The Wonderful Artisan I: Through the lens of Shivashanker Narayan

Old photographs are my favorite.
While researching for an exhibition, I recently stumbled upon a whole lot of photographs taken by the photographer Shivashankar Narayan, c. 1870, from the Archaeological Survey of India. He submitted these images to the book “People of India” published by the ASI in eight volumes from 1868 to1875.
They are available today at the British Library.
What a wealth of history!

I am sharing a few of them here, each one beautifully traces back the history of handwork and craft practices from western India.
They are worth our attention.
We have as much to learn from them today as we did before.

01 Worker preparing thread for sari weaving
This image showing a worker crouching beside a spinning wheel [charkha] and paying off thread to a reel at the right, is probably one of the series of views of cotton manufacture shown by Narayan at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873.

01 Worker preparing thread for sari weaving

02 Sari weaving, Western India
This image shows the process of the manufacture of cotton fabrics shown at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873. The weaver sits on the verandah of a house with his legs in a type of hole which contains the lower portion of the machinery which he works with a pedal at his feet. The combs are supported by ropes attached to beams in the roof. In his right hand the weaver holds the shuttle, which contains the thread which passes through the spaces created by the combs, forming the pattern. The principal comb is held in the left hand.

02 Sari weaving, Western India

This type of handloom weaving is still practised here in Kachchh, view an article from the village of Bhujodi here.

03 Gold embroiderers
This image of embroiderers seated at sewing frames was probably an exhibition photograph. These craftsmen are working with thread which has been mixed with gold wire made from gold leaf and then melted onto silver bars and forced through small holes in a steel plate to form very fine gauge wires. The thread is used to embroider a wide range of garments; shawls, scarves, sari and turban borders, shoes, purses, tablecloths and many other items. It was held that metal threads from India were less likely to tarnish than similar products from other sources.

03 Gold embroiderers

04 Gold and silver tape beater at work
The worker here is beating gold and silver wires (tinsel) into flattened tape on a low anvil with a small hammer. The work is carried out extremely quickly and without missing any sections of the wire drawn off the holding reel. The tapes are used as decoration on a wide range of garments and may be sewn onto or threaded through woven fabrics. It was held that metal threads from India were less likely to tarnish than similar products from other sources.

04 Gold and silver tape beater at work

05 Silk design knotters
These silk workers are tying pieces of silk fabric into multiple pleats and knots before dyeing to produce intricate patterns. This process, which is known as ‘tie and dye’, may be repeated numerous times to produce multicoloured lines, spots and rings on the fabric. In India this traditional technique is known as Bandhani, from the Sanskrit word bandhana, which means ‘tying’, and is the origin of the word bandannah.

05 Silk Design Knotters at Work on a Verandah - 1873

06 Dyers at work, Western India

06 dyers at work in Western India - 1873

07 Bhattia turban folders at work
This image is of a group of workers folding turbans on wooden model heads.

07 Bhattia turban folders at work

08  Bombay potters at work
This image, of two potters at work at their wheels, surrounded by their finished work was probably an exhibition print. The kumhar (potter) makes unglazed terracotta or earthenware pots for the storage of grain, spices or pickles, and for transporting and storing water. The potter also makes bricks and tiles for housing. Vessels for eating and drinking are usually made of metal or glass. However, small disposable drinking vessels, that are used once and then thrown away, are made of terracotta.

08 Two Potters at Work at their Wheels, Surrounded by their Finished Work - Bombay (Mumbai) 1873

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4 comments
  1. The photos may be old but I have seen similar methods being employed by textile workers in Western India. Cottage industry alive and hopefully well.

  2. I am so glad that there is a quality blog from India here.

  3. Old photos are my favorite too….looking back in time,
    What was past again revealed.

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