India may be an incredible country but unfortunately the people who slaved away to secure a place on the world map for this country are not shining. Most national award winning craftsmen whose exquisite crafts helped earn India a high world status are unfortunately living without even the basic amenities. These craftsmen are fighting hard for the livelihood, health, education and safety of themselves and their family members.
Indian craftsmen are common people, many of whom are living below the poverty line. Most have to take out loans from local moneylenders at interest rates of 5% or more to be able to afford their monthly bread and butter. Then, due to the minimal earnings gained for their work they often hit problems in repayment. This vicious cycle then results in such craftsmen unwillingly seeking alternative earning sources, resulting in the fossilization of that particular strain of traditional art.
Since India’s independence, various steps have been taken to aid the development of such artisans. In 1963, the annual National Awards for Excellence in crafts was instituted. Still, craftspeople of today find themselves at crossroads beset with poverty and illness.
Muhammad Tughlaq of Moradabad, a national award winning artist and Shilpa Guru, creator of brass wonders, told SME Times, “Our government needs to look into our most basic problems. Global economic recession is entirely different. Our problems are related to the basic needs for livelihood.”
“We want genuine buyers of our art-crafts and this can only be made possible through the proper marketing of our products. The government needs to exhibit these works not only in showrooms but also in national and international museums and trade fairs.”
“I am above 80 and probably the last man alive on earth who knows this art and after me nobody will make these (brassware) because the new generation doesn’t want to learn this fine craft, which takes lots of time and hard work and which, after completion, there are no rewards for,” he added.
Pointing to his masterpiece, which had taken almost 10 years to make, which he was awarded the Shilpa Guru for, Tughlaq said, “I want this masterpiece to be displayed in a museum because this is the last of its kind. It was our time when the kings ruled and we were given rewards from them…but time keeps changing and this is our worst time.”
According to 1995-96 census data, there are around 47.61 Lakh artisans. India is estimated to have around 3,500 clusters of artisans practicing a variety of crafts such as basketry and mat-weaving; producing goods such as canes, earthenware, folk paintings, jewelry, metal ware, musical instruments, pottery, sea shell crafts and woodwork. They are estimated to employ, according to the National Council of Applied Economic Research, around 13 million people.
If we do not listen to the voices of craftsmen, soon there will be no craftsmen left to talk to…,” Rehman added.
Above is an article of [SME times.tradeinida.com, India, updated 18 Sep., 2009]
Similar plights of artisans can be seen in other countries also. In Korea, January 1962, a law was passed to allow the preservation of intangibles such as music, dance, drama, and crafts. Through this law, individuals possessing the skills and talents to carry out the various cultural activities were categorized under ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’, with the individuals being classed as ‘Human Cultural Properties’.
Any individual or cultural aspect qualifying under the category of ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ is protected against financial difficulty and disappearance, with an ‘Instruction Center’ provided to allow the masters to pass on their expertise to the next generation. In addition, exhibitions and shows are part financed and supported annually, with the ‘Human Cultural Properties’ being awarded governmental financial aid.
At current there are 121 registered ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’, with property number 1 being the Jong-myo-je-rye-ak. It is an ancestor worship ritual practiced in the royal courts from the Choseon dynasty (1392~1910).
[Important Intangible Cultural Properties No.1 Jong-myo-je-rye-ak, ritual music play]
Of the 121 registered ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’, 47 are artisans holding the skills for creating tangible products such as arts and crafts, not including food. Interestingly, although the qualifying and registering of the ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’ has been going on for almost 50 years, with its starts in 1962, 21 of the 23 new registrations since 1992 are ‘Human Cultural Properties’ such as those artisans of traditional arts and crafts. With the aggressive importing and adapting of Western living and culture that started in the 1990’s, traditional arts, crafts, and products entered a period of suffering. The carriers of the skills found it difficult to find willing apprentices to pass their skills onto. This was the point where the government, concerned about the risk of losing Korea’s traditional craftwork skills, started supporting its preservation.
