A route to self-reliance

Interview with Ashoke Chatterjee by Carolyn Jongeward

Ashoke Chatterjee was executive director of National Institute of Design (NID) from 1975-85, Senior Faculty Advisor for Design Management and Communication from 1985 to 1995, and Distinguished Fellow at NID from 1995 until retirement in 2001. He has served for many years as honorary president of the Crafts Council of India and continues to work as a consultant in India and internationally, especially on projects concerned with water management and environmental issues. After more than ten years as international advisor, in 2000 Ashoke Chatterjee joined the board of directors of Aid to Artisans, a US based non-profit organization that offers practical assistance to artisans worldwide.

NID in Ahmedabad is internationally recognized as one of the foremost institutions in the field of design education, research and training. In 1975, NID was invited to be involved with the Rural University, a new concept in education and rural development initiated by Professor Ravi Matthai, first director of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad. Ashoke Chatterjee became part of the Rural University team that worked with people of the Jawaja block, which included about 200 villages with a population of approximately 80,000 people in a drought prone district of Rajasthan.

The Jawaja project was an educational experiment-in-action based on the idea that development activities must be a vehicle for learning. Although the Indian government designated Jawaja as a region of high poverty and no resources, some people were knowledgeable of spinning and weaving and there were a few looms. Weaving and leatherwork became the basis for economic development activities, and through the participation of its designers, NID tested the relevancy of bringing design education into this rural context.

This interview, recorded in October 1997 at NID, focuses on the story of Jawaja. Any changes or developments that subsequently occurred, particularly at Jawaja, have not been included in this account.


CJ: Looking back over the many years of your involvement in craft development, what stands out as a significant experience?

AC: The most seminal experience has been Jawaja. At the time NID was debating the relevance of design and looking at crafts in terms of the challenges of development: the transitions taking place, the potential and complexity of this sector. Craft is not a homogeneous area. It is about hand skills but it is full of diversity and contradictions. Jawaja, however, was quite removed from all the discussions about tradition, culture and preservation of all that. Jawaja was a life and death situation.

As a country we have inadequately addressed the issues of craft. We try to intervene in different parts but we have not looked at craft in an integrated, holistic way. The Jawaja project was one experiment which integrated many aspects of craft: heritage, culture, social structure, design vocabulary and NIDís design inheritance. But it was not a craft project; it was development defined as self-reliance for those who have been the most dependent in our society. Ravi Matthai explained self-reliance thus: Can people do something for themselves tomorrow that others are doing for them today and they should be released of that dependence? Ultimately, Jawaja taught us that the whole is about people and you have to attend to people first and last or else nothing you do will be sustained.

Although not the intention, we took the craft route and consequently were able to demonstrate what an enormous force the crafts can be in this country. Craft is the strength inherent in our people. They know what they do with their hands and there needs to be a market for what they make. The move towards self-reliance forced us to tap the considerable design energies of the community. We went to Jawaja being told that there were no resources, but instead found people with an extremely good understanding of design and an ability to innovate their own designs. We decided to create craft products that the local power structure, the moneylenders, knew nothing about. It was not an option to make traditional products to sell in markets controlled by the power structure. This route had to be bypassed. To exercise this option they could not make colourful juttis and footwear that were in the control of the people they were trying to escape from; they began to serve a market that the power structure had no control over. Now they have become a part of the power structure. And the womenís groups are doing embroidery applied to the leather and making richly embroidered diary covers.

While there has been tremendous interaction between designers and craftspeople at Jawaja, the designers worked within certain constraints. The designs had to be what the weavers could understand, respond to, modify and develop. If the weavers were just sent a design, they would be in no position to take ownership and we were keen that they have design ownership. We also encouraged them to interact with buyers. So there was considerable discussion of what the people of Jawaja felt would be suitable. For example, craftspeople knew they had to modify their designs in response to a particular market, the dyes and weaves they knew best, the available raw materials, and cost implications. Design diversification happened within this constraint because the idea was to make the design process understandable and manageable by the craftspeople.

In terms of designs that have emerged, it is not easy to say which designs are theirs and which are ours and which come from buyers. Some critics of the Jawaja project believed we were not tapping the traditional strength and products of Rajasthani craftsmen. Early on, critics said the designs were Scandinavian because one of the original designers was from Finland and they assumed she was intervening and imposing. But the floor coverings emerging from Jawaja, with strong earth colours and simple geometrical designs, came from the craftspeople whose environment inspired them. They produced a simple design which they could do in various colour-ways in response to a market.


