After a checkered career as school teacher, artist and writer, Manju Kak has embraced her latest incarnation as spokesperson for the wood craftsmen of Kumaon with characteristic elan. Taking up cudgels for this extinct craft came naturally to her, for though her interest in the wood-carving tradition is new, her passion for wood is almost as old as her love for writing.
``All of us have an affinity to a finite form, and I've always been drawn to the texture and feel of wood, so much so that I call wood my alter ego,'' says this self-proclaimed ``wood person,'' as she leans back on a polished rosewood cabinet from China at her well-appointed home in the heart of bureaucratic Delhi.
Her lecture on `A Craftsman and His Craft', accompanied by an exhibition of photographs by floriculturist and mountaineer Anup Sah, at the IIC Art Gallery Annexe late last month more than showcased her commitment to the revival of the dying wood carving tradition of Kumaon. Her research team, which included architects, photographers and students of the T. V. B. School of Habitat Studies, worked long and hard to make her pet project both informative and visually riveting.
Kak's association with Kumaon dates back to her school days -- she studied at St Mary's, Nainital -- but it was only two years ago that she re-discovered the region through the eyes of the craftsmen. ``It's amazing the way you suddenly come across elaborately carved doorways in the middle of nowhere, at times in the remote Bhotia villages of the upper Himalayas,'' says the author of First Light In Colonelpura (Penguin) and Requiem For The Revolutionary and Other Stories (Ravi Dayal).
What doesn't cease to amaze her is the poverty of aesthetics in the rest of the Kumaoni house. ``The doorway, in a way, is the crucible of art and beauty in a home devoid of any kind of ornamentation,'' Kak rationalises. Another mystery is the iconography used and the artistic finesse of the work. ``Though these craftsmen had very little exposure to art and craft outside their region, they possessed a high level of artistic sophistication,'' she informs us.
The dichotomy between the craftsman and his work is indeed striking. Here was a man, simple and illiterate, who used his tools to carve motifs that are best described as pan-Indian. The Ashok chakra, the Buddhist lotus, the Hindu elephant-god Ganesh, Rajput jharokhas, Islamic trellis and floral motifs, and even the English arch, all find place in the secular tradition of the chaukhats of Kumaon. With them co-existed local motifs, like those of the chakor, an orchid that grows at an altitude of 14,000 feet, or pine cones, which are found in such abundance there that villagers burn them as fuel.
``The few surviving artists we met don't remember who taught them, leave alone how these symbols became a part of their repertoire,'' Kak remembers. Though there's no written record of how these motifs became a part of the mountain culture, many tales of the craftsmen and their accomplishments have travelled orally through time. Like the story of `Ek hathiya naula' (the one-handed craftsman), whose right hand was chopped off by the local zamindar of Lohaghat so that he could not duplicate the intricate carvings on his feudal lord's doorway.
Stories and a few neglected specimens of this art are all that remain of the tradition, for the last of the craftsmen put down their tools over 50 years ago. Loss of patronage from upper-class Brahmins, Thakurs and affluent Bhotias mde the craftsmen seek better-paid jobs at Bareilly and other western Uttar Pradesh towns. But the reasons for the death of this art are not so simple.
``Apart from the loss of patronage, the shortage of hard wood was a major factor, a fallout of the forest policy of the British Raj,'' explains Kak. The British colonials brought with them the pine tree, plantations of which stunted the natural growth on the mountains. ``For carving, the craftsmen needed deodar, or tun, which has become so scarce that it is now an endangered species,'' explains Kak. ``Pine wood, the British contribution to the mountains, is softer and less resilient, and therefore useless''.
Another reason for the gradual death of this craft was the post-Independence homogenisation of diverse cultures. That may be why more specimens of these carvings survive in areas that aren't motorable. Adds Kak: ``The work itself isn't extraordinary, but what is interesting are the social, aesthetic and anthropological factors that created a home for this art in the segregated Kumaon hills over 200 years ago.'' But thanks to Kak, the hills don't look that far away any longer, and it may not be long before this ignored tradition comes out of the woodwork. Literally.
Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.