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In the Indian context, the word ‘craft’ invokes associations with repetitive, manual labour that is part of an unchanging, community-based, endangered tradition. Research and policy- making around the crafts have actively propagated this nativist narrative since Independence. By contrast, art and design are seen as creative, individual endeavours ushering in change and innovation.
Were these craft practices really as ancient as we think or were they at the forefront of the technological advances of their time? What stories might we find, if we looked in the archives, about change and innovation in the crafts? Historically, the crafts that thrived, combined design capabilities with technological innovation, achieving market success. In other words, design capabilities have been active drivers of both craft and design.
Using instances from the history of the sari from weaving mechanisms to dyeing methods, draping patterns to design preferences, this talk moves away from the slant on craft as unchanging tradition towards craft as skilled, conscious, embodied practice that entails creative and technical mastery. This also raises important concerns about how we understand creativity and authorship vis-à-vis craft and design as well as the role markets play in shaping creativity.
This talk is the first in Design History Now, a series exploring design histories that connect to our contemporary moment. The series brings together a selection of speakers who engage with design as a social, political and ecological agent, and consider how design is in turn shaped by these forces. The intention is to offer a vision of design history that is deeply critical in its approach, and in tune with its contemporary relevance and purpose.
In collaboration with:
Kaamya Sharma combines ethnographic, historical and literary methods to understand the different faces of craft globally. She completed her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from Aarhus University, Denmark. Her research has been published in reputed journals such as South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, International Quarterly of Asian Studies, and Journal of Material Culture. She is a board member of the Knowledge House for Craft, a global association for those who create, maintain and share a dialogue around craft knowledge. Currently, she is working on a book about the cultural history of the sari, which is based on her doctoral research about sartorial practices and colonialism in southern India.
Nia Thandapani’s work focuses on colonial and post-independence design in the Indian subcontinent and the United Kingdom and engages with imperialism’s presence within museum and heritage spaces, and its impact on design practice and its outcomes. She is a co-founder of Chandigarh Chairs, a long-term project that works towards a critical re-evaluation of the history of Chandigarh’s modernist furniture. As part of the collaborative duo Studio Carrom, Nia was a 2019 artist in residence at the William Morris Gallery in London and co-created the exhibition Distant Fellowship which explored and problematised Morris’s connections with South Asia. Nia’s creative work includes artist books, alternative museum guides, exhibitions and installations and experimental zines.