The problem

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‘Our lives hang on the thread I embroider.’

Ramba Ben, mirrorwork craftswoman, Madotra village, Banaskantha.

‘IT’S lovely stuff, but it doesn’t really work economically, does it?’ said the young Business Standard journalist covering one of our Dastkar craft exhibitions. For the average consumer, craft is perceived as a high-maintenance, high-cost product that neither wears nor functions as well as its industrial equivalent; for the craftsperson craft is a profession that neither gives adequate economic returns nor social status. ‘It’s the grave pit, not the loom pit,’ says a handloom weaver, his grim summation borne out by recurring headlines of starvation deaths of handloom weavers in Andhra. ‘They are so skilled; why doesn’t anyone train them to make electronic spare parts?’ asks a Dutch diplomat of the Kutchi mirror work embroideries at another Dastkar exhibition.

Last year India celebrated the golden jubilee year of the resurgence of Indian handicrafts. Major movers and shakers of Indian handicrafts from all over India – both government and non-government – were in a three-day seminar that was part of the celebrations. Its theme was the status of master craftspeople and sustainable development. It honoured and included ten master craftspeople to whom the President presented the newly instituted title of shilp guru.

In this context, it seemed significant that while the names of all the speakers, moderators and rapporteurs were listed in the programme, the names of the shilp gurus and shilpajana in whose honour the seminar was held were not listed – they were clubbed together, as craftspeople always are, seen as one unified entity, undoubtedly culturally interesting and picturesque but without individual personalities, needs or voices.

It also seemed significant that when they did break out and express their (sometimes critical) views, and tell their (often sad) stories, the wish list of these extraordinary, fast vanishing repositories of creativity and culture was not some transcendental new millennium for craftspeople, but such small things – railway passes, a pension, respect (rather than requests for bribes) from clerks in government offices, free entry to the museums that store their work… that what they most remembered in their lives was not some landmark leap of craftsmanship or international recognition but the warmth of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s smile 50 years ago. It tells us so much about their current status – their perceived value of themselves. ‘I have received many awards, but I still work on the footpath,’ said one.

In India, craft is a cultural and creative manifestation; it is also a mainstream commercial product. This duality is a source of strength, a reason craft (and over 10 million craftspeople) have survived into the millennium; it has also caused confusion and conflict.

Government policies and public attitudes to craft have often found it difficult to decide which side of the mirror is the true image that should be fostered and nurtured. The outcry of craft purists when Madhubani painting was put onto fabric and turned into sarees and soft furnishings, the fact that cane wastepaper baskets and bronze votive sculpture are sold under the same government emporium roof, the fact that tattered old pieces of tribal embroidery sell for a higher price than identical pieces made contemporaneously, the fact that the National Crafts Museum was first under the Ministry of Commerce and then under the Ministry of Culture, and now once again functions within the Ministry of Textiles, all highlight this dilemma.

To add to the confusion, craftspeople themselves – despite there being over 14 million of them – are not active players, either in policy-making or marketing craft. The actual players represent many different interest areas, many of them mutually incompatible. To cite only a few: to cultural historians, tradition and motif are sacrosanct; to commercial merchandisers, consumer demand and global market trends are the determining force; for government policy-makers, India’s huge craft sector is a dead weight that has to be subsidized and supported till its workforce can be amalgamated into the organized, industrial sector. To Gandhians and grassroots activists, making, wearing and using craft represents a way of life and an ideal of Indianness, while they resent the need for commercializing and packaging it. For the tourist trade and the rest of the world, Indian crafts and craftspeople are a part of picturesque, storybook India, but also a wonderful source of cheap products and cheap labour, sadly wrapped in the red tape of government rules and regulations.

Luckily the size and scale of the sector, its inherent vigour and great variety, enable all these different elements and strategies to operate simultaneously. As a result, Indian craft is still alive and (somewhat feebly) kicking.

For every much-mourned dying craft, there is a resurgent new one – theyva gold filigree, lost wax metal casting, glassware. The rough goats wool shawls of camel herders in the Thar desert is transmuted into stunning daily wear. Phulkari flickers, but Mughal gold brocade weaving is gloriously resplendent once more. The sarees of Patan, Chanderi, Siddhipet and Dharmavaram are ghosts of themselves but bandini, maheshwari, pathani and bomkai sarees of a quality unseen for 50 years are magically reappearing. Tussar, eri and muga silk flourish again, and khadi metamorphoses from limp KVIC-subsidized penal wear into a fashion statement.

