From the ancient times, Indian arts and crafts have gained recognition for their great beauty and aesthetic value. The stone carvers or ‘shilpis’ of the ancient times painfully crafted intricate designs and patterns in stones and sculpted voluptuous forms, mostly for temples. In the ancient Hindu Shastras it is mentioned that a ‘shilpi’ who works with a joyous mood creates forms that are appealing to the eye.
The Indian craftsmen do not consider any substance as inanimate. They believe in bringing each piece of craft to life with their refined craftsmanship. The diverse and intricate range of crafts so produced, indicate a high degree of creativity and sophistication of Indian craftsmen, most of whom have a rich history of artisan traditions. Some of the artisans or ‘kulika’ enjoyed royal patronage of kings and emperors. Some of the designs of their arts and crafts have been influenced by countries such as Persia and Mesopotamia.
The credit for the discovery of ancient Indian arts and crafts and their subsequent display at the India Museum in East India House during the early 19th century A.D. could be given to the surveyors and archaeologists of the British East India Company. This remarkable event started the meticulous study, appraisal and collection of Indian decorative arts in England and other parts of Europe. Not surprisingly, in the Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London, the most extensive imperial exhibit was that of the East India Company, comprising of extremely valuable jewellery, weapons and furniture . It left a deep impact among the Britons, who got a glimpse of India’s huge wealth. This was the first occasion when Indian decorative objects were displayed in the West.
Several such exhibitions were held subsequently in the United States, Australia and other parts of Europe, which exposed the quality, beauty and diversity of Indian designs and craftsmanship to the western world. Sir George Birdwood did pioneering work for studying and promoting Indian crafts. He wrote a report on the Indian Court of the British section of the Paris International Exhibition held in 1877, which paved the way for the establishment of an Indian Museum of art manufacturers at the South Kensington Museum in 1880 , which was later converted into the India section of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. A huge collection of rare and expensive artefacts could be found in the Victoria and Albert Museum, including Shah Jahan’s wine cup, ‘Tipoo’s Tiger’, Chola Bronzes and several miniatures and crafts .
In 1880, the British Government established four craft schools at Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Lahore and soon took over their administration. It also launched systematic programmes for promoting Indian arts and crafts by setting up museums and organising exhibitions. In 1883, the Journal of Indian Art was established under the editorship of Lockwood Kipling.
Robert Fellowes Chisholm, one of the most gifted English architects working in India, was a strong supporter of the Indian art. He built several buildings in India using the Indo-Saracenic Style of architecture by blending the European architectural elements with Indian decorative motifs.
The Indian Art Exhibition 1902-1903 was held in Delhi, for which Sir George Watts wrote an official catalogue and Percy Brown did the illustration. This marked the beginning of systematic documentation and cataloguing of Indian arts and crafts.
Another major turning point for Indian art was the Festival of Empire and Imperial Exhibition 1911, which had a separate India section called the Indian Court. The guide and catalogue for this event was edited by Col. T.Holbien Hendley and printed in London in 1913. This was followed by the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley in 1924, the Exhibition of Indian Art held in London in 1931 and the exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art held in India House London in 1946 under the organisation of Austin Coates .
Being a country having continental dimensions, India now produces one of the widest varieties of handicrafts in the world ranging from jewellery, brocades, papier-mâché, stone inlay works, to even furniture and carpets. Indian handicrafts are exported to hundreds of countries and the export earnings touched US$ 1830 million during 2009-2010.