If you draw an imaginary line from Kashmir all the way down to Karnataka, it cuts through a wide swathe of India that has one thing in common: Muslim artisans who created and continue to create some of the most exquisite crafts of India. Starting with the pashminas and papier mâché of Kashmir, the carpets of Mirzapur, the brassware of Moradabad, the pottery of Khurja and Siwan, the glassware of Firozabad, the hand-printed paisley and booti prints of Farrukhabad, the bidriware of Bidar, the chikan embroidery of Lucknow, the carved sheesham-wood furniture of Saharanpur and finally the brocade weaves of Varanasi, every one of these crafts and arts reached their finest expression in the hands of Muslim artists and craftspeople. To behold any of these artistic works is to ask yourself the question: Why? Why aren’t we valuing these crafts? Why aren’t Muslim artisans proud of the rich legacy that they hold in their hands?
Labour of love: A Kashmiri craftsman gives final touches to decorations made from papier mâché. Tauseef Mustafa / AFP
My friend Ameena tells me that being a Muslim in today’s world is tough. It involves answering a lot of questions. And that, she says, is the good part. The bad part is addressing the questions that aren’t being asked; the things that aren’t being said—about jihad and terrorism and madrasas. Ameena is from Gujarat but lives in London. Do you know how wearying it is to keep explaining that just because I wear a hijab doesn’t automatically mean that my husband is a chauvinist and wife-beater, she asks. Being a chronic optimist and a romantic to boot, my responses to my friend are usually tangential; and completely off the point, she says.
So when I tell her that Islam has left behind a rich and proud legacy in India, she rolls her eyes. When I tell her that Muslim artisans are among the best in the world, she says, so what, and points me to the Sachar committee report on the social, economic and educational status of Muslims. When I tell her that perhaps we should bring back beauty and aesthetics into the public debate and not just dwell on economic inequalities, she bangs the phone down. Of course, I call her back. You know why India hasn’t built one more Taj Mahal, I yell. It is because we don’t value the arts. We don’t value beauty and poetry and craftsmanship. If today’s Indian government valued all those things, Muslims would be on top of the pyramid. They’d make more money and be proud of their talents. There is silence at the other end. I choose to think that my logic and eloquence have left Ameena speechless.
My uncle Mani Narayanaswami, who has travelled all over India as development commissioner of handlooms, once said that Muslim artisans have “magic in their fingers”. Whether it is intricate chikan embroidery or the lacy jaali-work of Lucknow’s mosques, they have an eye for detail and a fine hand for translating fantasy into reality. What they lack is the business acumen and entrepreneurial instinct to scale and market their crafts. In most cases, this is done by a middleman who, in the words of my uncle, “exploits” the Muslim artisans by giving them “pennies from the profits” that he rakes in. Sure, all craftsmen feel exploited and get slim pickings from the final profit. In that regard, the wood carvers of Saharanpur are no different from the weavers of Kancheepuram or the karigars (artisans) who work with fashion designers. What distinguishes Muslim craftsmen, however, is the sheer range of crafts they are involved in and, to a lesser extent, their (now diminishing) numbers.
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The plight of today’s craftsmen can be partly attributed to the karkhanas or factories that the Mughal, Nawabi and Deccan rulers set up. As Tripta Verma points out in her book, Karkhanas Under The Mughals From Akbar To Aurangzeb: A Study In Economic Development, these were specialized manufacturing units in which the whole town participated in creating crafts, whether it was carving a table or weaving a carpet. Most such crafts were learnt, quite literally, by sitting in your father’s lap and watching how he knotted a carpet; and thus they were handed down from generation to generation. The comfort of working within a large extended community, all involved in pursuing the same goal, was offset by what scholars consider the greatest flaw of karkhanas: their hierarchy.
Apprentices were placed under master craftsmen who themselves reported to court-appointed officials. While craftsmen were assured of a salary and learnt a difficult craft from the ustad (master), they had no economic independence. Most of the crafts that the karkhanas produced were used by the royal family or given as gifts to foreign envoys. There was no open market for their work. Perhaps as a result, the craftsmen didn’t think about commercial prospects. The market didn’t dictate their aesthetic; the royal family did.
This didn’t mean that the work was shoddy. Quite the opposite. European travellers from Francois Bernier to Francisco Pelsaert took back tales of the richness of the artwork produced by the karkhanas, so much so that the colonial rulers who followed tried to replicate the system.
The Portuguese, for instance, used Muslim craftsmen in Sindh and what was then Cambay to create wooden chests with mother-of-pearl inlays and sold it to the Ottoman empire, which used them as funeral chests. Some of these inlaid chests are preserved in Istanbul’s Topkapi museum. The British revelled in India’s spun muslin. The Dutch were enamoured of Kashmir’s papier mâché pen cases (qalamdans) and picture frames. What remained unchanging, however, was the standing of the craftsman: He produced the work but didn’t reap the benefits.So it is to this day.
The Crafts Council of India and other organizations are working to change this through capacity-building workshops, marketing techniques and by setting up shops and melas in which rural crafts are displayed and sold. This is all very good. What I am suggesting, however, has to do with relevance. Rather than teach the craftspeople to simply market their designs, we need to encourage them to make their work relevant. Rather than have them embroider beautiful yellow butterflies on chiffon fabric and hand it over to a designer who then sells it to Bergdorf Goodman, we need to teach them how to turn designers themselves. Rather than carve traditional patterns on wood, we need to forge collaborations between, say, Karim Rashid and the design house Umbra and our own furniture makers and wood carvers. Rather than set up self-help groups, why not ask Holland’s Design Academy Eindhoven to send its students to work with our craftspeople. This will allow the percolation of ideas between the East and West; ancient and modern. Both will benefit.
The obvious benefit is economic. Subtler but just as important is preserving the pride of our craftspeople. By giving them dignity of labour and bringing them up-to-date with the modern world, we can influence a new generation of artisans to take their heritage seriously. Not only will it give them a livelihood; it would also help them be proud of the “magic” in their hands. And I could prove Ameena wrong. I just need to figure out how elevating craftspeople will somehow reduce political and economic inequalities. Once I’ve sorted that out, I am home free.
If some enterprising foundation wants to set up a design school along the Kashmir-Karnataka line, Shoba Narayan can promise a few volunteers, including herself. Write to her at email@example.com