Terracotta and lathe-turned lacquer takes over the Indian home in dramatic new shapes and usages, tribal dhokra and bell metal are part of the global marketplace. Sujni, suf, lambani, kantha, chikan and zardozi embroidery ornament elite homes and wardrobes. Rural India may take to plastic chappals, but the urban young espouse juthis and kolhapuris. Vegetable dyes have become a fashion statement.

Similarly, and much more importantly, for every starving Andhra weaver, there are new emerging craftspeople. Everywhere – Tilonia and Urmul in Rajasthan, the SEWAs all over India, Kala Raksha, Sandur, Berozgar Mahila Samithi, Adithi and Anwesha in Kutch, Karnataka, and Bihar – the energy of a source of new employment and earning binds together and revitalizes communities that were as deprived and denuded as the desert around them. This is particularly true when one works with the latent skills and strengths of women. They suddenly discover their self worth, seeing themselves as active participants in the community rather than passive recipients of welfare. Wells are dug, children educated, social prejudices and taboos are thrown away when women discover their own power.

It’s extraordinarily exciting and moving to see the traditional hand skills of women, used to craft products for themselves and their families, gradually changing into a contemporary, urban, market-led product, but still strongly reflecting the cultural identity and individual skills of the makers. It also tells the story of women, subtly changing themselves in the process. The process is not without conflicts, but it is invariably catalytic. Like a kaleidoscope, familiar elements, transposed, take on a new, dynamic pattern.

In Ranthambhore where Dastkar has been working for the last 12 years, the local doctor says he can recognize a Dastkar craftswoman from half a kilometre, just by the way she walks. Methods of birth control are canvassed along with colour combinations; old women learn that writing their names is no more difficult than threading a needle. The women have set up their own savings and loans micro-credit group. They are now moneylenders to the whole village.

In Kutch, after the devastating 2001 earthquake, craftspeople, without insurance, provident funds, or social security, were the worst hit. Government figures estimated that 2,28,000 artisans were severely affected by the quake, losing their families, their homes, and their livelihoods. Nevertheless, ironically and significantly, they were also among the first to recover – through the inherent skills in their hands. As Ismail Bhai, a master craftsman and block printer in Kutch, said to us: ‘All we want is the means to stand on our feet again; we will rebuild our own lives ourselves.’

In Lucknow the first 12 SEWA chikan embroidery women, black burkha-ed, illiterate, earning about 100-150 rupees a month, house-bound and totally dependant on the local mahajan have grown to seven thousand – with an annual turnover of over Rs 30 million! They travel all over India, happily sing bhajans in a dharmasala, or cook biryani at the Bombay YWCA. They march in protest against dowry deaths as well as Islamic fundamentalism, demand financial credit and free spectacles from the government, self-confidently refuse to give either Sanjay Singh or Mayawati a discount! They earn in thousands rather than hundreds, and have thrown away centuries of repression and social prejudice along with their burkhas. And chikan itself has been transformed and re-born in the process.

The combination of men and women is a creative and essential part of the craft process, as it is in the fields and the village and in the life of the family. The shift in the balance of power within the family and the changing perceptions of the community to women as they become earners, mirrors the transitions in the craft as it reaches out to wider, new markets. As women find new strengths and freedoms, men too find their minds and horizons expanding. The process is not without conflict, but it is invariably catalytic. It illustrates Dastkar’s belief that the continuing existence of an extraordinary diversity of craft traditions and producers is one of India’s unique strengths as it searches for its own identity in a world that is increasingly uniform and technological.

But paradoxically, while craft traditions are a unique mechanism for rural artisans entering the economic mainstream for the first time, they also carry the stigma of inferiority and backwardness as India enters a period of hi-tech industrialization and globalization. Craft and the ancillary aspects of design and tradition are considered by activists and economists, bureaucrats and business strategists as decorative, peripheral and elitist – rather retrograde ways of earning a living. Craftspeople are always seen as picturesque exhibits of our past, rather than dynamic entrepreneurs of our present and future.

We forget that one out of every 160 Indians is an artisan. Hand craft is a production process and a wonderful, indigenous technology, not an outmoded tradition. Their raw materials (cane, cotton, clay, wood, wool, silk, minerals) are not only indigenously available but also environmentally friendly. The existence of unique living craft skills, techniques, designs and products is India’s great strength, not a weakness.

