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 third illustration has Sita sitting in the lush inner garden at Ravana’s palace in Lanka. First her devotee Hanuman assumes a small form and hides in the tree. Then he comes down and tells Sita that Rama is on his way to save her from Ravana. She gives him her ring to give to Rama as a sign of their meeting.
The Telugu script on this piece is written in a simple style to accompany the painting. It identifies the characters in the scene and provides a brief commentary on the action taking place. Painting traditions in textile and leather in Andhra Pradesh have used script from time to time in the past, more as a brief commentary or border decoration than as an important part of the main artistic presentation.
An innovative and unusual sari is woven in the usual manner but has been created out of a combination of plain handwoven cotton fabric, the same fabric printed with Tamil letters, and rich red handwoven silk printed with a black flower motif. This presentation demonstrates how a very contemporary textile piece draws upon ancient handskills and uses the Tamil script to dramatic effect.
Noor Salma, a craftswoman from Chennapatna, found that while she could produce the entire piece on the lathe, a skilled woodcarver was needed to do the calligraphy. She preferred to research and formulate the messages, practice calligraphy under the guidance of a skilled calligrapher to get the feel of it as an art form and then, once the design and layout was satisfactory, to go to a laser engraver to carry out the final embellishment.
Alphabets of an unknown language have a mystery and beauty of their own. When a silversmith of north India moulds silver in the shape of Tamil letters to create earrings, pendants, bangles and rings, he inevitably learns something about the culture behind the language. His curiosity is heightened and he begins to enquire about its history. He also discovers that customers want him to learn the whole alphabet so that he can make ornaments according to their initials. New possibilities open up as he realizes he can provide these in many Indian languages and widen his clientele. A gentle nudge towards greater cultural integration and understanding takes place simply through his attempt at learning the alphabets of other languages through his craft.
Calligraphy is used to create patterns in Bengali, Malayalam and Kannada on shapes of leaves, birds and elephants. Jaipur jeweller Vishal Khandelwal made pendants and earrings in gold leaf and silver, embellished with semi-precious stones.The pendant with a golden elephant decorated with Malayalam letters has a necklace of beer quartz. The silver pendant of a peepal leaf with Kannada letters hangs from a necklace strung with moonstones in seven different hues. The three silver sparrows with Bengali lettering on their bodies are strung with small hessonite, black onyx, green onyx and cornelian beads.
A group of traditional potters live in Aruvacode, Nilambur district in Kerala. They are a community called Adi-Andhras who moved to Kerala over a century ago to make earthen pots and terracotta lamps under the patronage of a local king. Initiation into literacy is a custom in Kerala. Family and friends celebrate the child’s first step towards learning. When a child is ready to be sent to school, a senior member of the family guides the child’s fingers to write his or her first words.
Black on white and white on black prints have been used to signify white paper and black ink on two cotton saris printed in Sanganer. The wood blocks were specially carved in different sizes for the Akshara project. The peepal leaf form is embellished with random letters in Kannada to form a textured pattern within it. The black and white replicates the usual ink of the written or printed word on a white sheet of paper.
One textile is printed with the words harivaraasanam viswamohanam / haridadheeswaram saraadhyapaadukam / arivimardhanam nityanarthanam / hariharaatmjam devamaashrayae. It is a devotional invocation to the greatness of Ayyappa (the son of Shiva and Vishnu in the avatar of Mohini, the enchantress) saying, “Repository of Hari’s boons, Enchanter of the universe /Essence of Hari’s grace / He whose holy feet is worshipped / He who kills enemies by good thought / He who daily dances the cosmic dance / Son of Hari and Hara / I take refuge in thee God”.
The artist began his working life as an architect and now works with clay. These are his words on ethnography and on calligraphy in clay: My platters speak of extinction …extinction of several vernaculars, which, in most cases, are the key to literacy. In a country as culturally rich as ours, we take it as axiomatic that every child of school age should attend school, and that every nonliterate should be made literate. We should also take it as axiomatic that the best medium of teaching is the mother tongue of the pupil. And though a second language, a “foreign” language, is necessary to connect to the outside world, the people of a country must always be in a position to express their free choice in the matter of language in which their children are to be educated.
Master-weaver Govardhana is an expert in the ikat telia rumal tradition of tie-dyed textiles. He highlights the rounded alphabets of the Telugu script to create a dramatic contemporary design for silk stoles. The artist has won many awards for his cotton and silk pieces. This is the first time he has used letters as part of the main design.
Image: Jaya Jaitly, Charu Verma, Kabambari Mishra and the artisans featured.
Text: Jaya Jaitly
Video and Film Editing: Anupa Dasgupta