India is no longer the land of snake charmers. A growing middle class, booming IT sector, and western influences are all indications that India is changing. And changing fast. There’s only one way to traverse its history and find an identity that continues to stand the test of time - Unearth the secrets of India’s rural craft communities.
Immerse yourself in a dizzying array of Indian crafts. Let the ancient looms of the snow-capped Himalayas keep you warm. Brighten up your days with colourful strokes from the vast golden desert. Marvel at the passage of unwritten knowledge from generation to generation. Witness secrets that have been guarded for longer than 5000 years. But most of all, hear stories of India that are no longer told.
The music of handlooms in the households of Central India has not been silenced for 600 years! The weavers of Madhya Pradesh work with silk, cotton and zari threads, and intricately weave Chanderi Saris in pastel colors and stencil elaborate designs by hand. The Mughal royalty patronized the fabrics for their fragility and sophistication, and the exclusivity continues to today; a single sari can take 4-5 days to complete.
Channapatna Wood Craft
India’s own Toy Story! The famous warrior king Tipu Sultan invited Persian artists to the town of Channapatna, in the forested terrain of Karnataka, to teach rural Indian communities the art of making collectible wooden toys for adults. The artists of rural Karnataka now use ivory wood and vibrant colors to craft dolls, figurines and illustrations of indigenous games. Not surprisingly, the craft has earned Channapatna the nickname of “toy town”.
Dhokra Tribal Craft
The Dhokra tribe of Central India (Odisha, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh) has practiced the lost-wax technique of metal casting since the prehistoric Harappa and Mohenjadaro civilizations. Using a meticulous 13-step process, they craft metal figurines inspired by the indigenous folk culture. Dhokra art is culturally intertwined in the region to this day, and used in making temple deities, ritual objects, dishes for culinary specialties, and the anklets worn by the classical Odissi dancers.
Village communities in northern India began weaving wool to insulate against the snowy Himalayan winters. Pashmina shawls, made with wool extracted from the rare Kel goats in Jammu & Kashmir, put the craft on the world map. In small village co-operatives in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, women painstakingly weave scarves, stoles, mufflers and shawls on pit looms, with wool extracted from mountain goats, yaks, sheep and rabbits.
Using fine brushes made from the hair of squirrels, miniature artists in the royal state of Rajasthan sketch scenes from life during India’s Mughal era – war, hunting, social gatherings – on paper, leather, ivory marble and cloth. Their work is an ode to the Mughals, who brought Persian artists to teach miniature painting to Indian artists.
Families in rural West Bengal have guarded their family tradition of Shankhari (Conch Shell Craft) for centuries. They collect seashells from the shore, laboriously cut and shape them using a traditional semi-circular saw, and emboss or engrave them with intricate designs based on the folk culture of East India. These shells are then used to design everyday objects, most commonly cutlery and wall surfaces.
Image by Will Henley
The sleepy shores of southern India’s backwaters are home to acres of palm plantations. Local artists use the leaves of Palmyra, a particular palm, and strip, dye and braid them for weaving and thatching. The tradition started as a means of creating durable baskets to collect agricultural produce, and adapted to the changing needs of urban India. A coil binding process is now used to weave palm leaves into colourful hats, trays, baskets and accessories.
In some of the poorest parts of northern India, a community called the Raidas have perfected the art of moulding stone into functional urban ware. The soft stone deposits of Uttar Pradesh are naturally colourful, and are cut, shaped, inlaid and polished using primitive tools. Stone-crafted products form a range of cutlery – plates, bowls, and glasses – and are often combined with marble to make statues.
Literally meaning baked earth, Terracotta is a style of pottery in which craftsmen create moulded clay on a flat surface, and then fire it into shape. Terracotta figurines of local deities are synonymous with festivals across India and could be considered a symbol of India’s secular unity; local communities with varying religious beliefs mould their deities in identical traditional ways.
The art of using paper pulp to make pen cases and pencil boxes was borrowed from Persian artists in the late 1300s, and craft communities across India are still grateful; they make papier mache products, including boxes, photo frames, decorations for Christmas trees, and even small tables, which still display golden hues as testimony to the art’s Persian roots.
by Shivya Nath
About the Author: Shivya travels the world for a living. She authors one of India's most popular travel blogs, The Shooting Star, runs a responsible travel company called India Untravelled, and freelances as a travel writer and social media consultant. Connect with her on Twitter @shivya or at email@example.com.
Map of India
Quick facts about India
Size: 3.29 million square km or one-third the size of the United States!
Population: 1.2 billion.
Median Income: $950 per year, but there is a huge gap between the low and high extremes.
Best Food: Curries. Every single region has a different range, but be warned, you need a spicy palette to stomach them.
Most Exotic Food: Yak meat and Yak cheese in the high Himalayas.
National Heroes: Gandhi, India’s foremost freedom fighter. Sachin Tendulkar, cricketer extraordinaire; he unites the country in a way that even Gandhi couldn’t.
Best Reason to go: They say India changes you in ways you can’t imagine.
National Pastime: Cricket. No kid grows up without dreaming of becoming Sachin!
Sound like a local: “Chalo”. A versatile word that literally means “let’s go”, but can be used to imply “fine, I’ll deal with it” or “forget about it”.
National Drink: Chai! India without tea is like Russia without vodka.
Most Famous Citizen: Gandhi, famed for his anti-violence philosophy in India’s freedom struggle.
Must-see Sight: The Taj Mahal, the mighty Himalayas, the golden desert of Rajasthan, the backwaters of Kerala.
Most Overrated Sight: Hard to say. You either love the chaos of India or you don’t.
Best Stereotype That Isn’t True: “It’s the land of snake charmers.”
Best Stereotype That Is True: “Jugaad”; people always find a way to get something done.