Friday, June 17th, 2011

Craft Becomes a Bad Word: Indian Folk Art in the Contemporary Wilderness

Report from… New Delhi

At first glance, there seems to be no difference between people’s attitude towards the commoditization of fine art and the commoditization of folk art. The geographical fringes are quite prominent yet the art fraternity constantly grapples with contradictory definitions of its rather subjective premise of existence and practice. Looking at three recent art exhibitions in separate spaces in Delhi allowed me to establish multiple focal points through which I could articulate the impulses, semblances, and discord of the contemporary diaspora/ dispersion of the artist and the artisan.

Invitation image for the show Folk and Tribal Arts of India at the Arts of the Earth Gallery, New Delhi.
Invitation image for the show Folk and Tribal Arts of India at the Arts of the Earth Gallery, New Delhi.

The first show was titled Artisan Design (February 23–27, 2011), organized by Kala Raksha Trust. The Trust is a social enterprise that began in 1993 as a regional artisan initiative in Kutch, Gujarat, dedicated to preserving the traditional arts. The show was supported by a non-profit organization, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).  The show had an array of beautiful handmade crafts from Kutch—embroidered and block-printed garments, domestic games, jewellery, home décor, and leatherwork—as well as contemporary designs created by graduates of Kala Raksha Vidyalaya (KRV), a school of design for traditional artisans.

The exhibition invited us to: “Check out the exquisite hand arts of Kutch and exciting new designs by Kala Raksha Graduates.” It is intriguing that the organization assembles artisans from the periphery, bringing a marginalized art form to the center to create a new contextual dialogue, yet deliberately avoids the word craft. They emphasize the historical, regional, and ethnic character of the arts, yet at the same time attempt to teach concepts of design to otherwise self-taught artisans. The question is whether such an initiative is building new models of craft, or instead firmly rejecting conventional definitions, which have traditionally drawn clear distinctions between an artisan and an academically trained fine artist.

Another exhibition, titled Vasant [Spring] 2011 (April 7–9, 2011), ran at Agha Khan Hall, New Delhi. The first stall to draw me in was for Indybindi, an initiative hardly five months old, the brainchild of three young siblings, all practicing  commercial artists. The sheer energy of these young entrepreneurs was beaming through the vibrant, kitschy, color-frenzied art objects. Indybindi derives its inspiration from the simplicity of utilitarian objects, and is bonded to the folk arts through its reliance on natural materials, traditional techniques, and self-directed learning. The threads of folk and modernity are interwoven in an attempt to both resolve and blur the conflicts brought up by those that force each into their own defined space. (In addition to its artistic endeavors, the Indybindi enterprise also offers generous support to the NGO Ashiana, which is focused on the betterment of the lives of rural woman and children.)

Indybindi stall at the Vasant Mela exhibition, <br> Agha Khan Hall, New Delhi. Courtesy of Manu Tiwari.
Indybindi stall at the Vasant Mela exhibition, Agha Khan Hall, New Delhi. Courtesy of Manu Tiwari.

The idea of plucking regional arts from the periphery and re-instituting its identity is a role reversal – from a commercial artist who holds degrees and is formally trained to an artisan and working on a context that is glossed over and tossed but is not directly engaged with – is analogous with the pulse of the contemporary art market. It is fascinating how folk arts has so far managed to maintain the integrity of a rather singular, self-contained phenomenon, while enjoying unprecedented freedom and avoiding the impulse towards branding.

The third show that deserves mention here is Folk and Tribal Arts of India (April 16–May 7, 2011), presented by Arts of the Earth, a gallery that deals exclusively in folk, tribal, and popular idioms.

It is appreciable that the commercial gallery Art Konsult has branched out into new space with Arts of the Earth, and is striving to gain national exposure for folk and tribal arts. The exhibition had a substantial variety of folk paintings from the likes of Warli, Gond, Patachitra, Kalamkari, Madhubani, as well as other pieces that included handmade masks, terracotta objects, and metal accessories. The gallery occupies a rather quiet space in the otherwise busy and upbeat neighborhood of Lado Sarai, south of Delhi, and provides an environment for stoic observation.

According to the Arts of the Earth: ”The traditional folk & tribal painters are fast embracing other professions for their livelihood and their art slowly dying, Folk & Tribal art/painting/sculpture, Indian miniatures, and their undeniable influences etc. stand under a death threat.”  It is becoming increasingly important to assess whether we are moving towards oblivion in the folk arts tradition or instead integrating it into a multi-polar universe of art, where art is considered as being both what happens in the center and what occurs on the periphery.

Observing these deconstructions and re-contextualizations, I feel that this precarious regional, ethnic difference is transforming the art scene and giving way to new creative contributions to the world. Through these three exhibitions one can assess how conceptually driven contemporary practices are becoming integrated with traditional styles. The confluence of ideology and methodology now demands articulation and critique, in order that the underlying dynamics be parsed and highlighted, without any cultural and social exclusion.

Hand painted acrylic glass by Barira Hasan at the Vasant Mela exhibition, Agha Khan Hall, New Delhi. Photo courtesy of Manu Tiwari.
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