India's rich cultural heritage and centuries of evolutionary tradition is manifested by the huge variety of handicrafts made all over the country. Handicrafts are a mirror of the cultural identity of the ethnic people who make it. Through the ages, handicrafts made in India like the Kashmiri woollen carpets, Zari embroidered fabrics, terracotta and ceramic products, silk fabrics etc. have maintained their exclusiveness. In the ancient times, these handicrafts were exported to far off countries of Europe, Africa, West Asia and Far East via the ‘silk route’. The entire wealth of timeless Indian handicrafts has survived through the ages. These crafts carry the magnetic appeal of the Indian culture that promises exclusivity, beauty, dignity and style.
Indian art originated about five thousand years ago, sometime during the peak of the Indus Valley civilization. Largely influenced by a civilization that came into existence in the 3rd millennium BCE, it blends the spiritual and the sensual, making it rather distinctive in form and appearance. However, as time passed, Indian art has undergone several transformations and has been influenced by various cultures, making it more diverse, yet more inclusive of its people as well.
Evolution of Indian Crafts through Ages:
The Vedic Age experienced a significant development in crafts, which kept evolving in the spheres of textile, stone, metal, painting, pottery, and wood. During the Vedic age too (1500 BCE) the rise of religious literature also created a market for the use of religious objects like pots made of wood, clay and metal. The Vedas themselves spoke of artists, craftsman and products that had gained popularity.
There was then a shift in trend in the 3rd century BC and the art of sculpturing and making of contemporary jewellery thrived during the Mauryan age. The craftsmen during the Gupta period (320-647 AD) excelled in jewellery-making, woodcarving, sculpting, stone carving and weaving.
The Mauryan Empire (322 BCE- 185 BCE) also has some surviving remnants of its Buddhist influence in the form of stupas that were patronized by Ashoka. These were prime example of the mature design sensibilities of the ancient age. In the far north-west of India (modern Afghanistan and Pakistan) Greco-Buddhist fusion art developed (1 CE – 500 CE) and by the Gupta period (320 CE – 550 CE) Indian art represented by all major religions of the time reached its peak. In the south of India as well the Chola, Chera, Pandya Tamil dynasties all patronized regional arts, crafts and design and were known for their sculptures and fresco paintings.
The handicrafts of textile, leather products and metalworking ushered in during the later ages, reflected a strong British influence on the Indian crafts, which later on changed as per the craft scenario of India. All through the ages, the handicrafts flourished and evolved, keeping up with the needs of people.
Trade of elegant and highly refined Indian textiles not just in India but internationally too can be gauged by the antiquity of Indian textile exports.
Textiles from India were also in demand in Egypt, East Africa, and the Mediterranean between the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, and these regions became overseas markets for Indian exports.5 “There was export of printed fabric to China by the 4th century, 13th Century Chinese traveller Chau Ju- Kua commented on the variety of Indian textiles in Gujarat and their export to the Arab Countries, Marco Polo also mentioned the export of Indian textiles to South East Asia, Chou Ta-kuan, the Chinese observer of life at the Khmer capital of Angkor at the end of the thirteenth century, wrote that preference was given to the Indian weaving for its skill and delicacy. Prestige textiles like the Patola also had a great impact in some south Asian countries like Malaysia and Philippines where they were aspirational fashion limited only to the royal family members”.
Goods exported from India was not only at the fore front of fashion but were prized for their unparalleled craftsmanship. These goods connected the world to Indian culture and influenced not just its aesthetics but also played a major role in the “indianization” of some civilizations. India had always been global soft power until the 18th Century.
The Colonial period in India also brought in its own western influence as well as European patrons. Indian calicoes and muslin became vital to the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Danish East India Companies. The Chintz became the axis of all textile trade. Later, even artists were influenced by the western style of painting like Raja Ravi Varma. Fusion of the European romanticized style with Indian influences evident in many art works of the era displaying The Tree of Life or Indian hunting scenes with elephants and tigers.
