India Arts and Crafts – A Brief History

Crafts, in India, define lifestyles. They have been an integral part of the lives of the common people. The rapid change that has been taken place in the polity, social structure, technology and thought banks but the place of crafts has remained the same. At the same time, craft objects have become to be considered as luxury items or status symbol among some sections of the society as well. Like many developing countries, craftwork is the primary source of income generation for a major part of the population in the rural and semi-urban areas of India.

Innovation has historically been connected with the handicrafts. The evolution of handicrafts finds its roots in the sense of the need of common man. Then the artistic skills come into the picture, which get refined day by day with the help of new technological means. The traditional fabric of crafts in India has been woven around historical figures and stories, literature and religious values so as to suit the needs of the common people the ruling classes. Moreover, foreign and domestic trade has also played a key role in the evolution of several distinguished craft forms in India. Indian handicraftsmen have always welcomed and accepted new variations in the art with open arms.

Right from the times of Indus Valley Civilization, we have had a rich tradition of craftwork and highly skilled craftsmen. This is evident in the samples found in the excavation of the site. The Harappan craftsmen catered to the domestic needs and also reached out to the world via sea trade routes with their excellent technical skills of pottery, jewellery, weaving, sculpture (stone, metal and terracotta) etc.

Numerous references can be found in the esteemed ancient Vedic texts talking about the artisans involved in different forms of crafts like weaving, woodcraft. The Rigveda, in particular, refers to a variety of wood, clay and metal pottery.

The Mauryan period is considered to be the golden age for the development of artisans in the field of sculpture during which more than 84,000 stupas were built in India, including the famous Sanchi Stupa. Even the contemporary jewellery designing draws inspiration from the numerous sculptures found in Mathura, Amravati, Vaishali, Sanchi, Bharhut etc. The turmoil of foreign invasions between 1st century BC and 1st century AD is visible in the wonderful Buddhist sculptures from Bamiyan (now in Afghanistan), Takshashila (now called Taxila in Pakistan), Swat Valley (now in Pakistan) etc.

During the Kushana period, foreign influences began to get merged with the local acceptance in the fields of textile, metal and leather products, sculpture, jewellery etc. The celebrated caves at Ajanta and Ellora are the testimonies to the advancements in the art forms during the reign of the Gupta dynasty.

The Medieval period saw the handicraftsmen flourish in the art forms pertaining to pottery, wood carving, metalwork, jewellery designing etc. The Cholas, Chalukyas and Pandyas paid an unparalleled contribution in the fields like temple carving, silk weaving, bronze sculpture etc.

The Mughal period was too a golden period in the history of Indian arts and craft. They brought with them the methods like carpet weaving, glass engraving, inlay work, glass engraving, carpet weaving, brocades, enamelling etc. It was during this period that the crafts like carpet weaving, jewellery making and textile industry were reshaped and developed into fine arts, and brocading and velvet manufacturing reached new heights.

With the arrival of the East India Company, the trade began to reduce and the handicraftsmen suffered for the homemade crafts were ousted and the markets were flooded with cheaper machine-made British items. Swadeshi Movement was to address the plight of destitute Indian craftsmen and thus was focused on the need for sustainable maintenance of ancient craft traditions.

After India got independence in 1947 AD, the Handicrafts Board was set up to look into the serious matter of the dying crafts. Though the demand for handicraft items has been growing – both at home and abroad – yet export reports reflect that the country lags behind in many handicraft commodities except in the case of gems and jewellery items.

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