The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Yesterday’s skills for today’s market

Most of Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s clothes for working women with a touch of Bengal were sold out minutes after the doors of the CIMA Gallery opened for the inauguration of Art in Life on Wednesday morning. Actress Rituparna Sengupta inaugurated this exhibition of art and crafts by masters from all over India. For the past few years, the gallery has tried to help traditional artisans and craftsmen to update their skills for the contemporary market. Designs have been simplified to suit urban lifestyles. The outcome of this effort is seen at the exhibition.

The metal artisans of south India were told to produce a many-tiered lampstand without any ornamentation that could be displayed in a modern interior. An artisan, who thought a hooded cobra looked too simple to be marketable, was told to produce them once again for that reason alone. Artist Abhijit Gupta collaborated with the mask carvers of Dinajpur to produce boxes bearing traditional motifs. For the first time, the craftsmen got an opportunity to work with quality wood.

Back in the 70s, Michael Aram from America had lived with tribals for a long time to learn their craft. Today, he uses these traditional techniques to produce beautiful shapes in stainless steel. He has produced vases, knives, candlestands shaped like a branch with flowers, and significantly, a largish piece inspired by the stem of a coconut frond that could be displayed on a dining table. All his designs, often inspired by nature and tradition are quite innovative.

A master weaver was commissioned to produce an ikkat quilt. A tiny paithani piece could be used as a wall hanging. The wood of fast-growing trees was used to produce boxes. Master artisan Ananta Malakar was told to carve a barn owl out of sola pith. He did so for the first time in his life and it looks like ivory.

Born-again Himroo fabrics of Ahmedabad that were killed by powerlooms are on display. Two women have to work for two months to produce a length of this fabric. Many such stories of crafts enjoying a rebirth are linked with this exhibition.

The exhibition strongly upholds tradition as well. The Madhubani puppets of Shiva and Durga, and Narayan are quite as delightful as the famous wall paintings of this Bihar region. Durga with family and menagerie are installed on a large tortoise. This ancient piece is from Bankura. Its contemporary counterparts are also present here. Dokra artisans were commissioned to create a large image of Durga tinted black, something they rarely do.

Bastar is represented by both the older and younger generations. The latter uses two metals. Their forms are spare and unembellished as in the figures of the tribal couple. Old-timers like Jaydev have such a command over their medium that they effortlessly create figures of deities that look very contemporary but are actually steeped in tradition. The exquisitely carved conch shells come from Bishnupur.

CIMA also exhibits innovative pieces by contemporary artists. Anupam Chakrabarty himself produces the paper with which his large lamps are created. Sourabh Basu has created a Durga that looks as if it were made of sheet metal but is actually a cardboard product. Shyamal Roy has created terracotta masks. The gallery has a line of crockery bearing pictures of utensils once indispensable in a Bengali kitchen but now being replaced by gizmos. Perhaps, in future, tradition will exist in such illustrations alone.

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