India: Not An Idea, But An Ethos

“Apne hi paani mein pighalna, barf ka mukkadar hai.”

To melt in its own water, is the eventual destiny of an ice cube.

-A dialogue from the 2004 Hindi film, “Swades”

India became a republic 67 years ago. This means as a nation, we are 67 years young. But the history of India as a civilization and culture is around 5000 years old. Our culture is older than our national history and therefore, pervades it. Tolerance for different faiths is an intrinsic part of the Indian ethos and that is evident in the fact that we are a patchwork of different religions and ethnic groups. The culture of harmonious co-existence, with an emphasis on living a life guided by high spiritual ideals- was the DNA that enabled India to emerge as a modern, secular and democratic nation. Our cultural heritage is rich and diverse. We have a variety of foods, costumes, arts, music, dance, architecture and rituals of worship; and all of these constitute the intellectual and aesthetic infrastructure of the people. Or, in simple words, their programming.


Modern life, however, is characterized by new ideals. The new emphasis on sophistication, technical education and the abstract ideal of GDP- towards which all human enterprise and endeavor must be directed, clouded the more culturally pervasive ideal of yoga and moksha (transcendence of limitation by uniting oneself with ‘pure unconditioned consciousness’ and liberation through self-realization). These two ideals call for two very different mindsets. While one reasons with us to systematically and gradually renounce worldly life, the other exhorts us to participate more assertively, pro-actively and deliberately towards the ideal of nation-building, with a focus on external, visible development and progress. Modern India desires this ideal of external development, where the state’s institutions are working with the single-minded goal of an ever-increasing measure of growth and progress.


This dichotomy presented itself as a crisis to the Indian heart and mind, living in post-independence India. On the one hand, all traditional rituals, arts and crafts were designed to align creative work with the ideals of yoga and moksha; while on the other, modern ideals demanded an alignment with the ideals of visible progress, higher standards of living, economic feasibility and profitability. The former, required us to consciously and devotedly live our lives on the principle of faith and thereby gain an internal mastery over the vagaries of worldly tribulations; while the latter required us to dedicate all work to building institutional structures to control, manage and contain the risks posed by an unpredictable world. The new world required objectivity and so, science replaced faith and was seen as leaning towards the truth; and in opposition to faith, that was seen as being baseless belief. Controlled semantics, became a distinctive feature of modern life that was characterized by mass education, broadcasting, censorship and the controlled dissemination of information. These were two distinct and seemingly incongruent ways of life- one being about intrinsic evolution and the other, about extrinsic evolution.


Traditionally, human creativity was characterized by artful expression and therefore, was closely aligned to the ideals of beauty and truth. However, in modern India, which was standing on the premise of scientific achievement, technological advancement and ambitious economic goals- creativity became associated with industry, inventiveness and innovation. Artful creativity, supported by royal and upper-class patronage, for centuries, had been the system that had nurtured- slowly and steadily- the development of sophisticated craft techniques; whereas technological advancements, that afforded an economy the means of mechanized production, slowly relegated craft to being nothing more than the means of catering to sentiment and producing kitsch in a slick world with new semantics for sophistication. The modern nation saw the slow and painstaking craftsmanship of the karigar, as being unsuitable for the ever-increasing demands of the ‘markets’, that were being conceptualized, created and developed at a feverish pace. No longer were we only catering to need, we were catering to want or human desire. Modern life so far, has been driven by ideas of competition, brand building, market share and The Next New Thing and modern India, clearly doesn’t want to be left behind. India is capitalizing its cultural brand and has a large market share in global handicraft exports. This sector is an important one for the Indian economy. It’s one of the largest employment generators. There are 7 million regional artisans and more than 67,000 exporters/ export houses that are promoting regional art and craft in domestic and global markets. India is trying to integrate its cultural heritage to nation-building strategies.


Modern life therefore, is akin to being on a perpetual adrenalin rush! The value system that had created the cultural heritage we are so proud of, no longer exists. We are creating a lot more things and more rapidly than ever. But then we’re also creating rapid obsolescence. The future will have no heritage to be proud of. The difficult questions that face us- a young nation with an ancient past- are:

  1. How do we preserve not just the craft, but also the values that pervade it?
  2. What does innovation, seen in the light of a rich tradition mean? Does it mean the superficial innovation of the form, the technique or the more difficult task of re-interpreting the cultural values that imbue the work, with modern sensibilities?
  3. Modern industries geared towards adoption of new technologies, creation of new markets and the generation of more profit, have re-conceptualized entities. Patrons became customers, who later became consumers, and who have now become users. This has had inadvertent ramifications for the status of the artisan- at first a karigar, then a factory worker, and now-an operator. By what strategies will we support and restore the status of the craftsman?

In the absence of a critical understanding and appreciation of our craft traditions, we may end up destroying the very same cultural capital we are profiting from. Student-designers must be made aware of:

  1. Our rich textile traditions
  2. The ideals, cultural values and social structures that have sustained our crafts.
  3. Their significance and place in our day-to-day lives and the role they play in the crafting of our identity.
  4. How new cultural traits may be mindlessly adulterating and disrespectfully appropriating cultural heritage.


They must gain a knowledge of:

  1. The artisans and their way of life.
  2. How modern systems may have irreversibly damaged their way of life and stripped them of their special social status.
  3. The ways in which these crafts may be protected, nurtured and developed for participation in contemporary markets.
  4. The strategies by which new, empowering semantics may be developed, communicated and disseminated into mainstream consciousness.
  5. New applications of traditional techniques.

Finally, they must experiment with the arsenal of skills available to them and consciously and purposefully develop new forms of craft. Thus, the designer must not just be the creator of new forms, but must also shoulder the responsibilities of becoming the author of new stories, the creative director who will shape new ideas and the convener of modernity’s new creative artists and craftsmen.


References: Indian Handicrafts and Exports;