THE deeply entrenched caste system has been the one major factor responsible for the traditional skills of handicrafts and hand weaving. The history and the development or decline of various crafts is like a rich palimpsest in which the folk, the formal, the courtly and the tribal each have their own unique paths. Yet, these may have met, woven together, separated, transformed and flourished depending on the multitude of inputs that exist in a multi-layered society.
If we look at the craft scene in the rest of the world today, we see that in the former Soviet Union the pattern of state socialism practically decimated the common artisan. In the present milieu of Russia it is almost impossible to find the cobbler, the carpenter, the weaver, the potter of yore. In Japan there is still a strong conservative and cultural streak running through the veins of its people. Thus their best craftsmen are termed national treasures, and sections of their traditional crafts have protection for the sake of preservation. However, some, like the bamboo crafts sold in Japanese shops, are now more likely to have been made in factories in China.
The craft manufacture of China is now carried out under fairly well organized workshed conditions run by private entrepreneurs. Mechanized processes often replace tedious replication of handwork and the various components are put together by workers who are not traditional craftspeople as we define them in India. China has provided considerable mechanized inputs into its ceramics, bamboo, carpets and embroidered silk items but they sell as crafts and do provide employment to a large number of people who work in shifts in factories.
South Korea manufactures ‘Asian’ crafts that can be found in any Chinatown bazaar. Thailand has tuned its crafts to a high degree of excellence mainly for tourists. These are made in rural areas but are not necessarily a part of the everyday lives of the rural people who have taken to synthetics and other expressions of modernity for their own use. Many products like silk, basketry, silverware, lacquer and papier machie work are therefore showcased and packaged to demonstrate the cultural output of Thailand to outsiders. The textiles are still holding out as garments worn by various communities in rural areas but these are converted into contemporary products like home furnishings and modern fashion wear for city markets. The Philippines has baskets, brooms and fans for the common folk, while the lacquer work of Burma has lost its elegance under military rule.
South American countries have retained their crafts wherever peasant societies are still a large part of the population. Roadside marketplaces reflect the vibrancy of the textiles and pottery produces by artisans in these areas. In countries in Africa, there are vast differences in the availability and development of crafts. For instance, Zimbabwe has roadside markets as well as a developed range of quality products for the tourist community. South Africa is still searching for ways and means to give an impetus to its craft sector for the sake of employment. Many other African countries are suffering in the throes of drought, conflict and modernization and do not have the required stability to develop what is still largely viewed as a soft sector.
In Europe and other western countries crafts flourished when they were still peasant dominated societies. But with industrialization the impetus for development came from the mills of Lancaster rather than from the looms of Bengal and from conglomerates rather than communities. Standardization and mechanization not only dictated the pattern of supply and demand but also swamped the markets of those societies that neither could, nor would, nor even should adopt the very same pattern of growth.
Highly industrialized countries like Japan, Sweden, the USA and Australia have replaced their traditional craftsperson with the practitioners of studio crafts, which are highly individualistic and generally avant garde and decorative in nature. Those who were blacksmiths or potters or carpenters are now elevated to the designer category, creating undeniably attractive work called one-off pieces, generally very expensive and almost always through exhibition-like displays. A few small oases of common people’s crafts in some of these countries are worth mentioning because they demonstrate the artistic spirit of those inclined towards crafts as part of a community activity.
Crafts marketplaces in some of these countries are lively spots: earthy, friendly and colourful. In Melbourne, Australia there is a lively and large crafts market called the Cat’s Tango Market, which is allowed to spread itself in the piazza courtesy a clutch of high-rise corporate offices that do not mind promoting crafts on Sundays. Craftspeople from suburban and rural areas come with their children and packed lunches, musicians entertain, clowns and magicians perform and a good time is had by all. Ceramics, paintings, glasswork, dried flowers, costume jewellery and hundreds of knick-knacks of various types are fashioned and sold to delighted citizens of Melbourne and a smattering of tourists. Most of the participants are there for the sheer joy of creativity and salesmanship and the fun of engaging in such a lively venture.
