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Pros and cons of cultural intervention

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Is the indigenous craftsman in third-world countries helped or hindered by outside intervention, by the arrangement of foreign exhibitions, and by visits from teams of experts from other countries? The answer is twofold. There is both opportunity and danger.

But according to some of those involved with the exhibition and with Indian crafts in general, the pluses outweigh the minuses.

Rajeev Sethi, who put together the ``Golden Eye'' exhibition, notes that not one of the visiting designers and architects went to India with designs they handed to Indian craftsmen and commanded, ``OK. Now make.'' Each time, he says, there were dialogues, exchanges of views, and suggested alternative ways of doing things. It was a mutual learning experience.

Andrew Pekarik, director of New York's Asia Society galleries, stresses the importance of mutual respect. ``Traditional Asian craftsmen must always be treated respectfully as creative artists who themselves design what they make, not as mechanical executors of someone else's design,'' he says. ``Their own input is part of the joy and special character of what they produce, although in many cases they work in consultation with patrons who commission the objects.''

Looked at in historical terms, he explains, ``the problem is patronage. Many of the things that craftsmen have made in the past in their own societies are now more easily or cheaply obtained from commercial sources. It is no longer economical for someone to buy a brass pot from their local brassmaker when they can buy a mass-produced aluminum one.''

``It is the same in America,'' he continues. ``We have wonderful craftsmen who struggle to make a living because it is so hard to set up a system of patronage. So the real issue behind the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition is the attempt to find new international patronage for these Indian craftsmen, and I see no problem with that. Such a show exposes many people to the capabilities of these Indian craftsmen and also brings to the fore the problem of how we deal with the crafts in the modern world.''

Pramod Chandra, professor of Indian and South Indian art at Harvard University (who also helped arrange the Indian sculpture show at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.), says he welcomes the ``Golden Eye,'' ``because one of its purposes is to find new people to encourage and use the skills of Indian craftsmen. If the things they make are consumed all over the world, then the crafts will continue and flourish.''

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