Nature’s materials, knowledge systems and cultural outreach, The hand-made economy as cultural know-how

Introduction – our natural inheritance

The great rolling vistas of madhya Maharashtra are broken here and there by the rocky outcrops of the lesser Sahyadri ranges. In these lie enormous bowls, through whose lower reaches dry watercourses wind, with the craggy heights flickering every now and then with the passage of herds of goats and sheep in search of the sweeter grasses. Below them, following the easier contours, are villages and towns, some of which are of such antiquity that they are recorded in the Sahyadrikhanda of the Skandapurana.

Here, where the ‘ritus’ are known by whether they lighten the dryness or  deepen it, the sciences of soil had already reached a high pitch when Sant Dnyaneshwar composed his retelling of the Gita. The hardy kisans of this region classified their soils ‘kali’ or black, ‘pandhri’ or white, ‘kharam’ or salt, ‘burki’ or white salty and each of these picturesque divisions included local soils that were called light, heavy or sweet.

Until not very long ago, even in the early 1980s when I roamed the Sahyadri, sugarcane presses were built around two solid ‘babul’ wood cylinders, set upright close together. They were arranged with spiral screws so that when an ox turned one clockwise, it also turned the other counter-clockwise, and that was why in Marathi the cylinders were called ‘navra-navri’ (husband and wife, for they turned in opposite directions). The long, dark green stalks of sugarcane were fed in by hand, and the light brown juice that trickled out was boiled down into ‘gur’.

The sugarcane stalks did not then have to be cut into shorter lengths as was needed in the later, ‘improved’ motorised presses with iron cylinders, and this meant the cane fibres after pressing could be used for rope making. The pressed stalks were given to the ‘kumbhars’ (potters) of the villages, who prized the stalks for they would draw out the inner fibres, long and tough, and twist them into ropes which could stand constant immersion in water, for these special ropes were meant for the wells the potters drew their water from.

Not for the kumbhars any local pond with muddy water collected from the drippings of an irrigating water-wheel and into which thirsty cattle would barge. Their chosen wells brought up the water to mix their clays with, superior ‘jal’ for superior pots.

When the babul-wood navra-navris were no longer used, the potters no longer found their fibre, the ropes for the choice wells could no longer be twisted, the clay lost the special lustre imparted by the water, the kumbhars customers went elsewhere, and a material skill faded away.

Ecosystems, crafts knowledge, economy

This is the connection that ties together environment, landscape, water and the cultivation of crops, handicrafts that include both the aesthetic and the utilitarian, all of which extends far beyond what is usually thought of when we use the terms ‘handicrafts’, ‘hand weaves’ and ‘household industries’. It is a connection vital to the organisation and use of cultural soft power because it is so widespread (even if economically underplayed) and because when well organised it is quickly recognisable by many.

For cultural soft power to make use of this connection, there a few prerequisites:

* The ecological-ecosystems basis for crafts, weaves and household arts, with their associated knowledge streams, must be better understood and acknowledged.

* The space and place for a hand-made economy, and associated means of values (which are quite different from the formal and market economy), must be respected and acknowledged.

* When these two steps are firm enough, an instruction pedagogy to convey our practices and learning to neighbours, the region and farther away.

The range of materials which the handicrafts, hand weaves and rural household industry sector employs is as bewilderingly vast as it is fascinating. In north-central Uttar Pradesh, the old cane craft of Bareilly combined with the flute-making skills of Pilibhit so that today the bamboo of Barak valley in Assam furnishes the crafts families in these districts with raw material. The potters of Lucknow, Allahabad and Gorakhpur district get their clay from nearby fields and village ponds to make ‘malwa’ (container for ‘ubtan’, gram flour and oil required for body massages), and cooking vessels.

In eastern Uttar Pradesh, wild grasses such as ‘moonj’ and ‘rara’ grow in Allahabad, Bahraich and Gorakhpur districts. The grasses are coiled, a basketry technique which makes them durable and water-resistant. ‘Roti’ stored in these stay fresh for many hours, and small coiled baskets were the staple equipment for farmers going to mandis or families travelling by train and bus. In Jharkhand, bamboo grows abundantly and is used to fashion utility articles of all kinds, from combs to huge baskets for carrying fowl to the ubiquitous ‘soop’ or winnowing baskets. These are in great demand in the weekly haats in Ranchi district.

A set of pattal or patravali, leaf bowls for prasadam, fashioned from sal or banyan leaves

In the 1951 Census, the first of independent India, among the list of industries and occupations according to which the working population was described were herdsmen and shepherds, bee-keepers, silkworm rearers, cultivators of lac, charcoal burners, collectors of cow dung, gatherers of sea weeds and water products, gur manufacture, toddy drawers, tailors and darners, potters and makers of earthenware, glass bangles and beads, basket makers.

