Akshara: Craftworks from the western and central 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.

Miniature painting - Vijender Bharti
The Akshara project repeatedly found that the 15th century weaver-poet Kabir who lived, preached, wove and sang, was an inspiration that combined the temporal and the spiritual, the weaver and the poet, the Hindu and the Muslim. His poems are scripted with ease both in Urdu and Devanagari. Vijender Bharti, an artist from Jaipur, drew inspiration from a line drawing in sepia in the Pahari style, done in the first quarter of the 19th century. The painting is of Kabir weaving while addressing his followers. 

Vijender attended a calligraphy workshop and now experiments with scripts in miniature form.

In the artwork on the three-panelled screen, Vijender has added Hindus and women to the audience and woven the words of Kabir’s poem into the yarn on the loom with his paintbrush, flecking them with gold leaf.

He chose to weave Kabir’s famous poem chadariya jhini re jhini. Being a weaver, Kabir’s metaphysical thoughts were often expressed through the idiom of yarn, the loom, dyes and cloth.

Chadariya jhini re jhini, re ram naam ras bhini, Asht kamal ka charkha banaye, paanch tatv ki pooni, Nau das maans bunne ko laage, moorkh maili keeni, Jab mori chadar ghar ban aayee, rang rej ko deeni, Aise rang ranga rangrej ne, lalo lal kar deeni, Dhruv, Prahlad, Sudama ne odhi, Sukhdev ne nirmal keenhi, Das Kabir ne aisi odhi, jyon ki tyon dhar deeni.

The words on the loom of this work convey how a person must live his life, contributing to it rather than sullying it. It says life must be lived purely as many venerable persons had done and he had tried to do. His visionary ideas and moral ethic reached the common folk, influencing them far beyond the span of his life.

Women are skilled and prolific embroiderers in many States of India. Many have attended school in the primary years and are able to use pencil and paper only to sign their names on bills or receipts. However, their ability to pick up difficult embroidery techniques and design concepts is very mature. A combination of these two thoughts helped in developing a design that integrated a trellis of flower motifs, and three letters “k”, “m”, “l”, spelling kamal (lotus) which work themselves into the stems. The same pattern is expressed through a combination of many different types of stitches worked on blue and watermelon-red silk stoles. The small bead-like tassels are also handmade with silk thread.

The panel attempts to capture the vivacity and excitement of the arrival of the monsoon with a popular rain song aavre varsad / dhebariyo parsad / ooni ooni rotli ne / karela nu shak.. The song calls for and welcomes the monsoon, lists the delectable snacks that are eaten when it is raining, referring to them as ‘”parsad” which normally means a sacred offering. A bit of homely wisdom in the song is the reference to eating a hot chapati with a dish of bitter gourd. It is said that the bitterness of the vegetable prevents mosquito bites and consequent malaria. In rural societies, seasonal vegetables are considered best for health, since unseasonal or preserved foodstuffs lose their nutritional properties.

Warli painting - Rajesh Vangad
Warli painting is a combination of sophistication and naive art forms. The worldview of the Warli artist is circumscribed by nature, the life cycle, changing seasons, animism, and forest culture. Ceremonies and festivals are occasions to paint the walls of the homes with their vision. Gods and goddesses, animals and insects, the cotton plant and the sun are recurring images, which reflect their environment and cultural practices.

Rajesh Vangad, like all Warli artists, paints on walls, paper or canvas, blackened or smeared with dung for green or terracotta for rust red. A fine bamboo stick dipped in rice paste helps him draw the elegant stick figures that tell his story.

Ramesh translated the original story from English to Marathi via Hindi, and wrote the script in the book himself, illustrating between the lines whenever the whim overtook him.

The series he came up with brought every aspect of the tribal universe to life. From the sun and the moon, to harvest and forests, there is equal space and importance given to every sentient being. A tiger kept appearing in his pictures for no apparent reason. After discussing the larger meaning of his work, a story was woven around his drawings. Since he had never thought of writing neatly or spreading his artistry into script, he took a week to master the art of fine handwriting.