CJ: How did people at IIM and NID conceptualize the Jawaja project?

AC: It started over 20 years ago with a desire to see whether there was anything that institutions like IIM and NID knew that could be relevant to this country at the very gut level of problem solving, the level of hunger, poverty and deprivation. Most of our institutions skirt this issue because we tend to gravitate towards the more organized Indians who respond to us quickly. At the outset, Ravi Matthai said to us at NID, if you are worried about the relevance of design in India, come along. We donít know what will happen here. Join the team. The intention was to look at how to make education relevant. How do we test management skills in this area? How do we transfer skills in management to a rural community in order for them to manage their affairs?

When Professor Matthai looked for a space for an educational experiment he found hostility in every village towards schools. Schools were seen as totally irrelevant and a factor for alienation because they had nothing to do with gut issues that these communities were dealing with. Much of the dialogue at Jawaja began with schoolteachers: What do you think this place has? What are the needs? So teachers became the first resource persons. And two schoolteachers became very important because they provided the vision and insight and the bridge to the community. They were trusted. They began to articulate what they thought this community was capable of. They also began to understand what the external institutions had to offer and they were important in making the link. They became local leaders.

The first reaction of NID students and teachers who went to Jawaja was a sense of guilt and a response of charity. They said the issue was not about design but about sending people food, clothing, doctors and medicine. We had to deal with that. It is a difficult place to work emotionally and one does get very emotionally involved with this community.


CJ: How do you compare Jawaja now to what was happening 15 to 20 years ago?

AC: 15 to 20 years ago craftspeople of Jawaja had no ability to deal with the external market. There was no capacity to understand the needs of buyers far removed from them physically, socially, emotionally and psychologically. That gap was huge. They felt inadequate and that they needed to wait until someone told them what to do. In those days they couldnít enter the Taj Hotel in Bombay to have direct contact with a buyer. Now they are no longer thrown out of the Taj Hotel. They are travelled widely and have developed street smarts to cope.

Now their products have gained an international reputation, not just occasional local exposure. OXFAM, just one of their international buyers, has sold their crafts for almost 15 years. This is a huge accomplishment for this community. They have learned through all the ups and downs to satisfy a buyer far away, and to understand what this means in terms of their own vision. Many of these people had never been to Jaipur. Some had not even been to Ajmer only 40 minutes away. And now because London is a place they deal with they can say, we donít think it is fair that the buyer in London has rejected this product.

Earlier in the project we imposed on the crafts-people an obligation to train others. Since a principle of the Jawaja project was that nothing would be free, they were required to teach another village what they had been taught. This was not easy. They crossed caste barriers and encountered social problems. One man said he couldnít undertake training in certain villages where he was not on speaking terms with some people. NID said, find a way of training without speaking. After teaching without speaking and realizing the absurdity of the situation, he re-established a cordial relationship. Now the craftspeople have become part of a training programme for income generation capacity building at the rural level in the state of Rajasthan. Many of the weavers and leather workers are recognized trainers who go to various parts of Rajasthan and provide training to other groups. NID has also recommended that the Jawaja community be part of the Institute of Crafts being set up in Jaipur. They could become trainers and this would also give them status and recognition.

A major challenge today is their own internal capacity for working together and decision making in difficult situations, such as quality control. They donít have a mutually accepted standard of quality for people to measure up to and sometimes they put sub-quality materials with good quality materials in a shipment. Or there are pressures to accept quality that is not top class. In addition, they need to take on the discipline of bank loans and repayment of bank loans. They would rather have an external agency do the difficult work of dealing with people who default on bank loans.

It is difficult to summarize where they are now. The people of Jawaja are now self-reliant over many things for which they were totally dependent in the past. But what right did we have to expect this community to be totally self-reliant? They still donít have adequate drinking water, adequate sewage sanitation, or education. The health facilities are terrible.

