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Crafts of India & the Delhi Metro: an Unlikely Conversation

Artist and title: unknown

The city is an exciting space in which traditional and modern narratives collide to create fresh dialogue. The introduction of art in public spaces is something that is a guaranteed catalyst for such conversations to emerge and grow, provided people are allowed to interact with it free from the imposed agendas of the establishment. It is in this context that I find the Crafts of India Galleries at the INA Metro Station in Delhi, particularly interesting.

As a city that is struggling to preserve the Old while not entirely rejecting the New, the face of Delhi has changed at a pace faster than most would care to admit. At the very heart of this flux, for the past ten years, has been The Delhi Metro. It has become an institution in itself, having changed forever how people will commute in this unforgiving city of wide-roads and no sidewalks. The metro stations have become hubs of activity and important landmarks in the landscape of Delhi. So when I heard that the DMRC had teamed up with the Ministry of Textiles to transform one of its stations into a public museum of sorts, I was intrigued. Even more so when I heard that it was to be a permanent display of a variety of Indian folk-art, craft and textile traditions.

The station of choice for this novel venture was quite smartly, the INA metro station on Aurobindo Marg. A stone’s throw away from Dilli Haat – Delhi’s go-to crafts bazaar – this was for the ministry, a perfect fit. A cursory glance at the text panel makes it clear that while on one hand the idea is to “…introduce viewers to the treasures of authentic cultural wealth, highlighting the immense possibilities of art within the domain of hand and skill based technology,” it is equally important that “Commuters may appreciate the wealth of Indian crafts and be motivated to purchase products from the vast variety of artifacts in the close vicinity of the Dilli Haat”

The galleries (and the station) were opened to the public on 1st September 2010, ahead of the Commonwealth Games held recently in Delhi. 58 panels dedicated to Indian folk-art, craft and textiles have been displayed along the station concourse on the upper level, taking up space that would ordinarily be given over to advertisers.

Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit inaugurates the Crafts of India Gallery

Since most government backed ‘art’ projects in the past have been singularly lacking in taste, I was skeptical. And after the CWG-Shera-topiary debacle across the city, I was quite worried. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the tasteful restraint with which the artworks had been displayed. And to say the least, the coldness of the architecture has been offset by the vibrancy of the craft work.

According to the information panel at the entrance, the works on display fall into these categories- “Tribal, Folk and Traditional Painting, Techniques of Surface Decoration and Embroidery & Printing.” It’s a mixed-bag where Warli rubs shoulders with Gond and Patua sits comfortably next to Pithora, along with others like Patachitra, Madhubani, Sanjhi, Mata Ni Pachedi, Rogan Kala, Dhokra and Terracotta murals in one section. In the textile gallery there’s Ajrakh printing, Phulkari embroidery, Chamba Rumal, Patola weaving, Kasuti, Kanjeevaram, Banarasi brocade, Barmer and Kutchi embroidery.

The panels are for the most part well-lit and allow the 8′ x 6′ artworks to stand out. Some like the electric Phad painting from Rajasthan with its luminous reds are impeccably executed. The Patachitra with its incredible use of sepia toned panels, the glazed terracotta mural from West Bengal, so reminiscent of a Jamini Roy painting, the beautifully lustrous appliqué quilt from Gujarat – in the age of mass-produced digital images – are triumphantly unique.

The juxtaposition of distinct styles, techniques and materials used in each artwork is a bold move. The discerning and patient viewer would wonder at the simultaneous similarities and differences between a Patachitra, Patua and a Kalighat painting and marvel at the fantastic harvest narrative within the Warli. But he/she may be less than impressed with the under-represented Southern and notably absent Northeastern states. Time and again in this country when dealing with the idea of diversity, a ‘Kashmir to Kanyakumari’ approach has homogenized even the most sincere attempt by government agencies. Sadly, the Crafts of India galleries at the INA station are no exception.

It is clear from the manner of the display that the objective is not to educate but to familiarize by creating a kind of visual catalogue. There is no supporting text or information (except for the particular style of painting or textile and the state of its origin) – not even the artist’s name. So how then do we view these pieces, if not as merely being indicative of a much larger folk/tribal tradition? Each individual panel becomes little more than a large replica of a collectible to adorn the walls of urban homes and corporate offices. As just another pretty picture, the more vernacular narrative of a Santhal painting or Kanjeevaram Sari is submerged in this new, fluid urban context – one where constant movement and consumption of resources are the prime denominators around which relationships are organized.

