Bound by thread of Caste: Legacy of the Indian Craftsman

Source: Masters of Craft

Craftsmanship in India, much like its festivals and cuisines, is as vibrant, ethnic, colourful and deep rooted in its rich traditions. Each province in India, has its own technique and distinct beauty of fabrics, metallurgy, jewellery and crafts. Be it the skilled weaving of rich silk sarees popularly known as ‘Kanjeevaram’ or ‘Banarasi Sarees’, the fine-moulding of earthen pottery, the intricacies of making attar the traditional perfume and incense, or the finesse of crafting exquisite mirrors from metals; for Indian artisans, their crafts are viewed as a medium to commune with the divine. Artisans till today, celebrate festivals like ‘Ayudha Pooja (meaning a prayer service or homage for tools and instruments)’ ‘ wherein they seek the blessings of their deity or a divine power before commencing their crafts. Thus, craftsmanship in India cannot merely be viewed from a commercial lens but must also be introspected from a sociological, emotional and spiritual angle.

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Caste based Craftsmanship: The Genesis

Traditional and folk art forms like music, dance and craft in India are passed on through a lineage spanning several generations. One has to ‘earn’ these technical skills and know-how by devoting themselves to their ‘Guru’ or ‘master’ and toiling under their watchful eye through years of practice. Thus, craftsmanship in India flourished under the influence of community and caste-based learning. There are several distinct communities in India who specialise in unique artisanal crafts and techniques. Their community name is also reflected in the surname (or family name) and forms a means of shaping their identity. The ‘Kumhar’ community specialise in Pottery, the ‘Vishwakarmas’ are regarded as expert architects, the ‘Panikars’ and ‘Devangas’ hone the legacy of weaving and so on…

Source: Photodune.net 

Ancient Indian literature like the ’Vedas’, the ‘Upanishads’, including well known epics like the ‘Ramayana’ or the ‘Mahabharata’, also illustrate this ‘Gurukul’ system of education and the role of caste in shaping Indian society. Both lord ‘Rama’ as well as the ‘Pandavas’, being warriors of the Kshatriya caste inherited their grooming and skills through a Gurukul system under the tutelage of revered sages ‘Vishwamitra’ and ‘Dronacharya’ respectively. The inception of caste and craftsmanship also emerges from similar religious scriptures. The son of lord Brahma: the creator of the universe; is Lord Vishwakarma who is the presiding deity of all craftsmen, artisans and smiths.  He is regarded as the supreme architect of the heavens and the Hindu equivalent of Hephaestus and Vulcan from Greek and Roman mythologies. His legacy brought forth the ‘Vishwakarma’ caste of artisans that is still prevalent in India today. 

One of the primary reasons for the emergence of caste in transmitting artforms can be attributed to a means of protecting their culture and knowledge. India has been a land that has withstood numerous invasions leading to the painful destruction of a plethora of ancient texts and resources. Therefore, this information and expertise began to be passed on by means of oral recitation and hands-on training instead.

The Weight of the ‘Surname’

The caste system in India is one of the murky grey areas that the nation as a whole is still striving to come to terms with even today. Owing to thousands of years of caste-based classification that once sparked off merely with a notion to bifurcate occupational distinction and structure society, today, has attached itself to form the core ‘identity’ of the Indian masses. While caste-based discrimination is abolished by law and is strictly frowned upon, the surnames of the Indian diaspora still carry their caste-based identity. Surnames continue to depict our legacy, culture, the struggles of our tumultuous past and shape our identity. These surnames and caste-based differences, in the past, served as a means of maintaining a homogenous lineage of descendants to track the extension of their DNAs for generations, at a time when science and technology had not much scope to do so. However, today, this argument serves little purpose and relevance to the masses. That being said, one still cannot place a blanket ban on the use of caste or caste-based surnames as a simple solution to a complex issue of this nature because, erasing one’s surname is equivalent to snubbing the voices of one’s personal history, struggles and one’s pride of who they are and where they came from. Therefore, even if legally regulated, caste still plays a grave role indirectly in the Indian society by the forms of arranged marriages and more.

Today’s Caste based Turmoil in the Artisanal World

Craftsmen of India are equally hard hit by the vices of the caste system as they struggle to thrive in today’s fast paced commercial era. The irony remains that in a pursuit of using caste as a means to protect their sacred artforms, it has become extremely inaccessible for outsiders to adopt, master and spread the prevalence of their art. Moreover, several traditional craftsmanship is still patriarchal and male dominated. Thus, in eventualities of families with no male heir to succeed and harbour the baton of their craft, the artform dies a mute death within that family. While most people blame westernisation in the garb of modernization as a reason for diminishing demand causing these artforms to die, one cannot deny the fact that only a skewed population of traditional artisans remain, who do not have the means of supplying to the consumer mecca of the globe: India.

Not to mention, sometimes the most grave aspects of oppression or subjugation in the name of caste on such minorities often goes silenced or hidden under the garb of other topics in today’s society. Today’s modern and dynamic Indian society is often under this mis-guided impression that caste is a thing of the past and life that dwells on a more utopian based egalitarian standpoint of opportunities for all. Little do the people with access to education and digital literacy, internet and infrastructure realise that their life of privilege is often lopsidedly thriving in contrast to those minorities in India who still struggle in the dark ages of caste based apartheid. It is almost as if the common Indian man’s state is cunningly staged to be like that of a donkey chasing a ripe carrot, wherein his focus is directed towards meeting his own needs from the pittance of a meagre financial reward, such that these larger and pertinent issues get side-lined as mere noise in a backdrop.   

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Looking Beyond …

Not just caste, but several questions present themselves as hurdles to the contemporary craftsmen in India such as: Whether the traditional techniques need to be compromised or altered to adopt modern methods of mass productions? If so, how would it impact the finesse and authenticity that comes from handmade methods? The impact it would have in business in general due to lack of standardised production that automation could deliver and more. 

The handicraft trade is one of the few sectors that still adopt sustainable practices and green energy solutions. While automation and mass productions have resulted in capitalistic prosperity, they have also resulted in rampant consumerism, toxic waste and environmental degradation. Thus, it is essential to re-visit boosting India’s craftsmanship to offset the negatives of the ‘industrial age’. Additionally, the rich cultural symbolism of being ‘Indian’ that our craftsmanship embodies, harbours the potential of unifying our diverse differences into weaving a common sense of identity. Our crafts represent who we are as a nation and form an allegory much like ‘Marianne in France’ that the Indian diaspora can resonate with pride.  

India’s futuristic vision thus, lies in harnessing the glory of its illustrious past which needs to be cherished by celebrating the legacy of our craftsman. 

Shweta Ravi
About Shweta Ravi 7 Articles
Shweta hails from Mumbai, India and is pursuing her Masters in International Trade Finance and Management at Yonsei GSIS. Her prior background in Psychology coupled with vast travel experiences and interest in languages, intrigue her to explore the dynamics of human interaction in diverse socio-economic canvas. Shweta has also worked as a professional Language Interpreter in Mandarin (Chinese) & Korean for both the Indian-Korean Government and for several Global Corporates. She enjoys immersing herself in art, music, theatre, feature films and gourmet cuisine among other interests.