Cultural genocide?


TWO extended quotations provide a context for discussion. The first is from a traveller’s account, ‘Voyage to the East Indies’ published in the mid-17th century. It describes the state of Indian artisanship at a time when India was celebrated as ‘the wealthiest colossus of the world’:

‘The natives there shew very much ingenuity in their curious manufactures, as in their silk stuffs, which they most artificially [ingeniously] weave, some of them very neatly mingled with silver or gold, or both. As also in making excellent quilts of their stained cloth, or of fresh-colored taffata lined with their pintadoes (prints or chintz), or of their sattin lined with taffata, betwixt which they put cotton wool, and work them together with silk…

‘They make likewise excellent carpets of their cotton wool, in fine mingled colours, some of them three yards broad, and of a great length. Some other richer carpets they make all of silk, so artificially mixed, as that they lively represent those flowers and figures made in them. The ground of some other of their very rich carpets is silver or gold, about which are such silken flowers and figures as before I named, most excellently and orderly disposed throughout the whole work.

‘Their skill is likewise exquisite in making of cabinets, boxes, trunks, and standishes, curiously wrought, within and without; inlaid with elephants’ teeth, or mother-of-pearl, ebony, tortoiseshell, or wire; they make excellent cups and other things of agate or cornelian, and curious they are in cutting of all manner of stones, diamonds as well as others. They paint staves or bedsteads, chests or boxes, fruit dishes, or large chargers, extremely neat, which, when they be not inlaid, as before, they cover the wood, first being handsomely turned, with a thick gum, then put their paint on, most artificially made of liquid silver, or gold, or other lively colours, which they use, and after make it much more beautiful with a very clear varnish put upon it.’

Moreover, most remarkably, as a number of foreign travellers at different times noted, all this ‘excellent quality of products’ was truly a marvellous display of handskills for it was achieved with the simplest and most basic tools; the Indian attainment, in fact, represented a ‘complete victory of manual skills over tools and equipment.’ That was till the mid-17th century.

In 1880, George Birdwood (then Art Referee of the Indian Section of the South Kensington Museum), could still describe, even while recording the onset of its destruction, the extant crafts practice of Indian artisans as being in a ‘tradition of a system of decoration founded on perfect principles, which they have learned through centuries of practice to apply with unerring truth.’



Now, here is the Indian crafts scene summarised in ‘India’s Artisans: a status report’ prepared by SRUTI, a Delhi-based NGO, in 1995:

‘The current state of India’s artisans is a matter of grave concern. These proud and industrious artisans were once the backbone of the Indian economy, providing much of the goods and services that our people needed. Today, these very artisans have been marginalised by the "modernisation" and "industrialisation" of society. Though some have managed to adapt to changing times, and a few have even thrived, most of them live in abject poverty with no prospects for a better tomorrow.

‘Whereas the world must go on and things must change, the tragedy for the artisans is that most of these changes are not evolutionary, but brought about by external forces or influences, aimed at serving microscopic interests and replicating alien cultures and lifestyles. Therefore, the artisans have been deprived of those "stepping stones of history" which would have enabled them to move with the times, and to gradually adapt their skills and technology to changing circumstances. They have been denied the opportunity, not only to be a part of the "modernisation" and "industrialisation" process, but to contribute to it.

‘As a result, today most of India’s artisans are struggling for survival. Many have given up, and moved away from their traditional occupations. Others cling on desperately, not knowing what else to do or to whom to return. Their skills, evolved over thousands of years, are being dissipated and blunted. Their progeny are not willing or able to carry on the family tradition, and a rich culture is on the verge of extinction.

