and old English paintings, or create geometric patterns. They make tufted and knotted floor coverings and flat durries in cotton or wool. 

He did a series of images with verses about women and their suffering when they were subjected to injustice in matrimony. In spite of their visual beauty and his enthusiasm, they did not seem suitable for floor coverings.

He created a design that was more mystical, though still edgy and abstract in thought. It could be interpreted in many ways. The carpet’s elegant calligraphy says bechain shab ve sehr, meaning “restless morning and evening”.

Jamdani handloom weaving - Shahid Junaid 
Shahid Junaid, master-weaver from Varanasi, took on the challenge of script and calligraphy on cloth. He became aware of the relevance of the 15th century weaver-poet Kabir’s teachings in his life and used his <i>dohas</i> as calligraphy elements.

He researched words, songs, poems, phrases, and finally inspired his cousin Shaad Abasi to compose a poem about Kabir for this experiment. Abasi’s poem emerged on the end pieces of stoles woven in Urdu in silk. It says kaaf se kargha bane / kaaf se bane kapaas / kaaf se kapda bane / kapde bane libaas / kaaf se karigar bane / kaaf se bane Kabir.

“Kaaf” is the Urdu letter for the consonant “k”. The Abasi poem plays on this aspect. The word for loom (kargha), cotton (kapaas), cloth (kappa) which turns into clothing, craftsperson (karigar) and Kabir (the poet) all begin with the same letter and are deeply interconnected in this woven work. The many shades of life are reflected in the cream, gold and black of the stoles woven by Shahid Junaid. The white and black lines conjure up the colours on a notebook in which words have been written.

The Devanagari script laid out in an aesthetic manner across the length of the cream silk stoles has two lines of Kabir’s most well-known poem das Kabir jatanse odhi, jyon ke tyon dhar dini. The poem jhini re jhini chadariya expresses life as experienced by the human body with the cloth as a metaphor of life. In these lines Kabir says he wore the shawl without soiling it.

The master weaver, naqaash (pattern-maker), and a dozen others who worked on creating new calligraphy for the famed brocades of Varanasi were fascinated with the idea of making patterns out of words. They researched from the 15th century poet Kabir’s works. The brilliant colour known among weavers as “rani pink” carries the Urdu script. The design on the larger end motif is an interweaving of the words kargha (loom), kapda (cloth), kaagaz (paper) and qalam (pen) to form an elegant stylized bird. The interconnected words are obvious and become a leitmotif of Akshara that is about literacy and, therefore, pen and paper, connecting with the weaver, hence the loom and cloth. The smaller matching motif, scattered on the body of the stole, is the word resham, “silk”. Happily, it is also the name of the master-weaver’s establishment.

Weaver Munna Pahalwan has reproduced an old sari that was commissioned by an unknown person for someone in an aristocratic family many decades ago. The tiny coin pattern has the words bai sahib kunwar bai sahibas a form of respectful address. In mulberry silk with the coin-shaped motifs in muga silk, the sari displays the fineness of the woven script even within a tiny area.

Credits: Story

Image: Jaya Jaitly, Charu Verma, Kabambari Mishra, Sunil Kumar and the artisans featured.
Text: Jaya Jaitly
Video and Film Editing: Anupa Dasgupta

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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