Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Castes and Artisans (via Sunny Narang)

#RaghunathNama #AStoryOfAChippa : Who taught me that Artisan-Castes or #Jatis is what sustains rural Indian crafts processes : 

#OnlyGandhi understood the #SoulAndSoil of #India.
Modern Indian Designers and most of the whole Urban Craft crowd , whether store , brand owners or consumers think that there are some " rural craft producers mostly poor " who produce this stuff for the discerning and culturally sensitive audience .
This audience reared on so-called liberal-left politics and anti-caste understanding of India , has no idea of how the complex Jati knowledge systems and processes of production are sustained by continuous adaptation and innovation among traditional artisan castes aka jatis .
Without Jati or Castes there will be no Indian artisan sector.
And one artisan over 15 years , taught me deeply , about how really Indian craft production works . Which no contemporary intellectual, activist , writer will authentically share , as they are all in their imagination enslaved to a western concept of individualism and sexual politics with almost no roots in India , even if they functionally use the artisan sector .
Raghunath Nama. Was a Chippa .
For those who don't know much about the complex Jati Vyavastha of occupations of the Indian subcontinent , Chippa is a Jati . Of hand-block printers and dyers , dovetailed into many other Jatis , Hindu, Muslim and Sikh .
Neelgars , is a Jati , that is Muslim , that did the Indigo Dyeing in the Jaipur District of Rajasthan .
You will now find Neelgars working as dyers all over North India .
Chippas are Hindu in Jaipur District and many other Districts , they are Muslim in other Districts . Block-Printers are also in the Khatri Jati of Kutch and Barmer , and Khatris also a Jati of Muslim tie-dyers in Kutch .
I have always found the artisan Jatis of India , the most interesting castes , as they very practically work across castes in collaboration , and across religions.
The wood hand-block makers from Farukkhabad who work in Jaipur are both Hindus and Muslims .
And there is no dearth of successful innovators and entrepreneurs who have come from these artisan castes in India . They are big exporters , wholesalers as well as retailers .
Now coming back to Raghunath Nama . A 10th fail . He used to say , "Angrezi ne Maar Diya " , that English killed his further education , as the teachers were bad and he could not catch up with English in his rural Government school .
I met him in 1993 , summer . He had come to the Crafts Museum in Pragati Maidan , to sell his hand-block printed fabrics .
I had asked him , if he would like to innovate with Natural Dyes .
One had worked with "Shared Earth" a year before in 1992 , to do a range of hand-block printed T-shirts which were natural dyed in Bagru as well as with Oxfam Bridge , both UK based Fair-trade businesses .
They were influenced by Greenpeace global campaign against chlorine bleaching that is an essential process in all natural textiles , so as to get brighter dye shades . In 1985 Greenpeace took up the campaign to eliminate chlorine from all industrial processes, to essentially remove it from human use .
One had discovered that natural traditional dyeing processes , where riverside salt or cattle dung was used as a bleach could be used as an option.
Most textile dyes are created by the humongous chemical industrial complex that hugely pollute the planet.
I worked for 20 years on "natural-dyes", replacing synthetic dyes in textile dyeing . The catch 22 is the raw material source . It was easy when there was 1000 meters of cotton being produced per worker in the early 1900's , not when you want 20,000 meters per worker at the minimum now.
There are not enough natural materials being grown, then the water demand and soil demand just as in bio-fuels.
So Raghunath Nama , of Chippon Ka Mohalla , Village Kaladera , Tehsil Chomu , District Jaipur had spirit of innovation, a desire to combine all the traditional printing processes of India. To keep up with the hand printing and dyeing practices , and along with small machine makers create equipment which would remove the dreary and harmful processes involved in printing and dyeing.
The only son to survive out of four that were born to his mother.
An only brother to seven sisters.Born in a family of traditional printers and dyers “Chhipa” , he grew up with cotton fabrics, dabu (mud-resist) , wooden blocks and printing pastes.
He had an ongoing affair with natural printing, tie-dye, dabu, discharge and maleer (printing of Barmer and Kutch with multani clay) and shibori (the Japanese art of tie-dye) which was self taught from books.
He had an infinite curiosity about traditions and modern society and the place of rural individuals , especially artisans. He had done hundreds of workshops but was a pragmatic production manager.
I have seen him dyeing in hot dye bath whose one drop would scald the skin of people like us, despite being a successful entrepreneur he never looked down upon physical labour.
He created more than fifty tones of natural dye shades , but as he always said “Haathi ke daant,dikhane ke aur,khane ke aur”, Elephant have different teeth for show, and different teeth to use ! Meaning that its easier to show wide range of colours in workshops but for production only few shades are possible.
Where are we going to find hundreds of kilo of onion peels to dye pink !
Practically for regular production less than ten colours are possible in natural dyeing ( there will be infinite tones though, as each time the tones are different!)
He used to say that if Government mandated Khadi as uniform in organisations like Railways,why would Khadi die. He showed to me the rampant corruption in weaving cooperatives, and the huge wastage in the unending stream of workshops organised by the state , shared between master artisans and craft bureaucrats. But he always partnered with Government bodies for any project which he thought was useful, and officials in local Rajasthan craft marketing organisations gave him respect as Raghunath thought from all sides, the customer, the producer, the government.
He gave equal thought to fair retail prices, wages , margins for retailers and wholesalers and business practices along with quality of the product. Despite coming from a disadvantaged background he was neither bitter about people in power nor unfair to his workers. He was truly a trustee of his craft.
