After photography was introduced into India in the 1840s it rapidly grew in popularity, particularly as a means to record the vast diversity of people and their dress, manners, trades, customs and religions.
This is a continuation of a series called The Wonderful Artisan, a set of photographs contributed by Shivashankar Narayen in 1870 to the book – “People of India”.
You can see Part 1 here.
09 Women preparing cowdung cakes for fuel, Ahmadabad
Cow dung is collected and made into flat round ‘patties’ which are dried on walls and roofs and then sold as fuel and used extensively on cooking fires and for heating. It has many other uses, including fertiliser and as a flooring material when mixed with mud and water.
11 A goldsmith’s shop, Bombay
This is one of a series of photographs commissioned by the Government of India in the 19th century, in order to gather information about the different racial groups on the sub-continent. Photograph of a group of goldsmiths (Sonars) seated round a low work table at Bombay in Maharashtra. John Forbes Watson writes: “The Sonar or gold and silversmith is an indispensable member of the Indian social condition of life; and he is to be found in every village, almost in every hamlet, as well as in all towns and cities.
12 Cloth stamper, Western India
Photograph of a cloth stamper seated at a low table on the verandah of a house in Western India. The craft of block printing cotton fabrics is particularly associated with Gujarat. The motifs include flowers, animals, people and abstract designs. The wooden blocks, carved with the design to be printed, have a handle on the back. They are made from woods that are light in weight, gurjun (Dipterocarpus Turbinatus-Gaert) or seasoned teak (Tectona Grandis-Linn); the former wears better when used as a block. Fabrics are still printed this way in India to this day.
13 Preparing sheepskins for tanning, Ahmadabad
A description in John Forbes Watson states, “The process of tanning consists in soaking the skins in lime water for some days to loosen the hair and surface of the skin; the hide is then scraped, and after washing is sewn up in the form of a sack, which is filled with babool bark (Acacia arabica); it is then exposed to a constant stream of water, which forces the astringent matter into the pores of the hide very rapidly; but to make the process still more rapid the hide is taken out, wrung, and refilled every four or five days. While still damp the skins are spread on the ground and rubbed on both sides with a wooden block or mallet furnished with a handle.”
14 Lacquer worker, Western India
The object to be lacquered is turned from hard wood, usually shisham [Dalbergia]or box. After being smoothed and cleaned it is again fixed in the turners’ frame (a kind of lathe worked by hand), and made to rotate. The sticks of lacquer colour (“batti”) consisting of a mixture of lac, resin, colouring matter, and, it is said, a certain proportion of sulphur and bees’-wax, are then applied to the rotating object; the heat produced by friction is sufficient to soften the lacquer composition, which attaches itself to the wood, producing however, a dull and streaky appearance. When sufficient colour has been applied, the surface of the article is skilfully rubbed with a piece of bamboo having a fine edge, by which the colour is evenly distributed, and a polish produced, which is finally completed with oiled rags.
15 Work-box makers, Bombay
The three box makers are shown with examples of their trade, including carved and inlaid boxes and an album cover. A certificate of honorable mention awarded to Framjee Heerjeebhoy at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 is placed in the centre of the photograph. This photograph was probably shown at the Vienna Exhibition of 1873 where Framjee Heerjeebhoy sent many examples of his work. The work exhibited included ivory inlaid inkstands, portfolios, cribbage boards, pocket books and watch cases. He also sent carved sandalwood and ebony work as well as album covers and glove boxes adorned with Delhi pictures, pocket books, paper cutters and watch stands.
And finally an interesting photograph, taken around the same period by Photographer Michie and Company, showing carpet weavers from Karachi jail in Sindh.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
06 Dyers at work, Western India
07 Bhattia turban folders at work
This image is of a group of workers folding turbans on wooden model heads.
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.
The society of Hand-loom weavers known as the Kachchh Weavers Association (KWA) was recently awarded the GI (Geographical Indication) for their traditional Kachchhi shawls and stoles. GI is an intellectual property right used on certain products; the use corresponds to a specific town, region or country. It certifies that the product is of good quality, and a certain uniqueness and reputation with its geographical origin.
At khamir, we have been working closely with KWA towards this goal and I got the chance to step in at the moment of celebration. After they were awarded the GI, we designed posters and banners and more importantly tags that every authentic Kachchhi woven shawl will now carry.
It is time now to communicate their achievement to everyone.
They are proud and so are we!
Here is the design for the tags :
A visit to a village of weavers, this sunny sunday morning, made me think a lot and I want to share this experience with you. Bhujodi, a small village about ten kilometers east of Bhuj is inhabited by several craftsmen who specialize in hand-loom weaving. Besides the fact that artisans welcomed us to their homes as if we were family, they shared their knowledge with passion and without a second thought about selling anything to us.
First we meet Narayan-bhai and his son. They specialize in the manufacture of woollen carpets. Today it is a bit special, they are preparing for Diwali, the Indian New Year, so are coating the walls of their home with a mixture of mud, lime and cow-dung.
However seeing our excitement to watch the looms work, they settle down at their looms and start weaving a carpet. Although I’ve seen weaving work before, I am fascinated! Beyond the technical moves that are impressive, the complexity and beauty of the machine leaves me speechless. All these lines, these regular movements, these colors … create an atmosphere that is truly mesmerizing!
They have 2 looms, fully manual. The one that Naryanbhai uses
They say they love the creative side of their craft, but do not have enough time to truly experiment since they need to produce carpets for the Finnish which are large orders and are always the same : gray and white…”european tastes!” they say.
And then there is Purushothambhai. If you can read the name correctly the first time you win a silk shawl 🙂 We had not even planned to visit his home, he catches us on the streets and says “come and see, I have something to show you.”
He begins by showing us a series of very finely woven shawls with a mixture of silk and cotton, then take us to his loom. It is much narrower than Naryanbhai because it is used to make scarves and shawls but it is equally impressive.
The thread is much thinner, and the weaving takes longer. Depending on the type of pattern, a piece can take up to 1 month. The method for doing this kind of pattern is inexplicable in writing, it has been a good half an hour to figure out how he is doing it! Purushothambhai is first and foremost an artist, he creates his own designs, his own forms … He sells his works everywhere in India, at exhibitions and events related to crafts.
He tells us this moving story of how he once set off to create his “best” piece, he had already given three months of hardwork into it and while it was still on the loom and nearly complete, an insect ate into it. This piece hence will never get sold. But will remain with him to tell his story.
“The industrial era” helped us make a bunch of objects accessible in large numbers and at a price much more affordable than products that are “handmade”. This is what allows us to not have to save for two months to buy a pair of trousers, that I personally find quite handy … However, this “progress” has totally engulfed our concept of the “value” of things.
There is little or no information on the conditions under which the products we use are made, by whom, with what, with what impact on the environment and on society more generally. Take the time to take this step to “understand” a product, to look at it differently and go back again to the challenge of eating “less” but “better”.