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Gurus of grandeur

The past forms the perfect present for three Shilpgurus. CHITRA SWAMINATHAN in conversation with Ganapati Sthapati, Gurappa Chetty and Jagdish Raj Soni



Creative convergence: Jagdish Raj Soni, Ganapati Sthapati and Gurappa Chetty at the CCI Convention. — Pic. by Vino John

BEING AMONG Shilpgurus one feels the clock has stopped... centuries ago. Their lifestyle shuns modern trappings, their work is untouched by technology, their belief is rooted in tradition and their art mirrors our culture.

The Crafts Council of India's (CCI) `Grass to Gold' international jewellery convention was an ideal meeting ground for Ganapati Sthapati, a traditional architect, builder, master sculptor and a Vaastu expert, Gurappa Chetty, whose name is synonymous with Kalamkari art, and Jagdish Raj Soni, who has given Thewa jewellery a global glow.

Amid the glitter of the show, these unpretentious master craftsmen still made an impact as they were being honoured "for being the guardians of ancient arts and crafts for decades." "We derive our strength from such patronage. As most traditional craftsmen hail from small towns and villages and lack exposure to the world outside, these are opportunities for joining the cultural mainstream," says Jagdish Raj Soni, who is from Pratapgarh in Rajasthan.

Thewa, which means `setting' in Rajasthani, involves fusing 23K gold with multicoloured glass.

The jewellery is handcrafted and through its artistic images depicts the colourful ethos of the region.

More than awards, what excites Gurappa Chetty is when people understand the true beauty of his art.

"Today, every other boutique or store seems to be stocking Kalamkari designs. But people don't realise that these are merely block printed fabrics," he says, unhappiness writ large on his wrinkled face.

Kalahasti's popular Kalamkari art, originally called vraatha pani [in Telugu, vraatha means writing and pani means work] or ezhuthu velai [which in Tamil means writing work] is about hand painted images drawn from Nature and the Scriptures, with accompanying script.

Specialises in panels

Gurappa specialises in making Kalamkari panels. And the few saris he creates have only floral or animal motifs on them.

When he sees fashion aficionados converting Kalamkari fabric with religious motifs into titillating outfits it deeply hurts him.

"Authentic Kalamkari works can be seen either at the Saraswati Mahal in Thanjavur or in galleries and museums outside India," says Gurappa.

"It's heartening to see commercial and residential buildings in foreign countries being constructed or remodelled according to Vaastu," says Ganapati Sthapati, whose hands are full with international architecture and sculpture projects. He is at present creating a replica of the famous Chidambaram Nataraja Temple in Central America.

"Most people in India see Vaastu more as a fad than a heritage. But mark my words," he says emphatically, "You have to come back to our shastras and sampradaya to experience a wholesome life."

He continues, "Life for a craftsman, particularly in our country, is not easy. Every time there is a change in government, policies change. The non-availability of quality raw material these days is killing our art. But who's listening?"

Reviving tradition

Ganapati Sthapati, who traces his lineage to the sthapatis involved in the construction of the world-renowned Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjavur, says he has spent five decades researching and reviving the Vaastu tradition.

And to cater to those interested in the science, he started the International Institute of Mayonic Science and Technology.

The expert team of architects at V. Ganapati Sthapati and Associates has to its credit several temples and buildings within and outside India such as the Shiva Vishnu Temple in St. Louis, the Balaji Temple in Nairobi, the Mahalakshmi Temple in the U.K. and the Ranganathar Temple in Colombo.

Jagdish Raj Soni feels outfits like the CCI have been doing great work by identifying languishing crafts and providing aid to indigent craftspersons.

But he insists there should be more direct interaction with buyers. "That will open up the market and provide artistic inputs."

"We have been struggling to save our crafts from getting corrupted by commercial compulsions, to the extent of foregoing monetary benefits. And you develop a personal bonding if you have inherited a skill from your forefathers. So it hurts when people meddle with tradition in the name of modernity," says Gurappa with a toothless smile.

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