Akshara: Craftworks from the eastern 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.

Jharna Patachitra- Radha Chitrakar
A patachitra is a story told on paper or canvas. A jharna (waterfall) pata chitra is a scroll that opens gradually as the bard/artist sings the story depicted in it. This old tradition of Bengal is an oral one. The singer composes the song and improvises if necessary, while entertaining people in rural areas. This form of art and entertainment has become better known in the cities only in the past decade.

In this innovative art work, the song has been written into the body of the two decorative serpents on either side of the main illustrated panels running down the centre, recording it for the first time as script on the scroll itself.

The Bengali song is a part of what is traditionally called the Krishna Leela – a celebration of the love between Krishna and Radha.

Madhubani - Ambika Devi
Madhubani, or Mithila, painting began as wall decorations lovingly made by the women of a household during festivals or family celebrations. The act of painting was often accompanied by song. Most of these are part of an oral tradition, as women were not expected to be literate. Recorded histories are rare but the songs are part of a collective heritage. Madhubani has moved over the years from walls to paper, cloth, illustrations for stories, and three-dimensional objects in wood and metal.  

Each is part of one wedding, connected by the tree spreading through all three pieces, but the characters of bride, groom and others perform different ceremonies on each table. The words of three different songs, sung traditionally on these three occasions, are hidden within the leaves of the tree on that particular table. The words of these songs in the Maithili dialect are recorded here in Ambika Devi’s personal Devanagari style along with her art. For a woman to write is in itself a new development in Bihar’s rural areas. That the writings can be merged seamlessly with the painting is a new discovery for the artist.

The largest table has the wedding ceremony itself.

The second work depicts the ceremonial dressing of the bride by her friends and family.

On the smallest table is the reception of the groom at the bride’s home.

Artist Ambika Devi combines the festival colours of pink and red with the parallel Godhna tradition of black and white to create three different occasions of a wedding on a set of three nested tables.

The gentler colours bring a new aura to Mithila art, allowing its easy conversion to contemporary pieces of furniture.

The State of Assam claims to have the largest number of home-based looms in the country. The graceful tradition of honouring a guest with a handwoven scarf sustains the skill of handloom weaving and helps it to retain its relevance. The typically red and white gamcha, as it is locally known, has many uses. It is a shoulder scarf, a headscarf, a towel, a garland and, as in this exhibit, a prayer scarf. The words woven in an unusual geometric layout are hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare / hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare. These kinds of sacred textiles are part of an ancient namavali tradition in which the repeated name of gods on a cloth imbues it with a sacredness that allows the user to visibly express their devotion. These cloths can also be used to cover prayer tables and are regularly used by priests and pilgrims.

Kalighat painting -Bahadur Chitrakar
Handwork, traditional art and literacy combine as a handwritten, hand-bound book with original handpainted illustrations.The story becomes the collaborative work of mother, as painter, and son, as writer, and a source of pride to both.

Bahadur Chitrakar, an artist who excels in the Kalighat style of art from West Bengal, was asked to paint a series of pictures depicting what his mother did during the course of a day.

He accepted the idea that his writing must be as artistic as his painting and worked assiduously on improving it for over a week. He agreed that placing the writing and the story together enhanced the visual appeal of both.

He created scenes rooted in the culture of Bengal and in the daily chores of all rural women. The sequence lent itself naturally to a simple story for a child to read and enjoy. Bahadur had earlier believed it was enough just to know how to sign his name. He had studied till the fourth class and found no use for the written word.

A little-known narrative expresses the sentiments of the people of the Mithilanchal belt of Bihar - the birthplace of the goddess Sita. It traces the agony, grief and emotions of the common people as they lament the series of tragic events of Sita’s story from her birth to her return to the womb of Mother Earth. The narrative is based on a Maithili folk song sung by the people of this region that cuts across communities. It echoes the deep-rooted sentiments of a fisherman, a shepherd and a potter who wish Sita had been born in their families. It describes how they would have nurtured and cherished her and would have got her married to “a good man” who would have kept her by his side forever - in trust, respect and love, none of which they feel she experienced in her marriage to Rama, the king of Ayodhya.