[Building of Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, located in Daijeon]
Although each region also has its own regional cultural property laws aiding the preservation of ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’; among the masters in each field, being registered and respected as an ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ under the government is considered the greatest honor. Thus, masters strive to be awarded a number on the list of ‘Human Cultural Properties’. Qualifying masters first unofficially, then officially, are given a number before their name resulting in a grand title of “Human Cultural Property Number xx” before their name.
[Human Properties No.26 Heejin Kim for Knotting]
[Knotting Craft, Heejin Kim’s work]
Of the current traditional Korean arts and crafts, one that appears significantly more frequently in overseas exhibits and shows is Mother-of-Pearl inlay crafts. Although Mother-of-Pearl crafts originated in China, there was a distinct period where the craft settled in Korea and Japan. In Korea, Mother-of-Pearl crafts developed most rapidly during the Goryeo dynasty(918~1392) period. China moved further towards making carvings in furniture or everyday products rather than Mother-of-Pearl crafts while Japan developed its painting techniques further resulting in the 3 countries developing distinct cultural personalities.
Looking at the arts and crafts of the 3 far eastern countries; Korea, China, and Japan; experts define Chinese Ceramics, Korean Mother-of-Pearl inlay crafts, and Japanese lacquering as the best in each field.
Mother-of-Pearl inlay craftwork was registered as ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ number 10 in 1966; the first craft to be registered ever. There are currently two Mother-of-Pearl inlay Masters holding the title of ‘Human Cultural Property’, Master Song Bang Woong (1940~) and Master Lee Hyung Man. Master Song Bang Woong’s father was also awarded the status of ‘Human Cultural Propery’ although unfortunately being 80 at the time, he was only able to enjoy this status for 2 years before passing away.
[Bang-Woong, Song at work, Human Properties No.10 for Mother of Pearl Inlay ]
Reality dictates that it is unfortunately impossible for the government to fully support all 121 registered ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’ in Korea. The financial support provided in the 5 years between 2005 and 2009 comes to a sum of U$80 million, U$30 million of which was provided to support the provision of instruction by the ‘Human Cultural Properties’; both figures hopelessly meager compared to the U$1 billion that went towards the support and preservation of the tangible cultural properties of Korea. It would be unrealistically wishful, even with the inherent and incomparable beauty of traditional Korean arts and crafts, to expect expansion of into global markets, to spread and develop into international territories, with such limited support. The support being provided, insufficient to push development forward, is just about keeping the wounded soldier, who has lost all lines of support, barely alive with an IV drip and an Oxygen mask.
[Hahway Mask Dancing, Important Intangible Cultural Properties No.69]
Any skill can be developed most significantly in an environment where those with the skill as well as those wanting to learn the skill are plentiful. A certain degree of competition is vital in bringing out unchartered development and change adaptation. Conversely, two senior Masters holding titles of ‘Human Cultural Property’ training a couple apprentices may successfully prevent the art from dying but is hardly sufficient in leading the craft’s entrance and development into the global market
[Hyungman Lee, Human Properties No.10 for Mother of Pearl Inlay]
[Lee’s MOP Case for Scottish Whisky Macallan 1926(sold at U$70,000 in Korea)]
That’s not to say it is unimportant to preserve tangible cultural assets. However, while preserving tangible assets may be compared to the act of carefully preserving an old photograph containing an image of the past, preserving an ‘Important Intangible Cultural Property’ offers unlimited opportunities for the asset’s development and change. Risking disagreement, I would go on to say that the potential to create financial growth from investment into the preservation and development of intangible cultural properties far surpasses the potential from investment into
the preservation of tangible assets.