‘The new economic and industrial order that is emerging concedes no space to the artisanal sector. The powerful marketing machinery that is a concomitant of such an order progressively expands markets for "modern" goods and services at the cost of the ‘artisans’ markets. The research and development efforts in the new order are oriented towards developing capital-intensive processes which replace age old, human friendly, processes, rather than adapt them…

‘Given the force of national and global economic trends, it is time to rethink the role of the artisanal sector in the Indian economy, and put it on the national agenda. If, as the trends indicate, this sector can only survive in pockets, then the nation’s resources would be better spent in identifying and strengthening those pockets. To the extent this results in the unemployment of large numbers of artisans outside such pockets, a national initiative is required to reorient their skills and rehabilitate them. For, craft skills built up over centuries are an important national resource that cannot be jettisoned as dead-weight.’

What happened in these three and a half centuries that reduced India to a so-called ‘developing’ or ‘Third World’ country? What happened to all that wealth that made the Indian subcontinent one of the richest lands on earth? What happened to the centuries of crafts tradition and practice?



The word ‘manufacture’ is from the Latin for ‘made by hand’, and India had a highly successful manufacturing economy. What happened, then, was the deliberate destruction by British colonial rule of this manufacturing economy and this, in the words of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘is the real, the fundamental, cause of the appalling poverty of the Indian people.’

As the SRUTI report indicates, this destruction is not yet complete. Its assessment, dismal enough, is that the artisanal ‘sector can only survive in pockets.’ It is wrong there. It cannot survive at all.



For evidence, one has only to ask where the traditional artisans of Europe have gone. The traditional artisans of the Indian subcontinent are destined to the same end, and for much the same reasons. The Kashmir jamawar embroiderers are extinct. There are only three surviving families that still weave the Patan double ikat patola. Only one family survives that still makes the traditional Delhi blue pottery. There is only one surviving family that can still attempt the more complex laheriya tie-dyeing of Jaipur. And there is only one man in the entire Punjab who can still make the folk-sarangi. Paithani weaving of Aurangabad, kasuti embroidery in Karnataka, Chamba rumal embroidery in Himachal Pradesh, Farrukhabad silk printing in Uttar Pradesh, Toda embroidery in the Nilgiris, metal blockmaking in Varanasi, and many more crafts teeter on the edge of survival. Such is the contemporary state of crafts and traditional technologies in India.

In India today, we frequently hear loud and nationalistic noises about the strength and resilience of Indian culture and civilisation. Our civilisation, like many other pre- modern ones, is what may be called a terracultural civilisation, that is, it is rooted in dharti mata, literally, ‘mother earth’. The modern experience of the West and our own experience of the last 350 years lead inescapably to the conclusion that Indian culture as it is traditionally and commonly understood is doomed, just as all non-western cultures are doomed; that, seeded in Renaissance Europe and flowering in the New World of America from where it is rapidly spreading over the globe is a culture whose core-characteristics are rugged individualism, aggressive competition, and unfettered industrialism in which the human can be described as ‘Homo agonisticus’.

These characteristics are completely opposed to those of the local and traditional cultures which it cannibalises. It is well to remember that there is no example known so far of any non-western culture escaping or surviving it. Even Japan, one of the most insular of nations has succumbed – a few of its artisans are preserved as ‘national living treasures’; their communities have vanished. The McDonaldisation of China is well underway. What hope, then, can India have with its open borders and skies?



The modern western worldview is the contemporary expression of the divine injunction recorded in the Old Testament to ‘subdue’ and ‘have dominion over’ the earth and ‘over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ It must be the correct world-view because, over the centuries, the West has indubitably subdued and exercised dominion over most of the earth. First it did so militarily and politically, now it does so culturally and ideologically. Victorian England in her time was the world’s most powerful nation and therefore was considered the then acme of human and cultural evolution. Today this position is occupied by the United States of America. It is natural to kowtow to those more powerful and, by that fact, superior to one, and we copy the American way with fatal consequences for the craftspeople of our country.

The American anthropologist Lucy Garretson identified the essential character of American culture as the transformation of nature by rationality. It is now the model for the rest of us. But one can see what it does to us. If, as a terraculture, we believe we are part of nature and must live within her, by definition we are irrational, and consequently less evolved. In contrast to the western, the basic character of terracultures is a comprehension of nature and an endeavour to live in harmony with her.



