A study in letters

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A craft exhibition and a new book by Jaya Jaitley stitch the idea of literacy on the Indian artisan tradition, says Karuna John

Illuminating alphabets An installation on display at the exhibition
Illuminating alphabets An installation on display at the exhibition

SHABIR ALI BEGH’S most prized possession is his steel thimble. Wearing it on the ring finger of his right hand, he uses it to guide the silk-threaded needle as it travels in and out of pashmina, and stores it carefully like jewellery once done. The needle is his second most prized possession. It translates the many patterns Begh conjures in his head into intricately embroidered designs into cloth. And now 35-year-old Begh has a third tool, one he holds in his head but can ply with a needle and thimble — his newly acquired literacy.

It’s a skill he decided to teach himself when contacted by Dastakari Haat Samiti founder Jaya Jaitley to collaborate with her for an exhibition. Jaitley had envisioned a project that celebrated the “Akshara”, using the art of calligraphy to bring together craft styles from across the country. Over 13 languages and scripts were to be used in the ornamental calligraphic style, not just to adorn handcrafted products but to become an intrinsic part of the exhibit itself. As those who participated in or even visited the recently concluded Akshara exhibition mounted in Delhi realised, the concept was, in fact, a celebration of literacy and the empowerment it brings.

Begh’s nimble fingers worked his newfound blessing, as he calls it, onto a stole, the border of which has his new mantra “taalim aadmi ko insaan banati hai (education makes a man human)” embroidered in the exquisitely lush kani sozni style. The calligraphy weaves in and out of a thick carpet of flowers that Shabir and his family have embroidered for generations. “I wanted to know what I was creating, and would sneak into a friend’s house with my kids’ books to learn how to read and write,” says Shabir. Until now, he was forced to carry a letter telling people of his illiteracy when travelling abroad. “I was shy to begin learning how to read and write at this age, but I persevered. I had money and fame, but now I have taalim,” his voice clearly indicating what he valued most.

Akshara was conceptualised by Jaya Jaitley, one of the pioneers of the Indian crafts revival movement. Its roots germinated at a calligraphy workshop she organised in 2007; this was followed by the first calligraphy craft exhibition in Chennai and that, in turn, was followed by the exhibition in Delhi. Jaitley, as the project guide, shared her vision of the theme and the product, but the artists were the ones who interpreted that onto the work, drawing from their own experiences. Over 100 artworks, some functional craft pieces like lamps, clock frames and textiles, were interpreted by 60 artists from 16 states. Together, 21 crafts disciplines — woodcarving, weaving, miniature painting, dokra, papier mâché, bidri inlay work — were strung together like beads using calligraphy as the string. The works and the story of their creation have been documented in Crafting Indian Scripts, a book that accompanied the show. The works will form the core collection that Jaitley hopes to take to other venues. The more an akshara, or letter, travels the more stories it writes.

Karuna John is Associate Editor, Tehelka.com.
karuna@tehelka.com

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