Raghunath did not want to remain just a job-worker for boutiques . He wanted to create his own brand and be visible as a designer-artisan-entrepreneur.
He used to say that his desire and practice for innovation and experimentation would be like a free laboratory providing research and development to his community of “Chippa”. Though in the beginning his own community laughed at at the orders he took of single sarees and 18 metre fabric print runs, as they only took orders of hundreds or thousands of meters of cotton fabric in one print, one colour for exporters.
Raghunath worked for the local Indian boutiques and small retailers doing very small orders, but he knew that the diversity of his customers gave him protection from boom and busts of exports and huge rejections due to problems of infrastructure artisans have to face in rural India and they cannot deliver on time. In bucket dyeing maintaining regular colour tone is very difficult and patchiness too results in rejection. There is also immense competition among Chippas to under quote each other and lower the workers’ wages.
Raghunath refused to lower prices to self-exploitation levels. He always said that if a skilled artisan cannot make wages equivalent to a unskilled construction worker what use it was doing craft.
Raghunath visited regularly in Delhi to experience the big city. He wanted to see movies, theatre , big retail , explore and give his opinion on everything from the inedible-ness of a McDonald burger to interesting comments on “Full Monty”.
He never let his rural background and inability to speak English create awe or make him lose confidence. He was gloriously himself, sharp witted , perceptive and having his own unique sociological and political perspective.
He bought his wife expensive saris from other weaving and printing traditions from Ikats to Ajrakh. He said that if he did not support other artisans who would? He freely shared his marketing and branding experience with other artisans and wanted them to be successful like him too.
Raghunath was a classic “Jugadu” problem solver. He bought a 15 year old Maruti Gypsy and tried first to run it on LPG and then installed an old submarine diesel engine which gave him great average. He continuously spent money, time and energy on new experiments in dyeing, printing and appropriate machinery.
Raghunath started his morning in the village with a 5 a.m tea at the village chai wallah with all his village friends from all castes. Rarely did he refuse anyone of them any monetary help.He created an immense network of weavers and fabric suppliers from Kashmir, to Champa in Madhya Pradesh to Vidarbha to Kota. I saw a whole India that is entrepreneurial, artisanal and continuously experimenting with him. All of them utilising state, NGO, resources where possible and doing hardcore mainstream wholesaling to thousands of businessmen all over India, from Indore to Mumbai, from Bhubneshwar to Surat.
On Raghunath’s death in February 2008 , with lung cancer , as he was addicted to his "beedi", so many of his artisan friends from all over India, suppliers of dyes and fabric came to his family to reassure them and promise support and cementing relationships with his sons .
It clearly showed he had built relationships not business dealings.
From ultra rich ladies from the big cities where he exhibited and sold his sarees to a poor “kabadiya”(metal and waste recycler) spoke fondly of him.
Without master-artisans like Raghunath Nama , there would be no craft sector thriving in India , there would be no designers like Sabyasachi Mukherjee or Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango , stores like Fabindia , Anokhi , Kilol , People Tree or Non-Profits like Crafts Council , Dastkar , Sewa .
Tens of Thousands of Master-Artisans working with millions of artisan-workers , from innumerable Jatis , following "Community Knowledge Process Traditions" are what keep Indian crafts alive .
Not some Western University or Urban Knowledge Systems .
Not some IP created by either Western or Urban Indian brands .
The real Intellectual Property is the processes these Jatis or Castes kept alive for centuries , against British Imperialism , against Indian Industrial Capitalism and Socialism .
It was this intricate network of Jatis that Mahatma Gandhi saw and Nehru did not.
This Jati Vyavastha of occupational castes will outlive post-modernity in the western linear mode too .
For those who live with soul , on their soil , are the Meek That Shall Inherit the Earth.
Not the Soul-less Brands or the Soil-less Knowledges that think you can live on the Cloud .
The Background Context :
Traditional Diversity of Handblock Prints of India
In India the textile handprinted fabrics were many times flags of a Jati , certain colours allowed to be worn only by women of some caste , similarly with turbans .
There were other prints defined by occasions , of a wedding or festival.
There were thousands of print and colour combinations that defined season-event , status and region. Many were documented in the 1980's as either the prints were vanishing or changing into other forms.
The size of woodblocks changed from small 2 X 3 inches to bigger ones for higher production , so finer prints then could only be screen-printed as you could not find skilled artisans to print .
In fact you could see a print and say even in which village or villages it was printed as the Intellectual Property was protected by consensus .
Certain villages printed only the fabric which was only khadi in those times to be made into ghaghras , other printed tents , other odhnis , other big bedspreads used on collective occassions .
You can also tell the cultural influences looking at prints . The Ajrakh is a combination of Islamic patterns and bootis , while the Rajasthani Hindu are mostly bootis and borders . The Kalamkari are also Islamic and later inspired by European fashions .
India was exporting printed fabric since centuries , so even the final destination influenced the prints , from Indonesia to Thailand , France to England, Africa to China .
Even for most embroidery traditions in Lucknow region , the block-prints laid the pattern on which Chikankari was done .
Though the processes of printing , developing, dyeing were similar across all geographies with variations .
The black was always iron paste made from iron horse-shoes or other waste like nails fermented in molasses , Indigo was same , as was Red via alum and Manjishtha or Al wood , as was yellow via wasted Pomergrante rind .
So behind the diversity was a singular philosophy and process.

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