At NID we realize that after 20 years we are also not self-reliant. We are battling with a government that is now reducing their grants to us. Constantly, in development projects, we expect things to happen at the village and grassroots level that we never expect at our own level. We take our own dependency as part of a normal social and political structure. Today the Jawaja craftspeople are very dependent on outside support for marketing. And the major cause for their dependence is that marketing for the entire craft sector in India has been tragically neglected. Marketing in India is a complicated scene for Proctor & Gamble and McDonalds, let alone for a group of artisans. And those companies have advertising agencies, banks and consultants. Artisans as a group have none of that infrastructure and we expect them to be self-reliant, when nobody else is!

No one from IIM is involved today. After Ravi Matthai died suddenly in England, Rajiv Gupta, a colleague at IIM took over the Jawaja Project until his retirement. But this project continues to require emotional and physical stamina. You cannot cut yourself off like you can from other clients. There is never a point where everything is done for them. It is always an ever-widening circle of problems. They keep saying, tell us what we should do. And we say, no, tell us what you think you want to do. And they get impatient with us. Basically the whole issue is how can we help them develop their own problem solving skills. And there are many things that this project did not address: the problems of women, problems of health, and the scarcity of drinking water. There is a whole range of issues that need attention, which our project has not been able to attend.


CJ: How has the Jawaja project changed your view of what is possible in regard to the continuity of crafts?

AC: In my own work with the Crafts Council and other groups I say, respect the aspects of culture and traditions that we have long associated with crafts, but also ensure that the social-economic situation of the people is put at the top of the agenda. Jawaja provided a benchmark in crafts: first focus on and understand the community before we intervene in crafts. Who are the people? What are their earnings? What are their aspirations? What is in it for them? Before we start giving people lectures about their ancient traditions, ask whatís in it for them to stay in the tradition? In the case of Jawaja, many of the heritage problems for leather workers were things they wanted to run away from. Their caste elders told them they must not be identified as leather workers; they must have some other identity. When they stopped flaying animals they were left stranded without an identity. We often look at tradition and heredity as some exquisite artefact, but for them it was centuries-old discrimination.

These things are not easy to look at. In the Crafts Council we have tried to ask what can we do to encourage someone who wants to stay within the tradition? Not force them into it, not make it a kind of a burden. But consider what can be done to encourage any young people who want to remain in the tradition and ensure that their staying in this craft is not at the cost of their own progress as human beings, but rather supplements their progress as human beings. We have also tried in a modest way to help them with facilities for diversifying and opportunities for income generation. Why should people do crafts full time if they donít want to? Some craftspeople have also become accountants and computer operators. We say, thatís fine. Let your child have that option. But donít let them look at the craft tradition and say they have to discard it because it is holding them back; it is a chain. And interventions should not make them think there is something wrong with wanting to shift out of craft. We donít want these communities or individuals to feel like they are museum pieces. They should feel they have an option.

Now we are stuck with this great controversy on child labour. We are struggling with how to cope with this issue, because the whole thing of father to son and mother to daughter is part of this honoured and treasured tradition. But we know that we must not close our eyes to exploitation. Exploitation in certain crafts like brassware, glass, the carpet industry is incredibly severe. How does one balance this? How does one create an intelligent understanding among buyers in India and overseas that the issue is that these children must be in school? People need to realize that learning a craft within the family home need not be considered exploitation. It can be a very rich experience. Easy generalizations should be avoided and yet there is no question that exploitation exists.

Even in Jawaja the women do half the work involved in craft processes. But do the craftsmen account for that in their costing and pricing? Do they transfer funds to them? How many women members are in the association? None of that is considered. There are huge opportunities for women craftspersons. But people of Jawaja are missing the opportunities.


CJ: Is there emergent leadership among the women?

AC: Yes, they have a womenís group. We plan to go there soon to see what these women want to do. What kind of products can they make? They probably would like to go into their traditional embroidery and find a market for that. We have not had contact with the women for some time. Although they came to meetings they usually kept quiet. No matter what we did to encourage them, the women were silent and the men did all the talking. So the womenís group is a modest step that could have huge implications.


CJ: Do you think that new meanings will be associated with craft activity? From my point of view, meanings are inherent in a process of making something, whether these are cultural, mythological, or personal meanings. Meanings also shift because of many influences.

AC: The need for a shift of meaning has been with us from the beginning. I think those products from Jawaja have come to mean a sense of freedom, of true freedom. Not a freedom achieved but perhaps a freedom achievable. Demonstrated. Experienced. Real. And something for which other people cannot take the credit. NID cannot take the credit for what they have done. Their products demonstrate a context that is theirs and under their control. The potential is huge. Another strong sense of meaning, which their traditional products would not have given them, is that they are part of a team. We kept saying this is all about networking and building teams. We work as a team. You have a right to use institutions like NID and ask for services.

