Feature: A touch of craft

Recently, The Hindu featured an article on Radha Pandeyis, a papermaker and book artist. The article may have missed my attention if my friend hadn’t mentioned it to me. Piqued with curiosity I read “Who is a book artist?”, and by the time I had reached the last sentence, my mind was reeling with a million questions and closing on some cosy ideas for a  future livelihood. As I read about how the book artist meticulously plans her work and patiently prints her books, I was amazed by the amount of time and hard work that goes into handcrafting just one book.  She must’ve spent years in refining her skills and still is in search of ideas to perfect her art.

It’s very romantic and attractive to imagine you, losing yourself to your work, and slowly and methodically crafting a piece of art. And this feeling doesn’t pertain to just book making. All kinds of handcrafts- woodwork and carpentry, weaving and cloth making, forging, soldering and metal carving, painting, watchmaking, pottery, jewellery making etc. tend to put a spell on the craftsman and those who watch them at work.

The industry of handcrafting has been a part of our economy and culture since the beginning of civilisation. The ancient Egyptians, believed in wearing jewelry to ward off evil. Thus, they made their jewelry from bones, beads, glass and gold, by hand. With time, the families that mastered the skill passed it onto their progeny, creating a livelihood for them and opening up a new line of trade . Similarly, when people started to make cloth from strings and fibers, yarn was spun at home because making your cloth was cheaper than purchasing machine spun cloth. Slowly, as our needs grew, this industry catered to our different needs and flourished until we moved towards an era of modernisation and industrialisation, where the skills we learnt for survival and for a necessity were bestowed to machines.  Most of today’s  industries  have developed from this age-old industry of handcrafts that had been branded as ‘Heritage’ , in an attempt to spare it from the harsh takeover by inanimate machine work.

In the 19th and 20th century,  the industrial revolution sped up the production process, facilitated mass production, generated huge revenues and even provided for employment. However, it caused the handicraft industry to bow down  to the dominance of factories and industries. On one hand, swordsmiths took to building ships , while on the other hand some handicraftsmen couldn’t entirely surrender to the situation. So, these artisans worked as designers who would create templates to be shaped and designed by machines. A suitable example would be the switch of the textile industry towards machine spun cloth instead of hand woven cloth. The dearth of work created an air of desperation for those who had been thrown out of an economy that was earlier ‘craft based’.

So, what happened then? Nothing really. As mentioned, some resorted to switching their careers while others worked up a flexible system to humor the demand for ‘crafted’ yet machine perfected mass products. Nevertheless, a small group remained stubborn in believing  that their  tradition and mores, were outside time. The watchmakers. This section of the craft economy thrived in all times, and  following the WWII it established its corner in this world and the market. According to historians, the first watch was invented by the German clock maker and locksmith- Peter Henlein, and it was the Germans and the Dutch who were the masters of the trade until the Swiss incorporated their artistic creativity with engineering and revolutionised the art of horology. In fact, even today in the digital era, these watchmakers still ideate and fabricate ‘smart watches’ and timepieces that will stand the test of time.  

It is no secret that designer watches cost a fortune and yet people buy them, without a second thought. Anything sold handcrafted is usually expensive, but that’s a luxury people are willing to afford. However,  many are speculative as to why these handicrafts are of any significance. To them, in a world that’s turning to AI and higher technology, focusing and spending on these crafts is unnecessary. Human thoughts and efforts could be devoted towards tackling  crucial issues like finding a cure for cancer or finding ways to curb pollution.

But then, there are people who look at  hand crafting in a different light. While there is a fear that these traditional handicrafts are fading away, there are others who believe this industry is thriving and has immense scope. To them, it’s vital to craft and create your art by hand. It’s significant because it’s not just some ‘thing’. It’s  a true reflection of their time, their endeavour and it’s personal. It’s made by them, either for someone or for themselves. So, it holds more than a story, it holds life and warmth. It recognises the fine attention we give to detail and our sheer love for beauty.

It’s a common belief that electronics and other inventions of technology are less tolerant to flaws, and by and large, our lives are only complete with their scratches and glitches.  If modernisation and digitisation are supposed to make the world flawless, efficient and even eliminate all obsoletes in our lives, then why does the double-click function still work when a right-click would suffice?

A hand spun Kancheepuram saree is still a bride’s perfect gift, a handcrafted pen is any writer’s pride, Urdu calligraphy is beautiful when written by hand and the Taj Mahal’s marble is still polished and carved by hand.

-Shruthi Srinivasan

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Shruthi Srinivasan

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