[Jeong-Ok, Kim, Human Properties for Porcelain Crafts]
[Exhibition Room of Kim’s Instruction Center]
Unfortunately public and private aid in the preservation and development of these valuable ‘Important Intangible Cultural Properties’ such as Mother-of-Pearl inlay crafts is unable to provide the necessary scale of support. As is the case in any country, the government must get involved to provide any promising amount of aid.
Mother-of-pearl, also known as nacre, is an organic-inorganic composite material produced by certain mollusks as an inner shell layer, and accumulated in other shells, such as freshwater pearl mussels, in the form of pearls. It is very strong, resilient, and iridescent. Mother-of-pearl can be found in strains of mollusks in the class of Bivalvia, such as the clam, oyster, or mussel; Gastropoda, such as snails or slugs; and Cephalopoda, such as cuttlefish or squid. At current, pearl oysters, freshwater pearl mussels, and to a lesser extent, abalones are predominant sources of mother-of-pearl material.
[Abalone Shell Mother of Pearl]
The mother-of-pearl material, hereon referred to as MOP, used in traditional Korean MOP inlay crafts is mainly that of abalone. Though artisans do also use the MOP of other shell-fish, they believe the abalone MOP is of the highest quality, producing the most beautiful colors and light reflections. The natural shells are diligently sanded down until they reach the desired thickness. 100 of these sheets compose of a single ‘bundle’. Thick bundles reach about 4 inches(12.1cm) and thin bundles come to a mere 0.25 inches(7.3mm) in total thickness.
[Sheets of Mother-of-Pearl]
MOP can be adhered onto many different kinds of materials such as wood, porcelain, metal, and thick paper(many layers of papers glued together). There are three main methods of attaching the MOP, the first of which is to carve the surface of the base material exactly to the shape of the MOP motif and inlay the MOP. The second method is to glue the sheet of MOP directly onto the surface. Lastly, one can process the MOP into miniscule pieces and scatter them onto a glue-applied surface.
There is also a large variety of ways to cut and shape the MOP sheets. Thick sheets are often sawn or chiseled into the desired shape, with the edges filed smooth afterwards. Thin sheets can be cut into shape with a craft knife or manipulated with a needle. Sometimes desired shapes are stamped out of thin sheets by way of a chisel end shaped into the desired motif. Sometimes, desired patterns are lacquered onto MOP sheets that have been attached as is onto surfaces. The pattern is then brought out by corrosion of all non-lacquered areas. There are methods of creating small cracks in the MOP to help stick it to rounded objects; cutting and sticking the MOP in simple triangle, square or diamond shapes; or applying a solid color or attaching a gold or metal sheet to the back of an almost translucent sheet of very thin MOP, a practice that was popularized in China’s Ming Dynasty(1368~1644) with gold-hued MOP designs. In addition, knives can be used to carve designs into the MOP and pencil-thin lines can be engraved in the MOP to create images such as petals or feathers.
[Old Chinese Mother-of-Pearl Lacquer Ware]
The origins of MOP are not clear but it is known that the crafts enjoyed huge popularity in China during the Tang Dynasty(618~907). Most of the wood and MOP shells at the time were sourced in South Each Asia, which may lead us to believe that the origins of the craft also lie in South East Asia. During the Ming(1368~1644) and Qing(1616~1912) Dynasties, the methods of applying metals, gold, or some other materials to the back of MOP sheets so that one could see the beauty through the almost translucent sheets of MOP after applying them onto the surface of wood crafts developed and reached their peak in China creating MOP crafts said to be comparable in beauty to “Chilbo”(7 different beautiful jewels).
[MOP inlaid Mirror, AD 8c~10c, Korean National Property No.140, Rium Art Gallery, Korea]
Korea’s “Najun”, MOP inlay methods, are known to have been passed down from China’s Tang(618~907) Dynasty to Shilla(57BC~935AD; a country located in the south-eastern part of Korean peninsula) during the time of the Three Kingdoms. Following on from the Tang Dynasty, MOP craftsmanship deteriorated in China during the Song Dynasty. On the other hand, in Korea during the Goryeo(918~1392) period, MOP craftsmanship developed and spread extensively leading to MOP inlay crafts and ceramics becoming representative of the Goryeo( introduced and pronounced as “Korea” to Europe) period.
