India, a Country for those who Love Handmade: Kevin Murray

Dr Kevin Murray is a scholar, curator and teacher with immense contributions in the field of craft and design. Having a particularly deep interest and decades of expertise, Dr. Murray is an authority in the crafts of the Asia Pacific region. He is the Managing editor of Garland Magazine and the Online Encyclopedia of Crafts in the Asia Pacific Region. He is also the Senior Vice-President of the World Craft Council Asia Pacific Region, and has worked in shaping Sangam: A Platform for Craft-Design Partnerships between India and Australia.

Traveling across the world and studying several cultures, Dr. Murray loves the diversity of India and enjoys different regions for individual purposes. “I have great respect for the intellectual culture of Bengal, the mythology of Kerala, the depth of classical Tamil culture, the temperate climate of the Deccan, the austere beauty of Ahmedabad, the bustle of Mumbai and the intensity of Delhi. I continue to be dazzled by the Indian world.”

In this interview, Dr. Murray talks about Indian crafts, their role in the global creative economy as well as in building a cultural narrative for the country. He will also be speaking on the panel ‘Crafted in India: Indian motifs on August 29 as part of the ongoing festival Namaste 2021.

How did your journey of exploring and studying crafts begin? What made you venture outside the Australian borders?

My involvement in crafts began as a writer-in-residence at Melbourne’s craft centre. The craftspeople I met deeply impressed me with their commitment and skill. Their objects had so many stories to tell, but few ways of disseminating them.

My journeys beyond Australia were borne of curiosity to “meet the neighbours”, particularly those roughly in the South of the world. In modern times, India seemed to be able to keep to the spirit of the Arts & Crafts Movement, which had originated in England but became a middle-class pursuit. I took the opportunity to visit Delhi and sit at the feet of the esteemed writer on textiles, Jasleen Dhamaja, who deeply impressed me with her breadth of knowledge that tied craft to the rituals that sustain life.

How can crafts and heritage contribute towards building a soft power narrative for countries?

Support for heritage provides a context for goals that go beyond short-term economic interests, where countries are often in conflict. There is great pride in heritage, which welcomes the witness that other cultures may give, whether it is the smiles of tourists or the formal acknowledgment of bodies such as UNESCO. It conjures a common human need to give meaning to the world over generations.

The Garland Magazine focuses on the Indo-Pacific region, vast and diverse geography with many cultures. However, are there certain common practices, motifs, or forms of cultural expression as well?

 Most certainly! In fact, we named our publication Garland because it was a common motif across the Indo-Pacific. But more than a form of adornment, it conjures up a spirit of welcome towards the guest. Though challenged by the violence of colonial expansion, this hospitality has been a key linking element across the region. The Garland also connotes ritual, which is common across the region in everyday adornment, be it in the form of welcoming guests, honouring individuals, adorning homes or decorating temples.

At the Launch of Garland's Trading Tales Issue

How has the exchange of crafts artifacts and know-how contributed towards an India-Austria Cultural Dialogue?

 India has been trading goods such as spices and textiles since at least the Roman Empire. In the early days of the British colony in Australia, there was a dependence on India for basic supplies, particularly textiles. Australia consumed products of the British empire that were derived from Indian culture, but it is only in modern times that we get to enjoy so many Indian exports directly.

The Sangam Project, a platform for artisans and designers from Australia and India to engage in collaborative works and learn from each other, is a step towards building India-Australia Cultural Dialogue. Sangam Project responded to the trend of many designers to go to India to have their products made by hand. From one angle, this could look like the kind of exploitation of cheap labour we see in the global industry. But I thought there was potential for a better story to be told if we could gather all perspectives. Developing a Code of Practice for Craft & Design Partnerships offers a common project that would bring people together. While this is strongest in India, there has been great interest in Indonesia and Latin America as well. It’s about building a culture of trust through mutual understanding.

Sangam Workshop with GoCoop in Bengaluru, 2016

One of the objectives of the World Craft Council is “to revive languishing crafts in these regions.” What are some of the projects WCC has been working in India?

WCC has a number of projects for craft development. These include the Award of Excellence and World Craft Cities. These projects acknowledge good work in the sector. For example, Mahabalipuram or Mamallapuram has been identified as the City for Stone Carving and can be a hub for stone crafts tourism. The beautiful stone craft flourished during the Pallava dynasty. The influence of the sculptures of Mamallapuram spread widely to distant kingdoms of South East Asia - Cambodia, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java and the entire Champa empire. Another craft city that has been identified is Jaipur.

The online encyclopedia of crafts is also designed to focus attention on the rich diversity of crafts in our region that needs to be preserved. But it is really up to local NGOs and governments to look at programs in product development that can help artisans adapt to changing environments and markets.

In what ways do Indian crafts and craft traditions contribute to the global creative economy today?

India certainly appeals to those with a love of the handmade. The spirituality of Indian culture imbues the crafts with authenticity. But as craftspersons are becoming more connected, there is the chance to grow people-to-people contacts with other countries. This can include workshops, story-telling, ritual or therapy, underpinned by the beautiful crafts.