Why Working with Hands is Looked Down Upon in India?

7 10 2009

It is now the festival season in India. The Hindus have a festival for everything. In the North and Eastern India, Vishwakarma Puja was celebrated on September 17th. In the Southern states, the last day of Navaratri i.e. the Vijaya Dashami or Dussehra day is celebrated as Ayudha Puja.

Vishwakarma Puja and Ayudha Puja are ceremonies to worship the Gods who look after the weapons, machines, vehicles, tools and implements used in factories and homes. On this day, the machines and tools are all cleaned up, painted and then a garland is put on them. A tilak of sandalwood paste and vermillion is put on each of them. On this day, tools are not used, as they are being worshipped. The workmen after the Puja distribute sweets and enjoy the break.

Whereas, the tradition of worshipping these tools and implements continue, the respect and regard for the various crafts like carpentry, smithy, plumbing etc which use these is declining. In urban Indian homes, even minor work which requires the use of these tools is outsourced. Yuppies, including qualified engineers, not only consider it infra-dig to dirty their hands and do this work, very often they lack the basic skills needed for using them. In a city like Hyderabad, most likely the artisan you call is likely to be a Muslim. Hindus prefer to theorize and manage, perhaps.

There is something about the Hindu culture or the Indian education system, which devalues the crafts and the vocational skills required to create and repair things. Students are encouraged to study science subjects like physics and chemistry, but they would much rather concentrate on the theory, learn the concept but leave the experiments. Practical and Laboratory work is often treated as a necessary evil to get through the school final.

In the engineering colleges, even the good ones, which have good laboratories and workshops, there are very few students who spend a lot of time there creating models or prototypes, or generally spending time to hone their craft. I have seen a few of my classmates, making their own music systems by  buying components and putting them together. But they are more an exception, than the rule. 

India may have a very large pool of scientific and technical manpower, but  a miniscule number of them who potter around their homes/ garages, playing with tools and creating new things. Every Indian city now has large number of malls. But I have not seen a single mall in any city which has D.I.Y (Do it yourself) stores which I have seen in the small towns of US and UK. 

One can argue that people in US and UK have to do a lot of work on their own, from home painting to fabricating their home furniture because labor is expensive. Labor has become expensive in India too, yet, there is little or no sign that more Indians are learning crafts or working with their hands.

Indians or Hindus were not always this way. Mahatma Gandhi used to weave his own cloth and used to stitch in his Singer sewing machine which he once remarked as ” one of the few useful things ever invented.”

The post-1991 India swears by consumerism. They want to acquire plush houses, fancy cars, designer furniture, latest gadgets. All these things involve crafts of different kinds. Yet, the consuming class would not do anything with their own two hands. They would much rather earn money by means, fair and foul and acquire them. More often than not, the best of the products are not made in India. In the scores of TV programmes on gadgets, rarely you see a single Indian product being discussed. 

Among many reasons very few inventions come out of India could be the fact that the scientists are poor in the craft of inventions. Inventors of the 19th and 20th Century like Edison, Edwin Land or Elihu Thomson had not only good scientific concepts, they would work with their hands to produce models and prototypes which led to so many great inventions. Indian scientists work on concepts and publish papers, but very few innovative products. The grass root innovators have the craft but they lack theoretical grounding, making their products uncompetitive.

The Union Minster of HRD, Kapil Sibal should consider reforms that would bring about the balance in teaching of science and technology where the craft gets its due. 

– G. Mohan

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2 responses

7 10 2009
Amit Jain

Mohan, I will not deny that there is some DIY due to the ‘love of working with one’s hands’ in the US. But I can bet that most of these folks would gladly hire a maid, cleaner, driver, gardener, plumber, electrician, etc. if they came cheap.

The one area which I found truly amazing as far as DIY in the US is concerned is auto-mechanics. Most of the “American” folks seem to have a workshop in their garage and they can all do their oil change, brake replacements, etc. with ease. Several could go a lot further.

However, I think this is on a rapid decline for several reasons: lack of large garage spaces, advent of Japanese cars that seem to be made specifically to disable DIYers by making components not accessible, general demand for longer work hours, and the rise of the social networking/internet that sucks away a lot of time.

I will also say that there seems to be a general stigma associated with doing the “menial” tasks in India. Several of these tasks are considered “beneath our dignity” and, therefore, obliquely related to being “status symbols.” But I still believe that this is largely an “economics” driven behavior.

These are, of course, my impressions that may not necessarily be true.

Amit

16 10 2009
Amit Jain

Mohan,

I reckon that the differential between labor and DIY costs is still favoring hiring a laborer. Necessity is the mother of invention, and there is no greater necessity than hitting the pocket hard. Ergo, using one”s hands for “dirty” tasks is not yet in vogue. The equation may change one day but I don”t see it happening soon. At least not as long as India is blessed (cursed?) with an abundance of human capital.

Amit

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