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1 Introduction | Stone Workers

Quarry workers who extract block from a marble mine assemble prior to an arduous day of work. Makrana, Rajasthan, India


Stone workers find their place at the intersection of two separate approaches to knowledge. These approaches are like different points of view creating an extra dimension when they intersect. One of the two coordinates is the intimate relationship that the stone workers have with stone itself. Working with stone has its own rules; these are inherent in both the material and the process itself. Eventually the rules of action are so well known that they seem to become part of the stone worker's body. The worker does not just think, but thinks through his or her material. Thinking-through-stone respects such things as the way the stone cracks or its invisible grain; this way of thinking also respects the path that knowledge can take through the hands and into the mind.

The second coordinate consists of received or indirect knowledge. Here are two unlikely strands working as parallel rather than together. The first of theseis mytho-historical: both masons and sculptors trace their lineage back into history and feel themselves to be part of bigger families; stone workers in general are aware of their ancestors. The second is scientific: it is the totality of the knowledge that the geologists and chemists have uncovered. Geologists transport facts and theories concerning the earth into other minds, in particular to that of the stone worker. Most of this indirect information cannot be obtained through direct personal interaction.

These are two intertwined senses of history: the lineage of ancestral respect is part of the tradition of knowledge as passed down from generation to generation. It is different from the sense of time that we get from geologists. Geologists have an expansive sense of history that has nothing to do with historical personages, lineage or culture. Each of these strands, in its own way, creates a sense of belonging.


In the Ganapati Sthapati workshop in Mamallapuram a Tamil Nadu carver who comes from a long lineage of Sthapati (architect/sculptor) works on the detail of a temple goddess sculpture.A specialist itinerant granite carve points the surface of a block that will form part of a massive figure sculpture.


Some equivalent of these two intersecting paths exist wherever stone workers are found. Some European masons trace their history all the way back to Hiram, the designer-mason of King Solomon's Temple. In India we can find an exact parallel. The word sthapati means both sculptor and temple architect. Sthapati also happens to be the surname of Ganapati Sthapati, a distinguished temple-builder and sculptor (b.1927), who can trace his stone-working family back for over a thousand years.

When Ganapati Sthapati was younger he was recognized as one of the most accomplished stone carvers and temple architects in Mamallapuram. He succeeded his father as principal of the regional School of Architecture and Sculpture. This is aschool that trains young men and women in the Vastu Shastra tradition, which includes sculpture techniques, architecture, and ancient wisdom found in proportions and formal structure.

Ganapati Sthpati later set up his own architectural firm (actually a guild of craftsmen) through which he designed and built a 40.5-metre granite colossus of the poet and mystic Thiruvalluva. As an independent scholar he has noticed exact parallels between ancient Indian carving, measurements, architectural alignments and traditions and those in ancient Mayan buildings. He concludes that masons crossed the pacific in ancient times. The carving done in his workshop is distinguished from most of the other carving in the area by its sensitivity and responsiveness to the stone, above all by the shared association of carving with devotion.

A stone worker's sense of his own history can often feel familial. Geoff Butler is the foreman carver in the stone workshop at the York Minster Cathedral. He is very aware of his place in a succession to foremen going back to the 1870s, many of whose names and idiosyncrasies are still remembered. This is primarily an oral history, as it survives within the walls of the mason's lodge. Geoff began working at the stone workshop 40 years ago and absorbed this history from the man who trained him, who in turn was passing on the stories he had received.

The intersection of received and direct knowledge, where neither gives up its autonomy, creates a particularly charged place. Nothing can ever be complete even though much is shared because each coordinate partially includes and partially excludes the other. This intersection, a place that is able to hold contradictions in suspension, may be where stone art in the future will find its place.

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