Making by hand once used to be a function of the mind, body and soul that required patience, perseverance and practice to provide a transcendental joy both to the maker and to the user of the object.
But today, with fast fashion, mass consumption and next day delivery promises, we could be losing the core ingredients required to build something that could mock the money economy through its sheer resplendence.
Traditional craftsmanship in India has meant far more than skills with materials and more than manual dexterity in manipulating tools. It has meant a total operation involving emotions, the mind, the body and the vibrant rhythm that such a coordination generates. Each community lived an integrated pattern of life that responded to the joys and burdens of life, taking them in its flow. There was a natural acceptance of the human cycle like embracing the air and the sunlight, with no resort to escapism. Craftsmanship was thus conceived and nurtured in an embryo of fullness, generated by an unhurried rhythm and an unobscured imagination about life. Such products naturally had vitality and character for they were the direct expression of mans’ creativity. They had a purposeful emphasis on the functional, endowing it with beauty. Craftsmanship became an activity that involved the entire person closely relating the mind and the materials to a certain function for a specific purpose.
A sthapati (architect) should know eightfold workmanship, the draftsmanship and sketches of various kinds, and variety of carpentry, stone-masonry and gold-smithy. The engineer equipped with these merits invokes respect. One who knows the fourfold engineering with its eight constituents and who is pure in his mind commands high status in the assembly of engineers, and is endowed with a long life.
India’s tangible heritage offers a loud testimony to the excellence of workmanship skills as evident from the meticulous planning and execution of Harappan cities, wells, reservoirs, sanitation systems to the breath taking rock-cut structure of the Kailāsanātha temple at Ellora or the step-wells of Gujarat and Rajasthan or Delhi’s rust-resistant pillar. This is also apparent from several ancient scriptures/treatises such as the Natya-shashtra, the Shilpa-shastra, the Vastu-shastra and so on which lay out extraordinary details about laws governing the planning and execution of the myriad arts and crafts of India.
In these scriptures creativity in terms of craftsmanship, is understood to have two important characteristics, a purpose and an order. Purpose provided value and order provided pleasure or delight. As Natya-shastra points out, however, that in a genuine creative performance, the essential elements are neither utility by itself nor a mere pleasing appearance, nor knowledge. Art, which is the end product of a creative function, is endowed with a deeper meaning beyond the physical aspects involved in the creation. This element was “rasa“ – essence of both emotion and facts, hard to describe for it was a sort of a subjective experience, and the most significant factor that would determine the ultimate objective in artistic endeavour. The fine sensitivity endemic in every individual had to be harnessed so that the exhilaration experienced by the artist also exhilarated the beholder. This was in fact a major test of the high calibre of the ‘silpa’ or art piece created. Rasa was an element of non-physical nature, an essential inner core, imparting vitality, unity and rhythm to a physical form, be it craft, music or dance. Properties capable of evoking subjective feelings and which subserved the artistic end, that is, an ability to evoke and achieve artistic consummation was galled ‘guna’ – quality, perfection.
Whatever creation failed to achieve was called ‘dosha’ – a blemish, imperfect.
There were other factors involved in the concept of rasa. No copying, that is, reproduction from nature or any object was permissible, as this was considered a mechanical, static process, and creation had to be dynamic. In the making of an object, the ‘concept’ was basic. The art object the artist produced has to be the essence of the impressions he absorbed deep into his consciousness, not a photographic copy. It has to be created through an inner experience, a state of being and not merely through re-using previous knowledge or experience or just going through the mentally static motions of doing an action. It has to be the essence, the rasa. The emphasis on the dynamic as opposed to the static was applicable to even architecture as evident from the Samarangana Sutradhara. If in a completed form, blemishes were discernible or mistakes marred its perfection, it was understood that these errors had arisen from a lack of clarity in the concept, not in the end result. Each time an artist creates something, it should be a fresh experience. A reproduction fell short of the essential meaningfulness a new experience was expected to provide. When an artist conjures up a new experience it enriches both the artist as well as the viewer or the user of the object. Mistakes could occur from cloudy or inadequate imagination or from a lack of the close coordination between the maker, the material and the method. An aesthetic balance could be achieved only when all these parts fused together to make a harmonious whole. As such a work of art had to have a dual purpose, outwardly for utility, inwardly for delight. The function of form is to manifest the meaning of the content. We must remember that every object made by the community was for himself or herself, for their daily use and therefore an intimate part of themselves, things they lived with. The value of the object was not in terms of what it would fetch but rather how well it would serve the social purpose, above all provide the inner sense of satisfaction.
