Edinburgh International Culture Summit

Speech - Jasleen Dhamija


I feel privileged to have this opportunity to represent, I think, the largest number of creative persons in the world, who are closely linked with their cultural traditions; where the skill of the hands, the perceptions’ of the mind and a vision of honed aesthetics create objects of beauty that are an integral part of our life, that we use every day in all parts of the world.

In the developing world, a large section of the population depend on agriculture and their rhythm of life is governed by the cyclic movement of the seasons.  They are deeply rooted in tradition and they function as a cohesive community – that is the phrase we must not forget.  The local manufacturers of handicrafts, handloom, and cottage industries are closely linked with agriculture. In many cases they process agricultural produce, as well as having skills, which create objects of daily use for the household and for local markets.  This sector also provides subsidiary income and a means of access to income at a time of drought and crop failure.  The products created by them are also creative expressions of the community to celebrate rites of passage, as well as the festivals that mark the solar rhythm, which govern our lives.  

It is estimated that this sector employs approximately 1 billion people in the world today. India alone has approximately 40 million who are skilled and contribute to this sector.

According to the International Labour Organization, the world faces a global challenge in unemployment.  Of the total population of the world, 3 billion are employed while 205 million are unemployed.  It is estimated that, with large numbers entering the employment market there is an urgent need to create 600 million jobs.  In the global economic crisis, it is the industrial sector, that has been the hardest hit and one asks the question, how will we face this challenge and meet these requirements?  The planners fail to see that in traditional societies, especially in South Asia and Southeast Asia, the largest numbers of persons employed in manufacturing are in the non-formal cottage industries sector.  This sector has a rich repertoire of skills, of creative expressions, which have a ready market locally as well as all over the world.  Both of these markets are growing.  It is this sector that answers the need of the hour and meets the challenges of today.  It uses local resources and does not pollute the environment.  It is eco-friendly and it makes limited demands of scarce energy resources.  It also makes less demand on the supportive and fiscal structures of the government.

Crafts are an expression of our heritage and enrich the community, as they express a subtle attitude of mind, beliefs, refined physical habits and a sensitivity to our needs. It is this knowledge, which is handed down from generation to generation, through practice and the absorption of tradition.  Every generation faces new challenges, but the valuable experiences of the past – through its tales, parables, proverbs, the epics and songs that lively imagination gave birth to – serve to fertilise growing minds, yielding immeasurable wealth.

I saw a living example of it when I joined the celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the greatest epic Manas in Kyrgyzstan.  It was an amazing experience. The township was created of exquisitely decorated yurtas. The all-night recitation of epics by young and old singers absorbed the audience.  It was an extraordinary case of a people sharing their way of life with ease and transporting us all to another world. 

I had a similar experience in my own country, in the southern part, in Kerala, where the all night celebrations of the ancient ritual Theyyam, which pre-dates Hinduism, created through elaborate masks made by the people for the occasion, costume and performance, carried us all into an atmosphere belonging to another world. It transcended now and today, into yesterday and tomorrow.

It is this, which we call living cultural heritage for it fulfils our needs, which is borne out of the geo-climatic situation, our socio-cultural conditions, and the economic needs of the time. It is this living culture that enriches our knowledge base and adds multiple dimensions to the rather stereotypical education given to us irrespective of our needs, our environment, our social structure or our recognition of the concept of individuality.

Let me pause for a moment and give you an example of the strength of these skills nurtured by the creativity and resilience of a people as expressed by the “War Carpets” of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been devastated by the Soviet Union’s invasion followed by the allied forces. It is a nation that has faced the impact of the global war, of economic suppression, of many forms of persecution and a complete political meltdown. In the middle of all this the craftsperson has found expression and given birth to a new creative form – “The War Carpet” – which has taken the instruments of war and created a work of art. This sophisticated blue carpet, which at first glance appears to be of the old elephant’s foot design that is very popular in the area, is actually a geometrical juxtaposition of military tanks, with a yellow flower that is a burst of a shell. A prayer carpet is composed of a myriad of planes, covering the surface as carpet bombers would. These poignant acts of creativity, as you can see, the warplane is inspired by the predatory eagle pattern. And yet, the hopeful life has not died – it’s there in the tree of life, which blossoms.

Was it this creative ability that Plato identified with the capacity for immediate and instinctive discernment, which recognizes the quality of recollectedness and detachment, a capacity for stillness of mind and body?  The Hindu mind in ancient Vedic times regarded culture as a balanced view of life, where real and false values were not confused. 