Crafts markets in Boston and London’s Covent Garden offer stalls to many local craftspeople, providing a welcome break from standardized products and brand names that are larger than life. Custom-made buttons, glass ware, hand-knitted garments, pottery and leather picture frames have the special individual look that make crafts special in a homogenized world. All these craft spaces are, of course, not part of any central economic planning or economic need. They are merely well organized, fun places where the artistic urges can be fulfilled in an otherwise highly mechanized society. Even in areas where local arts are indigenous, ethnic products as is the aboriginal art of Australia, are not found so much in the inexpensive marketplaces where goods for everyday living are picked up, but elegantly showcased by ‘white people’ in art galleries and boutiques.
Indian craftsmanship has been a way of life for centuries. In each era most crafts have survived by going under the radar and carrying on for the local population, unnoticed, or by suitably adapting to the times. The craft trade was globalized long back through the Spice Route, the Silk Route, and during such periods as when France fell under the spell of the Kashmiri shawl. Region-specific crafts such as woven and printed textiles, embroideries, damascene work and jewellery have gone to all parts of the world through enterprising traders and courtly interventions.
For far too long we have held seminars on the credit, marketing and raw material needs of craftspeople, mouthed the same words and looked for all the solutions from within the ubiquitous mai-baap, the government. In a democratic socialist pattern of policy-making in independent India’s formative years, this was perfectly understandable. But it took a while for people to realize that government support within what was actually a capitalist environment meant that any commercial activity run by government institutions was largely inefficient.
Indian craftspeople depended entirely on government during this phase and despite red tape and straightjacket policies they received some of the oxygen required to resuscitate them and find openings through central and state emporia to demonstrate their continued existence. However, the basic needs of many remained unfulfilled and they still depended on a variety of intermediaries.
The ‘Gurjari’ experience of the eighties was an important one. As a person closely involved I can say through hands-on knowledge that the determined effort of this organization owned by the Government of Gujarat to fulfil its social purpose distinguished it from the others. Instead of just buying whatever was made in the bazaar, or was being sold under distress conditions from drought stricken rural areas, the Gujarat State Handicrafts and Handlooms Development Corporation made it a point to address the potential and problems of each craftsperson and community individually.
It was an unwritten rule that no person would be turned back because his or her wares were not good enough or were not selling. It was the duty of the sales persons, designers, shop managers and myself as the design and marketing consultant to see that each product was improved and made saleable. A systematic method of ordering goods, clearance of accumulated stock, exciting sales promotion ideas, customer feedback, sales incentives for the staff, were all brought into the management of handicraft sales. This was before the days of management jargon and marketing gurus.
For the first time, a methodology for selling crafts commercially with high turnovers, exports and profits was inculcated into a government organization transforming it from a stagnant and dust-ridden place into a leader of fashion and lifestyles much before the glossy pages took over these phrases. In those days Gurjari became the buzzword for college fashion and people began to ‘think ethnic’ in home décor thanks to the variety of furnishing fabrics, furniture and decorative items that were developed. Since so many customers came into the shop asking, ‘what’s new at Gurjari?’ we began a series of exhibitions every time new products or designs were introduced. Many new branches opened, sales figures went up appreciatively and many other lifeless emporia realized they had an act to follow.
Unfortunately, most of these normally lethargic organizations were manned with people who looked at craft-related jobs as a punishment posting. Most thought it was much easier to allocate sections of the shop to different private parties who would be responsible for sales and required to hand over thirty per cent of the sales to the state host. This could never ensure that the artisan was getting the right wage. Many managers thought that if Gujarati tie-dyed fabrics or Orissa silver filigree work was selling well it was fine to sell these in the Himachal Pradesh or Bihar shop. The identification of a particular state with its crafts and the integrated cultural ambience of the state soon blurred and most of the state emporia in the 21st century became sellers of second grade products within a stultified government milieu.
This was not a singular disaster. Over the years many ‘entrepreneurs’ had started their own boutiques and new design efforts with the material found in the emporia and created a range of innovative ideas on their own. Government had been able to demonstrate the value and potential for these products, and if it was time for these bodies to wither away into secondary place, so be it – as long as the artisan had received recognition, confidence, and a whole new clientele. The interest in crafts shown by the private sector grew at this point of time and the proliferation of boutiques improved the product, presentation and designs. Once artisans had a quality input and better returns, the product created by the community improved because of competition.
