The Artisans of India

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OF all the exhibitions coming out of the multifaceted Festival of India (1985-86), only one deals specifically with the concerns of India's many thousands of highly skilled artisans. That is the recently opened ``Golden Eye: An International Tribute to the Artisans of India,'' which will be shown here through Feb. 23 at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum (the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Design) at 2 East 91st Street.

``We are concerned that our crafts people do not become an endangered species,'' says Rajeev Sethi of New Delhi, who conceived and brought the ``Golden Eye'' exhibition to fruition. ``Because of modern technology and new techniques of manufacture, too many of our crafts people are unemployed and their skills are languishing or deteriorating,'' he explains. ``This is not necessary. In India we can still make things that cannot be made in any other part of the world and our range of skills is greate r than anywhere else. Surely there must be a way for the world to utilize this treasure house of creative ability.''

His hope is that the current show will open the way. The colorful and informative exhibition not only showcases India's most ancient craft traditions but illustrates how age-old skills can be combined with new design ideas to create products that may find wider acceptance in the Western world.

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``Golden Eye'' is a show of 320 crafts and products collaborated on by 265 traditional artisans of India and 11 world-famous designers from Europe and America. The crafts include stone carving, wood, marble, and silver inlay work, metalcraft, fashions, textiles, ceramic tiles, tent panels, toy boxes, woolen crewel work, and furniture.

In almost every instance the designers went to India and worked directly with the crafts people to develop new color palettes and new or adaptive approaches to design and pattern.

The Western team included Sir Hugh Casson, a furniture designer from England; Frei Otto, an architect and tent engineer from Germany; Ettore Sottsass, a glass and furniture designer, and Mario Bellini, an industrial designer, from Italy; and Hans Hollein, an architect from Austria, as well as fashion designer Mary McFadden, architect Charles Moore, textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen, and graphic designers Ivan Chermayeff and Milton Glaser from the United States.

Six young Indian designers served as a liaison between the Western designers and the Indian artisans. After the visitors returned to their own countries, the young local designers were given responsibility for seeing that the work went forward and that prototypes were readied for shipment to New York.

This unique approach to the production of Indian crafts accomplished several goals, Mr. Sethi says:

It produced closer understanding and workable relationships between designers from other countries and the crafts people and young designers of India.

It resulted, for the Indian designers and craftsmen, in valuable exposure to the methods of Western professionals.

It underscored to Westerners the vast scope and potential of the hand skills of Indian artisans and the capacity of local craftsmen for making sophisticated and contemporary objects.

It encouraged Western designers and architects to use Indian craftsmen for the custom execution of their most intricate and elaborate designs.

The exhibition's attempt to help bridge the gap between India's ancient craft heritage and the demands of the modern marketplace is obvious in several ways. Mary McFadden turned the skills of embroiderers accustomed to making kingly ornaments, robes, and canopies toward the making of elegant sequined and beaded formal gowns, jackets, blouses, and scarfs. Charles Moore persuaded India's traditional toymakers and painters to make the clever tea cart, toys, boxes, and drop-front desk that are exhibited in the show. And Milton Glaser and Ivan Chermayeff devised modular jewelry that could be made by craftsmen who once created inlay for the treasure chests of the maharajahs.

The ``Golden Eye'' exhibition was organized by the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of India Ltd. and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. It is expected to be the initial stage of an ongoing project to revitalize crafts skills by providing a directory of crafts people who can execute designs by both Indian and foreign designers for the contemporary market. The directory will be maintained by the Golden Eye Studio in New Delhi.

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