Leather craft is not as widely known as other crafts in India, and for this reason Nikitha Srinivas, Jeevitha Jagdeesh and Prathiksha S.P. Reddy of Post Graduate Diploma in Fashion Design and Business Management 2019 batch collectively formed the Sanati team to study the lesser known Nimmalakunta leather puppetry of Andhra Pradesh, helping them gain an understanding of how tradition, material and heritage inform each other in indigenous craft practices. Located in Dharmavaram district, which is well-known for its hand and power-loom woven silk sarees, the team stayed at the craft cluster for two weeks giving them the opportunity to visit the historical monuments and temples that informed the origin of this craft, and helped them gain a direct understanding of its evolving practice.
Recollecting the history of the craft, the artisans narrated how people from Maharashtra moved to Nimmalakunta 400 years ago and started practicing leather puppetry for their living. Inspired by the tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata, they created characters in leather puppetry and enacted these mythological tales for the purpose of entertainment and for spreading cultural and religious knowledge among the youth and younger generations. As digital and technological mediums started replacing traditional methods of entertainment and education, the significance of these puppetry shows declined over the years. The artisans however were able to adapt to this transition by adopting new product innovation strategies and implementing new methodologies of design intervention in their craft practice. This involved them using leather beyond the purpose of traditional puppetry-making in order to make objects of contemporary importance such as jewellery including necklaces and earrings, separation panels for interiors, wall paintings and door hangings. A significant subject of their product intervention however is the lampshade constructed out of translucent leather which creates interesting reflections with light.
Not completely moving away from mythological inspiration, the artisans incorporated kalamkari technique to come up with designs inspired by fish and peacock as part of their new product intervention. In traditional puppetry-making they used vegetable-derived colours that took about three months to be prepared, and because of this time-consuming process they replaced natural dyes and paints to synthetic ones. With regard to the material, they use two types of leather: home and factory processed. Home-processing involves the artisan going to the Sunday market and getting the skin of a goat, washing it with water to remove the hair and then drying it for three-days under the sun on a frame. This dried leather that is translucent in nature is then treated with calcium carbonate giving it a faint white coating. Surface techniques such as kalamkari are done using a bamboo stick dipped in ink which is quickly absorbed into the material.
After gaining an understanding of the products that the artisans create, the team identified the lampshade as a primary product of their craft application for which they suggested new styles of making. As the lampshades were mainly made in square and slope shapes, the team came up with new geometric style interventions that were contemporary in their design. When these ideas were presented to the artisans, they were happy to receive them but as with most other craft practices, they were skeptical about their practice losing its tradition if they adopted these interventions. The artisans were however more receptive in trying new ways of motif designs, and the team along with the artisans explored and experimented with potential new print designs and inspirations.
Sharing the craft cluster experience with their classmates, the team was able to understand how the leather craft of Nimmalakunta is receptive to changes in the contemporary world. As crafts are generally skeptical about changes because of the fear of losing their tradition and heritage, the artisans of the leather craft were willing to adopt adaptive ways to meet changing demands. This change in their methodologies of practice however, was not in a way that was completely removed from tradition, but more of an evolution of heritage; a continuous exploration of the potential of their tradition through which the resilience of their craft is strengthened. Along with the ability to diversify their practice, what sets apart the leather craft of Nimmalakunta from most other traditional practices is the willingness to teach the younger generation about the craft and its tradition. Unlike many other crafts that are in the process of extinction because of the lack of interest in the younger generation to practice it because of financial instability, these artisans were particular about transferring the knowledge to the youth. This transmission of traditional knowledge and heritage of the community through their creative practices with pride and willingness inspired the team to enquire if the ability to transmit knowledge is a privilege in itself. Understanding that the source of income is mainly from sales through exhibition and from middle-men who buy in bulk and sell it online, the team were able to question if the ability to be financially stable facilitates the celebration of heritage, and to what degree. The artisans have also been recognised by global communities and associations and have travelled internationally for the purpose of displaying their craft.
The leather craft team on recollecting their journey was intensely inspired by the receptive nature of the craft and its ability to adapt to the current evolving conditions. The leather artisans of Nimmalakunta were proactive in transferring the practice to the next generation and encouraged such educational and awareness activities. They were also open to sharing their tradition and practice with anyone who enquired them without withholding any information. In addition to this, it was practiced by all people, regardless of gender, age or any other parameters; everyone sitting and working together happily creating a supportive and encouraging environment for the sustenance of this evolving and adaptive craft.