In my multiple visits to the station there were only a few people who spent some time looking at each panel. Linger too long, and one would invariably be questioned by a security guard or one of the station staff. No photography is allowed. Even taking notes was suspect. *

It made me wonder about the kind of a relationship the space and the people who use it, had with the art so diligently displayed. Is this passing glimpse of Indian visual culture enough of an engagement in the public sphere? Is the commercial imperative behind this initiative diluting what could be a more vigorous, vibrant and lasting exchange? How uninhibited can one’s interaction with an artwork be, in a space that is regulated and controlled by a number of prohibitive rules that restrict movement and dictate behaviour? Gautam Bhatia in his article titled ‘From India Gate to Cloud Gate’ provides an interesting perspective as to why this might be:

“Because public self- scrutiny is a wholly un- Indian idea, most urban art in India is picturesque and meaningless. Unconnected to the city, it has the same aesthetic quality as winter flowers at a roundabout – colourful, manicured, distant – just another form of beautification”

In that regard a truly successful public art initiative was the 48Celsius Public.Art.Ecology festival organised by the KHOJ International Artists’ Association and the Goethe Institut and Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi, in 2008. It understood fundamentally, that public art should find a way to involve people in a dialogue, not keep them at a distance.

Placing these age-old artistic traditions in the nerve-center of urban chaos – a metro station – is a radical idea. But it is one that needs more imagination and daring in its execution. For now the beautiful paintings, murals and textiles remain just that – charming objects to be looked at from a safe distance without getting involved. ‘Look, but don’t touch’.

Despite its flaws, the gallery at the Metro station deserves to be noticed for setting a precedent. It is a brave attempt to introduce an alternative point-of-view within the dominant one. Cities across India today seem to be facing a crisis of identity, erupting in the form of architectural vulgarity and an ocean of kitsch. The landscape of Delhi is littered with such metropolitan monstrosities in the form of new office buildings for the government, housing colonies and random, disparate attempts at ‘beautification’. Like a bull in a china-shop the civic authority goes around erasing the past, without giving us anything worth remembering for the future. It is in this space – the limbo of a city in transit – that initiatives like the Crafts of India Galleries become doubly important, because they are an opportunity to steer the conversation about urban aesthetics in a more meaningful direction. So that even within the visual monolith of urban-space, pockets of diversity can flourish and grow, to create lasting memories.

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* Editor’s Note: Our regular readers will note the distinct lack of photographs and images supporting this article. We’d like to re-iterate here that Mandakini tried really hard to take pictures of this “public” exhibition but was warned (and probably threatened) by the security guards not to so much as think of snapping even a touristy momento. This just goes to show the levels of babu-ism and control that seem to infect every kind of government initiative in India. A whopping 1.8 crores of someone’s taxes paid for this exhibition, but we are told that one can’t be allowed to take a picture of a metro station.

Nevertheless, if you’re plucky enough to take a quick picture or two, we invite you all to send them in to us at littledesignbook[at]gmail[dot]com, and we’ll post them up here to support Mandakini’s review. Come now Delhites! Surely one of you has a phone camera to spare for a bit of stealth photography!

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Mandakini Menon is a filmmaker and cinephile, although her first love is writing. She has been working in Delhi on numerous commissioned film projects as well as some independent ventures which include a short fiction film that she has co-directed and edited. When not actively making (or watching) films Mandakini draws, sings, blogs and writes.

She is insatiably curious about anything to do with cinema, sociology, history, literature and Martin Scorsese. Some of her random musings can be found on her blog Thinkaloud where she vents, ponders, questions and wonders.



3 Comments

  1. Sanjay Basavaraju wrote:

    Wonderfully written review. Write more.

  2. Mridu Mehta wrote:

    Very eloquently written piece Mandakini! I too was disappointed at how distant the pieces were from the passing commuters. And no, I wasn’t able to sneak a picture either!

  3. Subhadra Menon wrote:

    Fabulous piece, Mandakini. Some months ago, with aching feet after a jaunt around Dilli Haat (I particularly like the phrase you use to describe the Haat), I was clumsily tumbling down the stairs to the train, dying to get home to a steaming cup of tea. My attention was arrested by the panels you so eloquently (and knowledgeably) describe. Thanks for this piece that tells me more, and revives my interest in going back to the station to take a closer look. Making art to make a difference is difficult, and every beginning in Delhi is only to be celebrated.

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