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Arts and Crafts - these are words that we all understand but do we really know them? For the layman these words may be used interchangeably but for a design student/professional, subtlety adds flavor to their knowledge base. Without further ado, let’s jump right into the basics.
Craft is any activity involving skill in making things by hand by carrying out an instruction or following a convention to create an object. It may or may not be utilitarian but always has a cultural aesthetic and is related to a community’s livelihood. In other words, for a utilitarian object to be considered a craft, it must be aesthetically appealing and socio-economically valued by people and should represent a community’s cultural heritage.
Crafts usually use natural media like wood, clay, glass, textiles, metal or paper. Many crafts or artefacts are given geographical indication (GI) tags. GI is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. The products which are given GI tags by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in India are regarded as the invaluable treasures of India.
Art or Fine Art is a creative process whose products are to be appreciated primarily or solely for their imaginative and aesthetic content. Any beautiful thing is not art. Beauty with meaning and individuality becomes art. In other words, an artwork is a beautiful (aesthetic), individualistic (should not be a reproduction) and meaningful (symbolism) creation.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the world of art & craft.
There are two main differences between an artwork and a craft. An artwork is usually appreciated primarily for its beauty (painting, sculpture, etc) but a craft is more utilitarian. Another main difference between the two is that an artwork is very individualistic (represents a sense of self) but a craft represents a community’s cultural heritage - a skill that has been passed down generations.
A craft either has an individualistic artistic component, for example the Nizambad’s black pottery, with the patterns worked in silver. It can also have a standard aesthetic component reproduced down the generations.
Craft is something that follows a rigid set of rules and grammar and often involves repetition. The moment you break that grammar and create something awe-inspiring (usually pretty but not necessarily) but if it has the capacity to make people pause and wonder - you have created art!
A design can be thought of as a plan or drawing that is conceived and produced to show the look and function of a building, garment, or other object before it is made. It can also be thought of as the arrangement of the features of an artifact (craft) or artwork. The same artwork or craft can exist in different designs (iterations.) There can be many functional variations of the same craft, all equally beautiful. That design is chosen which has the most functionality and which best solves the design problem in question.
To better appreciate the importance of arts and crafts, let us look at a few popular examples of Indian craft:
Kalamkari comes from two words: Kalam - pen and Kari - work, i.e, the artwork done using a pen. It is a hand-painted (free-hand drawing) or even block-printed (printing patterns by means of engraved wooden blocks) cotton textile.
Origin - Andhra Pradesh.
How is Kalamkari different from other crafts? The combination of its unique, intricate designs brimming with mythical references and stories makes it unique. It involves a slow, vigorous and tedious dyeing process that’s done only using natural dyes and traditional methods. The stunning artistry of the master craftsman wielding the pen (kalam) sets this craft apart. Creating a piece of Kalamkari cloth can take anything between 20-40 days.
This traditional painting style comes from a region in Bihar called Mithila. The paintings are called “Madhubani” after a district of that name where they are done.
There are a few similarities between Madhubani and Kalamkari paintings. Both of them use natural dyes and can be done using pens. Hindu mythology is a popular theme in both of them. However, Madhubani emerged much earlier than Kalamkari. Originally, Madhubani was painted on walls and mud floors. Wall paintings or Bhitti-Chitra in Nepal and Bihar played a major role in the emergence of Madhubani craft. Later on, it was being done on canvas (fabric) or handmade paper. On the other hand, Kalamkari has been on cotton (and silk) fabrics only since the beginning. Unlike Madhubani, it received patronage from Golconda Sultanates, Mughals and British.
Indian miniatures are small-scale, highly detailed paintings. Originally (more than 1200 years ago) these were done on Palm leaves (manuscripts) whereas Madhubani was initially done on walls and Kalamkari always on fabric. Today, miniature paintings can be done on canvas, paper, wood, even on marble. Like other traditional paintings, the miniature paintings use colours made of natural materials.
