A cloth panel with animal motifs and scrawls in the Gujarati script, on display at the Premchand Roychand gallery at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), has a fascinating story behind it. When Jaya Jaitly was visiting Gujarat a few years ago, she met communities of women who were recognised by the kind of native embroideries they specialised in. While talented, these women were not literate. “They were clearly not just daughters, wives and mothers. Yet they didn’t seem to have their own identity,” recounts Jaitly.
The scrawls on the cloth panel are imprints of those women’s signatures, done in Rabari, Suf, Jat embroidery and patchwork. “Just by learning to write their names, they got a sense of ownership, not to mention other practical realities of literacy – ability to read bills, medicine packaging, paperwork,” adds Jaitly. These are now part of Akshara – Crafting Indian Scripts. An exhibition by Jaitly that focuses on incorporating Indian scripts on to various works of craft has made its Mumbai debut after being exhibited in Delhi, Cairo and Paris.
Jaitly, president of Dastkari Haat Samiti, an NGO that supports works of Indian craftsmen, first thought of merging calligraphy with craft seven years ago. “I was keen to explore the beautiful aesthetics of languages,” she says. In 2011, Jaitly conducted a six-day calligraphy workshop where people who work with indigenous crafts were taught
how mere scripts could be highlighted by making them a part of their works.
Akshara is showcasing the works of these 70 craftspeople in diverse forms such as wall hangings, paintings, saris, stoles, platters and lamps. A striking red wooden cupboard depicts the quest of traditional craftspersons in the contemporary world, by juxtaposing images of city lives against village backdrops. As artist Satyanarayan Suthar explains, this represents Kavad art, a traditional form from Rajasthan, also used as a tool for storytelling.
While other works include copper and ceramic platters, lamps and textiles with Urdu, Bengali and Devanagari scripts, there are also more elaborate pieces like a wall hanging that represents the Tree of Life. Done in Kalamkari, the hanging has lyrical phrases in Telugu wrapped around images of leaves, fruits, flowers and birds. The designs on two Ajrak print bed covers include a series of greetings in a local Kutchhi dialect, a combination of Sindhi and Urdu.
“The exhibits are contemporary but also tell stories of Indian traditions,” states Jaitly.
While Akshara did not have a retail bazaar in the Cairo and Paris showcase, Coomaraswamy Hall at CSMVS includes a wide range of the craftspeople’s works. “It’s a long-term project in skill development, so economic benefits are important,” says Jaitly.