Notes on Antique Textiles, Folk Art & Timeless Traditions – Jaina Mishra

The Emperor’s Robe of ‘Literacy’

They were called illiterate.

Because those who decided this

  1. wrote with pen and paper
  2. wrote in characters and not pictures
  3. used a different script logic *
  4. had a qualitatively different requirement for documentation of knowledge **

And of course when one has power, one can use it to create an artificial line of divide that puts one on the superior side and the others on the inferior side.  So why not downgrade everyone else?

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 10.39.10 am

Yet we have the Egyptians who did great things that our literate civilisation cannot fathom or replicate. Would they be counted among the literates by today’s definition?

So these definitions that create a chasm between people need to be questioned and redefined.

For, when I am in the villages of these illiterate people, I find that my knowledge of everything is grossly inadequate for basic survival. I have no idea how to find / grow my own food. I have no idea how to create my own shelter from the sun or rain. I have no idea how to deal with a snake. Or to find water in the ground.

Yes I do know much else that is quite useless to me as well as most others – such as the capital cities of most countries – knowledge conferred upon me through my education. So between the tribal villagers and me, I am clearly the one donning the robe of literacy that confers some superiority on me in the minds of both.

But I realise I am no different from the emperor wearing his new ‘invisible’ robe and strutting around the city feeling superior.

But I know now that even in basic living conditions I will not survive- there really is no robe  – we have not been armed and enabled at all by our education.

Experiencing their superiority was necessary to shed the metaphoric emperor’s robe that this questionable tag of ‘literacy’ has conferred upon me.


When I examine motifs in the textiles of vanishing cultures I am often intrigued. Some clearly depict scenes from their life. But what about the others that I – the illiterate – cannot read? Worse still what if no one can read these any longer because the cipher was lost generations ago?

What if!

Especially in motifs repeated across a geography and across generations.

Did they mean things that ancestors meant to transmit into the future through these?



Nov 2015


[*use alphabets as building blocks for words that hold meaning rather than directly have pictoral symbols]

[**oral transmission that existed all over various civilisations before / alongside scripts]

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