Since independence, numerous committees, commissions and task forces, both governmental and non-governmental, have sat to evaluate and strategize the future of Indian craft. Reports have been written, action plans have been drawn up. The Planning Commission, SIDBI, NABARD, KVIC, the AIHB, UNDP, the World Bank, the Export Promotion Councils, the Directorate of Tourism, and other national and international agencies, all recognize the importance and potential of this vital part of the rural and non-formal sector. But there has seldom been a meshing together of all the different perspectives.

To those of us now looking at the new millennium and seeking new directions for Indian crafts and craftspeople, it is important to create a common base for our strategies and speculations. We may be celebrating 50 years of so-called handicrafts resurgence, but let us not lose sight of the fact that every ten years we lose 10% of our craftspeople.

Part of this required introspection is in examining the successes and failures of the past in order to create a programme for the future. Mapping the last five decades – from the Gandhian legacy of the ’50s and the creation of our craft institutions – CCIC, the Khadi Bhandars, the All India Handicrafts Board – the time when handloom and khadi were a proudly worn symbol of our newly found freedom; through the ’60s when Riten Mazumdar, Ratna Fabri and Nelly Sethna hand-crafted a new Indian identity and Cottage was the look of contemporary India; through the ’70s, when bureaucracy and commerce replaced idealism and mass-produced Moradabad brass and Kashmir papier-mâché marched side by side with the commodification of rural folk arts like Madhubani and Worli. The Festivals of India of the ’80s: showcasing India abroad, and the emergence of NGOs and craft melas in India: Vishwakarma, Adithi and the UK, US, and French Festivals of India. Sasha, Dastkar, the SEWAs, Tilonia. The ikat and ‘ethnic’ boom.

The ’90s saw the emergence of multinational labels and the global marketplace. Suddenly consumers were presented new choices: Benetton and Nike versus mirror-work and kolhapuris. The impact of liberalization and cable TV, dwindling raw materials and rising transport costs, meant that the Indian market was no longer a level playing field for craftspeople. (Master craftswoman Sona Bai now has to walk 20 kilometres to get bamboo.)

So now – in the new millennium, while craft remains India’s amazing living cultural heritage, can it also be a sustainable career? 14 million-odd craftspeople still practice craft, both as a living tradition and as a mainstream economic activity. Craft is still everywhere, from the pavements to kitchen utensils to the fashion ramp, rather than tucked away in a museum or esoteric studio revival. Some of it is kitsch and tacky, some of it singing and beautiful, some simply functional and ordinary. But craftspeople themselves are increasingly marginalized, their average earnings well below the stipulated minimum wage.

Pupul Jayakar, the doyenne of Indian crafts, once said, ‘Craft is an economic activity before it is a cultural activity. The centre of the development process is marketing.’

Globalization and liberalization have changed the face of the Indian market and the psyche of the Indian consumer, putting new pressures on the craft sector and small producers. These new pressures need a new perspective. If traditional craft techniques and their producers are to survive, they cannot remain static – locked in mind-sets, production systems and marketing strategies that are now outdated. NID, NIFT and the fashion ramp have given value-addition to craft, but have they also alienated it from its roots? Many feel the anonymous, timeless continuity of Indian craft, changing organically in response to consumer needs and usages, rather than designer-led, was its strength – alas, now fast disappearing. How does one get craftspeople back into the creative process?

Given that most NGO interventions in the craft sector have either an economic or socio-cultural base, and that crafts themselves can be both a functional commodity and yet a cultural symbol, a failure to classify craft properly lies at the root of much confusion and failure. Focal needs get confused, inputs get diffused. As the veteran shilpi, Parameshwar Acharya, indignantly spluttered, ‘They lump us together with cobblers and pot makers!’

Working in a craft community, we need first to identify and classify both skill and product. Where change (in material, function, technology, or market) would benefit the craft, and where it would inextricably do damage. Having established the core value system and context of the craft we should not cross this line. Training and sensitization of NGOs and government staff working in the sector to these issues and the cultural and technical aspects of the crafts with which they work is crucial. Finding new opportunities to suit the taste of the contemporary market without compromising traditional aesthetics, while leaving space for individual creativity and cultural meaning, is the test of a successful craft intervention.