What we have not researched is the psychological and social impact on two generations of people in Jawaja. A generation has grown up for 20 years within this context. What has it meant to the young people that their parents were part of this experiment? What has it changed for them? One man said, ĎEverything has changed for my son.í Well, what has changed for his son? What does it mean for his wife who is now a member of the Jawaja association? We donít know what stories they are telling in their own community.


CJ: What are some of the implications that have come from the way things were done in Jawaja?

AC: It sensitised us in ways that we learned to ask questions that we were not raising before. We learned that first you have to ask: What do the people know that you should know before you even start asking questions? We also learned to ask: Do the people have some concept of tomorrow? If they donít, then development is meaningless. Because in Jawaja they didnít, their concern is survival, today. These people donít want to hear about other things because whatever you say, they will listen patiently, and when you leave they will be left where they were.

We learned to ask: Have we paused to reflect on what aspirations these people have? Are they the same as ours? Do they want to go where we think they ought to go? Others do not bother to find out what the people feel, what they aspire to. Or if they have, it is a superficial nod towards participation. In Jawaja, we asked people what they needed and they told us. Rather than throwing posters at people, we asked whether they could communicate in their own way, at their own level, in their own India, because that would give them a lasting communication resource. But very often project co-ordinators and donors want to know how many flipbooks or videos have been made. They wonít ask how many people are standing on their own feet as a result of something you have done. The same with Jawaja, donors ask how many people have you made self-reliant? Where are the figures? Well, we donít know and we havenít any statistics. But what is the value of one person made self-reliant? Some people refuse to discuss it on these terms, but we push a bit further, saying, if that person was you or your child we would never say thatís a foolish thing to have done. If we value each other as individuals then maybe we can say something significant has taken place.

When we started working in this field, we learned that the so-called development world is preoccupied with success stories, and donors want to replicate the experience. But they are usually looking for the wrong things. Learning doesnít take place in neat little project timetables. People and communities cannot be replicated, but learning can be extended. You learn more from failure than you do from success. And only the next generation will see whether we have succeeded or failed.

I wish our intervention could have been better sustained in many ways. Somehow, compared to the need there, what we have done seems so little. But there are ripples. The educational process of the Jawaja experience transformed many people. One of the schoolteachers is now the head of a major NGO in Jawaja involved in greening that part of the desert. Students at NID were influenced enormously by involvement with Jawaja. All of us who were part of that team have gone on to do other things. The Scandinavian textile designer later applied this learning in Lapland and Finland. Another person went on to head a society for the promotion of wasteland development, and is now working for the World Wildlife Fund. One of the first volunteers at Jawaja is now an eminent professor of macro-economics at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. He said, I wouldnít be where I am today if it wasnít for Jawaja. This is the single most important learning that Iíve taken and applied to everything that Iíve done.

Personally, I have applied this learning in all the work I have done in communications in India, Pakistan, Columbia or Zimbabwe. I think I would not have been able to do any of that work without having gone through Jawaja.

For NID and IIM, Jawaja is the only deprived community we have served without a break for 20 years. It is such a wealth of knowledge and experience. When our colleagues from Jawaja join a discussion the whole quality of the discussion transforms because they bring insights and opinions, which are far removed from what we know. Although we are physically in the same country, we are almost from another universe.

Numerically the Jawaja project remains small but the craftspeople have enormous capacities and some have gone on to become entrepreneurs or join other enterprises, others have gone back into agriculture, but they take with them new knowledge and capacities. They are known in craft circles; they are seen and heard. Attitudes and the language used have changed enormously due to this interaction. The people of Jawaja have gone far as individuals and as a community and they are reputed as craftspeople throughout this country. When they walk into a Crafts Council meeting, they are respected and looked upon as the wise. Other people say, we are having this problem in Andhra or in Manipur; how shall we do it? To me this is very important because you come back to the fact that we who intervened are not the great resource people, they are.


*The author acknowledges the financial assistance of the Government of India through the India Studies Programme of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute. The interview was conducted on 20 October 1997; this revised text, August 2002.