Origin: The modern miniature painting (1500’s - 1600’s) originated in the Rajput Kingdoms and in Akbar’s reign
What makes a miniature painting different from others? These paintings tend to be highly decorative with bright colours. To achieve fine detailing in the miniatures the paint brushes are made from hair from a squirrel’s tail.
This ancient art can still be seen on the walls of City Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan.
Bamboo, also called Green Gold, is an important raw material for handicrafts in Assam. It is used to make items of everyday use like bamboo mats, furniture, baskets, cane walking sticks, hand fans and hats, musical instruments, bows and arrows etc.
One of the earliest known methods of metal casting, the Dhokra (a non-iron based metal casting) craft dates back to the prehistoric time of Indus valley civilization. Characterized by primitive simplicity and folk motifs, dhokra crafts are in demand all over the world.
Let’s talk about the craft of pottery and explore its connection with the universe of design. Pottery is the craft of molding clay and other ceramics. The humble “matka” is as much an object of ritualistic use (offering water to the divine) as it is of domestic use (storing water.) There are many communities associated with the craft of pottery, most exalted being the community of ‘Jagannath Temple Potters.’
How does Design enter the scene? The porous clay keeps the water cool (the choice of matter increases the craft’s functionality.) A form of matka called “Surahi” has a slender neck. Sometimes, a Surahi has a handle (just like a jar) to pour water easily. The basic design of Matka has been adapted to design a water filter by Puttur (Mangalore) potters. Matkas cooled water anyway but these potters gave them a larger thermal insulation by placing a smaller pot within a larger one.
Let us now talk about the ubiquitous ‘bindi’ (adornment on a woman’s forehead) as an artwork and explore its connection with the universe of design. As discussed in the introduction, a unique beautiful creation that represents a sense of self is an artwork. For some the bindi is no more than a sign of marriage, for others it refers to the sixth “chakra.” For the artist Bharti Kher, bindi is her signature which she uses to shape her work. Powerful women like politician Sushma Swaraj and writer Shobha De have made it their trademark. As traditions inspire fashion and fashion blurs into art, the bindi has acquired many interesting modern interpretations. Madonna and Gwen Stefani have made it rock chic. These examples go to show that the ordinary bindi is created in a highly personalized and individualized style and is therefore, an artwork.
How does Design enter the scene? There are various aesthetic variations of bindi. It can be created by applying fragrant sandalwood paste in a dot-like shape on the centre of the forehead between the eyebrows, or by simple velvet slivers with adhesive. Individuality allows the bindi to be worn in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours. Swarovski bindis go with ready-to-wear saris and salwar kameez and diamond bindis are usually reserved for special occasions like marriage. Out of a plethora of designs, that design is chosen which speaks personally to the individual, with which an individual can identify
To concretize our understanding of the relationship between art and craft (and how design plays a crucial role here), let us understand the craft of “patang-making.”
Patang, or fighter kites, are light, strong and able to make swift movements up, down, left and right. They are also beautifully colourful. They are handmade and follow one basic form: small paper squares kept in shape with two bamboo sticks, a straight longitudinal one and another that joins both sides in an arc.
How does Design enter the scene? The bamboo stick that joins both sides of a kite in an arc is crucial as it increases the flexibility of the kite. Moreover, patangs are designed to "fight." The game is to fly high and then maintain supremacy by cutting the threads of other kites. Therefore, the “manja”, or kite thread, is made of cotton but covered with glass powder and rice starch so that it cuts sharply.
How does Art enter the scene? Patangs come in all sizes, colours and patterns. While many of them follow standard aesthetics some of them can be created in a highly personalized and individualized style, making them artworks.
I like to think of it all this way - Design originates in imagination (mind), Craft originates in the human hand (body) and Art originates in emotions (heart).
Now, you are on a better footing and understand the subtleties between crafts and fine art and how design (as a concept) enters the scene. At the same time you embrace your Indianness more than you did before, don’t you?
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