Early Buddhist artisans: Skilled, well-read and privileged
Eminent historian Prof S Settar had an abiding interest in the artisans — a term which for him included sculptors, scribes, engravers and architects. His favourite term was ‘Ruvari’ which means ‘maker’. His monumental work Halegannada begins with the statement ‘we have thought about the inscriptions but not about the scribes or engravers. We have thought about sculpture but not about the sculptors.’
Over a period of nearly 50 years Settar continued to return to his preoccupation with the artisan class. His work Early Buddhist Artisans and their Architectural Vocabulary is a collection of six essays written over half a century on various unexplored aspects of the artisans.
Some of these had formed parts of his recent writings in Kannada. The first essay begins with the magisterial statement, “I am attempting to travel across the Mauryan empire in the company of artisans to explore whether this would bring about any change in the present perspective of the history of this dynasty.”
This beginning reminded me of the equally ambitious project announced by Stephen Greenblatt, the founder of the New Historicism “I wish to speak with the dead.”
The journey in which Settar’s urbane, nuanced voice accompanies us takes us to the earliest Buddhist artisans involved in building the stupas, chaityas and viharas and in inscribing the Ashokan edicts.
Fascinatingly, it was an artisan named Chapada from today’s Afghanistan and speaking Kharosthi who travelled thousands of miles to come down to Karnataka to engrave the Ashokan edicts. As Settar imagines it, his first work was a disaster, full of howlers.
Frustrated, Chapada looked for better rock surfaces and improved his work. There are such dramatically narrated events resurrected from the past which make this book eminently readable.
Ashoka who didn’t allow any name other than his own to appear on the edicts, was lenient with the artisans who inscribed their names and sometimes their positions and the names of their gurus. In the chaityas and viharas, the names and some details of the donors were also inscribed. It is these which have helped historians like Settar and Kumkum Ray to reconstruct the society of the ancient times at least partially.
By collating this information and drawing sound inferences, Settar is able to change many of the present or prevailing perspectives on the artisans. First of all, he deconstructs the notion of the illiterate scribe/engraver who could only skillfully copy what was composed and then written down with chalk by others who were more literate.