Sometimes I wonder if everything I’ve thought of, everything I’m thinking of, has been thought before. Often, it’s in bouts of depression and my conclusion is that I’m probably useless and unoriginal. (Yes, I am being a bit dramatic but that’s me!)
These last few months, however, when I reflect on the originality of my being (how embarrassing) I have been grateful for all the thinking that has come before me.
Millions of people, doing the best they could, have lived lives and laid the groundwork for me to do what I do. Being immersed in the world of craft, it is starting to make more and more sense that originality isn’t highly prized. It’s nice, but it isn’t the point.
As I’ve been learning how to make a toran (a beaded wall hanging that is strung in a doorway) it amazed me that instinctively I said I’d prefer to follow a pattern that someone has done before. As my elders have tried to show me new techniques or ways I could change my pattern my stock answer has been “I just want to do it this way until I understand”.
Craft is about following knowledge, putting together history and the information that has come before you. Piecing together meaning – understanding – through practice. And only when one understands the story, the hows and whys, can one add a unique element to that story.
Making a toran in a traditional Parsi baugh (housing development), surrounded by people who know and appreciate the craft, who display their own torans, who have pieces of the past to complete my puzzle is a unique and vital part of learning the craft. During the days I could wander the halls and see the different designs and aesthetics at play. I came to see what people appreciated and wanted to project in front of their homes. People who walked by and saw me at my work recognized what I was doing and inquired about it.
Craft is not simply the creation of a product. It is an assembly of knowledge, belief, skill, context and imagination applied and developed over time to create significant, living things. Embedded in the process of craft are a multitude of social functions from religious practice to identity formation to relationship building to exercising power to visualizing the future.
The materials used, the process of work, the relationship of craftspeople to their community, the standing of the community within a larger society are all interconnected elements and the relationships constructed between these elements fuel the vitality and development of a craft tradition. Craft has a soul and craft creates soul. In order for that soul to thrive all these connections need to be maintained with dignity – human and environmental.
A young woman trains in block printing techniques at the Weaver’s Service Center in Bombay.For craft revivalists and preservationists, the challenge is how to hold this soul and help it do well. Beyond the economic realm, what responsibility does the revival community have to help heal the social ruptures (oppressions) that have caused the decline and disappearance of craft traditions and the marginalization of craft workers? How to construct a holistic view of craft revival that honors the complex social web that is at the core of craft work that goes beyond the houses of commerce?
I don’t have any answers but I am eager to follow the threads as I delve deeper into the complex and beautiful world of craft and it’s importance within all societies.