The Madhushravanifestival or puja is an important festival observed in Mithilanchal, Bihar. It is celebrated in the month of Shravan (July - August) for 13 consecutive days and ends on Shravan Shukla Tritiya with elaborate prayers and feasting. It represents the arrival of the monsoon season and is observed by married women of this area. During this festival, women worship Gauri, the Shanti Kalash, Surya, Chandrama, the Navagraha and several Nagas such as Nag dampati, Bairasi along with his hundred brothers, Chanai, Kusumawati, Pingla, Lili, Gosauni nag with seven sisters, and lastly Shasthi or Sathi. An elaborate aripana is an integral part of this puja. Legendary stories are an important part of the rituals usually recited by the older married ladies of the household. The layout of the embroidered piece dedicated to this festival was first done on paper after which small pieces of cloth were cut into the required shapes and appliquéd on to the base cloth. The Maithili song sung at this festival is embroidered along the lower part of the line of images.

The images created by women artisans in the embroidered piece show the progress of prayers in the Magadhi dialect that take place during the period of Chhath puja.

Patachitra - Apindra Swain
Patachitra painting was originally done on strips of palm leaf with a brass stylus. This particular art form always shows human figures in profile, and their eyes are painted in at the very end to imbue life into the figure. If it is a picture of a god or goddess, the moment the eye is painted it is believed that the spirit of the sacred entity comes to reside within it.  The stances of human figures in this art form have a sculptured quality, akin to classical Odishi dance.   Patachitra painting is highly stylized and often miniaturized when done with a handcrafted etching pen on palm leaf. Traditionally, patachitra artists prepared illustrated manuscripts in Odisha. Even when art works are done on paper or canvas, they are specially treated to create the required surface for painting with stone colours that are prepared locally by the artist himself.   

Apindra Swain took part in a calligraphy workshop to understand the possibility of calligraphy being incorporated in his work. He also takes a new step by depicting non-traditional subject matter.

The astrologer has been a part of rural India, roaming the villages offering to tell people’s fortunes. Such astrologers are also found in the old parts of cosmopolitan cities. Parrots are a decorative element in much of India’s art and craft.

Preliminary explorations.

In Swain’s story in a series of nine modules, the astrologer releases a caged parrot and teaches it how to select cards that add up to telling a person’s fortune, rather like Chinese fortune cookies. ”. The pictures convey the message that education is liberating and can help in earning a good livelihood. A humorous subtext is in the lighthearted mocking of most popular forms of astrological predictions, which are reassuring clichés that insecure people seek.

For most of the images in these paintings, the parrot is teasing the viewer, sometimes showing this word, sometimes that, flying in from the right and sometimes the left.

Finally, the astrologer, his customer, and the parrot gather together as the parrot picks out a set of cards that tells the customer’s future. The cards together read tumara aasha puran heba, meaning “your hopes will be fulfilled”.

Handloom weaving and embroidery -Ramanand Basak & Khamabati Karmakar
A collaboration between the two used Rabindranath Tagore’s sketches that accompanied many of his poems.  Phulia in West Bengal is known for its handloom saris in fine cotton and raw silk yarn. Contemporary design interventions have given weavers the confidence to innovate. Master-weaver Ramanand Basak took on the task of interpreting the works of Nobel laureate and national icon Rabindranath Tagore, whose paintings, sketches and poetry remain works to marvel at. Khamabati Karmakar is a skilled embroiderer who is known for her kantha work. This style of embroidery combines the running stitch with satin stitch to fashion floral and geometric patterns. Trade textiles in kantha of the colonial period tell stories through human, animal and bird figures. 

A collaboration between the two used Rabindranath Tagore’s sketches that accompanied many of his poems. Ramanand Basak wove the images and doodles into his saris and Khamabati embroidered the words of Tagore’s poem in running stitch.

Khamabati is embroidering the running stitch pattern onto the saree.

In one, she reproduces Tagore’s bird with needle and thread. She replicates through embroidery the bird drawn by Tagore in a notebook when he was Buenos Aires in 1924 along with a poem that begins, hey bideshi phil meaning "O foreign flower" and ends with the word prabhat, "dawn". The blue sari with the bird and human face woven quite unintentionally in reverse, by Ramanand Basak, has parts of Tagore’s poem titled Chadibhati meaning "picnic”, written in 1937.

The black and white sari with the bold trellis design is from a sketch and poem titled Arogya by Tagore done in 1941. The colours used in the three saris are cream and black, and cream and blue, to invoke the shades of ink on paper. The simple lines in the weave echo the lines of a ruled notebook.

The black and white sari with the bold trellis design is from a sketch and poem titled Arogya by Tagore done in 1941. The colours used in the three saris are cream and black, and cream and blue, to invoke the shades of ink on paper. The simple lines in the weave echo the lines of a ruled notebook.

