Akshara: Craftworks from the southern 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 hand skills, 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 get to showcase their art at a series of exhibitions, developing new craftworks for different audiences as they progress. The Akshara exhibitions seek to inspire even as they instruct, inform and entertain.

Leather work - Sindhe Sreeramulu  
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. Music and song accompany the story-telling and action as the puppets are moved about on long sticks. Puppet shows serve as popular entertainment in the rural areas of Andhra Pradesh. Leather artists go to a weekly wholesale market for sheepskin. They spend a remarkable amount of energy in scrubbing every last hair off the skin till the parchment becomes translucent. It is then stretched out for the painting process. Tiny holes are cut in a pattern so that the light from the lantern held behind the screen shines through, creating a magical effect.

Sreeramulu makes leather puppets as props and protagonists for traditional shadow theatre. The performances are held at night on a stage with lanterns held behind a cloth screen forming a backdrop.

Music and song accompany the story-telling and action as the puppets are moved about on long sticks. Puppet shows serve as popular entertainment in the rural areas of Andhra Pradesh.

Leather artists go to a weekly wholesale market for sheepskin. Detail of the intricate artwork on leather.

This scroll-like wall piece made with the same technique shows the four important episodes in Sita’s life, as written in the Ramayana.

In the beginning is the celestial wedding of Sita to Rama, amidst pomp and celebrations.

In the second scene Sita is shown tentatively engaging with a 'rakshasa' disguised as the golden deer, sent to lure her out of her protected environment by Ravana.

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.

In the last scene, Sita steps into the flames emerging from the bowels of Mother Earth to prove her faithfulness and chastity to Rama and the citizens of Ayodhya. The gods in their chariots are watching and Indra takes her out and chides the onlookers.

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.

Bidri work - Shah Rasheed Ahmed Qadri   
Bidri work has its origin in the town of Bidri in Karnataka but is done in both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. It is a craft that emerged from damascening on metal in the making and decorating of guns. The designs are etched on the metal surface and inlaid with silver wire.  Silver leaf inlay lends itself to the curves and angles of calligraphy while the silver wire inlay follows the usual line work. A pen with a chiselled edge (khat) is used for the drawings of the angular areas in the design on a platter and paper knife. This way, the two components (calligraphy and line work) provide an attractive contrast.

Hand-drawn explorations of calligraphy.

The paper knife with calligraphy details. The words read saythumba churkua aaga bedea meaning “do not be over-sharp”. It is a good-humored message implying that both people and knives should not be overly sharp as the results could be harmful.

The paper knife accompanies a platter, also inscribed beautifully.

The Kannada words iruva bhagyavu nanadu / baranambad anubidu harushikeidedari are inlaid forming a design on a square platter on which important letters or documents are presented to the recipient.

They mean “be content with your destiny, do not be engaged with what others get, God will grant you that which is due to you”.

Wood and lacquer work - Noor Salma
Natural lac collected from the forest is applied to a wooden piece to colour it while it is turned on an electric lathe. The skill lies in manipulating the lac on wood, letting it heat and melt through friction while the piece of wood rotates on the lathe. The preferred colours for toys and household accessories are bright red, henna green, ochre yellow, deep black and orange.  After the lacquered object is taken off the lathe, it is polished vigorously with a smooth stone to achieve a fine sheen.

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.

The rounded lamp with the quirky flexible lamp going around it carries Noor Salma’s chosen message nimma svanta dipavagirabahudu, which translates “be your own lamp”.

This lamp encourages everyone to create their own illumined path in life rather be dependent on others.

The placement of the message is different on this lamp but both say ellaa balaku belakalla satyada nudiye belaku, which means “all that is lit is not light, only truth is light”.

Detail of the inscription.

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.

Clay work - Palaniswamy and Adil Writer
Clay artist Adil Writer, formerly an architect of Mumbai, moved to Auroville in Tamil Nadu some years ago to pursue the arts and live amidst the unfamiliar Tamil language and script. He illustrated and fired the large earthen pot created in collaboration with Palaniswamy.

Palaniswamy, a traditional terracotta artisan from Pudukkotai who makes the tall Ayanar horses placed outside villages as guardian deities.

The Tamil script on the stoneware pot says inna seitharai oruthalavar naana nannayam seidhu vidal meaning, “to people who cause harm, shame them by returning it with good.” Palaniswamy thought his creations were enough to represent Tamil. He did not want to write on it.

However, folk wisdom that teaches people how to face adversity, and quoted in India’s Parliament, coincidentally, on the very day the pot was ready for embellishment, inspired the potter, the ceramist, and a local Tamil teacher to collaborate to inscribe this message on the pot.

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.

Handblock printing and woodcarving - Gopal Lal Barad &   Arshad Kafeel
Kerala is a State known for its lush greenery, pristine waters and high level of literacy among men and women. Crafts in brass, grass and wood are well-known, but the number of practitioners is decreasing as the younger generation prefers to engage in more contemporary occupations. 

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 second script is an ode to Kerala’s beauty: dhanadhaanya sasyalathaa / pulikitam manoharan / Keralteeram modakaram / nityaananda karma, which means “Kerala, which is bountiful in its riches, grains and lush vegetation, gives eternal happiness”.

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.

News writing – The Musalman
The Musalman is the only existing handwritten Urdu daily newspaper in the country - and perhaps in the world. Third-generation publisher Syed Arifullah edits and publishes it in Chennai. Six persons come into the office every day to write all the pages by hand. The plates are prepared and printed for distribution to local readers. 

Despite the difficulties faced in bringing out a handwritten daily in a world of big machines, internet and digitalization, the editor/publisher of The Musalman carries on his family’s firm belief in the tradition of calligraphy and publishing.

His commitment to publishing, calligraphy and his newspaper has become well-known, thanks to YouTube. He has contributed some copies of The Musalman as exhibits.

Credits: Story

Image: Jaya Jaitly, Charu Verma, Kabambari Mishra 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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