Unfortunately, this time of aesthetic collaboration and trade came to an abrupt halt. The Industrial Revolution in Europe made a significant difference to the development of India’s Arts and Crafts. With new industries in England that produced textiles and goods faster and cheaper, the Indian cottage industry was left severely impacted. The British levied heavy taxes and duties on Indian imports making them far more expensive than the European counterparts. In 1721 the East India company was banned from importing Indian goods. In addition to this setback the disappearance of India’s royal houses that were some of the primary patrons of regional arts, crafts and design, left Indian karigars without patrons. This not only effected their creative focus but also left them without resources to experiment with new designs and techniques.
The artisanal value of these Indian goods also became less important to the buyer in contrast to industry manufactured goods. On the contrary the Indian markets were flooded with British made goods for the first time further damaging the Indian market.
The continued fall of sales of Indian goods as well as the lack of patrons, karigars that had historically passed their art down to the next generation started encouraging their families to take up alternate more profitable trades. Not only did the influence of India globally decline but also production of Indian arts and crafts in India slowed down.
Backed by a rich heritage of design inspiration, handcrafting skills and abundance of raw material, the modern day Indian craftsmen, although pressured due to industrial and technological revolutions, find their space even in today’s competitive world. India’s tradition-inspired products gather connoisseurs from around the world, who are enchanted by the intricacies involved in the crafts. There is, however, a constant need to promote handicrafts to ensure the preservation of this art.
Where in the rural areas, handicrafts are still a basic necessity; they have gained a symbol of luxury and style in the urban spaces. Indian handicrafts have an unsurpassable position in the global market, as a result of which Indian craftsmen are in great demand all over the world. Some of the most popular crafts that are exported from India include handcrafted jewellery, hand-printed textiles and scarves, embroidered and crocheted homeware, hand-knotted rugs, Indian silks, shawls, leather and an array of household and decorative items.
There is a significant shift in consumer demand towards products and experiences that meet emotional as well as functional needs. Handicrafts have come to be associated with urban living, interior design, fashion and contemporary design; with shifting borders of art at one end, and design at the other.
The years ahead:
India saw the plight of the dying crafts after Independence. The Handicrafts Board was set up to ensure that the tradition does not disappear. Slowly, demand for handicrafts grew both in India and abroad. Recent export figures show that India is lagging behind in many handicraft commodities except for the line of gems and jewellery items. Cheap plastic products have flooded the market and people have forgotten all about the age-old clay and metal containers. The crave for synthetic cloth has replaced the comfortable cotton and khadi to a large extent. Westernised articles are taking over the indigenous handicrafts.
Despite the growth of handicrafts industry in India and the measures taken by the government to promote handicrafts, the average earning of a craftsmen when compared to that of other fields is very low. Hence, the younger generation is moving to other fields with only the elder craftsmen being left behind. The country needs younger generation of craftsmen to carry on the tradition of handicrafts, and this is only possible by ensuring the assistance of craftsmen to improve their techniques, availability of quality raw materials, direct marketing channels, credit and better wages and providing them with socio-economic benefits.
The crafts sector is the only industry that keeps the importance of human interaction alive in an increasingly machine oriented world. It relies on human contact at every step and that is what has maintained its relevance and uniqueness in the modern world.
Cottage Industry in India had grown organically since the birth of the Indian civilisation. The power it has yielded has impacted entire communities. It not only has absorbed workers from both genders, women and men both have equal standing within this industry but it also has also provided a skill that can generate income.
With the importance of climate change and the need of the hour being Earth friendly products, the time for Indian arts, crafts and design to take centre stage has arrived. Most products in the markets today are not earth friendly. Indian artisanal products are completely biodegradable, recyclable and renewable. These products are also economically cost effective in the long run. The ethical approach to fulfilling consumer demands requires us to switch to artisanal products.