Jharna Patachitra - Sanuwar Chitrakar
The village of Naya in West Bengal is home to many chitrakars, or traditional artists. Kalighat paintings and Jharna Patachitra scrolls) enjoy new recognition amongst art collectors. Old paintings, backed with inexpensive mill-printed cotton saris for strength, are selected for exhibitions and museums in India and abroad. 

Sanuwar, the artist, wanted to do something different so that he too could gain recognition for innovative work, like his brothers who have won national awards for their skill.The quality of writing became an important element of the work and Sanuwar took to artistic writing like fish to water.

A scroll was fashioned out of handmade translucent rice paper from Nepal. It took colour well. Fish is a popular dish and a popular motif in much of the art and textiles of Bengal. The design was planned to combine some favourite recipes of Bengal with a variety of depictions of fish.

The text on the scroll talks about the popularity of fish, a shopping list of essential ingredients, and instructions on how to cook sorshe mach,(fish in mustard sauce) chorchori( vegetable curry), dal (lentils) and bhaat, steamed rice.

Sanuwar accompanies his artistic script with paintings of people fishing, selling fish in the marketplace, cooking fish in the village,

Followed by eating it at an urban table, and finally ends with a popular Kalighat school of art image of cats, having enjoyed a tasty meal, dangling skeletons of fish from their mouths.

Ikat weaving -         Rama Mehr 
The ikat technique practiced in Sambalpur district involves careful planning of the design and tying the stretched yarn according to the predetermined pattern. When the yarn is dyed the colour does not come on to the portions that have been tied, leaving that area as the pattern. This resist-dyeing technique becomes more complicated as the number of colours in a pattern increases. The skill of ikat weaving is said to have travelled from Odisha to Indonesia during the historic Bali Yatras and spread to other countries in the southern Asian region. The tradition is still very strong in Odisha and many handloom weavers have been placing religious scripts, classical poems, prayers and lines from popular bhajans or hymns onto scarves, saris and stoles. Repeatedly weaving the name of sacred personalities like Rama, Krishna, Shiva or Sita on a cloth gives it a devotional quality, which the wearers use to convey their sentiment or spiritual frame of mind. 

The black and red sari woven by master-weaver Rama Mehr conveys a sense of drama by leaving the body unembellished, and decorating the pallav, or end-piece, with the devotional hymn, hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare / hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare.

This kind of hymn is sung almost daily in temples and homes across the country. The same quality of devotion can be attributed to the one who wears the sari, while the script offers an aesthetic embellishment for those who do not speak the language.

Stone carving -     Seshadev Sahoo
Seshadev Sahoo from Balasore was introduced to calligraphy as part of the Akshara project. It was a new and exciting adventure for him. He chose to engrave two simple bowls of lathe-turned Muguni stone with poetic messages in each. 

Sahoo chose to engrave two simple bowls of lathe-turned Muguni stone with poetic messages in each. The first bowl with the artistic cloud patterns says aakashare / megha mala / mane kare kallola, meaning “garlands of clouds / in the skies / bring happiness to my mind ”.

The Odiya script in the second bowl says phulara e mahak / mane bhare pulaka, meaning “fragrance from the flower / leaves me in exuberance”.

Three rectangular stepping-stone in Gwalior sandstone with stylised lotus flowers in different forms and the words su swagatam meaning “most welcome embellish a simple pathway. In fact su added to any word gives it a heightened positive emphasis.

Three rectangular stepping-stone in Gwalior sandstone with stylised lotus flowers in different forms and the words su swagatam meaning “most welcome embellish a simple pathway. In fact su added to any word gives it a heightened positive emphasis.

Three rectangular stepping-stone in Gwalior sandstone with stylised lotus flowers in different forms and the words su swagatam</> meaning “most welcome embellish a simple pathway. In fact su added to any word gives it a heightened positive emphasis.

Terracotta work -   Rajesh Roy
Terracotta is a popular craft practice in West Bengal, especially during festivals. Lamps and religious idols are in great demand. A scripted artifact in terracotta is an unusual contribution to the community of potters and terracotta artists.

The terracotta artist moulded clay into decorative alphabets of the Bengali script on the top and all four sides. He created a lamp with a wooden frame through which light escaping from the gaps in the alphabets form interesting calligraphy on a wall or ceiling.

The terracotta artist moulded clay into decorative alphabets of the Bengali script on the top and all four sides. He created a lamp with a wooden frame through which light escaping from the gaps in the alphabets form interesting calligraphy on a wall or ceiling.

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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