The panorama of Indian crafts is a patchwork quilt of many hues and shades of meaning, reflective of interactions with social, economic, cultural and religious forces. And the craft world is full of contrasts, a universe of utility products and sacred objects, articles for ritual use and ephemeral festival crafts, representing many levels of refinement—from the simplest to the most technically advanced. Likewise there are many perceptions of the term ‘craftsman’, ranging from a manual labourer to a worker of high artistic excellence. Craft, then, is situated in a complex milieu, a dense matrix of many strands and elements. To understand this, our study undertook many months of fieldwork and research. Throughout, our research was guided by the conviction that the context informs the structure, language and form of crafts.

The creative potential of Indian craftspersons make available a directory of resources—skills, materials, capabilities and products. The products embody the craftsperson’s understanding that is structural, conceptual and aesthetic, just as craft is also is also an interrelation between function, form, material, process and meaning. The product is not only an end but also as a seed for new possibilities and directions, a creative potential and palette of resources. The crafts of India are at the threshold of massive change and it is hoped that this publication will help capture the many facets of the current scenario and promote a better understanding of the milieu, issues and resources that it offers for designers and layman alike to influence economic change at the grassroots level.

The range and diversity of Indian crafts is staggering. With a history dating back many thousands of years, they have a place in India's epics too. The Mahabharat, the famous story that marks the end of an epoch of time in the Hindu timescale, and tells the story of the great war between the Pandavas and Kauravas, speaks of Indian handicrafts. In fact, in describing the change in yugas, from the Dwapara to Kali Yuga, the Mahabharat describes how the artisans will lose their skill as one of the markers of this shift.

To understand this diversity one would need to look at numerous dimensions that include all the historical processes that shaped the transformations of our society over time. Social and cultural diversity has multiplied particular forms of artifacts, each shaped by a multitude of forces leading to the vast canvas of variety that can be witnessed today. Modernity tends to have universal forms that homogenize cultures across continents that are seen as an outcome of communication and globalization. On the other hand, the prolific variety was a result of each regional or sub-regional group asserting its own identity in the objects and cultural expressions. Each individual caste of group in the vast, complex Indian caste system has their own handicraft form. Therefore the vast array of artifacts, implements, built environments, ornaments, clothing, headgear and personal body decorations all showed the deep need for holding on to their unique identity as distinct from that of their neighbours.

India is a land of immense variety, a land of vast biodiversity and climatic zones from the sea-level coastal settlements to the extreme habitats built on top of lofty snow-covered mountains. Similarly regions of very heavy rainfall and abundant vegetation are contrasted with dry deserts, each with appropriately evolved housing and other built forms that find a resonance with the particular climatic zone in which it has evolved. Much can be learnt from the manner in which local communities have invented solutions to tackle the diversity of climates. These solutions are both a creative response for survival and celebration alike—the bamboo rainshields of Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya are worn by farmers as headgear while the palm leaf sunshades of Andhra Pradesh are carried as umbrellas by shepherds or used as shelters in open-air weekly markets. The jhappi, bamboo rainshield of Assam is decorated with red appliquéd forms and transformed into a votive offering that symbolizes a good harvest. These creative community responses represent the triumph of the human spirit over the forces of nature. Community responses mark many craft developments, initiated when sensitive craftsmen and their clientele interact in the bazaars and at points of exchange. These interactions have a collective impact on the form of the craft offering that no single craftsman could have produced, a perfect fit with the environment and with the social mores that the community aspires to. The climate helps determine the nature of material availability, in some places in abundance and in others as an extremely scarce commodity, which in turn influences the value attributed to that material in the given context. We see examples of non-precious materials treated like royalty in zones of scarcity, sometimes preserved for many generations to mature before it is put to use. On the other hand the response to abundance could be seen in the free abandon with which materials are crafted into objects of function or celebration.