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past & present

Ancient Indian Crafts in Modern Design

by Rohini Wahi

GaathaShop  
Growing up in India, I never really gave craft much thought. Block-print bedspreads, leather-punched notepads and luminous brass objects peppered my design landscape. After moving to London as a seven-year-old girl, I reveled in Western aesthetics — I would internally and ungratefully groan whenever an Indian relative visited with gifts, as cellophane wrapped clay earrings, embroidered scarves and hand-painted stationery tumbled out of travel-worn suitcases. My Anglo-Indian husband recalls the same feeling when a particular uncle would present his teenage self with a beautifully embroidered waistcoat on each visit!

Image above: Brass kitchen set from Gaatha Shop

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Image above: Me in India last Christmas, wearing a beautiful Chanderi sari. 

It wasn’t until my adult life, and when I forged an early career in this industry, that my eyes opened to the richness of design I had access to at home. I now love to visit my grandmother in Calcutta — the capital of West Bengal rich in handicrafts — sharing my love of design as we visit our usual haunts, street markets, and the studios of new local designers and fair-trade craft boutiques. These days, I return home laden with those very packages I wrinkled my nose at all those years ago. If I could pull off an embroidered waistcoat like some stylish Indian ladies can, I certainly would!

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Image above: A snapshot of our family home in Calcutta.

Steeped in history and religion, the crafts of India are diverse and each state reflects the influence of different empires that have found their roots in the culture and tradition within rural communities. Here is a very brief history of some Indian craft techniques you may not have heard of, and how they are finding a place in the modern design world — including a product guide of contemporary takes on homeware traditionally found in Indian households. Rohini

Dhokra

Dhokra objects are so plentiful in Indian craft stores that I could never have guessed their making method is so painstaking and time consuming. Exquisitely patterned designs with a dull-gold finish, Dhokra is traditionally found in the form of hollow religious figures, jewelry, diyas, animal figurines and vessels. The craft is a lost wax method of basting metal, largely practiced by nomadic tribes who have since settled into parts of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa and parts of southern India.

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First, a clay core is made that will roughly take the shape of the final cast object. The core is then covered in a layer of beeswax, natural tree resin and nut oil. Decorated by carving fine patterns and motifs into the wax, it is then covered with layers of clay, which takes the negative form of the wax on the inside, becoming a mold for the metal that will be poured inside it. Drainage holes are left for the wax, which melts away when the clay is baked. The wax is replaced by a molten alloy of metals, brass, nickel, zinc and sometimes scrap metal. The liquid metal poured in hardens between the core and the inner surface of the mold. The outer layer of clay is then chipped off and the metal icon is polished.

Watch a video of the method here.

In Contemporary Design

Coming from a family of goldsmiths in Gujarat, Tejas Soni works with artisans to reinterpret Dhokra in the modern context. I love this simple update on the craft with beautiful and functional trivets, bowls and cutlery.

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Meenakari Enamelwork

Meenakari is an ancient art of decorating a metal surface with jewel-like enamelwork; introduced to India by the Mughals. Typically found on jewelry, vases, bowls and keepsake boxes, it is an intricate process involving engraving the designs on the metal and filling the recessed areas with colored enamel. Traditionally red, green, blue and white hues are used with the color most resistant to fire being painted first (white first and red last) and the piece is fired as many times as the colors included. The heat of the furnace melts the colors and they spread within the grooves of the design. The piece is then filed to enhance the design and then boiled in mild acid to enhance the luminous quality.

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In Contemporary Design

The primary colors traditionally used in Meenakari can be tricky to incorporate into everyday life, so I just love London-based jewelry designer Alice Cicolini’s contemporary update on the art form. Her one-of-a-kind earrings, bracelets and bauble-like rings are handcrafted with 23.5-carat gold and luminous gems, and hand-painted with contemporary color pairings of vitreous enamel. Monochrome black-and-gold lacquered designs like the Benares Spot and pastel Memphis Candy collections are as delightfully modern as they are Mughlai!

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Mud Mirror Work

This has to be, hands down, my favorite craft technique because of the contrast between the elaborate results of the process and its functional, architectural use. Known as “Lippan Kaam” or Mud Work, this craft is practiced by artists and residents of the Kutch desert in Gujarat. Taking on the appearance of embroidery-wrapped surfaces, traditionally the artwork is done on the inner walls of the circular, thatched houses found in the desert and primarily used for their cooling properties! Locally available materials like clay and camel dung are applied on the walls, mostly freehand, by using palms and fingers, pinching and shaping the mixture; then mirrors are applied using gum. The white comes from the sand of the marshland that is rich in salt content. Designs commonly depict peacocks, camels, temples, nature and female figures.

Watch a video of Lippan Kaam here.

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In Contemporary Design 

The recent redesign of The Crafts Museum of New Delhi included the museum’s “Cafe Lota” design by Studio Lotus; which incorporated a stunning display of rural craft forms, including mud mirror work murals adorning the walls of the museum cafeteria and shop by artists from the Meghwal community of Kutch. You can virtually tour other murals, created using rural art forms at the museum, here.

