A Lesson from Art History
A good example of an Arts and Crafts design
Willliam Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement (Europe mostly-1860 -1910) was a romantic one. It celebrated the human spirit, (that was steadily being undermined by the Industrial Revolution he felt), through intricate, organic decorative work. It was romantic and idealistic and was as much a socio-economic movement as an artistic one.
The movement died and its organic forms have found their way into prints for home linen and curtains and kitchen sets, that somewhat naturally (no pun intended), live in domains where grandmothers still try and inculcate some of Morris’ spiritual values in their brood.
Granted Arts and Crafts was a Design movement but the fact remains, it made no inroads into Art like the Bauhaus ethos did a little later. It simply found few takers in the Art world.
This post points at why it was a bit of a damp squib, through a rough examination of India’s craft culture, which I feel is driven by similar ideals.
Taking the craft tradition lightly – The lesson from Picasso
Probably because of their exotic quality, and piqued by Gauguin’s depictions of island life in Tahiti, Picasso became obsessed with African masks. He loved the departure from realism that the tradition of craft allowed and tried to incorporate that spirit into his portraits.
Cubism was born in a great measure because Picasso chose to take the cultural sentiments of African craft lightly, and examine them objectively.
Picasso’s painting and an African mask
A Mughal painting with collapsed perspective.
If Picasso had seen amorous Mughal paintings, stylistically devoid of depth of field, he would have probably taken the big step of ‘dispensing with the baggage of true perspective’ much sooner than he actually did!
How Craft killed the Art star
The Bengal School of painting that was burgeoning at the time of the Cubists (avant garde at the time, in the sense that they had turned their backs on Raja Ravi Varma’s western classical tradition) had begun to turn to Mughal painting for inspiration (in the treatment of the limbs and facial features in particular). But they were too obsessed with nationalism (understandably) and veneration of Indian values to detach their Art from Ethnicity.
‘Bharat Mata’ by Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), a nephew of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, and a pioneer of the Bengal School of Art.
In fact more than half a century later in the 1970′s, when M.F Hussain, one of the founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group, tried to detach Art from the stifling cloak of nationalism and veneration with his painting of the Goddesses Durga and Saraswati in the nude there were riots in the country.
To be fair the riots happened in 1996. The Hindu fundamentalists took two decades to figure out that the famous pieces of art existed, even further proof of their philistine mentality.
Damien Hirst, for the record, was chopping sharks in half at the time and The Sex Pistols had quite literally told the Queen to shut the hell up. (below)
The image of the Queen with her mouth and eyes covered used on the Sex Pistols album cover
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – by Damien Hirst
We were just too addled with the preservation of culture, something that Indian craft is chiefly concerned with, to think lucidly and be ‘innovative‘, a word that is thrown around a lot nowadays.
Reasons for the sheer ubiquity of craft in India – The circumstantial
One of the things that differentiates Craft from Art is that it is normally used in some way, as opposed to being merely an object of contemplation, and given that Earthenware is so definitively imbricated into the Indian subcontinent’s culture, from the Indus Valley Civilization’s need to store water from the river in pots, (refrigeration and running water still eludes huge swathes of the countryside and calls for storage of well-water in cool earthen ‘matkas’) to the feverish creation of voluptuous religious idols out of clay, it’s no wonder that embellishing rotund surfaces became a regular pastime!
Traditional ornamental clay pots from the Indian Sub-continent
Another distinction of Craft from Art is the use of the hand in shaping, sawing, carving and decorating. The irregularities, the human foibles that give an object character are endearing alright, but were a de facto part of a lot of Indian produce since machines arrived here a lot later than in developed countries.
An artisan producing marble stone inlays in Agra
Our national flag has a chakra smack bang in the middle, the tool for weaving khadi, handspun cloth (though it has other connotations as well). We protect craft with a nationalistic fervour because of its notions of self-sufficiency and purity, ideals that were very important when India was on the verge of independence.
Gandhi at the spinning wheel making khadi cloth
Add sociological arrangements like weavers villages and hand-me-down occupations to the mix and you have a recipe for a rich and VERY tenacious craft culture.
Thinking inside the box – How craft has s*****d us good and proper
Craft can be nonintellectual and blindly repetitive. Yes the matka is a grand design, biodegradable, sensuous, and hugs a woman’s hip like a baby, but it was designed ONCE, centuries ago. Everything since has been variation on the same theme. Craft is implicitly stagnant, for if it would move too much it would distance itself from its cultural roots and lose meaning.
Quite the opposite of the Art tradition of creating fresh meaning from experiences..
A craftsman requires a learnt technique, but the technique is rarely improvised on, and almost never allowed to expand beyond a specific domain. A craftsman has no choice then but to focus his creative urges on decorative work within a template.
This obsession with ‘decorative work within a template’ is rampant and insidious and surfaces in all kinds of cultural artifacts. It’s become and ‘Indian’ thing. Our much touted truck art is nothing but numerous decorative variations of the same theme. The public call booths all across the country chose to stick to decorative variations of the STD ISD PCO format despite any formal diktat.
Two trucks with near identical art painted at the rear
Homogeneous signs for a phone booths despite any formal diktat
Our heroes danced around trees for the longest time in every movie, the only variations being (multiple) clothing changes. It was the templatised way of professing love. Our film posters looked indistinguishable from each other for decades, with orange and red typefaces, and heroes glistening with sweat, painted in a particular style.
Homogeneous film posters
The irony is, despite the veneration with which we applauded hammy actors and saccharine film music, the moment new templates for films began to make a dent in the public imagination, via Mtv and the internet, we picked them up and began to decorate within them, topically, incongruously, and with ridiculous results!
Think of ‘Singh is King’ or the depiction of Tequila drinking couples in nightclubs from fiercely patriarchal families.
It’s kept us immature and prude. In the video below one of the chief arguments is that Indians are very innovative in an ‘invisible’ way. One of the examples stated is that there are numerous Indians in R&D labs all over the world.
I would counter that being creative within the parameters and research areas of an R&D lab is exactly what we are good at. Now changing the conversation, researching things that could herald a paradigm shift, that’s a different matter!
Kitch is a big joke. And I’m serious.
We’re finally laughing at ourselves. And it’s taken us very long to get here. It started, I remember, with Tantra T-shirts (India on a T-shirt they called their venture) proclaiming the Taj Mahal is ‘Man’s greatest Erection for a Woman’.
Slowly, we moved from T-shirts to Twitter and conversations came out of the living room in 140 character bits, poking fun at glib politicians and hammy Bollywood stars. The latest Alok Nath meme (Alok Nath represents the stereotype of a maudlin Indian father) is the latest version of it.
Two Alok Nath memes. ‘Sunburn’ is an electronic music festival, and ‘surya namaskar’ is a yoga posture propitiating the sun. ‘Kanyadan’ is the nuptial ceremony in which the father of the bride gives her away officially.
Our craft culture is rich and varied and gorgeous. Its manifestations abound in our homes because they represent warmth and diligence and good old fashioned values. But let piety and moral policing not dictate what meaning can be created out of them.
If we open our minds and look at ourselves objectively we may actually discern our innovative streak, and start companies like Google instead of working in them.
There are treasures inside the decorated box if we choose to see them.