The artist was overjoyed that the preciousness of all living beings, so fundamental to the philosophy of the tribal communities of India to which he belongs, became the central meaning of this work. Along with the development of the story itself, the ‘child’ in the illustrations can be seen growing and learning to understand the basic laws of nature.

Phad - Prakash Joshi
Phad painting is a folk art style of Rajasthan that extols the virtues of Pabuji, a king of great valour. The Pabuji-ka-phad tradition combines a painted backdrop by a phad artist that depicts scenes from Pabuji’s great victories and pursuits, and a small stage for singers and musicians to tell these tales to village audiences as a form of popular and inspirational entertainment. 

Most Pabuji-ka-phads are a combination of brilliant reds, yellows, blues, greens and strong black. The colours are vivid and the effect striking. By toning down the colours to a softer range, and using these colours, the phad art form achieves contemporary sophistication.

Prakash Joshi's work is a soft, mellow combination of just three colors – orange, red and blue, against a backdrop of fine line drawings in black. The work has been executed on a milky-white silk cloth, backed with fine cotton cloth pasted carefully by hand, to give body to the silk.

Calligraphy and script are combined for the first time to contrast the contemporary, use of letters on trees and water, with the traditional, in which the Hanuman Chalisa is written in Devanagari as an invocation to Hanuman, the fiercely loyal vanara disciple of Rama and his queen Sita.

A workshop to explain the purpose of the Akshara project was held in Sumrasar, Kutch. They had no idea of how to write their names. A discussion on the value of literacy revealed they would all like to learn to read and write. When asked why, they gave many reasons – they could read the electricity bill and signboards on the roads when they went out. The issue of identity was put into focus when they were reminded that a woman’s identity in secluded societies is as someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, or someone’s mother. In fact, the only identity they could claim was through their embroidery. A signature of a woman assumed great importance as a symbol and assertion of her identity. Everyone practiced writing their names. Thereafter, they created a decorative pattern around it in the form of embroidery that was associated with their community. Each woman created her own signature embroidery or, rather, embroidery of her signature. Arranged together, a collection of embroidered signatures like calligraphy with needles, formed a wall hanging that carries the memory of the day when they found a symbol of their own identity and the value of knowing how to write.

Kavad - Satyanarayan Sutar
The formal recognition of Rajasthan’s kavad as a religious story-telling artifact combining a complicated form of carpentry with painted images is as recent as the 21st century. Its traditional place in folklore and folk entertainment and the skill of its artists is now beginning to find a place in the urban art lover’s mind. The kavad is a mobile “temple” or storytelling device that has multiple facades that open out to reveal extensions of an epic tale, usually from the Ramayana or Mahabharata.    

Satyanarayan Sutar from Bassi, in Chittorgarh district, is adept at painting stories from the epics. He had never paid attention to the quality of script writing and was nervous at moving out of his familiar domain. As with all traditional artists, the divide in recognition and respect between a contemporary artist and a traditional one is fairly great one. Yet it is forgotten that urban and rural artists are contemporary in their own spheres of existence, and many times these worlds overlap.

The kavad has been redesigned for Akshara as a multipurpose cupboard to stand as an art piece of utility. It does, however, tell a story; the story of the artist’s journey from his village to many cities to look for that space and recognition as a contemporary artist that is due to him. All the usual bright colours of the traditional kavad have been used, but with a new meaning. Cream tones have been used for the rural scenes and the soft orange depicts urban zones. Prussian blue highlights certain areas or people, and green is used only for the route of his journey.

The integration of the traditional with the contemporary is indicated by the presence of Kundana Bai, the patron priestess of the kavad tradition - she is always hidden away somewhere in the kavad - and the artist’s impression of modern art in a city art gallery, at the side of which he opens up this kavad as his own mobile art gallery. So too the artist pleads for harmonizing the good from both sections of society - rural and urban - and, in a well-practised Devanagari hand, tells his personal story for Akshara along the green path he traverses.

This is the translation of his scripted story on the kavad: "I am Satyanarayan Sutar from Bassi, Chittorgarh in Rajasthan, India. I am a kavadiya, a painter, carpenter and storyteller. You would call me a traditional artist."