Notice this in dance symbolism? Our dances are barefooted because we are dancing on our mother earth, we respect her, and the movements of our feet reinforce our connection to her. We derive our strength from her. And when our feet thump her, we remove our shoes which may hurt her. In contrast, the movements of the shod feet in ballet have steadily evolved to raise the dancers above the earth, to escape from the earth. Implicit in the description of our dances as ‘exotic’ or ‘Oriental’ is their ‘ethnicity’. But has anyone ever heard ballet being described as ethnic? No, for it belongs to western culture which is (or should be) the universal norm!

If this appears far-fetched, consider artistic expression in gymnastics, synchronised swimming and similar games in the Olympics, all drawn from western conceptions of physical capability. The movements and music are all drawn from western dance and music. Why does no participant from any of the non-western countries attempt a performance with dance or music drawn from their own cultures? The answer is obvious – the rules are made by the West, and the day has yet to dawn when non-western cultural expression will be allowed and really acknowledged as creatively equal, or even superior.

This attitude, this approach, is possibly true all across the spectrum of western culture which is modern culture. The crafts in India emerged from and flourished as the earth centred culture of which they were a part and expression flourished. It is inevitable that they will wither away as the earth-centred belief system withers away. And, as a culture withers, its practitioners die, the customs and usages die, the symbols and languages die, and ultimately its culture-bearers and core values die – or, at any rate, some of its superficial attributes will be preserved as curiosities in ‘reservations’ such as the ones for American Indians, or in the ‘zonal cultural centres’ that modern India is setting up.



This is not to present a rosy, romantic view of tradition and a harsh critical view of modernity. Tradition has its evils and cruelties just as modernity has its blessings and advantages. Whatever the merits and demerits, our present concern is with the artisan and, for long term good or ill we do not know, but modernism and traditional community based artisanal culture rarely survive together.

In modern culture, creative and artistic expression is not community based, but essentially individual based. Earlier, creative expression was for the community’s sake, and expressed a collective meaning understood by the community. Production itself was often a community activity:

In Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), for example, the production of an enamelled huqqa base would involve several different specialized skills, each practised by a different craftsman. One man (sunar) made the object; another (chitrakar or nakshiwalla) marked out the surface design; a third (chatera) chiselled away the depressions in the design needed to hold the enamel; a fourth (minakar) carried out the actual enamelling; a fifth (jilasaz) polished the object; a sixth (mulamasaz) might gild it, while a seventh (jaria, muasiakar, kundansaz) might set any stones required by the design. Successful teamwork of this sort clearly relies on a strong underlying design concept and a high degree of stylistic coherence, as well as a feeling of technical harmony amongst those responsible for each stage of the process.

The products today that resemble the kinds of products made earlier, or are derived from the techniques that made them are called ‘crafts’ or ‘folk art’. This is opposed to ‘fine art’ which is art claimed to be for its own sake, and in which the artist claims the inherent right to determine the validity and meaning of artistic expression.



The number of persons in India engaged in such fine art is minuscule, and their cultural impact is yet to be felt in any significant way. The number of persons in India engaged in traditional crafts was conservatively estimated at 9.5 million in 1961, reduced to 7.4 million in 1980 and, decreasing at the same (or, probably, a higher) rate must be, say, five million at the turn of the century. Even as their cultural importance is rapidly dwindling, the artisan population in India remains greater than the population of many European nations, and their human relevance must be of the highest significance to us because they are, quite literally, dying.

For example, reports make the newspapers regularly of suicides by starving weavers in Andhra Pradesh, which has a cybertechie chief minister who prefers to call himself ‘chief executive officer’ in the American manner. While the situation is not yet as desolate as that described in 1834 by Lord William Bentinck, the English Governor General of India, that their ‘misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India,’ the trend is unmistakable. Each death is a diminution of the crafts community, and another log in the funeral pyre of artisan based culture.



