Reviving India’s Pre-Colonial Arts with GAJENDRASHANANE
The fate of India’s artisanal heritage had arrived at a stark point of stagnation during the eras of colonialism and rapid industrialisation for more reasons than one. A generalised disinterest amongst British imperialists vis-a-vis traditionally manufactured goods provided native artists and artisans a sharp and intolerable blow when seen in contrast to the generous patronage that they had received from Indian royalty, nobility and aristocracy in pre-colonial times. Added to trends of colonial apathy, the mechanical advances made in the age of industrialisation further put India’s artisans at a competitive disadvantage in terms of value-efficiency, processing and manufacturing speeds. Custom-made luxury goods required a far more in-depth knowledge, manufacturing time and procedural patience than what was afforded to them by mass-manufacturers.
Not only did these acute shifts in approach towards traditional artisanship produce adverse effects on the quality and scale of traditional artisanal manufacturing in India, but they also permanently altered the general trading patterns for a sizeable community of artists and artisans in the country.
Refusing to play passive victims to the 21st century repercussions of this phenomenon of artisanal decline, the duo of Gajendra and Shanane decided to contribute towards a reversal of yesteryear’s damages by restoring their nation’s proud heritage to its erstwhile glory.
By systematically re-establishing and re-invigorating traditional karkhanas (artisanal workshops) all over India, GajendraShanane envisioned an effective sustenance of traditional fine and decorative arts whilst also upholding long-established client-patron relationships in the best interest of the artists and artisans in concern, and towards the larger interest of indigenous art and craft.
This fall, Rajputana Collective is proud to feature Gajendra-Shanane, the 21st century patrons of India’s pre-colonial arts in their commendable revival of India’s pre-colonial arts and present-day karkhanas. Not only does their story of artistic reinstitution serve as a compelling precedent of positive sociocultural change, but also throws a retrospective spotlight on a nationwide artisanal decline that calls for urgent support and consideration at a larger scale than it presently receives.
PRE-COLONIAL PATRONAGE OF INDIAN ART
In times that preceded the East India Company’s landing on Indian shores, India’s artists and artisans lived through a golden era of royal patronage, wherein an extensive array of englightened rulers, aristocrats and noblemen provided a generous backing to their karkhanas not only monetarily, but ideologically as well. Genuinely immersive in their appreciation towards traditional decorative and fine art, their progressive and promotional foresight facilitated an artisanal boost in terms of a diversification of manufacturing processes, styles and the materials used therein. Different permutations and combinations produced unique tradable goods in their own right, all of which were keenly contested across the bustling trade routes within the country and beyond its international borders. In all, these qualified as some of the best of times for Indian artists, artisans and art-lovers to be alive, and Shanane aptly paraphrases the essence of this artistically-advanced era: “India’s nobles, aristocracy and royals have understood loyal patronage relations with skilled artists and artisans to be essential to a healthy and prosperous society. In this society, beauty was a virtue in which all shared, rather than being a commercial frivolity of the wealthy few.”
THE CHALLENGES OF BRITISH COLONIALISM
Be it its perfumes, lacquer, paper, stone carving, or its jewellery and textiles, India’s fine and decorative arts rivalled the best in the world. The secret of nation’s pre-colonial art lay in its labour intensity and ingenious processes that took generations to invent and master.
However, all this was fated to change. And change it did, much before anyone had devised tools that were effective enough to avert the forthcoming adversities. In other words, unlike in times under the East India Company that offered fair consideration to Indian art and craft, the advent of British colonialism heralded with it a dramatic decline of Indian art and craft, as well as their associated ties of patronage. Shanane systematically attributes this phenomenon on several interrelated factors, which could be broadly categorised into external and internal factors.
Beginning with the former, she elaborates, “when India became a British colony in 1858, a different level of Europeans were administering the country- coming from backgrounds where high level culture and art patronage were absent on the most part- they pushed for English as their main language; European literature and art sensibilities were often preferred without the accompanying quality of the objects made. This Europeanisation frowned upon the indigenous arts and labelled them as inferior to European art and culture.” Subsequently, effects of rapid industrialisation drives added to a drop in quality and price standards, thereby casually standardising, and even demeaning traditionally-skilled artisanship. “The colonial era saw the demise of many of these arts as industrialisation taught India’s buyers to settle for cheaper products that only shabbily resembled what its elite had once cultivated and prized”, Shanane adds.
With the commercial blows of industrialisation playing their part, the external dominance of art, culture and later, trade and governance by the British was inadvertently causative of several internal repercussions that further played to the detriment of Indian artists, artisans and their products. To begin with, the gradual geographical reintegration of India under the British sharply modified the existing trade routes. This led to a fluctuation of demand-supply patterns. Furthermore, a change in administration and territorial patterns also caused the erstwhile art patronage to be more sporadic. Unlike in earlier times, the scattered patron-client relationships loosened the former’s supervision over the quality and aesthetics of art and craft being produced in India. In short, the collective consequence imploded in the form of one, a disorganised artisanal body that lacked any sufficient backing of powerful resources; and two, a severely compromised chain of demand and supply.
