What I have done so far in Meaningful Designs is conduct an interview, then write a feature based on the interview. This time, however, as I sat reading and rereading the insightful interview with Mrs Jaya Jaitley, the founder of Dastkari Haat Samiti, an organization that works to revitalize, sustain and propagate the crafts in India, I realized that I very much enjoyed having the interviewee’s voice as part of the conversation. I also felt that Mrs. Jaya Jaitley could represent an organization she started more than twenty years ago perhaps better than I would be able to write about it. And so in this issue of Meaningful Designs I am the backdrop to this very passionate and dedicated advocate of Indian arts and crafts. So here forthwith is my interview with Mrs Jaya Jaitley!
Can you explain what the name of your organization means?
Dastkari Haat Samiti means Crafts Market Association.
How did you become interested in crafts?
I have loved art, craft and textiles and the beautiful aesthetics of traditional forms and design since I was a child. Combined with that is a strong commitment inculcated in me by my parents to improve the lot of those less privileged in society. The value of handwork expressed in philosophical, economic and political terms by Mahatma Gandhi also influenced me. I am not an artist, though I do passable sketches and have a parallel interest in literature and writing…hence all the books on crafts. Since I can recognize skill, good design, aesthetics and the potential in creative people it combined perfectly with my desire to engage in social and political work for the benefit of crafts people.
Why did you feel it was important for you to start this organization?
I felt the need to create a platform that united crafts persons from different areas, communities, castes and religions to promote their common need for marketing. Once there is a market other inputs take root. Craft skills and livelihoods can be sustained by creating opportunities that widen the market space for them. It also helps to accord them better respect and appreciation. Our crafts members fund the organization so there is a sense of empowerment and partnership in furthering common interests.
What are some of the groups that you work with?
The Samiti works with every kind of craft group or individual or household that becomes a member of the Samiti. Members work with clay, wood, metal, grasses, bamboo, glass, paper, cane, utilizing a vast variety of textile skills, and traditional art forms. We provide inputs for improving skills, design and product diversification. We organize three major marketing opportunities a year through temporary crafts bazaars in different cities. We create new openings like book illustrating, teaching workshops, participation in fairs organized by others and linking them with architects and interior designers. We conceptualized and partnered with different government agencies twenty-one years ago to establish a hugely popular permanent crafts marketing space called Dilli Haat in New Delhi where crafts people are offered space in rotation to sell directly to customers rather than through middlemen. Its success set off a spate of such spaces, both public and private.
Are the craft forms in India gendered?
In some cases men and women work together on pottery and weaving although their roles within are generally defined according to tradition. Women weave in the Northeast but mainly men are weavers in the rest of the country. Men do embroidery in Kashmir but women do so in the rest of the country. History and cultural traditions have defined these roles but, as with everything else, there are now crossovers that are good to see. Our common marketing platforms where the producers get together help erase gender divisions.
Are craft forms localized in different regions of India?
Specific forms, designs and production processes are localized. The beauty of India’s huge variety of craft skills is that each carries the identity of its region. Occasionally it is obliterated when producers begin imitating something from elsewhere, in which case it loses its authenticity.
India, along with Egypt and China were among the civilizations that were the earliest developers of script. In later years, Chinese and Persian scripts were developed into calligraphy and spread everywhere among those who used similar forms like Korean, Japanese, Arabic or Urdu. India had the Brahmi script that transformed into Pali and Sanskrit. Religious texts carried on being written in Sanskrit. Unfortunately, because of colonization and other reasons, despite having over 700 spoken languages/dialects, and currently 22 official languages and scripts, these never developed into calligraphy, partly because literacy levels also fell drastically and most things indigenous lost value under British rule. There are old stone inscriptions on temples, and fine illustrated writings on paper, parchment or silk, but calligraphy as a separate art is still minimal.
The artifacts created through our Akshara project were encouraged by me introducing the concept of calligraphy to a variety of crafts people. None of them knew calligraphy before. There are a few traditional calligraphers in India who create works in Urdu/Arabic or Tibetan/Bodhi. These are dying out. My purpose was to encourage literacy, an appreciation for our regional scripts, and using their existing crafts skills to give these scripts an artistic form. This opened up a whole new area of design experimentation in calligraphy for crafts people who otherwise felt unqualified because they were non-literate or did not know English.
Let’s turn our attention to some of the gorgeous paintings that you sell. What can you tell us about the history of these paintings?
All these paintings rest on traditional styles. They have been tweaked in colours or layouts to make them contemporary. Each style has its own history rooted in the local culture.
The long scroll called patachitra is used by artist balladeers in West Bengal to sing stories to an audience. The parrot series is a new version of Odisha’s patachitra. Most stories are religious but this one guided by me is contemporary. It is about a caged parrot being educated and helping an astrologer earn his livelihood. The lady painting the table is based on the tradition of painting murals on the walls of homes in Bihar during celebrations. Art shifted to paper and now to wood, metal and even cloth. These are not considered miniatures although there are male and female miniature artists who took part in the Akshara project.
Akshara, Crafting Indian Scripts is an art book we created out of this project. It tells the entire story from history to cataloguing our own works with the story of how each piece was created, to how Indian scripts look artistic as common wall writing, on film posters and advertisements. It is available on Flipkart.com, at some bookshops and with our organization.
What has been the reception to your organization both in and outside of India?
Our website (dastkarihaat.org) shows the wide extent of our work, including events in other countries, and with foreign artisans brought to India to work with our people. We were very well received in Addis Ababa (2nd India-Africa Summit), Cairo (India on the Nile Festival Akshara Exhibition), UNESCO headquarters, Paris (Akshara exhibition) , UK (Dilli Haat at Trafalgar Square exhibition, Art in Action art fair near Oxford), Frankfurt Book Fair (Crafts Maps exhibition). The maps made over a period of 15 years are also on the website.
There are large appreciative crowds at all our temporary crafts bazaars in India, and we also run two little not-for-profit shops in a high-end market in Delhi.
In India we are well known because of all our projects, especially the crafts maps documenting all the arts, crafts and textiles in India, and also for setting up Dilli Haat (which is entirely run by the government). We also have recent events posted regularly on our Dastkari Haat Facebook page and a separate one on the Akshara Crafting Indian Scripts.
What are some of your most notable successes?
I cannot judge that, but I suppose the crafts maps (which also became a book called Crafts Atlas of India published by Niyogi Books), conceptualizing and establishing the Dilli Haat crafts marketplace and the Akshara project. More significantly and subtly, the loyalty of crafts people to the organization and seeing them improve in their social and economic status through the Samiti’s work.
What are some of your ongoing challenges?
All challenges are opportunities to create something better!
Having said that, however, I am at present trying to get our government to frame the agenda and format of a new national institution – the Hastkala Akademi – to assimilate the vast and varied cultural heritage that sustains crafts in all their aspects in India. It adds the ‘cultural history’ to each skill and object and gives it a unique identity and greater value. I had proposed the idea, which was formally accepted by the government last year. The building blocks have now to be put in place.
Finally, how would you say your organization has impacted how the crafts are doing in India today and where do you see your organization going in the future?
I have never seriously thought about the future of our organization, but only of how its work can benefit the future of India’s crafts persons. I am sure that 29 years as an organization, and my own almost 20 years of work before that, has played some part in reviving, sustaining and propagating many crafts. There are many other dedicated people doing this in different ways. On the whole, we try to inspire crafts people because their work inspires us to plan new vistas for them. I can’t say when I will stop getting new ideas or run out of steam!
Until next time!
Many thanks to Carmen Fernandes and Annie Paul for help with this interview.