Partial though it was compared with the dizzying range of vocations derived from nature’s materials and the use of an inherited stream of knowledge, this is a list that is likely to have helped the writers and planners of the Second Five Year Plan (1956-61) secure the Government’s acceptance in principle of the Stores Purchase Committee’s recommendation that certain classes of stores should be reserved exclusively for purchase from village and small industries and that price differentials should be allowed to them over the products of large-scale industries.

In the 1960s, what continued to be considered the mainstay of the economy by our rural and urban populations and by planners alike, was still large and diverse enough to routinely include wooden toys, palmyra fibre, stone and marble carving, lacquer work, lace and embroidery, bamboo articles, carpets and rugs, leather goods, glazed ceramic-ware, horn, gold and silverware, ivory, bidri, cane furniture, a multitude of types of bamboo work, artistic pottery, silpa and mat weaving, lac bangles, himroo, silver filigree, coloured stones, salimshahi and appashahi footwear, grass mat weaving, brocade, ornamental brassware, papier mache – examples from a very long list indeed. Until the change that liberalisation and globalisation brought in took wider hold, it is agriculture and crafts that formed the centre of a decentralised economy not necessarily related to any given level of technique or mode of operation, and which proved remarkably holistic.

The clash of materials

In the districts of India in which I have been able to witness, in and near villages, the ordinary commerce of small goods and articles, the two broad groups of materials in current use are visible. The far older group remains, but only just. The ‘jhadus’ or household and yard brooms, either feathery or stiff depending on what use it is put to, are bound together from grasses and reeds. Baskets and tokris are scarce, and are hardly visible in the weekly village haats. For long-term community grain storage, the ‘bhandaran’ structures which used to be marvels of construction – combining wood, cane, cowdung, treated clays and ‘bhasmas’ which varied by location and need – have probably disappeared entirely.

Common to every taluka and tehsil are the vendors of recycled plastic vessels and containers, visible from a distance across the fields because of the brightly coloured piles of articles they manage to strap to their bicycles as they travel between panchayats. Once hailed as the brokers of a distributed recycling industry that puts discarded and waste plastic to practical new uses, these enterprising salesmen are now distributing material whose degradation, piece by microscopic piece, enters wells, ponds and groundwater aquifers.

“Some of the most useful materials, synthetic polymers, also known as plastics, have

transformed our lives in the last few decades,” the publication, ‘Chemical and Petrochemical Statistics at a Glance – 2017’, explains. This annual compendium adds, “The driving force for this development was provided by the need for conservation of natural resources and energy efficiency and inherent advantages of the material which created possibilities of innovative designs and cost savings”.

Built heritage and knowledge heritage. Cowdung pats adorn the compound wall of the palace in Morvi, Gujarat.

It is possible that the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals of the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers is not aware of the ecological economics of having substituted a object of utility made from natural materials, with one made from plastics. For then, its arguments of energy efficiency, inherent advantage and conservation would be found wanting. While such a view is still uncommon, the production of polymers in India has increased from 5.7 million tons in 2009-10 to 9.16 million tons in 2016-17, and their consumption has risen over the same period from 7.19 million tons to 12.7 million tons.

It is this clash of materials that is hindering the regaining of what used be automatic space for a hand-made economy. When that balance is regained, then the basis for India to take abroad, as soft power, a method and practice of economic stability, is laid, as the next section outlines.

The mechanisms are already available. There are the Prime Ministers Employment Guarantee Programme, and there is the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) with its key programmes: Market Promotion Development Assistance, Scheme of Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries, and Khadi Reform and Development Programme. These already have a reach far and wide. According to the KVIC, in 2016-17 village industries (including khadi) recorded production (input costs) of Rs 41,100 crore and sales of Rs 49,900 crore.

These are very sizeable figures – consider that the National Health Mission works with a budget of about Rs 31,300 crore and the National Education Mission with one of Rs 29,500. Furthermore, under these programmes the recorded number of people who have been reached, enrolled on one or another, found the teaching and training for skills of their choice and aptitude, and who are making objects aesthetic or utilitarian or both, are 13,184,000. It indeed takes relatively tiny amounts to make such activity viable, for the KVIC found that margin money of only Rs 1,280 crore made almost 53,000 small projects thrive.

A new methodology to assess the incidence, scale and variety of craft activity  (with ‘craft’ including handicrafts, hand weaves – the entire fibre to fabric cycle, household and cottage industries – which serve local mandis as much as village needs with products from foodstuffs to agricultural implements) is needed. This will suggest that the most basic of the kinds of data we have on the sector must be revised and updated through new criteria.