The British were the first rulers in the Indian subcontinent whose loyalty remained with their mother country and, for the factory based industrial prosperity of their own country, this loyalty enjoined on them the deliberate destruction of the enormously prosperous manufacturing – ‘made by hand’ – economy of India. As their Macaulay educated successors in independent India, not surprisingly we forward this process, rationalising it as the inevitable extinction of the unworthy before the juggernaut of ‘progress’.

This is most evident in the complete absence over the last 50 years of any conceptual clarity in government planning and policy for artisans. The government simply does not know what to do with them. Expressed are pious exhortations and sanctimonious sentiments, but the plain truth is that we have absorbed the colonial mentality of the people being objects of policy and, coupled with a West oriented officialdom, are at a total loss in dealing with indigenous crafts and culture in any constructive manner.

Officialdom rests content with increasing figures of exports of Indian handicrafts; the steady decline in the actual number of artisans does not make it pause. It is the Indian middle class that from the early 19th century welcomed the use of British machine-made cloth, so contributing to the decline of Indian weaving. A greatly expanded and influential middle class, in tandem with the influential English language media, continues to lead in jettisoning its traditional moorings for the glitter and glamour of the West and, as it does so, it invites our coca-colonisation. What sincere interest can it possibly have in the livelihood of the anachronistic Indian artisan or traditional technologist?

If crafts as culture is almost dead, is there no hope for the five million or so – a few thousands will have died even while this is being read. History teaches us their situation is hopeless, that the modern western scythe mows them down to make its New World. This is what happened in the decimation of the Indians of North America. Now it is the turn of the Indians of India. The Indian subcontinent is home to the world’s last major unbroken civilisation. Its transformation we are experiencing here is a slow cultural genocide. Perhaps the new Information Age that is just beginning to supplant the Industrial Age will, in former American President George Bush’s immortal phrase, create a ‘kinder, gentler nation’. What values will inform it and what kind of human will eventually populate it we can only speculate. Meanwhile, there are these five million artisans still to die.



It is as human beings that, ultimately, we must address the concerns of these millions. Therefore, it is no longer as culture bearers that we must consider them, but as possessors of specific value representing skills which must provide them with a livelihood. The notion of crafts as culture, of a romantic interpretation of the crafts – broadcast by the Festivals of India that failed singularly to promote the economic welfare of the Indian artisan – must be eschewed. Even crafts as industry presents little hope for their survival as what Alvin Toffler calls the Second Wave spends itself.

In the world of the foreseeable future, it is only crafts as values that presents the possibility of at least some of them swimming into the Third Wave. Craftspeople earn from their skills. True, these skills may have a cultural specificity, and where this can be turned to the advantage of the artisan, it must be encouraged. But to insist on the retention of the specificity is to convert artisans – as the Festivals of India did – into historical or tourist curiosities, denying them their stepping stones of history.



In considering crafts as values, we must really consider the skills as symbolizing values, and not the products of these skills. It is these manufacturing skills the exercise of which provides livelihoods – the products are material expressions through which the skill is manifested, and the skill can manufacture different products as need or occasion demands. The profitable exercise of creative skills is possible only be if there is a demand for them. A market for craftskills, therefore, is the first requirement for the five million. When the traditional market that sustained these skills is dying and the new market has little place for them, a market needs to be developed. No matter how small or difficult this market, an effort must be made.

In India, there are five main players in this game, and their roles sometimes overlap: (i) the artisans themselves; (ii) the government; (iii) the business sector; (iv) mediating organisations, which in India are primarily nongovernment organisations or NGOs; and (v) the market.

The government expresses a good deal of sympathy for artisans, particularly around election time, but its actual policies and attitudes have steadily undermined the artisanal sector. When India became independent, the government saw itself as succeeding the maharajas as patron of the arts, but it lost itself among confused and conflicting objectives and there is no likelihood of change here, nor any real institutional desire to change.

