In Letters and Spirit

An exhibition,‘Akshara’,showcases the marriage of calligraphy and craft.

Written by Vandana Kalra | Published:September 20, 2012 3:28 am

An exhibition,‘Akshara’,showcases the marriage of calligraphy and craft

Specialising in the sujani style of embroidery,Savitri Devi has narrated the Ramayana innumerable times since childhood. The epic,woven in her needlework,has travelled across the world but,recently,when her mentor Veena Upadhyay,Director of the NGO Srijani,asked her to embroider a panel on Sita,Devi decided to depict the sentiments of people in the Mithilanchal belt — regarded as the birthplace of Sita — who believe that Sita led a difficult life. “First,there was an exile for 14 years,and then Rama left her,” says Devi,looking at her panel based on a Maithili folk song where a fisherman and a shepherd wish that Sita had been born into their family. “She would have been happier,” says Devi. The work is being displayed at India Habitat Centre’s Visual Arts Gallery as part of an exhibition titled “Akshara: Crafting Indian Scripts”.

In a separate corner of the hall,is another painting dedicated to Sita. This one comes from Andhra Pradesh. In the traditional leather painting,Sindhe Sreeramulu portrays Sita’s grand wedding,the days in Lanka and walking through fire to prove her chastity. While the protagonist Sita acts as a link between Devi and Sreeramulu,the two also share the responsibility of carrying forward the traditional arts from their region.

“The project aims to combine craft and literacy. We have 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects,but do not do much to preserve them. In fact,craftspeople who are illiterate,often feel a lack of self-worth in the English-speaking,computer-literate world. So,I thought of exploring letters,scripts and calligraphy through the skills of our craftspeople,” says Jaya Jaitley,President of Dastkari Haat Samiti,which has organised the show.

Last year,craftspeople from across India gathered in Delhi for a calligraphy workshop where each was taught his or her own script. Others were educated in their hometowns. Artists specialising in 15 craft,textile and art forms have been taught 13 languages. These endeavours have culminated in the exhibition. Comprising over 140 exhibits,the show involves 58 producer-groups spread across 16 states.

If Ambika Devi from Bihar has incorporated the devanagari script in Madhubani patterns painted on tables,Vishal Khandelwal from Rajasthan has pendants with letters in Malayalam,Kannada and Bengali. Maqbool Hassan,a handloom weaver from Uttar Pradesh,has a couplet by Kabir woven in his deep red silk stole,and Noor Salma’s lamp in wood with lacquer work has the message “nim’ma svanta dipavagirabahudu” in Kannada,which translates to “be your own lamp”.

For the artists,the experience of merging language and art has been enlightening. “It empowers one to know how to write,” says Shabir Ali Beigh,who practises the traditional kani-sozni embroidery. The 35-year-old Kashmiri was hesitant when Jaitley first asked him to learn how to write. “I was trying to imagine how my three-year-old must have felt on his first day at school,” says Beigh. In the exhibition,he has embroidered his name in a shawl,and another stole has traditional Kashmiri motifs such as “chinardar”,“badum” and “sozandar”.

“The opportunity to bring our works to different cities also helps in the survival of arts that would otherwise have become extinct due to lack of patronage,” says Satyanarayan Sutar from Rajasthan. He designs kavads,a mobile temple or storytelling device,which has multiple facades that open out to reveal episodes from epics. In Delhi,he has depicted the contrast between the life in rural and urban spaces in his kavad. “I am getting orders from visitors,” he says with a smile. That fulfils the aim of the project — to promote letters and craft. The exhibition ends on Sept 21

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