The arrival of the dreaded globalization in 1992, despite many political parties, trade unions and organizations opposing it, had many genuinely worried. Indian markets would once again be flooded by cheap foreign stuff. We would not be able to compete fairly since craftspeople were illiterate and poor. The middlemen and big fish alone would savour the fruits of global marketing. Handloom weavers would be further impoverished once the protective quotas were phased out.
These were some of the arguments voiced by those who were genuinely concerned about craftspeople and the future of Indian crafts. We had voiced concerns and raised problems which the government was expected to solve without remembering that crafts had flourished at various times without government intervention and at times had declined through government neglect or by design, as when India was under colonial rule. Even in this period if only an entrepreneur could sniff an opportunity and craftspeople deliver, craft skills could survive and improve.
Characteristics that were seen as weaknesses in the craft sector, such as lack of standardization, the inability to provide large quantities of any one given item, inexpensive and sometimes earthy packaging methods, suddenly began to appear as areas of strength in a world where everything else was standard and synthetic. For along with globalization came the growing awareness of eco-friendly lifestyles, organic products and vegetable dye fabrics, the incredible potential of embroideries and jute-ware, and the use of silk floss, banana fibre and other such exotic materials to produce handmade paper.
The reinvention, repackaging and rebirth of ahimsa products like khadi, which has a special appeal in a world resounding with nuclear tests and terrorism, offer fresh opportunities to India to provide handmade products from a vast resource base that exists nowhere else in the world. Khadi and village industries are often left out of the discourse held with craftspeople. Recently this resource has been upgraded, showcased in a new manner and made contemporary. Ideologically, ecologically and for the sustenance of livelihoods, agarbatti, soap, khadi ready-mades, honey and handmade paper can and should flood local and export markets if people with commitment handle the project. These are items not easily available anywhere in the world in the variety and range that we can offer from India.
Government is slowly but surely identifying areas in which it can infuse the kind of inputs that are impossible to handle by private entrepreneurs or craftspeople such as generic protection of certain crafts and textiles through appropriate legislation. Bagru and Sanganer prints, Kanchipuram saris, Kolhapuri chappals, dhokra metalware, Warli and Mithila painting, all these and more urgently need generic patenting so that imitation by interlopers from other areas and sectors is discouraged. Legislative measures are the furthest from the mind of craftspeople but when they hear about these possibilities they react very positively.
Government also has to learn to readjust its funds so that basic needs in the area of infrastructure are provided. Marketing must be made easier for artisans, private bodies, non-governmental development organizations and associations of manufactures in the larger sectors such as carpets and brassware. Of course, all this is to be seen in the context of the larger picture of globalization in which the smart and the sturdy survive while many thousands remain, as usual, below the radar until someone finds them and infuses them with badly needed support.
Somewhere along the way, it has become necessary to stop bewailing the fate of unorganized artisans who have no voice or effective lobbies in the way that big industry have, and assess their strengths instead. Equally underestimated is the ability of some of the enlightened craftspeople to seize the new opportunities of global interaction to widen their own knowledge, technologies and abilities. Initially e-commerce seemed like something that would forever remain alien to the artisan, but he soon realized that he could obtain an e-mail address and communicate with clients anywhere in the world without having to step out, catch a bus and travel to the nearest post office.
There are artisans in Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat, and probably elsewhere too, who have registered domain names. An artisan family in the earthquake-hit areas of Kutch in Gujarat has plans to e-mail its samples of printed cloth to clients, museums and researchers. It was only a mere 20 years ago that they got an electric connection to their home and were able to construct a toilet for visitors who could not be asked to go and squat in the nearby fields. In the midst of all the rubble of the earthquake of early 2001, they were more concerned about getting on with their work with a visiting client than rebuilding their home. Today they are reconstructing their lives with plans to erect an effluent treatment plant, worksheds, a school, a shop, a community centre and a plantation of indigo for vegetable dyes for two hundred families.