The business sector is primarily interested in the making of more money for its owners: artisans are relevant only as long as their skills produce golden eggs. Eventually, what happened to the goose that laid golden eggs? Greedily, it was cut open – and died. There are numerous examples of the shortsightedness of exporter-owners, abetted by the government, killing artisanal geese – Madhubani painting, Sanganer printing, bleeding Madras to name only three. We cannot hope for significant artisanal patronage and support from business.



The traditional client and market operated under what is known as the jajmani or hereditary services exchange system, that is, the production of specific goods was the hereditary right of specific producing communities. Correspondingly, clients were under a socially sanctioned obligation to purchase only from these producers. Odd as this may sound to modern ears, this system had a vital advantage over the modern market system. Even during the worst of times, because producers and patrons had a strong societally enforced bond, there was always some employment for producers.

In the modern market, there is no such bond, and producers must compete with each other for clients. The losing producers therefore have no patrons, and they starve. In the America-driven competitive ideology of impersonal market forces, it is logical, foreseeable, and acceptable that losers fall by the wayside. Fostered by the myth of log cabin to White House, Americans believe, and we educate ourselves to believe, that failure is a consequence of personal weakness and inadequacy. Ignored are social and historical factors that, even in America, control or, at any rate, strongly influence the average individual’s station in life. And, let us face it, most human beings, by definition, are average people.



Aggressive competition has place neither for compassion nor morality; the single most important criterion of worth is money-making, and even artistic ability is usually gauged by the price the object commands. In such a situation, handskills have no inherent significance, unless it can be translated into money. Their creative significance came from a different world-view, and in a market that was part of that worldview. In the post terracultural world, significance has to be injected into handwork, clients cannot be assumed but must be created, and the two ways this is done are through advertising and education.

Advertising is an essential instrument of the modern market system. According to news reports, the amount in 1998-99 as expenditure on advertising in America alone was estimated to be 200 billion dollars! Obviously, advertising interest in handskills or the handcrafted product is only to the extent that they can be exploited to generate a return on this expenditure. Copywriters and mercenaries have much in common; they will write/fight for those who pay them more. Moral, social, cultural, ecological, or human dimensions are relevant only if they can generate more profits.

On the other hand, education is a much deeper and longer term process and those educators are most effective for whom it is a vocation – they believe in what they are teaching, and it is this belief, this conviction, they communicate. It follows then that education, that is, meaningful communication, is the crux of the creation and sustenance of a demand for hand-skills – and so an educative commercial role is the most important one for NGOs in the contemporary Indian crafts scene.

It is a truism in America that the rootless individual seeks social identity through the possession of material objects, and market forces play on this need by projecting social meaning onto consumer products. Yet there is still enormous loneliness and alienation out there. This is only to be expected, since consumer products do not provide existential answers. In the ultimate assessment, we do not look for objects to fill our life; we look for meanings to justify it.



The West scientifically searches for truth, exteriorly, through exploring the worlds outside us. Its confidence is unbounded, even presumptuous. Its rockets soar into the skies, conquering new frontiers; yet their afterblast burns away the spiritual core of that civilisation, leaving a hollow that no amount of luxurious living fills. The West increasingly turns to the East for the spirit – and we too are sending rockets up and away! In the afterblast burn our artisans, farmers, traditional technologists and all those whose lives are tuned into the rhythms of Mother Nature and Mother Earth.

Is this good or bad, right or wrong – who is to say?

We acknowledge the breakdown of the traditional jajmani system. The new customers for handskills are increasingly those whose worldly wants are readily met by industrially-produced goods. The ennui of satiable desire then is sought to be overcome not by advertising the mundanity of an object, but by imbuing it with supra-physical symbolism. Thus, as a modern teenage male in India, I drink celebrity-endorsed fizzy sugared water not because I am thirsty for this healthful drink, but because by drinking it I hope to be identified as being ‘swinging’ and ‘with it’. Or, as a modern teenage female, I wear skin-tight jeans with brand name boots not because they are comfortable in our sweaty climate but because by such clothing I hope to be recognised as ‘cool’.



