Tribal art exhibited in emporia is insult to tradition

Columnist

dokraThe essential nature of nationalism is unity – not unity forced upon diverse peoples by a dominant race or by caste, but that unity which naturally evolves from the harmonious mingling of cultural and racial roots with a heographic unity.

India’s self-rule was by a dominant brahmanic caste.It never lost sight of its hierarchical advantage and used the advent of freedom and self-rule coupled with globalization to preach internationalism through the castration of indigenous and traditional cultures in India whose evolution as a civilization deserves to be recognized as the genius of her cultural pluralism.

Cultural continuity is the legacy of a nation and the heritage of nationalism. As Ananda Coomaraswamy had observed (Essays in National Ideallism,1911) in regard to nationalism emerging in India to force the British to leave in 1920,

“I do not believe in any regeneration of the Indian people which cannot find expression in art; any reawakening worth the name must so express itself. Only by thus becoming artists and poets, can we again understand our own art and poetry and thereby attain the highest ideals of nationality, and the will and the power to give….art is something more than manual dexterity or the imitation of natural forms … It will matter much whether the great ideals of Indian culture have been carried forward or allowed to die. It is with these that Indian nationalism is essentially concerned and upon these that the fate of India as a nation depends.”

Coomaraswamy understood that art is the soul of a people, that their culture is the life-blood of a people, their identity, irrespective of caste, creed, or colour of skin. Then Coomaraswamy gives his verdict masterfully:

“Our struggle is part of a wider one, the conflict between the ideals of Imperalism and the ideals of Nationalism… Imperialism involves the subordination of many nationalities to one; a subordination not merely political and economic but also moral and intellectual. Nationalism is inseperable from the idea of Internationalism recognizing the rights of and worth of other nations to be even to one’s own .”

Here is an analysis by one of the world’s master-minds.

The nonsense appearing today as traditional or tribal art in the emporia and art galleries of India is not only an insult to these traditions but to our sensibility as a people, and an insult to the first sources and original expressions of the tribal and non tribal ancient traditions of India.

Today these traditions live largely in the poorest regions of the country where they are kept alive by the most marginalized people . What we are seeing in the emporia and crafts shops today are the cheap “ethnic” trivia.These are being lapped up by the urban clientiele who use them under the cover of “cultural revolution” with the result that it becomes ever more fashionable to extol past traditions.

Verily,the western values and perceptions have entered the world of the sacred traditions and are marketing them in a new light through the modern arts. The traditional art-forms go back to village roots and through the slow degeneration of the village have entered the domain of the urban, even entering the drawing rooms of the elite.

Thus we have a bazaar idea of what ethnicity and its creations mean. This is unfortunate since it loses sight of the higher values implicit in these creations.

The sublime status of tribal art in traditional village houses of forested areas is fashionably glamorized in the western manner and commandeered by designers and architects as decorative features (i.e. plastic flowers in a Ming vase!). Traditional art producing societies have no copyright protection and design institutes are plagiarizing these original ethnic designs by printing them on bed-sheets and ceramic ware.

The crudity of innovation in the garb creativity has made our institutes of design plagiarize and reassemble these sacred motifs in the most shocking manner. There is an open abuse of indigenous art in India (unlike in Australia where copyright is strictly Aboriginal) and this is alarming. It is not an expression of cultural Internationalism which is possible only in creations by the tribal artists themselves in international forums.

Look what we have done to the traditional Indian villages! We have physically destroyed them through a variety of destructive development projects; we have forcibly displaced their inhabitants through big destructive projects like mines, dams, road widening,and so on.

We have challenged the imagination of the villagers through television, internet and advertising. The media has confused them more with a diverse reportage of events they cannot comprehend. The computer has brought a new language in their midst and open pornographic sites have completely upset the moral values of our nation.

Their arts and crafts have been destroyed through industrial products and the traditional crafts are on the wane as useful items associated with village culture, and have become simply tinsel trash for the urban rich. The potter and the metal-caster, the iron-smith and the carpenter, the weaver and the basket-maker have lost their place in the village society and made redundant through the commercial manufacture. The new tastes have been attributed to “progress” and the more that is destroyed of the traditional world that much is seen as the advancement of the modern…

The weaver, the metal-worker, the ironsmith and the carpenter, the basket maker and the potter, are up against cheaper objects produced by machines, cheaply available. We call this progress. Have we considered the cost to the nation in terms the loss of our cultural heritage ?

Have we considered it in terms of the loss to the artisan traditions ? In our haste to imitate the west have we not lost a bit of ourselves ? Have we calculated the costs to the nation in environmental and social terms in producing these cheap commercial goods ? Coomaraswamy a century ago, when the trend first appeared called this “the prostitution of art to the tourist trade”.

When we look to the modern villages of industrialized India we find slums and shameful poverty instead of the beauty of the traditional houses. There has been no evidence in modern India of great indigenous art except from the earlier traditional rural and forest dwellings – the art of the Gonds and Marias, of the Adivasis or Backward castes, the Warlis or the Gujarat tribes, the Madhubani village paintings, or the art of the Patkars and Santals in their homes. The crafts work which one sees—dokra metal casting, terracotta, shell work or wood carving; basketry, weaving, or metal work; no matter where it may be the modern boutique work is third-rate examples of the originals. These objects have been mechanically and industrially produced and have no relevance to the old craft form.

They are an exercise in repetition and command correspondingly cheap prices. They cannot be counted as works of art or craft. There is none of the original tradition, the simplicity and beauty of a continuing tradition that marks the original handiwork.

This has become a field of lucrative commercial exploitation for the boutique owner or the crafts entrepreneur whether in India or abroad. The very designs and images themselves are foreign to the villages or pale imitations unrecognized by the foreign buyer. The traditional arts and crafts have been swamped by these industrially produced trash craft objects masquerading under the name of “village arts” It is no doubt a profitable business for the entrepreneur but has no place in the eyes of a connoisseur. It is an expression of crass western materialism which is destroying traditional arts and crafts If the traditional crafts, which are expressions of cultural nationalism, are on the wane, then how can nationalism be in the ascendant ?
On the contrary, the spirit of nationalism in India is rapidly dying as we have begun to worship the products from the West. In the absence of nationalism how can a civilization survive ? And in the absence of its civilization how can India survive ?

The times we are witnessing across the whole of the country are times of revolt against westernism on the one hand and acceptance to it on the other. Even as Indian nationalism in the form of Hinduism and Islam revolted against British-Christian conversion in the Mutiny of 1857, so too today another revolution is taking place across the nation against foreign material religion and economic domination imposed by the West. It is a rebellion which has wrongly been attributed to a particular sect or philosophy. It is a revolt of the Indian genius itself.

The impossible dream of turning Indian handcrafts into mass-produced items is a delusion. Crafts which once sustained the economies of 600,000 villages cannot be turned into mechanical industries by a few selfish NGOs even with all the government support in the world.

For,the crafts of India were born in the womb of the village culture and economy as objects of purpose and function, not decoration pieces. They were produced and traded through guilds (much as in Old Europe) and their proper place was in the village fair, and their proper customer was the villager, not the foreign tourist market. Today there is a market for stylish “Ethnic” products which if it was not so childish would seem obscene.

I write from the view-point of an idealist cultural nationalism for I wish to present what we are destroying for a petty and short term gain. To lose an ounce of India’s cultural nationalism is like losing an ounce of human blood… it is priceless. Money can be made and lost in countless ways, but the loss of an ounce of India’s national culture is unbearable! If we allow it to happen we destroy ourselves. Upon these demands do the revolutionary promptings in our villages find their inspiration and strength.

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