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Jamdani

One of the finest artisan textiles in India, Jamdani (also known as Muslin cloth) is a vividly patterned, sheer cotton fabric, traditionally woven directly on a hand loom using a discontinuous weft technique by craftspeople and apprentices in Dhaka in Bangladesh. A highly breathable fabric, the story goes that in the Mughal era, the ultimate test of its fineness was to pass a sari width through a small golden ring. The textiles combine intricacy of design with muted or vibrant colors and motifs that are geometric in plant and floral form, which makes them perfect for a modern audience. The skill is passed down between weaver families and the crafters take great pride in their heritage and celebrated occupational identity.

Watch a video of Jamdani weaving here.

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In Contemporary Design

LA-based designer Christina Kim’s unique approach to design combines eco- and human-friendly couture with lengthy exploration of craft techniques and fair-labor practices (she is known to compensate her workers twice as much as the local rate). Her ongoing Life of Jamdani project for her label, Dosa, sees her ready-to-wear collection made from the fabric with silhouettes determined by the 11-meter lengths woven for saris. Not letting any of the labor process go to waste, precious scraps from the cutting room are recycled to make a new patchwork fabric, further employing the appliqué skills of women artisans in Gujarat.

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Product Guide

IndianDesignHistory_Wind Chimes from Gujarat by Ochre Wind Chimes from Gujarat by Ochre

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Blockprint Jooti by Satyam Studio

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Gaatha Shop Clay Diyas

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Dewa Dhuna, Good Earth

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NO-MAD Muddah

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Comments

  • Dear Rohini
    I thoroughly enjoyed the article with the photos depicting different articles and workmanship. At present, I am interested in quilting and so was enthralled to see the pieces of Jamdani being utilised for such interesting work. I wish I am there to learn more about it. Thank you Rohini.

    • I am so glad you found this useful Sulabhana – until I began my research I never knew how much time and skill Jamdani takes. The videos of the weavers are incredible, and it makes me so happy that they command so much respect in the crafting community. I’ll certainly be looking twice at saris next time I visit India…

  • What an interesting and educational post !! Thank so much I really enjoyed it,I wish I could have those tunics and shoes in fact everything

    • Thais I am still thinking about the jootis… so unusual and would feel so special on your feet!

  • Thank you, Rohini, for a very interesting post! My passion is the textile crafts of Kutch, and Dosa’s work with embroiderers etc is to be applauded, but I think my favourite craft you have highlighted here is the mud mirror work. I love the murals at the Cafe Lota! We are a textile studio, also London-based, working with small producers in Kutch, and I hope we may get to meet some time soon!

    • Fabulous post! I loved the contemporary twist to the traditional crafts bit. More posts please – they are refreshingly different and packed with ideas.

  • Brilliant post Rohini. So informative ! Thank you. Its so wonderful
    To see the old skills and artistic workmanship being appreciated and marketed in a way to give the craftsperson a living.

  • Fabulous post, so many names and craft techniques I’ve never before heard of but am now in love with! I’m a textile-lover, so that is my first obsession, but the Dhokra and Meenakari products are so rich and textured and beautiful. Kudos to Christina Kim for her ethics and design-savvy, gorgeous fabrics and clothing! May I say, I envy you for having the connections to India, I have always wanted to visit that storied country. Thanks for sharing some of your cultural riches.

    • Hi Karen! The Cafe Lota project was the first one that got me thinking about these skilled rural crafts – I was so taken by it too… the idea that something so simple can completely transform a space… makes me want to replicate it at home – don’t you?

  • Love this post. Thank you for sharing both your heritage and the methods employed in these traditional arts, crafts and design.

  • Hello,

    Such a wonderful article! I love how it talks about the art which is at times I feel not really known to people. Specially the old and unique artwork of Kutch. The mirror mud work, when I was working in Kutch I had an amazing opportunity to visit these communities and their cute mud huts full of mirror mudwork. It is so fascinating and at the same time so unique to be able to see them in their element. I also saw women get together and embroidery a big sheet of cloth with their hands and at times you would see 4-6 ladies doing it. This year when I visit India I have planned to visit Patola museum in Patan – Gujarat! Its such an old tradition of Ikat weaving. I can’t wait to meet the Salvi family who has kept the art of Patola weaving alive.

    • Would love to see those mud huts first hand Devangi – what an amazing place and experience to have. I wish you a trip to Gujarat rich in inspiration!

  • Loved your article.. Wish more Indians are aware of their rich cultural heritage – handilooms, handicrafts, and other handmades rather than thronging malls to buy the machine-made brands!

  • My family originally hails from Calcutta or Kolkata, India too. The handicrafts and weaving techniques have endured centuries and I am so glad to see young designers and consumers today appreciating the rich heritage.
    I did a research project on the Jamdani weavers of Bengal in 1989, while studying fashion design. Great article!

  • Thanks for this in-depth look at how things are made and translated. I will do more research before going in a couple weeks. Am wondering if you have particular favorite stores in Delhi to find the contemporary interpretations?

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