[MOP inlaid Case for Buddhist Monk’s Rosary, Goryeo Dynasty, Bostion Art Gallery USA]
During the Goryeo period, MOP was typically applied in sheets and lacquered over to create designs. According to the ‘Shik-hwa-ji’, a historical text from the Goryeo Dynasty, the royal courts housed an arts and crafts quarter, the ‘Joong-sang-Seo’ where artisans were able to create some of the time’s most valuable pieces of art. According to texts, in 1272, under the rule of King Wonjong, with Buddhism as the period’s main religion, a series of MOP cases were ordered and created under an official government body to hold the ‘Goryeo-Dae-Jang-Kyeong’, Buddhist scriptures.
[Goryeo Daejangkyeong, Buddhist Scriptures]
MOP crafts of Korea are referred to as Najunchilgi. Unfortunately, of the mere 16 examples of Najunchilgi currently known to be in existence, only one is housed in the National Museum of Korea. There are 10 in Japan, 3 in America, and 2 in Europe. While it is difficult to explain the exact reasons behind this unfortunate reality, it is worth noting that considering the Najunchilgi were created by MOP inlay on lacquered wooden cases, it is almost impossible without dedication and care for them to last 700 years.
The Najunchilgi of Goryeo are highly valued black lacquered MOP crafts adorned with images such as chrysanthemums and vines. Such MOP crafts of the Goryeo Dynasty, while hugely popular at the time, deteriorated with the falling of the Goryeo Dynasty. Towards the end of the 13th century and into the Chosun Dynasty period (1392~1910), MOP crafts underwent stark transformations.
[MOP inlaid Lacquer Ware for Buddhist Monk’s Rosary, circa 12c, Goryeo Dynasty]
Najunchilgi of the Chosun Dynasty can be categorized into 3 broad groups. Images of lotus flowers and peonies, a pair of phoenix, a pair of dragons, or ‘Bosanghwa”, an imaginary flower resembling the lotus, were among the common motifs appearing on MOP crafts of 16th century pre-mid Chosun Dynasty. These patterns were noticeably simpler and larger in scale than those of the Goryeo period. During the late Chosun Dynasty period (1700~1800), MOP designs became more free, with images of peony blossoms and bamboo, or flowers and birds appearing frequently. In addition, along with this period’s cobalt designs, called “Cheonghwa” depicted on white ceramics, the MOP craft images eluded a certain ‘pureness’. Then, during the 19th century, alternate MOP craft techniques such as sheet crimping, sticking in strips or pieces, and most significantly a technique of using thin noodle-like strips of MOP either straight or bent to create images of birds or flowers, developed and gained popularity. Naturally, images became less uniform and more representative of each artists free expression. Many MOP images of this time portray realistic representations of the ‘Ten Elements of Longevity’(sun, mountain, water, rock, pine tree, moon, boolocho, turtle, crane, and deer), and other natural objects. At the same time, peony blossoms, bamboo, flowers, and birds started being portrayed in humorous and childish ways, leading to another unique and simple dimension to the beauty of Najun from the Chosun period.
[Mother-of-Pearl inlaid case, Chosun Dynasty, Korea National Museum]
[MOP inlaid Box, Chosun Dynasty, Korea National Museum]
Following on from the Chosun period, Korea entered a period of Japanese colonization (1910~1945), during which MOP craftsmanship was only barely able to survive. Restoration of Korea’s independence in 1945 re-opened doors for MOP crafts. The 1960’s saw Korea’s economy develop and Korea’s MOP arts and crafts flourish like never before with techniques becoming more detailed and varied according to new and modern tastes. This wave of development pushed forward into the early 1990’s.
