Arts and Crafts of Assam
The people of Assam have traditionally been craftsmen from time immemorial. Though Assam is mostly known for its exquisite silks and the bamboo and cane products, several other crafts are also made here.
Cane and Bamboo
Cane and bamboo have remained inseparable parts of life in Assam. They happen to be the two most commonly-used items in daily life, ranging from household implements to construction of dwelling houses to weaving accessories to musical instruments.
The Jappi, the traditional sunshade continues to be the most prestigious of bamboo items of the state, and it has been in use since the days when the great Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang came to Assam that visitors are welcomed with a jaapi.
Cane and bamboo furnitures on the other hand have been a hit both in the domestic as well as the export market, while paati, the traditional mat has found its way into the world of interior decoration.
Bell-metal and brass have been the most commonly used metals for the Assamese artisan. Traditional utensils and fancy artiicles designed by these artisans are found in every Assamese household. The Xorai and bota have in use for centuries, to offer betel-nut and paan while welcoming distinguished guests.
The entire population of two townships near Guwahati - Hajo and Sarthebari, are engaged in producing traditional bell-metal and brass articles. They have also used their innovative skills to design modern day articles to compete with the changing times.
Gold, silver and copper too form a part of traditional metal craft in Assam and the State Museum in Guwahati has a rich collection of items made of these metals. Gold however is now used only for ornaments.
Assam is the home of several types of silks, the most prominent and prestigious being muga, the golden silk exclusive only to this state. Muga apart, there is paat, as also eri, the latter being used in manufacture of warm clothes for winter.Of a naturally rich golden colour, muga is the finest of India's wild silks. It is produced only in Assam.
The women of Assam weave fairy tales in their looms. Skill to weave was the primary qualification of a young girl for her eligibility for marriage. This perhaps explains why Assam has the largest concentration of Handlooms and weavers in India. One of the world's finest artistic traditions finds expression in their exquisitely woven 'Eri', 'Muga' and 'Pat' fabrics.
The traditional handloom silks still hold their own in world markets They score over factory-made silks in the richness of their textures and designs, in their individuality, character and classic beauty. No two handwoven silks are exactly alike. Personality of the weaver, her hereditary skill, her innate sense of colour and balance all help to create a unique product.
Today, India exports a wide variety of silks to western Europe and the United States, especially as exclusive furnishing fabrics. Boutiques and fashion houses, designers and interior decorators have the advantage of getting custom-woven fabrics in the designs, weaves and colours of their choice. A service that ensures an exclusive product not easily repeatable by competitors.
The Tribals on the other hand have a wide variety of colourful costumes, some of which have earned International repute through the export market.
Weaving in Assam is so replete with artistic sensibility and so intimately linked to folk life that Gandhiji, during his famous tour to promote khadi and swadeshi, was so moved that he remarked : "Assamese women weave fairy tales in their clothes!"
The toys of Assam have been broadly classified under four heads : (i) clay toys, (ii) pith, (iii) wooden and bamboo toys, and (iv) cloth and cloth-and-mud toys.
While the human figure, especially dolls, brides and grooms, is the most common theme of all kinds of toys, a variety of animals forms have also dominated the clay-toys scene of Assam. Clay traditionally made by the Kumar and Hira communities, have often depicted different animals too, while gods, goddesses and other mythological figures also find importance in the work of traditional artist.
Pith or Indian cork has also been used for toy-making since centuries in Assam. Such toys are chiefly made in the Goalpara region and they include figures of gods, animals and birds, the last of which again dominate the over-all output.
Wood and bamboo on the other hand have been in use for making toys for several centuries , and like the other mediums, come as birds, animals and human figures.
Toys of cloth as also with a mixture of cloth and mud too have constituted part of the rich Assamese toy-making tradition. While the art of making cloth toys have been traditionally handed down from mother to daughter in every household, the cloth-and-mud toys are generally used for puppet theatres. Among the household toys, the bride and the groom are the most common characters, while the other varieties have animals and mythological characters as the plays demand.
Pottery is probably as old as human civilisation itself. In Assam, pottery can be traced back to many centuries.
The Kumars and Hiras are two traditional potter communities of Assam and while the Kumars use the wheel to produce his pots, the Hiras are probably the only potters in the world who do not use the wheel at all. Again, among the Hiras, only the womenfolk are engaged in pottery work, while their men help them in procuring the raw materials and selling the wares.
The most commonly-used pottery products include earthern pots and pitchers, plates, incense-stick holders, earthern lamps etc, while modern-day decoratives have also found place in their latest designs.
Assam has always remained one of the most forest-covered states of the country, and the variety of wood and timber available here have formed a part of the people's culture and ecomony.
An Assamese can identify the timber by touching it even in darkness, and can produce a series of items from it. While decorative panels in the royal Ahom palaces of the past and the 600-years old satras or Vaishnative monasteries are intricately carved on wood, a special class of people who excelled in wood carving came to be known as Khanikar , a surname proudly passed down from generation to generation.
The various articles in a satra and naam-ghar(place of worship) are stiff cut on wood, depicting the guru asana (pedestal of the lords), apart from various kinds of birds and animals figuring in mythology.
Modern-day Khanikar have taken to producing articles of commercial values, including figures of one-horned rhino and replicas of the world-famous Kamakhya temple - two items heading the list of demands of a visitor from outside.
With tribal art and folk elements form the base of Assamese culture, masks have found an important place in the cultural activities of the people. Masks have been widely used in folk theatres and bhaonas with the materials ranging from terracotta to pith to metal, bamboo and wood.
Similarly, among the tribals too, the use of masks is varied and widespread, especially in their colourful dances which again revolve chiefly around thier typical tribal myth and folklore. Such traditional masks have of late found thier way to the modern-day drawing rooms as decorative items and wall-hangings, thus providing self-employment opportunities to those who have been traditionally making them.
Gold has always constituted the most-used metal for jewellery in Assam, while the use of silver and other metals too have been there for centuries.
Gold was locally available, flowing down several Himalayan rivers, of which Subansiri is the most important. In fact, a particular tribe of people, the Sonowal Kacharis were engaged only for gold-washing in these rivers.
Jorhat in Upper Assam is one place where the traditional Assamese form of manufacture of jewellery is still in vogue, and people flock to Jorhat to get the exquisite Assamese jewellery. Assamese jewellery include the doog-doogi, loka-paro, bana, gaam-kharu, gal-pata, jon-biri, dhol-biri and keru, all of which have also encouraged the modern jewellers to producing similiar designs mechanically.
Terracotta as a medium has dominated the handicraft scene of Assam since time immemorial. The tradition itself has been handed down from the generation to generation without break. Today we have the descendent of such families engaged in improvised terracotta versions of various common figures of gods and goddesses to mythological characters, while toys, vases, etc have also found a new life.
The tradition of paintings in Assam can be traced back to several centuries in the past. Ahom palaces and satras and naam-ghar etc still abound in brightly-coloured paintings depicting various stories and events from history and mythology. In fact, the motifs and designs contained in Chitra-Bhagavata have come to become a traditional style for Assamese painters of the later period, and are still in practice today.
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