In traditional Indian society, the shilpin (artisan, artist or craftsman) fashioned all the paraphernalia of life, be it a ritual object or a product of mere utility. Daily life was governed by the cycle of annual and seasonal rituals and by family celebrations such as conception, child birth, initiation, betrothal, marriage, death etc. For all these occasions an assortment of textiles and garments, vessels and utensils, toys, games, props and furniture were created by the artisans according to the religious and social conventions which determined their shape.
For example, these could include a bronze-cast ritual lamp, a silver ladle, or a wooden rolling pin and plate with engraved geometrical designs to make a special kind of the thin Indian bread, or of a design for a textile. They ingeniously imbibed the village customs, personal care and sense of aesthetics and appropriateness of function and utility into their product. However, the same object used for mundane purposes attains a sacred value when used during a religious celebration which then elevated the craft and also its creator to the realm of the sacred.
The word Shilpa generally used in the Indian context for ‘any kind of art or craft’ originally meant ‘the art of variegating, diversified appearance’ implying India’s tremendous diversity in geographical regions, climate, languages and people adhering to widely different religions which are all reflected in its varied artistic materials, forms and expressions.
The north-eastern regions, abundant in grasses, cane and bamboo, produce a variety of baskets, furniture, mats and ornamental jewellery; the coastal regions are rich in objects made of shells, coconut products, beautiful cotton and silk textiles; while in the scattered and dense forest belts, a wealth of ivory and timber are found, ideal for carving, engraving and the furniture industry. Colourful fabrics made of cotton, silk or mixed yarn, patterned while weaving by ikat technique, brocading or by using different coloured yarn; or after weaving by block-printing, embroidery or tinsel work, are found in each and every village, all over India.
Descendants of the so-called tribal population living in the remote hilly tracts of the Indian subcontinent express themselves in unbound, spontaneous and often timeless artistic traditions incorporating their archaic myths, folklore and ritual customs. The forms and motifs of their wall paintings remind us of the prehistoric cave paintings; their technique of modeling of clay and casting of bronze or bell metal seem to be of the same manner as aeons ago.
Foreign influences that came to the Indian region to stay brought with them their own cultural expressions which often caused an explosion of artistic forms. The superb calligraphy, floral motifs and style of painting of Islam were responsible for the outburst of textile designs, schools of miniature, costume patterns and also some new techniques, like for example bidri work and carpet weaving. They in turn adapted indigenous art forms for their regal paraphernalia while creating objects of jade, gold, silver, precious stones fashioned after the age-old techniques of terracotta, basketry or leather work.
This melting pot of cultures created the endless variety of Indian art and craft traditions.