Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Part 3 [last]of Requiem for a Master

Along with the dyeing at artisan location Dastkar Andhra developed its tradition of the regular annual natural dyeing workshop in Hyderabad for all comers, artisans and others. These workshops were usually for cotton, though we did do one specifically for silk. Sir was the chief resource person for these workshops, helped after 1993 by Jagada Rajappa who had worked with him for the last fifteen years. These workshops were as much for our own learning as to teach others, and each one was a great stride ahead in our grasp of skills. Again, in these early workshops we set traditions that continue today: We alternate practical work with theory sessions, documentation & sampling, laced with anecdotes and the personal histories of the participants. The first of these annual workshops was held in 1990, and was the first time we used indigo.

Over the years we have taught artisan groups, individual artisans and others from Bengal, Orissa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu & Kerala. Most of the people we taught were new to natural dyeing when they first came to us and have since gone on to practice it regularly and even to teach others. Through these workshops our network of natural dyers has grown and strengthened. We have dyed silk, cotton, wool, tassar, jute, bamboo, sisal & korai grass.

Sir died in May of this year. Against his doctor's advice and to the despair of his loving family he led to the last the life he wanted, going wherever he was invited to teach natural dyeing, in the heights of Ladakh or the depths of rural Madhya Pradesh. Our last workshop with him was in February this year, for artisans from Uzbekistan. For the first time we worked with a group of artisans just thirsting for knowledge. During the Soviet regime traditional crafts had been banned in the Soviet republics, and our trainees were among the few left who had kept up the traditions of embroidery and weaving. It was a model workshop, with the learners as eager to learn as Sir to teach. As usual it was full of fun and laughter as well. When he died the Uzbeks ourned the passing of "a great usto".

Natural dyeing is one of the many skills that has been perfected by the people of this country, been forgottoen, and which we now seem to need white people to teach us. The process by which community knowledge is being appropriated by centralized knowledge systems, a process that began about two hundred years ago, is still going on and the original communities who were the rightful heirs of that knowlege are becoming more and more impoverished and reduced to selling their physical labour. The appropriated knowledge is encoded in forms that are accessible only to those with the accepted qualifications: the ability to read and a knowledge of the English language. Most people with these qualifications also become part of the same process, where knowledge becomes a source of personal gain, the right to which is symbolized by the institution of the patent.

But there is an alternative view, one that gave traditional societies all over the world their stability and allowed them to perfect low energy technologies suited to their particular conditions, the climate, the soil, the water and their own particular abilities. That view is that knowledge is the prerogative of the community, to be held in common for the general good.

There are critical periods in any field, when a choice exists for the direction of growth. At such times the personalities of individuals in such fields, their actions and ways of thinking determine the direction for that field. In natural dyeing as in many of the traditional skills there was such a period just after 1947, and Chandramouli happened to be the person at the nodal point. He had been trained as a dye chemist and had some practical experience when he met Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, who pointed him in the direction of natural dyes. He visited traditional dyeing communities all over the country in the days when traditional dyeing still existed on a large scale. He read all the available literature in English and in European languages in translation. Through his gift for scholarship, and the opportunities created for him by Kamala Devi, his knowledge of the theory and practice of natural dyeing gradually developed to an encyclopaedic level.

But the reason for which he will have my lifelong respect and reverence is not just his unequalled combination of brilliant scholarship and research on the one hand and his grasp of folk knowledge and tractical technique on the other. It is for the choice he made, to put the knowledge that he ahd gained back where it belonged, in its rightful place with the producer communities of this country. He took on the responsibiliteis of that choice, by developing methods of teaching artian groups with patience, humour, persistence and a complete absence of self-importance. This combination of qualites is rare, and at that particular juncture in history were crtical to the effort to redirect the flow of knowledge. Today if natural dyeing has a chance to regain its character as a living art, it will be due in large measure to the part played by K V Chnadramouli.

Sir's great gift was his ability to mix with all sorts of people without feeling that his great knowledge set him apart or gave him any special priveleges. He had great respect for artisans, patience with learners, indulgence with young people and tolerance of others' mistakes. His way of teaching by allowing learners to go at their own pace made it possible for them them to feel confident enough to work on their own, while he himself was always there as a source of information and inspiration. He taught innumerable artisan groups in this country, and re-established natural dyeing in Bangladesh. He taught business people too, for a fee, but refused the offer of a University position in a foreign country.

We never plumbed the depths of his knowledge: there was always more that he knew than we could ever learn. But our eight year partnership with him has established DastkarAndhra's traditions in learning and teaching natural dyeing. Chandramouli always regretted not having had institutional support in his career after the death of Kamala Devi. "I must have met you ten years ago" was his way of putting it, and he said it more than once. With that support he would perhaps have been able to bring other resource persons to his own level, not only in the technical, practical and scholarly aspects, but in the philosophy that underlay his work, his acknowledgement of artisan communities as the source of his knowledge and his deeply held conviction that it was his duty and the duty of people like him to restore the community knowledge base.

Today, thanks to Chandramouli there are at least twenty or thirty individuals who have access to both the practice of natural dyeing and to the information stored in books and libraries. Now the next step is to establish firmly the principles and practices that will ensure that natural dyeing takes root and spreads within artisan communities. The past is a source of inspiratin and information, but new ways are needed to meet new challenges and changing circumstances. Specific techniques of information storage and sharing, specific teaching methods, in fact a whole new tradition has to be developed to build on and consolidate Chandramouli's life work.

Dastkar Andhra
September 1997

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