What we have to describe the numeric size of the sector as we now know it dates to the mid-1990s, after the Office of the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) asked the NCAER in 1993 to conduct an All India Census of Handicraft Artisans, and which has been thereafter used as a basis for updated enumeration by all kinds of agencies but without revisiting or revising criteria.

Method and practice as cultural outreach

The mahua tree, whose flower is popularly associated with the liquor distilled from it, is revered by tribals in Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan for its extraordinary properties. A pickle made from the flower is used to treat tuberculosis, the flower is eaten by women to as it makes breast milk more nutritious, and its bark when powdered treats respiratory ailments. In Gadchiroli, dried mahua flowers used to be stored by the Gond in baskets lined with leaves of the ‘kojam’ tree which prevents fungus infecting the flowers, for up to two years.

It is in this way that ‘craft’ – so elementally entwined with knowledge of nature, the forms that natural materials can take, the cultivation of species that are food and are medicine, and the cultural codes that govern the conservation of this diversity as well as its uses – becomes the basis for a practice and a method.

As part of the training and advice I have imparted on behalf of Unesco for its intangible cultural heritage convention to a number of countries in Asia, these and like examples have helped to quickly and easily make the connections between cultural practices and livelihoods. The frameworks of knowledge systems relating to societies’ use of natural resources tend to be similar in like ecosystems – whether semi-arid plateau, deciduous rainforest, coastal and deltaic – and that is why their economic and cultural reliance on these resources is also similar.

The first half of the 20th century produced detailed new appreciation of Indias ancient and close connections with South-East Asia

In Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Seychelles, Kazakhstan and Iran I have found that there is, amongst the practitioners of crafts and rural arts, a strong understanding of the correlation between what they do and why it is so essential in the slow, erratic journey towards sustainability. That is why these examples and others like them evoke a line of interested questioning: how can skills be better taught, how can crafts produce attract buyers without losing meaning and context, how can the efforts of the eldest knowledge bearers be supported, what can be done to find and retain the interests of the youth?

At the same time, they (together with administrators and officials from government whose departments are given the task of encouraging the practice and produce of local knowledge systems) tend to be bewildered by the theoretical complexity about sustainability which usually accompanies programmes and campaigns on ‘development’. These more often than not are delivered by agencies whose main focus is remain viable agencies, and are therefore interested in retaining ownership of a development framework instead of facilitating the revival of what has long existed, but which has suffered erosion.

Considerable conceptual work in this direction has been generated through inter-governmental effort, the more notable amongst them being in the areas of intangible cultural heritage (Unesco), traditional ecological knowledge (Convention on Biological Diversity), indigenous and local knowledge (Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services), traditional and local knowledge (World Intellectual Property Organisation) and local knowledge systems (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). Where these fall short is in joining the practical dots and showing how it is done.

A new development dimension

This is where our experience with craft (in the widest sense as described in the previous section), our diverse wealth of practical knowledge and the supporting scaffolding that government now has – livelihoods and incomes, the provision of credit, skills and certified learning, natural resources management – must become an active foreign policy and development cooperation resource.

Such an approach presents a set of familiar concepts and practices to show that a hand-made economy – as represented by the long-form meaning of ‘craft’ – is vital to fulfilling national and inter-governmental objectives pertaining to the sustainability of production and consumption, raising the level of resilience of settlements and communities (especially to respond to climate change), and strengthening self-reliance whether at the village or town ward level.

Chief among these objectives internationally are the UN Climate Conventions Paris Agreement on Climate Change (2016), which has the full support of and participation by India, and which obliges countries that have ratified to undertake supporting action” and to stand by the nationally determined contributions which they have submitted to the UN climate agency and also to strengthen these efforts in the years ahead.

And there are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to which India is a signatory state party and of the 17, nine are connected with handicrafts, hand weaves and rural household industries. As the reporting frameworks required of countries for the SDGs becomes more stringent, they will help bring a spotlight on the externalities that organised and formal industrial processes have profited from, and likewise on the array of ecosystem services that the crafts and weaves, the arts and local manufactures, perform.

But more than as a means to meet international and regional obligations, a cultural outreach to the countries of nearer and farther Asia based on our own treatment of crafts and their associated knowledge systems, helps diversify the development dialogue. Just as the weather-wise kisans of madhya Maharashtra maintain their own encyclopaedia of soil types, and just as their counterparts in the Konkan record the onset and behaviour of 16 characteristics of rain through the monsoon, so too can the idea of ‘development’ benefit from the diversity of pathways that a hand-made economy quite naturally embraces.

This article is based on my contribution and presentation for the panel on crafts and arts, at the inaugural Conference on Soft Power, Centre for Soft Power of the India Foundation, held during December 17-19, 2018.

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