Handicrafts Exhibition at the Heldenplatz and Voelkerkunde Museum
Indian Handicrafts Fair brings the Indian Ambiance to the Centre of Vienna
The Indian handicrafts fair was one of the numerous highlights of the Festival of India. It took place at the Heldenplatz and in the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology) from 25 to 30 March. It presented many facets of the Indian handicrafts. The products of the exhibitors fascinated Austrians and tourists of all age groups alike. The fair was opened with an event revolving around an impressive dance performance and traditional music from Rajasthan. The event attracted a very positive response.
Applause from the guests accompanied Ambassador Dinkar Khullar and Mrs. Rita Menon, Secretary in the Indian Ministry of Textiles, as they cut the ribbon, thus officially opening the handicrafts fair at the Heldenplatz in Vienna at 1200 hrs on 25th March. A tent was erected in the square in front of the Museum of Ethnology, housing rows of more than 35 stalls of select Indian handicrafts companies coming primarily from three areas – fashion jewellery and accessories, textile products and decorative items. Entry to the tent was free of charge with visitors having an opportunity to literally experience a “feel” of India for six days.
After the official cutting of the ribbon, the delegation with the Ambassador and the Secretary at its heart moved to the interior of the Museum. The distinctive stand of India Tourism and Air India was placed at the entrance, with friendly young ladies in Indian dresses welcoming the guests – India was successfully promoted as a tourism destination there. After inspecting the stand, the Ambassador and the Secretary visited the workstations of Indian craftsmen inside: for example an astrologer, a maker of shadow leather puppets, a producer of lac bangles. Mr. Waseem Ahmed, a Zari weaver, demonstrated live his craft to the visitors. A couple of metres away, a potter was shaping clay into the form of small pots at a pottery wheel – fascinated, the visitors were watching the hypnotically turning wheel creating the small pieces of craft.
Having inspected the activities of all artists, Ambassador Dinkar Khullar and Secretary Rita Menon addressed the gathering of distinguished invitees. In this speech, Ambassador expressed his great satisfaction at the success of the individual events which together made up the “Festival of India”; he said that all the programmes attracted numerous visitors and the offering had been very diverse. The academic seminars at the University of Vienna had to be closed at some point because the interest of the attendees was simply too great for the short time that was at their disposal. “We are grateful for this enthusiastic reaction of the Viennese”, Khullar said in his speech. “Nothing is missing here at the handicrafts fair. We even have food.” In her speech, Rita Menon praised the crossover between Indian handicrafts and the traditional Viennese architecture in the Hofburg. She stressed that the events optimally fit this wonderful ambiance.
The hall was completely filled with guests, most of them Austrian. Following the speeches, a Rajsthani Langa group commenced their performance of music and dance, entrancing the audience. The audience listened with great interest to the sound of the exotic melodies, many of them with dreamy expressions on their faces. Some guests tapped their feet to the tune during the musical performance. The seven musicians with their various traditional instruments started the first song at a slow pace, growing louder as the composition progressed, eventually drowning the room with their acoustic performance – greeted with friendly applause from an audience which had yet to experience the highlight of the performance.
After the first song, a dancer dressed in traditional garments stepped on the stage, supporting six pots on her head. She balanced the stack on her head, accompanied by a swift drum beat, radiating self-confidence while dancing with a smile on her lips – the audience was fascinated and the people immediately produced their cameras and cell phones to take pictures of the performance.
As the lady bowed with the stack of pots on her head to remove a piece of paper from a glass with her mouth, she was rewarded with roaring applause. The audience was thrilled when another woman placed two glasses in front of the dancer and the dancer stood on the glasses barefoot! The fear of the audience that the glasses might break under the weight of the dancer and the pots on her head turned out to have been unfounded – no harm came to the lady and she was rewarded with roaring applause for her extraordinary performance.
The artist had truly enthralled the audience when she stepped on a bowl and danced to the beat of the tabla on its rim, accompanied by the clapping of the audience. When the partners of the previous dancer stepped on the stage, the audience was already warmed up and highly motivated: Accompanied by the clapping of Austrian hands, the two ladies danced to the beat of the tabla, wearing glimmering folk dresses adorned with tiny mirrors.
