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South Asian Art: Indian Folk Arts And Crafts - Part 11

Razvin Namdarian

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Indian Folk Arts and Crafts –Part II

Indian folk crafts are nothing less than works of art in themselves. The artisans who practice these arts toil through many days to produce just one piece which is perfect in technique and composition, besides, it has bears the heritage of generations of master craftsman. Here in the concluding part of the two article series on Indian folk arts and crafts we present some unusual crafts and materials that make Indian folk art so unique.

Cane and Bamboo

In the north-east of India is the state of Manipur rich in forest resources and especially bamboo. Here bamboo is used in a versatile manner to create delicate items like vases, ashtrays and other decor items, as well as, utilitarian items like baskets, chairs, tables, mats and sofas. In some areas where Kauna (a water reed) grows this product is used to make intricately woven cushions, coasters and bags. In fact Imphal in Manipur is considered the centre of Kauna crafts.

Further east in the state of Orissa a local golden grass is used by women to weave tablemats, handfans and floormats. They are famous for their beauty in weave and design and also for their lasting quality.

Besides in Orissa, women are also involved in making decorative items from bamboo. Using basic tools like scissors, needles and wooden rods they create intricate patterns of wall hangings, folk figures, coasters and animals. The most unique aspect of their creations is the lacquer work on the bamboo items which is done exclusively in Navrangapur of Korapet district of Orissa. The lac is melted and mixed with pigments to get the desired shade. This is then drawn in threads and applied on the bamboo items to create floral and geometric designs, especially on the base of items.

Toys and Puppets

Orissa in the East is a land steeped in culture and mythology, with the great Konark Temple famous for its cravings, the state also has a tradition of storytelling through pupprts. These puppets called ‘jatra’ are made of wood and hand painted. They are then dressed as per the characters from folklore that they are to represent, strings control their movements. In other parts of the state nomadic actors present plays to the village audiences, they wear masks made from papier mache and light drift wood to portray different characters.

In the desert state of Rajasthan are the famous ‘kathputhlis’ or puppets. They are made primarily in Jaipur and Jodhpur. The Bhatt community which makes them also gives performances across the state using the puppets to enact tales from mythology and popular folk tales. The colourful characters often include a courtesan, horse rider, snake and snake charmer.

In Manipur, children still play with traditional dolls and toys made form bamboo and wood. The dolls are dressed in traditional finery and are now considered a decor item. Besides they also depict Gods and Goddesses and animals and birds.


Embroidery has been practiced around the world by men and women alike. But now with the advent of technology, machines have taken over and machine embroidery is the norm of the day. Which is why hand-embroidery, still practiced in India, reveals itself more as a work of art with traditional motifs and designs taking centre stage?

In Manipur, the main styles of hand embroidery that are practiced include Namthang-Khut-hut,  Khamenchatpa Kabui, Singh Nangpan (Flag Design) Motrangphee is (Temple Design). Men and women both practice the art to create figures from popular legends, animals, brids and floral patterns on handkerchiefs, bed-covers, tablecloths etc.

The state of Orissa is famous for its appliqué works. Bright coloured cloth is cut into shapes of animals, birds, flowers and then stitched onto the base cloth. Sometimes little geometric shapes come together to create a collage that is a riot of colour. The appliqué works decorate fans, canopies, bags, wall hangings, table mats... In fact huge colourful umbrellas decorated with appliqué work are an essential part of marriages and religious ceremonies.

Dress and the embroidery often serve as a badge denoting ethnicity in India. The western state of Gujarat is often regarded as the textile capital of India, it is also known for the unique embroidery styles practiced here. Along with the intricately woven patterns, the region is most famous for its ‘Abala’ or mirror work, where tiny pieces of mirror are embroidered onto the pattern being held in place by a web like border of colourful silken threads. Most of the embroidery depicts traditional motifs of flora and fauna which have been passed down generations from mother to daughter. In fact even today, a girl’s skill at embroidery is crucial in determining a good match in marriage.

The Rabari community of Gujarat probably produces the most recognised form of embroidery in India. While the chain stitch, it is worked into different patterns to decorate garments. They also use a lot of mirror work which lends a sense of uniqueness to each creation.


In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh is the Azamgarh district where the artisans create the unique black pottery. The deep black colour is derived by mixing the clay with mustard oil seed cake. The floral and geometric designs are then etched into the pottery which is shaped in the form of cups, saucers, vases, jugs etc. The etched surface is then given a silvery colour by rubbing it with an amalgam of mercury and tin.

The Persian craft of blue pottery reached India with the Moghuls. The craft is now practiced only the capital city of Delhi and in Jaipur, in Rajasthan. The pottery is characterised by a unique turquoise blue colour which is derived from cobalt oxide. The pottery creation of pots, vases, plates and cups etc are works of arts in themselves with intricate painting of flowers, animals and birds. According to legend, the emperors would use this particular pottery to gauge if their food had been poisoned or otherwise tampered with, apparently the glaze of the pottery would change colour as an indicator!

Paper Crafts

The papier mache of Kashmir is famous throughout the world. The wood based papier mache is sourced from the forest opine known as Kaylier. The creation of these objects takes a great amount of skill. Brilliantly bright colours are used to decorate the items like bowls, boxes, vases, lampshades etc. Some of the items also have real silver and gold dust used as embellishments. The craft is supposed to have travelled to Kashmir from Iran which explains the typical Islamic patterns and motifs commonly used.

 In Vrindavna, in the state of Uttar Pradesh is practiced the art of Sanjih. It refers to paper cut outs depicting scenes from the life of Lord Krishna which are then used as stencils for creating intricate ‘rangolis’ or patterns outside homes and temples. The paper cut outs require great skill and practice, but are seen more as a tool than a work of art in themselves. They are then laid out in the temple or home courtyards and the gaps in the cut outs are filled in using flowers or coloured powder. However, it is now a dying craft. Attempts at its revival are seeing the used of Sanjih to create stencils for saree borders, henna and even bindi patterns. The Delhi Crafts Council is involved in the revival of the craft.


 Lac is a kind of resin-like secretion from an insect found in the forests of India, it has a reddish hue. It is used in different parts of the country to create primarily various items of jewellery. In Orissa it is used to make combs used by men and women alike. In Bihar and Rajasthan, the lac is combined with dyes to make beautiful bangles, earrings and other jewellery. Some jewellery items are also inlaid with beads, small mirrors and crystals to make a fashion statement!


 In central India, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, small animal sculptures are made from leather. Iron wire is used for creating the framework around which dry grass is wrapped. A coating of flour made from tamarind seeds and papier mache is then applied and allowed to dry. All through this process the anatomical details of the animal are crafted with great attention to detail. Then a layer of soft goat skin is stitched onto the structure. This is then buffed, polished and details like eyes are painted on using bright natural colours.

 The arts and crafts listed above are what come together to make India such a unique country. Indeed in a land where there is beauty in everything, inspiration is not lacking for these local, unsung artists.

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