In the past, there was no difference between fine arts and the crafts.  They were an expression of a rich background against which the ideal of the aesthetic began to take shape very early.  Sensibility was called for as the basic prerequisite for aesthetic experience.  The person of taste was rated as equally gifted with the same sensibility as the person who created.  So appreciation was in a sense on a par with creation, because it was felt that a person of sensibility participates with almost the same excitement and exhilaration when he or she appreciates, as when he or she creates.

Tools were an extension of the hand to reach beyond the range of human limitations.  The mastery of handling tools and shaping materials, which brought out the very best quality, was their strength.  In the mastery of the rhythm of the work lay their strength.  Our biorhythms governed our movement, our speech, our daily work, and there was a consonance in the rhythm.  Every creative act has a rhythm, be it music, dance, building, painting or creating objects of everyday life.  The resonance of the shuttle sings to our mind as we weave, as we spin the wheel and throw a pot, as we rhythmically beat the hammer on the metal, creating the form beating its own symphony.  Working in rhythm requires the skill of understanding the materials and the ability to work with them.  I wonder if the growing phenomenon of slow time… works against the arrhythmia of the very fast pace of life today.

We, in India, owe a great debt to Mahatma Gandhi, who linked the regeneration of crafts to the national freedom movement.  According to him, freedom was not to be seen as a means of political power, but as working towards evolving an equitable society and appropriate social patterns, which would lead to building an integrated nation.  He was aware of the need for the decolonization of the mind, to understand and appreciate the strength of one’s own culture – a subject that is being discussed at many platforms all over the world.

In upholding craftsmanship of the hand, one does not by implication reject machines or make an impassioned plea for a return to only handmade products.  There is, in fact, a basic relationship between small tools and large machines.  All the countries that have emerged as leaders in industrial design, such as Scandinavia, Japan and Italy, have great traditions in design, which they have nurtured.  Their designers and design schools are aware that closeness to nature, the actual feel of the materials and mastery over the handling of tools and techniques are essential in creating the initial perfect design.  The great Finnish architect, Alto, created not only memorable architecture, but also exquisite objects of everyday use.

Even in this fast growing society espousing industrialization, crafts are far from being smothered.  They are once more coming into world focus, for within us pulsates an innate yearning to use our hands and to feel the surface of handmade objects.  Craftsmanship embodies certain qualities and a depth of experience which arises out of direct experience of creation.  The problem posed before us is not man versus machine, but rather a cohesion between the two, a regulating of each in its own appropriate field.  

Today we are reaping the benefits of the advances of technology that have given us easy access to the world.  We are able to communicate with ease and share our ideas, which has brought us closer together.  This has created a greater awareness of different cultures, different ways of life and a curiosity and a desire for sharing. This has resulted in greater respect for each other and the way of life of other cultures and traditions and therefore their expression through the creative work of the hand.  The creative activity of different traditions opens new avenues. This has given local craftspersons the ability to reach out to the world.  My beloved friend, Aminata Traore from Mali and her talented colleagues participate in a dialogue with jewellery makers from all over the globe on Skype.  Jamil from a family of block printers of “ajrakh”, made from vegetable dyes in the isolated desert of Kutch – a tradition that goes back 1,000 years – waits for the electric current to switch on his computer to e-mail his friend who lives on the outskirts of London and who learned  this ancient technique from him. 

The World Crafts Council, with members from all over the world, will be meeting in Chennai, Tamilnadu, in October this year, bringing together practitioners of crafts, writers, organisers and philosophers of this world will meet together.  They will reiterate that this is a vibrant sector that employs over a billion people in the world.  India itself has at a conservative estimate 40 million to 45 million persons practicing crafts.  This has been possible despite the fact that this area has been neglected.  

It offers the possibility of providing income to people in dispersed regions that have little access to resources that so many of us take for granted.This is continuing and needs to be nurtured. 

Today a galaxy of ministers of culture, artists, thinkers and social scientists are gathered together to address the role of culture in facing global challenges. I would like to reach out to all of you to recognise the importance of this sector which not only addresses our economic problems but provides a new format for our educational system to tap available skills and to hone, develop and reward them with the new skills. These skills are cohesive for a community, as an expression of their identity, its ethos and our distinctive creative expression.

Thank you and Namaskar.

About the summit

The Edinburgh International Culture Summit 2012 will bring together Culture Ministers with prominent artists, thinkers and others responsible for formulating cultural policy. 

They will discuss how the arts enrich the lives of people around the world and contribute to the wellbeing of nations.


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