Our pepsification in American jargon is called ‘visionary selling’ – creating and selling dreams and visions. Copywriters and celebrities have been profitably quick to realise that the new affluent customer needs not an object but a meaning, and the cultural (and colonial) meta-meaning dominant in India remains ‘West is best’. Even though handcrafting traditions are rich in layered meanings, who is to be the copywriter for artisans? And how many artisans can afford to advertise?

In the modern Indian world, institutionally, it is perhaps now the NGO which must remind Indians of the meaning of life. Not the family, which is nuclear and whose members are increasingly self-centred; not religion, since the spiritual is subordinated to the temporal; not schools, since education still follows the industrial model, and there is little evidence of change; and certainly not government or business. The NGO must study and understand the traditional culture of production, it must study and understand the modern culture of consumption and its future, and then it must act as a catalyst between the two by helping traditional artisans adapt their skills to modern markets. It must use its expertise and experience to link the old producers and new consumers through interactive educational and commercial processes.

As modern Indians lose touch with the core value and beliefs of our civilisation, it is for NGOs to remind and educate us of these, how they found expression through the handcrafting process and in handmade objects, how they evolved over 5000 years and can continue to evolve to meet new situations and exigencies, how they gave our existence meaning. And through the communication of this meaning, through meaningful communication, to sustain the idea of community, of humanness and human inter-connectedness and to sensitise us to the meaning of the handcrafting process – a process that has physical, social, cultural, ecological, economic, moral, emotional, human and spiritual dimensions. And through this sensitisation, to a preference for handmade things. In brief, crafts as values.



This is not philosophical speculation. It can be illustrated in many small and practical ways. Consider a very simple and worldly example – home-cooked food. The overwhelming majority of adult Indians will vote for homecooked food as their favourite food. And this is so for a very simple reason – the operative word is ‘home’. There is a whole world of pleasurable meanings associated with home, and not the least is that the food was cooked by caring hands (contrast the industrial ‘untouched by hand’). A second example is clothes stitched or knitted by members of the home. Again, handmade. One can go on – toys made by hand for children’s play, gifts made by hand for festive occasions; in all of them, a common element is ‘made by hand’.

What makes ‘made by hand’ special? It is made by another human being; it is evocative of, or is believed to be evocative of, human feelings that touch the heart; something of the maker always passes into that which is made, be it imagination, skill, or even the drop of blood that stains the fabric when the embroidery needle pricks the finger. Made by hand reminds us of the human connection between producer and consumer and, no matter how high we soar into the skies, it is from earth substances that we are created, and it is to earth substances that we return. Therefore, it is through our connections to this mother earth that we must find meaning for our lives. And, making by hand is one such connection.

State policies and legal enactments can play only supportive or palliative roles. The state can at most be a catalyst, but half a century of free India has shown how ineffectively the state has performed. People cannot be forced to buy the products or skills of artisans and traditional technologists. In the long run, this obviously doesn’t work. People must want to buy them, and this want can only be created through education in its widest sense. There are enough indicators that, in the markets of the Third Wave, ‘handmade’ will represent increasingly valuable meanings. It is for mediating and concerned people and organizations to recognize and start from this opportunity.



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Lucy Garretson, American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective. Wm C. Brown, Dubuque, Iowa, 1976.

Krishen Kumar Kak, Enucleated Universes: an ethnography of the Other America and of Americans as the Other. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Princeton University, June 1990.

Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India. The Signet Press, Calcutta, 1946.

Akhtar Riazuddin, History of Handicrafts: Pakistan-India. National Hijra Council, Islamabad, 1988.

SRUTI, India’s Artisans: a status report. Society for Rural, Urban and Tribal Initiative, New Delhi, 1995.

Oppi Untracht, ‘Indian Silver’, in Mughal Silver Magnificence: XVI-XIXth C. Antalga, Brussels, 1987.