"The tradition of painting and story telling is around 400 years old. The word kavad comes from kivad meaning door because the kavad is made of many panels that open out as doors into inner spaces. We usually tell stories from the Ramayana or Mahabharata. We are said to be descendants of Shravan Kumar, who, in the Ramayana, carries his parents on a pilgrimage to restore their sight. Kavadiyas are also recognized as people who carry something holy on their shoulders. Our patrons can have their images painted on a kavad, mixing the real with the spiritual."

"The kavad was patronized by a woman priest from Varanasi called Kundana Bai, who collected some of the earnings of the kavadiyas to feed cows."

"She is said to have three avatars – a girl, a young woman and an old woman. She always hides herself inside the kavad somewhere, and her story is usually written on every kavad."

"The kavad is therefore a merging of the real and the spiritual, the gods and ordinary people. My quest to merge myself with the whole of society is depicted on this cupboard, which is a new model of the basic kavad design."

"I am traditional. My roots are in the village. My art takes from traditional stories. But I am a young man. I live in today’s world. I am as modern and contemporary as any artist in the city. I wish to find my true place as an artist of India, not only of a village or of a tradition. Why do city artists have more respect? Why do city artists earn more for their works of art? Is it because theirs is not traditional? How can that be?"

"I have painted my journey as an artist rooted to my village and nourished by its traditions. I travel to different cities. I compare lives, buildings and people. I am searching for my own space. I am looking for recognition as a contemporary artist because I have painted from my own thoughts."

"Traditions and modern lives must merge. Ways of living should be peaceful and harmonious. There must be no divisions between rural and city life. We must seek the good in each way. I am journeying. I am searching. I am seeking respect as an artist of today, merging my skills of yesterday with a brighter tomorrow.
Will I find that space?"

Handblock printing - Khatri Mohammad Razzak 
Three generations of award-winning ajrak block printers have made Kutch famous for their deep commitment towards preservation, revival and innovation in ajrak printing which is known only in Sindh (Pakistan) and Kutchh. Their blocks are finely carved, they grow the indigo plants from which they extract colour for dyeing, and create new layouts on a variety of surfaces from muslin, cotton, fine bamboo matting, chiffon, to silk and satin. 

Razzakbhai learned calligraphy, researched the history of ajrak and created works no one has tried to do before. Wooden blocks were carved with Urdu script telling the story of ajrak. On another piece, words in calligraphy were drawn and cut out like stencils, to be placed on a solid colour base and printed with ajrak blocks so that just the words stood out in print. This created a bold, new, dramatic design. This also allowed him to use lettering without having to carve them in wood first. The process became simpler and more effective.

Razzakbhai hit upon designing a series of greetings in his local Kutcchi dialectwhich is a combination of Gujarati and Sindhi. The cadence of questions and replies is a part of customary practice within his community. A greeting is followed by a formalized response. It goes like this:
bhalo, are you well
chango, how is your health
khush, are you happy
majeme, are you enjoying yourself
jode, how is everybody
mataro, are you fit
baju, how are your neighbours
karam, how is your work
barbacha, how are your children
aadopado, how is your community
raham, mercy
ahen, all are well.
The jousting of words in a singsong manner establishes a jovial mood when people greet each other.

Handloom weaving Tana Bana Self Help Group
Chanderi is a town in Madhya Pradesh with an old tradition of weaving going back to the 7th century and well-documented from the 13th century onwards.  The weavers of Tana Bana Self Help Group accepted the challenge of reviving the tradition by weaving a continuous blessing along the upper and lower borders of a sari. 

The words sada sowbhagyavati were woven along the upper and lower borders. The words are a benediction that the bride be blessed in her marriage. They imply a wish for the long life of her husband. As old traditions waned, weavers tried to please the market with woven words like “welcome”. Obviously, these attracted neither sophisticated nor traditional clientele and the technique all but died out.

The addition of sada sowbhagyavati in calligraphy style of script in Devanagari, amidst motifs of jasmine flowers, was assisted by Mumbai artist and calligrapher Santosh Kshirsagar. The sari immediately became a contemporary incarnation of a fading tradition.

Credits: Story

Image: Jaya Jaitly, Charu Verma, Kabambari 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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