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Art and Culture / Handcrafted language The Akshara Project’s Mumbai exhibition used traditional crafts to reimagine calligraphy and bring alive India’s regional scripts

In a unique collaboration between India’s myriad crafts and scripts, an exhibition in Mumbai celebrated not just Indian languages but also its calligraphy. 

The Akshara Project, which linked 150 handcrafted products with 14 Indian scripts, was conceived and curated by noted revivalist Jaya Jaitly, who has been waging a crusade for 40 years to accord crafts their rightful place in museums across the globe. The idea is to enable craftspeople to appreciate a new facet of being literate by exploring their own scripts and cultural stories through their traditional skills.

 The exhibition, held at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya earlier this month, proved that craft is as much a form of writing as a script, and promoted an appreciation of India’s huge variety of regional scripts.

 Alongside festive scenes of the Chhath from her native Bihar, Premshila Devi also embroidered the stories in Devanagari script in her wall hanging. 

 Another iconic artist, Savitri Devi, included in her work Maithili folk songs that echoed the sentiments of a fisherman, a shepherd and a potter who wish Sita had been born in their families. The embroidery work grew beyond a mere pictorial description to transform into a text of sorts, forging an interaction between image and script and thereby making interventions that mandate a renegotiation about the potential of craft narratives and new forms of storytelling. 


 The Akshara project involved 70 artists of craft, textiles and traditional painting who embarked on a journey to discover the world of letters, scripts and calligraphy. The 14 scripts were exhibited through 21 different handcraft skills, spanning 16 Indian states. Some artists worked closely with mentors while others had distinct thoughts about their exhibits since the inception of the project. 

 Chanderi sari weavers of the Tana Bana Self-Help Group from Madhya Pradesh wove ‘Sada Saubhagyavati’ (May you always be blessed in your marriage) on the border of a blood-red sari. 

  Their counterparts from Uttar Pradesh had woven ‘Bai Sahib Kunwar Bai Sahib’ (a form of respectful address) on a silk brocade sari, while Ram Mehr from Odisha wrote a hymn of invocation to Rama and Krishna in Odiya on an ikat sari as did Anuradha Kouli Tegu in Assamese on her gamcha scarf. 

 Santosh Kumar Dhanopia and Anil Sharma block-printed a love song in Gurmukhi, Shahid Junaid used lines from Kabir in Urdu across the length of his stoles, Gajam Govardhana used Telugu letters on her stoles, while Ramanand and Khamabati Karmakar used images and doodles of Rabindranath Tagore in their saris with the words embroidered in running stitch. 

 Sanuwar Chitrakar from West Bengal used a Patachitra scroll to list the recipes of various fish delicacies. In a Tree of Life Kalamkari wall hanging, artist Jonnalagadda Niranjan had hidden lyrical phrases in Telugu with finely wrought leaves, flowers, fruit and birds. 

From Jammu & Kashmir came Fayaz Jaan whose papier mache wall clocks had Urdu texts, and Maqbool Jaan whose pencil boxes had the history of papier mache written in Urdu on them. What caught my eye was a set of unsuspecting stones, which Nazir Ahmad Mir uses to promote peace in the otherwise turbulent state. 

A section featured silver jewellery, each piece an intricately wrought letter in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Bengali.

One embroidery panel with Rabari and Jat embroidery from Gujarat bore the signatures of the craftswomen. Those signatures were significant. Finally, a moment when these unknown and often unlettered creators were finally claiming the creations as their own. What better way to eliminate their anonymity and instil a sense of pride? Akshara was a socio-historical document and more in the way in which it re-imagined craft practices but also presented them through the prism of language.

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