It was hardly a “free” education, but it taught me to appreciate the inherent beauty of creations wrought by the human hand.
In India, beautiful handicrafts, spices, and emblems of luxury that make you constantly feel like a maharaja or maharani are available at any tourist’s disposal. In fact, such things are inescapable. Much of my tour consisted of being dragged to an emporium of sorts where the artisans offered us a “free education,” demonstrating in perfect choreography how they created their ancient art and what sort of meticulous labor went into it. While this educational experience was quite interesting, the craftsmen usually followed it up with merciless salesmanship. It was hardly a “free” education, but it taught me to appreciate the inherent beauty of creations wrought by the human hand. Therefore, as long as you’re careful to inspect the quality and barter down prices, I highly suggest that you treat yourself to the following Indian handicrafts.
1. Silk Weaving
Golden threads, crimson threads, glittering scarves—silk goods are the allure of Asia. Silk paintings and scarves used to be woven by memory, but now, weavers use a system of coded punch cards that convey the designer’s pattern. Unfortunately, our weaver complained of damaged eyesight and back problems while little mice happily leapt over his loom pedals. Weaving is difficult work and is greatly threatened by machine-made products; thus, there are few families remaining in business. As a treat, our weaver showed us a few of his family’s best handmade creations, patterns of dancing Radhas and Krishnas reproduced perfectly from memory. Since such arts are too difficult to sustain today, those pieces weren’t for sale.
2. Kashmiri Carpets
Cashmere comes from the hairs under goats’ chins, and these are woven into all sorts of tantalizing handicrafts. Kashmiri carpets are some of the softest, warmest, most luxurious carpets one’s feet could ever grace. Each family has their own design, passed down from patriarch to patriarch. The families spend their days and nights tediously weaving and shaving a carpet for months. Some seem more Persian, while others seem more Mughal. The beautiful and unexpected combinations of color impressed upon me the subtle grace of the silken hair.
PHOTO DRISANA MISRA
3. Brass inlayed Boxes
We were wandering in an emporium when an energetic young man stopped us, eager to show us his family’s age-old craft: hammering copper and bronze designs into wood. He was charming and earnest, explaining how his father taught him the art since he was very young, and proceeded to show us glinting sheets of copper, bronze, and silver. Somehow, he was able to cut those static sheets into snaking vines of flowers and fruit. Unlike the other craftsmen, he preferred to perform his art rather than to speak about it. Every now and then, discouragement flashed across his face when visitors dismissed his work, but he continued hammering and shaving, until every wooden corner was embellished. We reveled in the depths of his passion.
4. Classical Paintings
The government of Jaipur subsidizes the work of local artists and even provides ancient vellum documents as paper, lending the paintings both a historical and modern appeal. An artist showed me that the endless, undulating flow of the line is what gives classical Indian art its characteristic look. The way a woman’s nose, eyebrows, eyes, and breasts are represented seems uniform in classical painting and sculpture. He used paints made of crushed stones, gold leaf, and kohl, and even embossed his paintings with tiny emeralds and rubies.
5. Hand-printed Textiles
India’s hand-printed textiles display the interplay between layers of stamps and vegetable dyes. Each stamp forms one layer of the repeated pattern. For example, the first stamp may compose of an elephant’s body; the second, its cloth padding and ornamental trappings, the third, its battle armor. As part of our education, the craftsman dips each stamp into a mixture of vegetable juice and pounds it into the cloth. He then rinses the cloth in vinegar, which changes the colors in the dye. When he then lays it out to dry in the sun, it further alters the color composition of the textile.