Cultural values of “the world’s largest tribal population”: Focus on crafts, linguistic diversity and the missing link in India’s development story – Akshara

India is a colourful country comprising a staggering variety of cultures and communities. Each section has its own needs and requirements and among all, we tend to forget the most sidelined community – the tribals. […]

India has the world’s largest tribal population and it is also the most economically underprivileged in our country. One of the first steps to developing any community is education.

Source: “Educating the world’s largest tribal population is a challenge for India”,India Today Web Desk, 16 March 2017
Date Visited: 14 September 2022

View the Caravan Magazine’s slideshow with explanations here >>

[…] The Akshara experiment, carried out over five years, brought together 58 artists in crafts, textiles and traditional paintings on a journey of discovery into the world of letters, scripts and calligraphy, and texts. Guided by politician, social activist and crafts expert Jaitly, who founded and has been the president of Dastkari Haat Samiti since 1986, the idea at the heart of the project was to combine two of our finest, and most neglected, cultural properties: the wealth of Indian crafts and our unparalleled linguistic diversity.

The project had a long germination. At the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006, where India was the Guest of Honour country, Jaitly was asked to take an exhibition of 24 maps she had created to represent India’s culture of handcrafting, along with a showcase of India’s old manuscripts belonging to the Ministry of Human Resources Development. In addition to mounting her large, colourful maps, which introduced selected artefacts and craftspeople from regions across India, she decided to create graphics in the respective scripts over parts of the illustrations in order to blend the concept with the book fair. The result was striking.

Jaitly had worked on craft maps of India over a period of 14 years, an initiative that led her to work with artists, graphic designers, researchers and typesetters and which had become part of the Indian Crafts Journey Exhibition that went to London, Frankfurt, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Delhi, culminating in the publication of her Crafts Atlas of India last year. Aside from these events, the idea of Akshara was also a response from Jaitly to the constant laments she heard from very gifted craftspersons about a sense of inadequacy arising from their illiteracy. “The idea of Akshara began with the knowledge that craftspeople are not widely literate, and feel a lack of self-worth when the world around them is going the English-speaking and computer way. Also, we have a great civilisational history involving scripts. We have 22 official languages and hundreds of dialects. However, we do not do much to respect and preserve them as an important part of our culture,” Jaitly told me. […]

The treatment of the language scripts and texts as design elements allows for new and productive ways of seeing and understanding the changing contexts within which craftspeople operate today. This also gives numerous “unlettered” craftspeople a way of establishing their presence in the rapidly urbanising new India. For one, the book shows that Indian craftspeople imbued with a strong sense of their place in a traditional continuum are infinitely more than just the faithful custodians of traditions. It also draws our attention to the great need for “saaksharta” or literacy, a huge and persistent missing link in India’s development story, a need more persuasively expressed because it takes place outside the political and policy planning arena. For it is in spaces such as the one occupied by the crafts that echoes of forgotten ideas like Gandhi’s “Nai Taleem” and socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia’s views on a more rooted education system and linguistic policy can be found—though the nation’s self-image today is openly antagonistic to such cultural values. Akshara can be viewed in this context as a reminder of the opportunity to make the transition from a feudal system, founded on social exclusion, to a more modern but also a more mature, compassionate society.

THE AKSHARA BOOK, which contains more than a hundred beautifully produced photographs of 24 craft-and-text projects, begins with two essays by Jaitly and Bhowmick. The first essay, “Inspiration for Crafting Indian Scripts”, presents a brief overview of the significance of books and manuscripts in various cultures before expanding on UNESCO’s efforts to preserve languages that express the total “pool of ideas” gathered over time. It also mentions the Art of Writing exhibition consisting of 50 panels mounted by UNESCO in 1965, which recognised the histories of language and script and the origin of art forms associated with writing. […]

The fact remains, though, that in the modern urban order of art shows dominated by curators, catalogues and openings, craftspeople do not fit in in their own right. Even acknowledged shilpa gurus (crafts mentors) of whom many are unlettered, consider themselves inferior, especially when confronted with the disorganisation in their own sector and the fact that their buyers and patrons are from a world to which they can never hope to belong. Responding to such issues, the metal workers of Odisha created a statuette in dhokra, or the lost-wax method of metal casting, showing a tribal man covered in traditional ornaments confidently working on a computer, complete with mouse and keyboard. […]

OR THOSE WHO STILL ASK if the crafts are a separate category from the visual arts, the Akshara project can be a persuasive reiteration of what many leading artists have called an artificial divide. Artists in post-independence India and institutions such as the Santiniketan, Baroda and Madras schools have had a deep understanding of and engagement with the crafts. J Swaminathan, who set up the Roopankar Museum of Fine Arts at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, showed contemporary urban modern art and tribal art side by side. […]

Many other narratives in the Akshara project point to this ingrained Indian tendency to disregard indigenous art, a collective misjudgement that is all but legitimised by official attitudes. Since independence, government agencies handling crafts have been divided between the Khadi Gramodyog department and various ministries such as Industry, Rural Development and Textiles. Sometimes programmes are duplicated, or slip between the floorboards altogether, or crafts proposals are crushed under the weight of bigger interests within the same ministry. A real appreciation of the contexts from which crafts emerge, and a forum for their sustenance and propagation, cannot materialise if crafts are considered merely a cottage industry, manufacturing merchandise that forever needs subsidies. The power of Akshara lies in the fact that 60 years after planned development in a modern democracy, the project shows the way for a new institution for old ideas.

Source: “Together by Design” by Devina Dutt | Caravan Magazine – A Journal of Politics and Culture,  1 February 2013
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Date Visited: Wed Mar 20 2013 12:19:14 GMT+0100 (CET)

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