[Korea National Human Property No.10 Song Bang Woong, Master of MOP Crafts]
[Song Bang Woong at work]
On April 1st, 2011, a motor show was held in Seoul, Korea. BMW took this opportunity to showcase one particular revelation, the BMW 7 Series elegantly adorned in Mother-of-Pearl by none other than Master Sohn Dae Hyun; a well-known and respected artisan; a key figure in the traditional Korean Mother-of-Pearl arts and crafts industry. BMW has, since 1975, collaborated with many world-famous artists to create BMW Art Cars, making unique connections between the world of art and automobiles. This BMW 7 Series was thus coined the project’s ‘Korean Version’.
In today’s world where the traditional Korean Mother-of-Pearl inlaid craftwork industry, once a favored sector of Korean arts, is suffering from a lack of interest and demand, Master Sohn Dae Hyun has been praised for his creative and non-conformist ideas in applying the traditional techniques to modern art, and equally for his mastery of the craft allowing him to carry out those ideas. This project was completed with the expertise of a car interior specialist to address potential issues arising from the light reflecting characteristic inherent in Mother-of-Pearl material. The Mother-of-Pearl Inlay technique, originating from China, developed along a unique path in Korea to later be transferred into Japan. The Mother-of-Pearl arts and crafts of Korea continue to be uniquely crafted by the hand of highly skilled artisans to produce beauty distinct from that found in China or Japan. Mother-of-Pearl artwork and products featuring such artwork being created nowadays in Korea boast world-leading quality and design.
Particular strains of arts and crafts risk falling behind or disappearing completely in the absence of endlessly creative and dedicated efforts to develop hand in hand with the waves of time. Often, those masterpieces born of a master artisan’s sweat and blood, perfected through a treacherously painful process, are both priceless and at the same time impossible to valuate. In the absence of a distinct type of person willing to invest the deserved monetary value in the creation, survival is made painfully difficult.
At the same time, many artists and artisans strongly reject any mixing or compromising between their crafts and contemporary culture or technology, despite the unfortunate reality of there being little hope of lasting otherwise. Imagine the artists of today were still creating paintings of the Renaissance period. Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Raphael produced arts that represented distinct characteristics of that period; the techniques, ideas, and motives of which would not guarantee any artist a form of staple living today.
Furniture decorated in Mother-of-Pearl used to be a must have component in a bride’s collection of pre-wedding purchases in any well off family, even up until 30 years ago. However, factors such as the developing of Korea’s economy, the increase in apartment based housing, and the import of western cultures emphasizing practicality and comfort have all contributed to the progressive decline in demand for traditional Mother-of-Pearl arts and crafts. This reality offers further proof of the lack of business minded masters adept at leading Mother-of-Pearl craftwork into the new century; sad considering the still existent number of highly skilled master artisans of the craft. Looking at the numerous strains of Western crafts that have successfully adapted and transformed with a business perspective, becoming global brands; Mother-of-Pearl arts and crafts, unable to continue generating public interest and demand, can be regarded a failure in business.
Fortunately though, one can see marginal hope in the fact that an increasing number of artisans are starting to think more like Master Sohn Dae Hyun. Like those Koreans tasting cheese for the first time or Westerners tasting Kimchi for the first time, Mother-of-Pearl arts and crafts, to the West, may conjure up mixed feelings of awe at the elaborate beauty and at the same time a disinterest in the seemingly overly ornate and highly priced object. However, like an acquired taste, once one understands the beauty of the serene shades and shapes found in the Mother-of-Pearl, as well as the master handiwork involved in the arts creation, they may find themselves absorbed in this alternate world. The harmony portrayed between BMW and Mother-of-Pearl arts is significant therefore as a crossing of tradition and modern expertise, a synergy between Eastern arts and Western technology, and lastly an out-of-box challenge and achievement for traditional Korean Mother-of-Pearl arts and crafts.