The story of the changing craft traditions of a place could well be the story of the place itself. India has traditionally lived close to the earth — sitting, cooking and sleeping on the ground. In a hot country, it was common to sleep on the cool floor, using a thin woven mat. A kind of mat — the sitalpati of Assam — was, as is evident from its name, specifically designed to enhance cooling. The development of sitalpati and its relationship with the environment is one of the seven stories that the Primal Museum of Art is presenting through its exhibition, “Nature to Culture”.
The exhibition, curated by art historian Vaishnavi Ramnathan, uses the narrative of the rise and decline of craft forms to talk about changes in the land and its people. The sitalpati, for instance, originated in Cooch Behar in Bengal and spread to Assam where the raw material for the mats — the Pati Doi plant — grew in abundance along the Brahmaputra. In recent years, the sitalpati has increasingly been replaced by chairs and beds and, while many craftsmen are diverting to making bags and coasters, a majority has opted for more lucrative pursuits.
The other crafts that Ramnathan and her team have included in the exhibition are Namda from Kashmir (mountains), Cherial from Telangana (pastoral region), Manjusha from Bihar (riverine region), coir weaving from Kerala (coast) and Roghan from Gujarat and split-ply braiding from Rajasthan (desert). Sitalpati also represents the riverine geography. The Pati Doi plant was harvested from forests and marshes before urbanisation, but deforestation and forest laws put paid to this. Since the Pati Doi also depends on the Brahmaputra’s flood cycle to get its unique texture, the unpredictable flooding of the mighty river has contributed to the decline of the craft.
The crafts on display speak of a time when human beings lived closer to nature. For example, Bhagalpur’s Manjusha, made with paper, pith and jute, is a casket devotees use during the Bihula-Vishahari festival in the rainy Bhadra month. This is the time when snakes emerge in plenty to mate or hunt for the prey, and there is a constant danger of being attacked by them. The Manjusha is made as an offering to the goddess Vishahari, who is believed to protect people against snake bites. The brightly-painted caskets carry images from the story of Vishahari and are set afloat on the Ganges.
“The question we asked ourselves was how we could look at crafts in terms of where they come from,” says Ashvin Rajagopalan, Director of the Piramal Art Foundation, “We were interested in presenting the stories of crafts that arose from local conditions and aren’t just decorative, but fulfill a utilitarian or ritualistic purpose.” This is why crafts, such as split-ply braiding and Cherial, have been highlighted. The former is a technique for making the tang, a belt used to keep camel saddles in place, and the loom, a long decorative piece hung on either side of the animal. As the ships of the desert have begun vanishing from Rajasthan, so has the weaving technique.
Cherial dolls have become as rare in Telangana. These were once used as aids by storytellers of Telangana. The craft suffered from the loss of raw material such as wood and deforestation, as well as the growing preference for modern forms of entertainment. “When we look at crafts, we also have to look at the environment,” says Ramanathan, “You can map the way the environment has changed from the way the crafts change.”
“Nature to Culture: Crafts of India” is being held at the Piramal Museum of Art, Mumbai, till August 27