Tag Archives: Artivism

Crafting History

17 Jan

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Sometimes I wonder if everything I’ve thought of, everything I’m thinking of, has been thought before.  Often, it’s in bouts of depression and my conclusion is that I’m probably useless and unoriginal.  (Yes, I am being a bit dramatic but that’s me!)

These last few months, however, when I reflect on the originality of my being (how embarrassing) I have been grateful for all the thinking that has come before me.

At 93, Nadja is still making torans. She shows me some of her original sketches in her book.

At 93, Nadja is still making torans. She shows me some of her sketches.

Millions of people, doing the best they could, have lived lives and laid the groundwork for me to do what I do.  Being immersed in the world of craft, it is starting to make more and more sense that originality isn’t highly prized.  It’s nice, but it isn’t the point.

As I’ve been learning how to make a toran (a beaded wall hanging that is strung in a doorway) it amazed me that instinctively I said I’d prefer to follow a pattern that someone has done before.  As my elders have tried to show me new techniques or ways I could change my pattern my stock answer has been “I just want to do it this way until I understand”.

Mani strings the thread needed to weave the beaded toran.

Mani strings the thread needed to weave the beaded toran.

Look at me, I'm learning!

Look at me, I’m learning!

Craft is about following knowledge, putting together history and the information that has come before you.  Piecing together meaning – understanding – through practice.  And only when one understands the story, the hows and whys, can one add a unique element to that story.

 

Making a toran in a traditional Parsi baugh (housing development), surrounded by people who know and appreciate the craft, who display their own torans, who have pieces of the past to complete my puzzle is a unique and vital part of learning the craft.  During the days I could wander the halls and see the different designs and aesthetics at play. I came to see what people appreciated and wanted to project in front of their homes.  People who walked by and saw me at my work recognized what I was doing and inquired about it.

My first little scallops complete!

My first little scallops complete!

Craft is not simply the creation of a product.  It is an assembly of knowledge, belief, skill, context and imagination applied and developed over time to create significant, living things.  Embedded in the process of craft are a multitude of social functions from religious practice to identity formation to relationship building to exercising power to visualizing the future.

The materials used, the process of work, the relationship of craftspeople to their community, the standing of the community within a larger society are all interconnected elements and the relationships constructed between these elements fuel the vitality and development of a craft tradition.  Craft has a soul and craft creates soul.  In order for that soul to thrive all these connections need to be maintained with dignity – human and environmental.

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A young woman trains in block printing techniques at the Weaver’s Service Center in Bombay.

 

 

Hey lady, what's your story?

Hey lady, what’s your story?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For craft revivalists and preservationists, the challenge is how to hold this soul and help it do well.  Beyond the economic realm, what responsibility does the revival community have to help heal the social ruptures (oppressions) that have caused the decline and disappearance of craft traditions and the marginalization of craft workers?  How to construct a holistic view of craft revival that honors the complex social web that is at the core of craft work that goes beyond the houses of commerce?

I don’t have any answers but I am eager to follow the threads as I delve deeper into the complex and beautiful world of craft and it’s importance within all societies.

 

Saris getting ready for a steam which will set the color of the block prints.

Saris getting ready for a steam which will set the color of the block prints.

A block printed sari in process.

A sari laid out for block printing.

Aerial Roots

22 Oct

The famous banyan tree in India has aerial roots.  That means small seedlings growing on its branches send down vine-like extensions that upon hitting dirt, take root and anchor the tree.  If left unchecked, a single banyan can expand into a maze-like thicket of its own creation.  A tree intertwined around another tree, creating shadow trees.

I’m living in a similar metaphoric spiral right now.  Thoughts shooting straight downward, leading to confusion, leading to pause, leading to insights, leading to growth.

 

 

I’m like the little guy at the bottom of the illustration; feeling my way through, tripping over the bumps.

The people I meet, my family and their friends are like the tree – patient and generous.

 

At my worst, I feel wholly unprepared to spend the next 8 months here.  I feel like everything I brought with me is useless, my miniscule language skills are useless and I stick out no matter where I go.  Though when I get that low, something happens to reassure me that I’m fine. Like the two big men who ended up sitting across from me on my 16 hour train ride from Mumbai to New Delhi.  I was a little nervous about sharing an overnight train berth surrounded by men so I was sitting there trying to look stoic, listening to my headphones.  I soon realized that they weren’t speaking in Hindi and I recognized many of their words.  In fact, it sounded like Farsi.  So I started speaking to them in broken Farsi.  It turns out they are from Kabul, here in India on some business.

What’s with the pole in this cab? I have a hundred questions.

One of the guys had traveled all over Iran.  In New Delhi, they carried my bags off the train, called my driver to tell him where we were standing and waited with me until he came.

 

It’s been a roller coaster and my knuckles are white from gripping the bars tight.  (On a side note, I was talking to someone and I referred to myself as brown.  She said, “No you’re not, you’re very white”.  This led me to reply, “Trust me, in America I’m not white”.)

Back to me and the banyan tree and feeling rootless amid a forest of roots.  What is the difference between feeling lost and feeling rootless?  Does being rootless lead one to be lost? What does being lost lead to? Liberation or nothingness?  Why such angst after only a week?  I’m not just dislocated, I’m anxious about the fact that I feel dislocated.  This coupled with the energy and pace of Bombay can make someone go mad.

To give you an example, getting to a destination on foot means you have to first negotiate the traffic – cars, scooters, motorbikes, pedestrians, dogs, oxen and men with hand carts loaded with goods.  You then have to negotiate the rivers of people walking on the sidewalk and spilling on to the gully since the sidewalk is covered with hawkers’ stalls and improvised huts.

A relatively mellow street near my aunt’s home. It’s the navrata season where the various aspects of the goddess are honored.

When you get close to the location you have to puzzle over an amazing kaleidoscope of signs, old and new in all colors and shapes, attached to the building in all directions to find the place you are looking for.

But good luck finding a place to stand and read the signs because you’re never out of the traffic, you’re always in it, trying to hold on to your own singular desire like a lifebuoy being steadily shaken and drenched by the waves of all the other human beings who want something too.

And the tension is palpable.  The middle and upper classes demand things now, quickly, to my liking.  The working and poor argue, steal, stall and walk out.

Complexity everywhere.

There is a great tension between obligation and freedom; sacrifice and care.  Dedicated family members denounce one another when things get hard.  Educated women verbally (and physically) abuse servants to get out their resentment.  Selflessness and dedication meet control and sadism in strange ways.

Another gift came in the form of a book by my friend and brilliant author Arshia Sattar.  “Lost Loves – Exploring Rama’s Anguish” is a reading of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, as a love story.  I’ve read the first few chapters and one thing that stood out was the thought that Rama was a god who oftentimes didn’t remember, didn’t recognize that he was a god.  He was living as a human, but that didn’t negate his divinity.  And so, we are we all in a way.  We can’t recognize our own divine light nor the light of others and so we battle on this earth for a little place to stand.  A footprint in the sand.

I am learning to see what I am looking at and not to make snap judgments.  Just like I learned how to approach an address I will learn how to approach a culture.  To see it as it is, not as I think it should be.  And like the banyan tree, my roots will continue to grow in many directions.

Here’s an image I created after being inspired by “Lost Loves”