After the breathtaking performance, the audience was treated to another ‘fusion’ of cultures: enjoyment of Indian snacks with Austrian wine.
During the following weekend, the stalls were visited by a cross section of the public of the capital. This was no surprise as the “Festival of India” had attracted attention having been effectively projected in the local media; furthermore, the Embassy had advertised the event with posters on advertising pillars in whole Vienna, 530 to be precise. And the location was perfect as well: The prominent site in one of Vienna’s hotspots which naturally attracted visitors – Austrians and foreign tourists alike.
While strolling around the tent, the guests were impressed by the individual offers. There were young couples, with the ladies heading straight for the Indian jewellery. One of the craftsmen had an old gramophone next to his stall, playing an Indian gramophone record – attracting additional attention from the visitors. Tourists strolling around in the tent took pictures of the little piece of India in the centre of old Vienna.
“We have a good flow”, a representative of Air India said – the stand of the company was located prominently right at the entrance to the museum. Inside, the chairs were now arranged in a semi-circle, with the music group from Rajasthan continuing their performances before the Austrian audience.
How does a musician from Rajasthan feel in Vienna? “This is the first time we are here”, a young musician from the group said. “And we are enjoying the festival and the whole concept.” Diverse forms of handicrafts gathered in one place, with the stage of the musicians in the middle. The young musician said that he had had no time to explore the city yet, for the schedule was a tight one. “But when we are invited the next time, we will enjoy coming again”, he said. And what is his impression of the Austrian audience? “They are very serious, silently sitting in their places and showing little emotion”, he said. “But they have a smile on their lips. And so I think they like it.” He said that there are standing ovations after every performance. And one visitor was especially enthusiastic: While leaving, she thanked to the employees at the stand of India Tourism at the entrance: “I really enjoyed it.”
The handicrafts received the feedback they deserved as well. “There is so much to see here. One doesn’t even know where to start”, an elderly woman said. She marvelled at the maker of Kasmhiri shawls: “He works five months to make one shawl. That’s something very special.” Visitor Ursula Benesch was impressed by the shadow puppets – she acquired a shadow puppet of the deity Ganesha made of hand-painted leather. The special thing: The tradesman speaks neither English nor Hindi, only his local dialect. He communicated with the guests using gestures, facial expressions and his presence. The old man sitting on the floor of the historical Viennese building was radiating tranquillity and happiness. “That’s a kind of content and energy that has become very rare in our Western world”, Benesch said. “I will gladly come here again to soak up his energy.”
He received some translation assistance from Nibu Sunny, an Indian working in Vienna: He translated the most important things for the visitors. “The festival is well organised with these colourful works of art and dances”, he said. “And the Austrians are enjoying watching traditional dances from Rajasthan.”
Bottom line: Spread of happiness
On Wednesday, the last day of the festival, the tradesmen were satisfied with the success: “Business went very well”, Vikas Baid of Welpro Exports summed up his experiences. “The Austrians are true gentlemen. And I hope they enjoy what they have bought from us.” He sold especially picture frames, hand-made in India. “If we are invited again next year, we will gladly come”, Baid said.
Imrad Mohammed Khan of Meritorious Continental was not selling to individuals; he was looking for the B2B-approach: He wanted to engage with wholesale dealers who would distribute his wares in Europe. “The visitors were impressed by our goods, but the wares were merely exhibits”, he said. But he will gladly come again.
Iqbal Sheikh had his workstation inside the Museum – he is a “Choori-wala”, a producer of hand-made bangles. “The people are keenly watching me form the bangles in front of their eyes”, he said. The traditional method of shaping the bangle involves the use of charcoal; due to the fire regulations, he was using a hot plate to make the items – he needed approximately 20 minutes to make one bangle. “Many watch, some buy”, he said. Sheikh’s business is a traditional one: His father was a Choori-wala, and so was his grandfather. For the man from Rajasthan, the “Festival of India” was part of a longer trip through some other countries, with Vienna being the last station: “I like Vienna very much”, he said. “And when the organisers ask me the next time, I will definitely come again.”
In the end, all persons involved were happy. The Austrians were happy because they acquired new products. The Indians were happy because they did good business in a foreign country and developed the goodwill that is invaluable. And the musicians were happy because with a little exoticism, they put a smile on the lips of the Viennese.