A aesthetic balance could be achieved only when the maker, the material and the method fused together to make a harmonious whole
The theory so often propagated, that in India art had its roots in religion is erroneous. On the contrary every type of creative art had its roots in the activities of everyday life. There is no doubt that art provided a pleasing and a satisfactory vehicle for devotional practices but it never applied exclusively to religious practices. All creative activities enjoyed high appreciation and prestige. It is not surprising that one of the epitomes in which this sentiment is embodied is a mention in the Manusmriti – “The hand of a craftsman engaged in his art is always ceremonially pure”. This could be where the higher concept of master-craftsmanship in India stems from. The social objective of craftsmanship and the psychological experience of creation were the only two cardinal factors in determining quality. There could be no other criterion or test. In these times, communities were essentially self-contained, whatever they produced was for themselves and not for sale. Money economy had not made its appearance yet. Prestige and honour were determined only by the high quality of workmanship.
“The hand of a craftsman engaged in his art is always ceremonially pure”
These values presented themselves in all types of craftsmanship. Textile designs ranged from the most delicate and suggestive to the most elaborate manifestation of the complex techniques. The basketry was exquisite, with incredibly refined weave and in a wealth of beautiful shapes and designs. The wood carvings were startlingly alive. In fact, all products made by the community vibrated with life, as though the maker infused some of his own self into his creation. Each had to be a craftsman to be a creator, for when he shaped his object he was in a way shaping his own personality. Here there was no duality of the subjective and the objective. Creation is a self-involved experience of basic oneness of the personality that we have come to call Sadhana – a cultivated state of being. The maker did not probe or delve into himself to build up the complex analytical philosophy that others were later to contrive. For his mental exercises were simple and direct. Continuing to be an intimate child of nature, he was conditioned to follow certain natural laws, which taught techniques and guided processes, sensitivity to right proportions and balances which nature so exuberantly portrays, and sharpens sensibilities that make for economy in material and operational time.
Creation is a self-involved experience of basic oneness of the personality that we have come to call Sadhana – a cultivated state of being
Prosperity consisted in having several years’ provisions of grain in one’s granary as opposed to the money in one’s bank
The presence of the craftsmen in the midst of a simple agricultural society made possible the self-contained life of the community, so striking a feature of the Indian village. Living in a society organised on the basis of personal relations and duties which descended in each family from generation to generation. Instead of belonging to a society founded on contract and competition, their payment was provided for in various ways, of which money payment was the least important and most unusual. Barter and personal service took the place of today’s money transactions. Wealth was hoarded, if at all, rather in the form of jewellery than of money. Prosperity consisted in having several years’ provisions of grain in one’s granary as opposed to the money in one’s bank. Anything of the nature of a shop or store was unknown.
For the customary services, the craftsmen were repaid at harvest-time, receiving a fixed proportion of sheaves of grain from the crop collected on the threshing floor, or they might be given a share of the communal land. Agriculture was the staple profession of every household and everyone was directly dependent on the land they tilled. Village servants in Punjab were paid by grain fees, so many bundles of crop of wheat or barley, each bundle the size accommodated by a string of three straws in length. The blacksmith got one Kat of paddy and three Karas for every plough in the village, and was also paid two or three annas for every new phar or ploughshare; in a few villages he held half a powa of land rent free. Almost always, a share was set aside for religious and charitable purposes, before the remainder of the crop was divided between tenant and landlord.
The Indian craftsman conceives of his art, not as the accumulated skill of ages, but as originating in the divine skill of Visvakarma, the god of arts and crafts, and revealed by him. Beauty, rhythm, proportion, idea have an absolute existence on an ideal plane, where all who seek may find. The reality of things exists in the mind, not in the detail of their appearance to the eye. Their inward inspiration upon which the Indian artist is taught to rely, appearing like the still small voice of a god, that god was conceived of as Visvakarma. He may be thought of as that part of expression: or in another way, as the sum total of consciousness, the group soul of the individual craftsmen of all times and places. All this is an expression of religious conception of life, and we see the working of such ideas in actual practice. In Hindu philosophy there is no hard line drawn between the secular and the religious things in life. Religion is not so much a formula, as a way of looking at things, and so all the work of life may be a sacrament, may be done as it were for a god. Hindu craftsmen worship the implements of their labour at the Dashera festival. This Hindu custom has survived even amongst some converts to Islam. For example, the Thavais of northern India worship their tools at the Id al-gitr, making offerings of sweetmeats to them.
Circumstances have changed today. Constraints that existed in the past have been replaced by new ones. Artisan’s used to have plenty of time to work on their craft as the slow economy dictated by harvest seasons afforded the community substantial time to hone their skills that directly resulted in exquisite quality products. A barter system ensured quality and calibre were measured in abstract terms of “rasa” and not in thick wads of cash or widespread acclaim. Communities were co-dependent on each other and so played their role to the best of their abilities to remain relevant and be compensated fairly for their dedication and devotion to their work. Co-dependence on each other is brokered by money today. The link between the maker and his patron is held firmly with monetary contracts. Food security is no longer the biggest wealth, one’s bank balance is. There is little room for “rasa” in today’s age to inspire selfless devotion to your craft.
Have we really lost the opportunity to bring back the spiritual in the material?