What you see when you see: Channapatna: Craft, Creativity and the contemporary

A stroll on MG Road will inevitably take us to Cauvery Art and Crafts, a landmark destination for the promotion of crafts in Karnataka. A space that has been nurturing craft that eyes the tourist who wishes to indulge in buying “local” crafts as a mementos, here you find brightly lacquered toys and home accessories from Channapatna.
Tipu Sultan is credited for bringing in Persian craftsmen to establish this craft locally. The historical proof we have is the famous mechanical “Tippoo’s Tiger” of the British soldier being mauled by the Mysore beast.

In 2015 in Delhi, well-known set designer Shashidhar Adapa created a float for the Republic Day that used the Channapatna aesthetic of tubular lacquer turned toys; it acknowledged Tipu Sultan and the craft that had made it to the White House thanks to first lady Michelle Obama.

The small town of Channapatna is also called “Gombaygala ooru” (dolls’ village) that also has a geographical indication the local tradition uses “Aale Mara” and the skill of lathes with a coat of vegetable colours and lac, the forms are basic to the limitations of the cylindrical wood.

Rajeev Sethi is a master of revivalism with the contemporary consumer in mind and a visionary of mega cultural exposition. He is the Renaissance man of Indian design.
In 1985, Sethi envisioned a collaboration between traditional artisans of India and world-famous designers from Europe and America. It was a unique experiment that was a shot in the dark. The challenge to the “less is more” notion of modernist design, a focus on appearance over function, and willy-nilly cross-referencing of historic forms and contemporary materials meant that Memphis quickly became synonymous with postmodernism. Ettore Sottsass, Italian design guru, known as the founder of the early 1980s Memphis Collective, and has also designed iconic products of 20th century, was invited by Sethi whose romance with wood was exotic and exploratory. Sottsass was overwhelmed by Indian architecture with art deco and pop art with a focus on all that is consumer kitsch. The collaboration resulted in vivid and playful designs that combine the eccentric with the eclectic.

In the 1990s, Suryaprakash Gowda set up Design Lab, which was the brainchild of NID-trained designer Vikram Sardesai who said, “India’s incredible wealth of crafts can only be saved by making them utilitarian.” He had also explored design-savvy lifestyle products by using traditional skills such as Etikopakka lacquerware from Andhra Pradesh. A lot of tableware with Hoysala pillar inspired candle stands became popular. Another enthusiastic revival in home products in the sector is seen by Karthik Vaidyanathan’s Varman, of products with twists of animal motifs and contemporary utilitarianism. Well-known product designer Michael Foley’s design firm, known for their innovative product design and sleek contemporary look, has also toyed with the local craft for the market.

Today, the journey of the village of Channapatna has a new vision. The Karnataka government has established a craft park which is a living proof to validate the adage ‘innovate or perish.’ This is geared to support this traditional craftsman’s skill and facilitate export. But it lacks an integral vision. The mass-produced napkin rings and small trinkets had their heydays of making the middle man prosperous. Mindless exports have kept many busy, but it lacks creativity with material and form. What we see now is a mass-produced, export-oriented production that is popular, but lacks creativity and the subtle finish of this craft.

The future of a craft that is culture specific and has its limitations need investment in research and development to make it utilitarian for contemporary needs, to understand the material possibilities and limitations of demand and supply. In an age where copyright of design is almost non-existent, designers are challenged by cheaper copies. This craft cluster is geared to support the traditional craftsman’s skill and development and facilitate export. But it lacks an integral vision. One sees eclectic influences of Japanese toys of “Kokeshi” that is a result of craftsmen being trained in Japan.

Atul Johri’s work ethic is unparalleled. He has settled down in Channapatna village and works from the grassroots level of understanding the fundamental problems of the sector. He instills faith and pride in craftsmen who work with him. His motto is “innovate or perish”. His minimalist aesthetic understands the fundamental design principles of the craft with local skills of finishing rolex it with gradation of hues in lacquer, known in the Deccani aesthetic as “ton sur ton” in French as ‘tone on tone’, or ‘the combination of different shades of a single colour’ creating harmonious variations of colour and the application of lacquer. Johri has rooted himself in the cultural geography of this craft tradition and believes in projecting the craftsman and his skills to transform his innovations. His symbiotic relationship with Sufi dervish Javid Pasha is crucial.

The end result is a labor of love where creativity marries craftsmanship with the hands that will craft the future of Channapatna’s craft.

(Suresh Jayaram is a visual artist, curator, and art historian. His column features perspectives on the arts)

Article from Bangalore Mirror