Sitting in the workshop of a block printer is a musical experience. The tap-tap-tap and rhythmic haat-chaap of hands moving up and over, hitting down on a smooth piece of carved wood, is percussion. Your heartbeat finds itself in sync with the subtle stamping of printers at work. Men washing cloth that’s been dyed in bright indigo or rich madder hit wet cloth against a stone to dry it, the fabric slapping in a short staccato tone that finds a way to repeat in your brain even after you’ve walked away. Over the past three months I’ve had the chance to sit with block printers all over Kachchh, getting a chance to peer into the complexities of craft industries in India. Finally I understand that so much of what I see at home comes from the hands of artisans millions of miles away.
Recently I went back and read an old article that mentioned handicraft as a thread that weaves India together. Each region of this vast country is creating work that is simultaneously local while participating in a national tradition of the homemade. I am reminded often of Gandhi, who encouraged everyone to weave the khadi, not only as a sign of resistance against the British, but also to connect people through a physical and meditative practice. However, making handmade crafts has existed in South Asia long before Gandhian philosophies. The Indus Valley Civilization made hand-dyed cloth and clay items as early as 2500 BCE.
Today, I think that handicraft is truly a thread that weaves the world together. Half the time, it would be impossible to know that the products just at your fingertips, displayed elegantly on store countertops or packed away in plastic packaging from an online purveyor of goods, are really hand-crafted in a workshop and passed through a series of hands before being sent in your direction. The forum for the handmade is global. Ventures like WE’VE and Etsy make craft accessible in ways unparalleled throughout history. The artisans here in Kachchh have extended beyond block printing into business, navigating client relationships on a worldwide level.
But, these days the word “artisan” is applied too liberally, and now its lost its value. Today there are even artisanal hamburgers at McDonalds. Before all the media hubbub and market hype, “artisan” simply meant handmade. It might surprise a person just how much of what they purchase in mainstream American stories comes from the hands of others. Clothes, kitchen supplies, food products… you name it, and there’s a good chance it was handcrafted by someone else, maybe in your backyard and maybe halfway across the globe. I have a finite memory in my headspace of walking into a store with my mother and realizing that all of the textiles came from Indian printers, which I only recognized after spending a substantial amount of time in Rajasthan.
Long ago, there was a tradition of ‘pheriya’ here in Kachchh, in which artisans would travel across the arid grasslands to villages selling their cloth. They knew their clients so well that they would go to their weddings, and they would make goods for them before an order was even placed. Old textiles can still be found that mark the name of the client and the date of the product, printed before the item was even sold. Craft would go from the artisan’s hands and into the client’s hands directly. Now, things are different. In the past year handicrafts exports in India have gone from a net value of $189 million to $205 million, reaching global buyers in the US, China, and South America. The artisan’s name is detached from their work. Their pieces travel many miles, across hemispheres, before finally arriving at their destinations.
One thing living in Kachchh has taught me is that handmade work is special. It is not special because it is made in a place lingering in the past. How could a person claim that after visiting Kachchhi towns, where the whatsapp ring tone seems to be blaring from every direction? Handicraft is not even special because it took more time to produce or because it will last longer. Handmade craft is special because it is emblematic. Handicrafts are iconic of populations. They are icons that act as beautiful, usable reminders of a community. The Ajrakh pattern of the Khatris acts like the stars and stripes, and while Ajrakh may appear on kurtas and quilts rather than flowing on a flag up high, it doesn’t diminish its power as an emblem for the people. The prints used in modern Kachchh are used in new ways, in new combinations, and they are given new life. They are sold off to new clients. But, the design of the print remains a consistent, unwavering nod to the people who make it.
As the population shifts and changes, so does the craft itself – forever in flux just as the people are in flux. What remains the same is that craft is used as a reminder of local and community identity. It feels worth remembering that handicraft has meaning beyond the craft itself. It is indicative of a people, a history, and a future. Every cloth has a story attached to it. Today’s stories about the handmade are profound because they bridge local makers and art making communities with a global marketplace, breaking down the binary between micro and macro, village and world, the maker and the many.