A REVIVAL OF THE ARTS
Over recent decades, the historical compounding of what could be understood as an existential crisis for artisanal trade nationwide as well as their karkhanas began to convey itself to the sensibilities of several art enthusiasts and modern-day patrons of Indian art and craft, Gajendra and Shanane included. Belonging to powerful lineages of art patrons, both, Gajendra and Shanane took up the joint responsibility of reviving the region’s erstwhile karkhanas and traditional manufacturing techniques to their bygone distinction. They would realise this on the basis of a two-pronged approach. One, by providing the artists and artisans a close supervision that adhered strictly to a set of predetermined quality standards; and two, by assimilating these indigenously-manufactured goods under their joint banner, which would promote and extend these goods to a luxury-centric clientele. “As public commerce was something that had not historically taken place for these objects, we introduced the idea among ourselves to start a luxury brand as we felt today’s customers, connoisseurs and collectors would understand this platform. This is how GajendraShanane started”, Shanane explains.
After the successful establishment of their luxury brand titled GajendraShanane, the duo placed their brand into their Jodhpur-based home- Jog Niwas, which also serves as a leading interior salon to provide education in the fine and decorative arts of courtly India. Gajendra and Shanane undertake an educative strategy in their restorative and networking efforts.
Hence, they have dedicated three of their guest rooms at Jog Niwas for the purpose of hosting guests, collectors, connoisseurs, scholars, professors and students to learn and acquire art, connoisseurship knowledge and the art history of South Asia. Shanane adds to this by saying, “we know that education has a vital role in making our guests/ clientele understand the difference between objects that are authentic and truly luxury versus those that are premium-level objects, often sold incorrectly as luxury objects. Few now understand the nuances that distinguish the finest Pashmina shawls, for example, from lesser-quality jacquard substitutes, or can appreciate the level of thewa that India’s elite patrons, artists and artisans once collaborated to sustain. A few Indian buyers still have an eye for true luxury that few others in the world can rival, but India’s luxury arts and the connoisseurs who sustained them are now rare.”
The tragic alteration in buyers’ attitude and client-patron relationships over the centuries also caused the artisanal community to grow disillusioned about their trade. It is a much known fact that several artisanal families invented world-famous proprietary methods to ensure each generation would continue to thrive and the progress unchallenged, However, as their favourability declined, several great masters found it worthless to transmit their artistic skills to their forthcoming generations for the redundancy that they begun to attract in modern times in comparison to alternate forms of employment and sustenance. Incentivising the artisanal community with a reinvigorated sense of creativity and passion by encouraging their linkage with an educated and appreciative client base forms the hallmark of GajendraShanane’s revival strategy. Added to this, they lay special emphasis on responsible sourcing, sustainability and their constant preference of natural raw materials as being symbiotic to a larger ethic that bears utmost respect for traditional art and crafts.
When seen in a nutshell, the creative and restorative endeavours of GajendraShanane encapsulate ethics of sustainability, education and traditional revival of artists and artisans in a format borrowed from the golden age of precolonial India itself. In fact, they go a step further to anchor their prerogative in modern times by ensuring its financial and commercial viability. In her concluding remark, Shanane makes an articulate reiteration of her productive intent: “the aspiration is to turn buyers away from brands buoyed by a rhetoric of luxury towards a brand, GajendraShanane, that is socially and environmentally sustaining, that preaches and practices high quality material and workmanship that are the essence of true luxury, and that, in so doing, returns aesthetics to material culture.”
In their passionate and determined perusal of the restoration of Indian decorative arts, Gajendra and Shanane look forward to generate greater awareness amongst Indians and the rest of the world vis-a-vis the competence and viability of luxury goods that are being traditionally manufactured by Indian artists and artisans. Alongside this educational approach of theirs, the duo aims to maintain a close supervision system over the native karkhanas so as to ensure optimum quality, aesthetics and workmanship are maintained in tandem with demand trends and luxury standards.
Rajputana Collective congratulates Gajendra and Shanane on their enterprising efforts and wishes them nothing short of the best.
GajendraShanane’s secret lies in a historically and technically-deep knowledge of India’s artisanal processes, the fostering of respectful, informed and lasting relationships with a selection of India’s few remaining top-level artisanal masters; and a dedication to educating its clientele in the connoisseurship and acquisition of India’s most lavish and rare art forms.
High-demand artisanal products: Perfume (attar), hardstone precious gems, leather and fine fabric products, fine textiles in cotton, silk and pashmina.
Products that are more challenging to sell: Stone statuary and larger hand-engraved metal nd lacquer bowls and pitchers.
Aspects that continue to remain untapped in their restorative potential: A high quality carpet knotting and handlooms without the aid of a jacquard loom system; and the further revival of different natural dyes and processing for textiles.
The most rewarding aspect of being an art revivalist: Creating beautifully rare one-off items through processes and mediums that have been saved from becoming extinct.