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A love letter to India

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Fabrics, jewellery and lamps are among the 100-odd exhibits on display

Look at any regional alphabet, the words, the scripts - even if you're not familiar with the language, you're bound to notice 'art' in them, " says crafts impresario Jaya Jaitly, the woman behind Dastkari Haat Samiti and Delhi's famous crafts market, Dilli Haat. "There's no point in our craftspersons doing polka dots and bows and other such ridiculous designs, " she says. "We've had enough of that and it's time to start something different. "

That something different is what is on display at Akshara: Crafting Indian Scripts, an exhibition organised by Jaitly to bring together craftsmanship and calligraphy. "In sync with the country's goal to move towards literacy, we wanted to do our bit and give craftspersons a new direction - make them appreciate the beauty in letters and also use it in their work, " says Jaitly. Sitting in her tastefully done up office, ornamented with beautiful objet de craft from across the country, she remembers how she initially faced "a bit of a hurdle". "Talk to them about education and their lack of self-worth surfaces, " she says. The idea was to work on this, "educate them bit by bit, improve their writing skills and then take it a step forward into calligraphy".

It was a slow march but the over hundred exhibits on display, that use 14 languages including Gurmukhi, Marathi, Gujrati, Assamese and Sindhi, prove that it's worked.

Jaitly started with a workshop for about 30 kaarigars (craftsmen) at Kalakshetra in Chennai. "Used to their traditional way of working, they were visibly excited at the vast opportunities that were unfolding for them - be it in blockprinting, weaving, stone carving, etc, " says Jaitly, pointing to a lamp that has calligraphed messages in the shape of a tree and a peacock.

"Through this, we want to show people that we can create both folk art and museum-quality pieces as well. " Jaitly would like nothing better than for UNESCO to take note of this exercise. "They have a programme to preserve languages, with 2, 000 of the world's 6, 000 existing languages on the verge of dying. With this exhibition, that has a painted cupboard, notebook covers, mirror frames, papier mache and bowls made of carved stone, among other works, we want to tell them that we have this treasure and that this is one way we are going to preserve our languages here. "

Artisans were encouraged to draw inspiration from meaningful words they used in their lives, and from phrases and stories they grew up listening to and to observe the shape of letters and words and translate them into art. One craftsman drew inspiration from a ruled notebook and wove a white sari with black stripes. A potter from Auroville, Pondicherry, was struck by a line from union minister P Chidambaram's speech: 'Whatever people might say, I will continue to do good work. ' "I told him to incorporate that into his creation. And you should have seen his glee when he finished, " Jaitly says. Another bidri craftsman created a paper knife and on it inscribed the words, 'Don't be over-sharp' - "a message not just for the knife alone, " she laughs.

Raj Kumar, a craftsman who has been carrying on his family tradition of making silver jewellery, attended the initiation workshop and was hooked. "After a visit to Chennai, I have been fascinated by the Tamil alphabet, " says the Delhi artist who can neither speak nor understand Tamil. "The artistry of this script is amazing - it comes out so well in my silver jewellery. " The 36-year-old "high school-pass student" says his craft has got a new lease of life with these rich new inputs. That's something Apindra Swain, a patachitra artist from Raghuraj Pur in Orissa, agrees with. "I may have studied only till class seven, but am enjoying playing with letters, " says the soft-spoken 30-year-old artist who used Oriya letters to create a glass painting for this exhibition. "Until now, we used only very traditional figures but I'm enjoying exploring new avenues. "

Other craftspersons who were too shy to discuss their ideas got an encouraging prod from Jaitly. A group of weavers from Benaras came up with words they associated with their work and education - kapda (cloth), kargha (loom), kagaz (paper) and kalam (pen) - which were then worked into a stole.

Mura Collective, an organisation known for its adaptation of the Japanese 'shibori' technique that is a delicate form of bandini, has made a set of duvets for the exhibition. "We zeroed in on Tibetan characters, " says Prabha Gehtori, a team member. "We chose a Buddhist saying: 'When a lotus bud closes, water lilies open', which means that when one door closes, a small window opens... We thought the message was technically challenging, visually attractive and should be part of our design. " It certainly seems to have worked. Impressed by an ikat stole decorated with the Telegu alphabet, a college in the US promptly ordered 400 as gifts for delegates at a forthcoming conference.


The exhibition will be on from September 16-21 at the IHC

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