Minor sustenance, basic supplies of electricity and water and pipelines for the water supply will bring about a township far better than what they had before the earthquake. This will help the preservation, survival and development of the most beautiful hand-printed fabrics made in the world. This kind of enterprise does not fit in with the standard patronizing poster picture of the traditional artisan in his mud hut, painting with a twig, or weaving with sweat falling off his brow. Perhaps it is the beholder who has to readjust his sights to the change that takes place when a craftsperson is given the dignity and the markets that he deserves.
Many skilled craftspeople now have exhibitions at prestigious art galleries and at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi, rubbing shoulders with contemporary and studio artists. When a few learn the ropes the entire community shares the knowledge and the work is elevated in the eyes of the public. Craftspeople need no longer listen to patronizing promoters who feel they can be best showcased in the old mud hut for a rural ambience but care has to be taken not to distance them from the mass of people in the interest of serving only elitist tastes.
Dilli Haat, the market place that came up in New Delhi in the mid-90s, was an attempt by this writer to do many things at once. It drew from the traditional haat system of India’s shanty marketplaces and upgraded it within an urban environment. It had to be simple, unpretentious, integrated, and comfortable for the artisan who came from the village as producer and salesman, and to learn about the needs of the urban customer. The strength of variety was embodied in the policy of rotating craftspeople every fortnight so that a sprawling complex of landscaping, cafes for regional food, entertainment areas and two hundred stalls could be used by thousands of craftspeople over the years.
Crafts have been revived through access to such a central market space and craftspeople have become more confident of their products and prices. The popularity and high demand for shops in Dilli Haat has created the usual problem of fraudulent means being used to retain shop spaces longer than the regulated time. Traders impersonate craftspeople, but with the government deciding to invest a fair amount of funds in replicating the concept in 20 states of the country, and the Delhi Government alone planning to have four more variations in the capital, hopefully there will be more craft and less craftiness by artisans and better evolved management practices by the government bodies that administrate the marketplace.
Meaningful interventions in the development of the bamboo sector should help India to compete with China if we are willing to accept that some mechanization of tedious hand processes is inevitable. Before that, cultivators need to be aware of better practices in nurturing healthy bamboo and entrepreneurs need to think about providing the necessary fillip to cottage producers to work in well organized factory conditions. Moradabad brass that had dulled with stagnation has transformed itself into contemporary silver, pewter and lacquer look-alikes, which the Economic Times described as ‘a slow takeover of Art Britannica by Galleria Indica.’ For the first time in recent memory this same newspaper devoted an entire page to the marketing strength of handicrafts and the vast potential that is being tapped in this sector. In the era of globalization this is no mean achievement for millions of craftspeople who still craft their products under primitive conditions with no knowledge of what lies beyond their district borders.
Finally, craft is not just about marketing and economics although without these there would be no craftspeople left. It is also about the essence of India’s culture and the creative vocabulary of its perpetrators. For a craftsperson, his self-respect, recognition and dignity are as important as the quality of his daily bread. For some decades a few select craftspeople have been commissioned to make one-off pieces for prestigious shows or locations but a museum piece does not satisfy the urges of a community.
It is in this context that we recently tapped the skills of community artists from tribal groups in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, bard painters from West Bengal, a papier mache artist from Kashmir, a patachitra painter from Orissa and a phad painter from Rajasthan to experiment with preparing illustrations for children’s stories for the National Book Trust. The response from both sides was unexpectedly enthusiastic. Not only were their own interpretations of the stories richer and more attractive than the usual fare, but the joy of the artists for having been part of a project that took them into the world of literature, children’s awareness and printed works with their name beside that of the author of the story, was something that, as one artist said, had been his dream for 20 years. New ways of garnering pride, talent and communication skills through projects of this nature will not just provide new avenues of resource for folk artists but give them an elevated status.
Today the craftsperson is a far more equal partner in his own development. With a vast design dictionary, an ocean of skills and cultural traditions that need to be sustained for his own livelihood and for India’s economic well-being, many agencies, both private and public have exciting new paths to tread.