The arts and crafts of Rajasthan

Visiting local artisans and buying ethically

The arts and crafts of Rajasthan
By Rachel Bracken-Singh

Rajasthan is among the richest states in India when it comes to the quality of its textiles, artwork and clothing. But how do you ensure you’re buying authentic craftworks from responsible sources -- and where can you visit local artisans?

The tradition of craft

Rajasthan has a very strong identity and is still heavily rooted in traditions of all kinds. Its customs are rich and diverse, perhaps more so than any other region of India. In contrast with the dry, arid, and often bleak climate, its textiles are vibrant in pattern, practical yet striking. Stepping into Rajasthan from any other surrounding state, you’ll feel as though you have arrived in a region where people embrace and celebrate colour.

The state’s true culture is in its villages, through the music, the day-to-day pastoral life (which is very different from city life), the crafts that are produced in rural Rajasthan and the traditional cloth that people wear.

Rajasthan also has some of the most dramatic and beautiful architecture of anywhere in India. While its architectural heritage has largely been neglected, there is still an abundance of amazing palaces, forts, stepwells and havelis/old mansions to see.

The founder of Jaipur, Jai Singh, invited skilled craftspeople from far and wide to settle in the city. This is reflected in the variety of skills still present in the city today. Apart from block-carving (wood-blocks carved with patterns and stamped on fabric) and printing, Jaipur is known for jewellery, fine tie and dye, miniature painting, various types of hand embroidery, metal work, woodwork, carpet making and pottery. It’s a long list. If you walk around the old city you will find many arts and crafts still in existence.

Buying ethically

Preservation of crafts is very important. Personally, I feel very privileged to be a part of a living heritage in Rajasthan. The last, specialist block printing “factory” closed down in the UK in the late 70s: such a fact is incredibly disheartening. Things can change quickly and it is quite alarming how suddenly traditions disappear. India’s unique character, its richness and strength come from the diverse handcraft skills of its people, which also provides a huge amount of employment.

What is ethical to one person is not to another. Unsuspecting visitors may be tricked into thinking they are buying something that it isn’t. Is a fabric synthetic or natural? Is it handwoven or machine-made? Are you being charged more than you should be -- or too little?

In Rajasthan, visitors can go behind the scenes of shops and see the set up. This may or may not give the whole picture, but can help to know the environment in which a product has been produced and whether it has been crafted locally.

Head to Sanganer and you can visit print workshops, try the techniques and then purchase something from their shop. Similarly, in Jaipur’s old city, some of the embroidery is sewn in workspaces behind shops. A walk around the lanes gives you a chance to see other crafts being made and sold side by side, such as leather footwear and bags, metalwork and jewellery. Or travel to Bagru, where a small museum owned by Suraj Narain Titanwala offers perspectives on the family tradition of block printing with natural dye techniques.

Arts and crafts in Jaipur

A visit to the Anokhi Museum is a good place to start your journey. It offers a small window into the history of block printing and some of the regional textiles still being produced today.

Go to Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK) to see a cleverly designed contemporary building with interesting cultural events happening throughout the year. This gives a small taste of modern art in India. You’ll find a mix of young and old locals meeting in the airy cafe or visiting one of the exhibitions on display.

If you like textiles, a block printing workshop with Wabisabi Project is wonderful exposure to an important industry in the area. You’ll learn about block printing and natural dyes out in the Rajasthani countryside.

Many visitors walk around the sites of Jaipur, unaware of the hive of artistic activity happening down its backstreets, doorways and courtyards. Don’t be afraid to explore.

The arts and crafts of Rajasthan

By Rachel Bracken-Singh

Rachel is head designer at international fashion boutique Anokhi and co-founder and director of the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing. She lives in Jaipur.