The Surajkund Crafts Mela has set an international milestone this year. The 15-day fair, which has been inviting SAARC countries for the past three years, has for the first time partnered with a foreign country - Egypt.
The partner country has set up an arts and crafts enclave to hawk its rich tradition of Pharaonic - pertaining to the culture of the ancient Pharaohs - handicrafts, textiles, jewellery and food.
Cultural troupes from Egypt, which performed at the inaugural ceremony Feb 1, are holding a number of performances for visitors to the crafts fair.
The Indian theme at the fair is Madhya Pradesh.
"Three years ago, we decided to invite the SAARC nations - Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. But this year, we decided to rope in a foreign partner. Egypt is our first partner nation," Rajesh Joon, a senior Haryana Tourism department official, told IANS.
Pakistan could not make it to the fair this year because its participation was not cleared by the ministry of external affairs, officials said.
Joon said Egypt was showcasing all aspects of its life and culture. "A group of 10 artisans from the country has set up their vends in the crafts and the food courts. The idea behind roping in a foreign partner was to make it happening for foreign tourists so that we can promote our culture and heritage more vigorously abroad. This is the time when the maximum number of foreign tourists come to India," Joon said.
The Haryana state government markets its tourism through three major arts and crafts festival - the Surajkund Crafts Fair, Pinjore Heritage Festival and the Kurukshetra Festival.
It uses the festivals to brand its tourism both in the domestic and the international markets. Surajkund Festival tops the list because of the number of footfalls. "Last year, the average footfall was 6.5 lakh (650,000). We are expecting at least 7.5 lakh people at the fair over a span of 15 days this year," Joon said.
The fair, conceived in 1987 on a two-acre stretch of land, is now spread across 30 acres.
In an attempt to help the non-profit rural crafts people, individual sellers, indigenous platforms, state bodies and the foreign hawkers rake in maximum business at minimum overhead costs, the fair provides free sale space, cheap food and free lodging to the participants.
"This year, the fair is hosting 400 crafts persons from India and 39 from 10 foreign countries. Next year, we will be able to cater to the needs of at least 30 foreign countries," Joon said.
China, said officials, was keen to participate at the fair this year after a team of senior Chinese officials visited the fair last year. But it applied late.
At the Egypt kiosk, which sprawls in a semi-circle in the middle of SAARC cluster - spokesperson Amina Mohammed explains in her faltering and heavily accented English that all the artefacts on sale trace their origin to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt.
"The concept of the showcase is the 'productive family of Egypt' - where every member of rural households are engaged in handicrafts. They weave carpets, spin fine Egyptian cotton into long loose Tagalee (traditional dress of Sina), shawls with silver thread work, cushion covers and knit Aswan woollen caps," Mohammed said.
The range of artefacts is intriguing. Counters laden with papyrus memorabilia, icons, totems and statuettes are offset by striking buffalo jewellery and carvings; prices of which range from Rs 100- Rs 3,000.
Egyptian artisans also make glass vases at home - which are painted with enamel colours. The surfaces resemble those of stained glass panels.
Business is brisk in the foreign section. "Its primarily because of prices which are very affordable," explained Mohammed.
The Indian theme state Madhya Pradesh straddles almost the entire fair with its theme placards, kiosks and pavilions.
The state is showcasing 12 types of traditional folk and tribal dance from various regions like the Matki from Malwa, the Dhriti from Bundelkhand, the Bhil Bhangra from Jhabua and the Kathy from Nimod every evening.
Two pavilions - Apna Ghar modelled on Bhil tribal home and the Bhimbetka (rock caves) World Heritage Site - stand out for their craftsmanship.
As part of the fair, Madhya Pradesh has also mounted a tourism road show - an exhibition bus promoting the heritage destinations in the state. It was flagged off Dec 17, 2008.