We need also to be aware that there is often a conflict, when buyers wanted products tailored to current trends, or lower prices. Simultaneously, we cannot ignore the need for alleviation of poverty, or the need to create more employment. ‘We want work, work and work. If we have work, we live. If we have work, we eat. No work, no future,’ reminds Rani Bai, a craftswoman from Anternes village in Gujarat. Therefore, part of our role is also to sensitize the buyer. Crafts are not just part of our aesthetic and culture, they are the bread of life to millions of craftspeople.

However, we should also be sensitive to the fact that not all crafts and skills are immediately viable. Where there is a need, there is not necessarily a potential. Stockpiles of unsold goods made in good faith lead to disillusionment and further hardship, while subsidizing the unsaleable alienates the consumer. Strategies need to be long term, with marketing infrastructures to support them.

Nirranjan, the skilled young kalamkari master from Shrikalahasti told the story of government agencies coming into the area and training women to do kalamkari. Nobody asked the already embattled traditional craftspersons, increasingly finding it difficult to find buyers for their existing pieces, whether there was a potential market for all these new, not so highly skilled products. NGOs are equally guilty of this mai-baap syndrome.

We often voice our frustration at the lack of motivation and passive dependency encountered in working with craftspeople. Why is it that this gargantuan sector, with quite literally countless millions of craftspeople, has not thrown up more craftspeople who are leaders, activists, raisers of issues, movers and shakers of a system that often works against their best interests and heritage? Sadly, NGOs and people like us, supposedly sensitized to the importance of crafts and craftspeople, generally still work for craftspeople, rather than with them.

Part of including craftspeople into forums like the shilp guru seminar, or into more mainstream planning and organizational decision-making, is first empowering them to feel confident enough to speak, to suggest, to disagree, to actually direct directions. Lots of us get upset about the so-called ‘commodification’ of craft; we need to be equally sensitive about not treating craftspeople as products rather than persons.

The urban intelligentsia and craftspeople both need to break the caste system of city vs village, literate vs non-literate, and book learning vs traditional skills.

Craftspeople have been brainwashed into believing that educated English speaking city graduates have solutions and insights to which skilled traditional craftspeople cannot contribute. The NGO becomes guru, father figure, patron, and source of income. Even when they perceive our feet of clay, a combination of traditional politeness and fear that our patronage may vanish prevents them from disagreement.

Crafts organizations, (both government and non-government) make numerous rationalizations for not including craftspeople as part of their decision-making and implementation: language, logistics, differing cultural time frames, the traditional passivity of rural communities, age-old harsh economic realities which have led to a lack of both hope and initiative, including craftspeople in financial decision-making would lead to ‘confusion’ and misunderstandings, craftspeople not having a long term perspective or understanding ‘issues’. I think most of us are aware that these are pretty lame excuses!

The fear of losing control may be a subconscious but a very real factor. We even interpret their own crafts to them. ‘Every craftsman is a designer, not every designer is a craftsperson,’ was one shilp guru’s sardonic reminder. Few NGOs teach or encourage craftspeople to become designers. There has been much talk of local museums where artisans could draw inspiration from the best of their own traditions; nevertheless most crafts collections continue to find urban homes in metro cities. Kala Raksha is a shining example of how a local documentation centre has acted as a catalyst for craftswomen to move from piece-wage earners to creative artists.

Craftspeople must be integrated into every aspect of the development process. There is a need also to find alternative models for such local initiatives. There is no a blanket module. The traditional guild had too many hierarchies, and the government-sponsored cooperative has become a dirty word – a synonym for corruption and mismanagement.

We must all introspect on and develop steps needed to prepare and include craftspeople into those implementing and decision-making mechanisms that concern them – building on the strengths rather than weaknesses of each craft and craft community, and being sensitive to their different nuances and cultural consciousness. Economics may be the driving need, but social, cultural and familial concerns must also shape the direction and decision-making process. We need to take the craftspeople with us. Learning to listen as well as speak is something we all need to learn. There must be a shift from patronage to partnership.

Ganapathi Sthapati warned us on day one of the shilp guru seminar (apropos of western vs Indian traditional culture), ‘If we don’t tell them they will tell us.’ We could do well to turn this on its head and reflect that if we don’t listen to craftspeople, a time may come when they won’t be around to listen to us.