Devaluation of human hands

SAMHITA BAROOAH analyses how crafts and arts matter in our minimalistic lives

I used to always wonder how crafts and arts mattered in our minimalistic lives. In this age people have become more and more utility prone and materialistic. There is hardly any time or resources to even appreciate a work of art or an aesthetically crafted product which has only decorative value. Across the classes people have become conscious about value for money and utility. Unless any product is used for any daily chore, it is of not much value. Machine-made products have flooded the markets.

People are very happy to possess clones of the same product. There is no craze for exclusive products. Cultural ethos and territorial identities are closely attached to arts and crafts which define the community consciousness and create a niche market for the products. But no longer have works of hands appeal to common people. It is both a matter of affordability and accessibility. Most of the people cannot afford to have some of the intricately designed hand crafted products. So they settle for their closest machine made prototypes. Those who can afford to possess the crafted products; they do not have access to such products easily as they are not closer to the roots of the craft communities and the hands which make the products priceless.

In today’s computer age, if some young person chooses a career path of an artist or a craftsperson, then it is considered to be a missed opportunity. Being a manager is never equated to being a skilled basket weaver. In communities where crafts are part of daily life, every tiny basket has its worth, just like gems and diamonds are valued in urban areas. The entire process of making a particular craft item is based on the ecological link between natural raw materials and human hands. In the past every ingredient used in making a handicraft item used to be prepared from the naturally available materials in the surrounding. But in recent times, we can see that most of the ingredients are not natural and they are filled with toxic chemicals which are not very healthy.

In a country like India, we have huge opportunities for living crafts as generations of crafts persons and artisans have toiled through centuries to keep the heritage of arts and crafts alive. But most of them can support their crafts only when they have enough to make a livelihood out of such work. Whether it’s the Madhubani paintings in Bihar, Kutch embroidery in Gujarat, Warli paintings of Maharashtra, Hand woven weaves of Nagaland, Black pottery of Manipur, Bell Metal work of Assam, Khasi Knives of Meghalaya, Pashmina shawls of Kashmir, Intricate bamboo partitions from Tripura, dragon carpets from Sikkim, Kullu caps from Himachal Pradesh, Sling bags from Mizoram or the bamboo baskets from Arunachal Pradesh, Ikat textiles of Odisha or the chikan work of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh or the hand prints and natural dyes of Rajasthan.

This country has scope and space for traditional crafts which have been providing for the ever increasing population throughout centuries. But in today’s era of globalization all these products are affordable only for the international and elite national markets. They are hardly affordable for the domestic local markets. But traditions have not been erased from the local public memories. Most of these products have cheaper prototypes where human effort is minimum. While making the cheaper products the crafts persons are hardly consulted as machines and even international players have flooded their cheaper versions through these markets.

People in craft communities and artists can rarely afford to possess the works which they create due to huge costs of production. In earlier times communities where these crafts have still survived used to use these products with great ease and choice. But in recent times, all these products have been replaced with plastic, steel, cement, tiles, fibre and tin. Many infrastructural needs were also fulfilled by aesthetic arts and crafts, like housing, public spaces, community spaces and public utility centres.

Industrial revolution has lessened human effort, but it has also eliminated the sense of aesthetics from human geographical spaces. Hence architecture for the common people have turned into just creating weather proof blocks of cement, brick and iron. All these raw materials are extracted from nature without any kind of accountability and the processes enslave laborious efforts through tremendously exploitative practices. This way none of the traditional artisans will ever be able to support their livelihoods. The demands for aesthetics have gone down. People just need basic infrastructure which sustains their lives in bare minimum standards.

It is interesting to see the linkages between the class, tribe, gender and caste structures within this process of arts and crafts. Majority of the producers of such intricate works have a particular affiliation. In fact some of the communities in India are defined by the crafts they promote, which are then linked to the geographical location. While the major consumers are from the elite class who tend to be the connoisseurs of such arts and crafts and also can afford to possess such works of art.

This difference is leading to the dying of hand crafted products from the mainstream markets. It might be also a blessing in disguise as there seem to be an opposite trend of the elite consumers in the past are becoming the producers of the fusion oriented, minimalistic, transnational or even post-colonial arts and crafts are becoming the consumers of such trendy products. It might be a cyclic process of development and counter-development which at times degenerates a community and in other times transforms the essence of existence for a cohesive self-sufficient community.

Samhita Barooah is currently pursuing research and teaching at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati Campus.