Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
CRAFT: March 21, 1999
A challenge of transition
Building a future for Indian crafts demands a coherence of heritage and economics. An integrated understanding of this kind is missing, even after 50 years of effort at craft regeneration. The challenge begins with references to the "craft sector" (as if this enormous industry was one homogenous activity), and the use of crafts and art as synonymous terms. Such generalisations compound the confusion which attends so much of the discourse on crafts. Most often, debates focus on either cultural or commercial issues, seldom on the special need to integrate both. Handicrafts need to be understood as an activity too large and too diverse to fit into pigeonhole attitudes and planning. These confine our understanding of its past and present, suggesting the need to return to the vision of Tagore and Gandhi. For them, crafts meant linking economic empowerment to freedom and identity - qualities still essential to our survival and well-being as citizens and a nation. Remembering Gandhiji's famous dictum on respect for the customer, his pioneering vision now also demands of us a strong capacity for professional marketing. Survival in the new economic environment will be impossible without it.
Most discussions on crafts tend to focus on heritage aspects, and on the need to preserve attitudes and traditions threatened by the pace of change. Heat and dust are raised in controversies between craft as art or as industry. These debates forget that Indian tradition made no distinction between the two: both enjoyed sanctity as "kala". The separation was imported, along with the word "craft," which does not translate easily into any of our myriad languages.
The dilemma is always of what and who is in need of preservation: documentation, collections and museums are all critically important. Yet the benchmark for progress in India must be the condition of millions of skilled hands. Unlike many other countries, India has wanted handicrafts at the centre of its existence, not merely as a reminder of past glories but as a vital social and economic force. The potential for craft exports led to a significant decision after Independence: both handloom and handicraft development became the responsibility of the Ministry of Commerce, in charge of India's foreign trade. Generating employment was another aim: the giant Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) has functioned under the Ministry of Industry. These links with official systems and structures can often appear to defy logic. For example, the concerns of weavers are dealt with by separate authorities, depending on whether they weave carpets, furnishings or khadi. One research institution had to substitute "Khadi" with "Textiles" in the title of a publication to avoid offence to official protocol. Craft communities struggle with these absurdities as they grapple with the complex formalities of schemes ostensibly established to serve them.
The educational and cultural values associated with craft are what attract most of the passion that surrounds debate on the future of this activity. Developing a sensitive understanding of aesthetics through craft education should be an essential part of nation-building. Without this sensitivity, future generations may not be rescued from the vulgarity that surrounds us. Loss of taste and refinement is evident in the ocean of handcrafted kitsch which flood our emporia. One of the challenges is to find a quality of discourse that can harmonise these aspects with an understanding of management systems. Without it, there can be no future for skills that represent the largest work force outside agriculture.
Decades ago such an integrated outlook fired a national renaissance, and the freedom struggle to which it gave birth - freedom not merely from political domination, but from economic as well as cultural deprivation. Tagore and Gandhi symbolised the rigorous analysis which took crafts into the very heart of the national movement. There, hand woven cloth became the catalyst for understanding freedom not merely as the need to overthrow colonial power, but equally a sense of true personal and community emancipation: the final freedom to be won.
The quality of this thought influenced craft pioneers in post-Independence India. The institutions set up by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Pupul Jayakar, L. C. Jain and others were efforts at linking our cultural and social needs with the economic objectives of centralised planning. It was at this time that a variety of central and state level institutions emerged. In time, the Central Cottage Industries and state emporia became a way of life. The KVIC developed into a giant monopoly, while the Handloom and Handicrafts Export Corporation (HHEC) acquired an early reputation in competitive Western markets. NGOs emerged as a major influence on craft development. For them, craft activity was often integrated into a larger commitment to the economic empowerment of communities long marginalised and exploited. New institutions such as the National Institute of Design took on major responsibilities as catalysts for product design and development within rapidly changing markets at home and overseas. Awards were established for master craftspersons, and craft melas and "rebate weeks" became associated with national festivities. New museums emerged, and old ones assisted to preserve their craft collections. Craft markets proliferated, and a new generation began to associate crafts with a trendy lifestyle.
In all of this, the private sector was most often viewed with suspicion, branded as exploitive middlemen who needed to be replaced by fair-dealing bureaucracies. Indeed, most official support schemes were designed to end the dependence of craft communities on local money-lenders and the systems of bondage upon which so much of craft activity was traditionally based. (All well and good, until these schemes themselves were implemented only after miles of red-tape.) Yet, private trade remained the major force to match demand with supply, contributing enormously to the export earnings which dominated craft matters in national planning. Exports brought other challenges of dealing with distant markets and customers, such as the transient whims of fashions as well as stringent Western standards of quality and merchandising. At home, brand images gradually emerged, an experience relevant to today's marketing needs. Among the earliest successes were the Sona label of HHEC, Contemporary Arts and Crafts, Shyam Ahuja, Fabindia, Gurjari and such NGO-led enterprises as Dastkar and Sasha. Craft Councils began to showcase fine talent and products. It was not long before craftspersons were recruited into India's cultural diplomacy. The blitz of Festivals of India did little to alter the global power balance, but they are remembered as rich experiences of India's craft vitality.
This vitality has been at risk throughout the century. Most crafts survived colonial domination through an ability to meet local needs with local production. The traditional patronage by temples and palaces was a great source of sustenance. Changes in market competition, technology, material and social structures soon transformed all this. As independent India gave crafts a place in socialist planning, the role of traditional markets and patrons was to be replaced by government-assisted directions. These were often as confused as they were well-intentioned. Fifty years on, life for craftspersons remains precarious. Official support schemes often elude those for whom they are intended, their future now clouded in the uncertainties of a new policy environment. Exploitation is rife at many levels, including the exploitation of children caught between poverty, heritage and social reform. The past "subsidy raj" has confused the economics of craft activity. Handmade products have an image that swings between cheap bargains and the glitz of high-fashion boutiques. There is still no semblance of the professional marketing systems so commonplace in the organised sector. Many traditional raw material (including woods, grasses, leather, wool) are disappearing under environmental pressure or diverted to competition from large-scale industry. As economic policies take a U-turn and state benevolence withdraws, survival will depend on an ability to compete on the customer's terms. This has been a capacity completely neglected over fifty years of official direction to Indian crafts, despite Gandhiji's reminder so long ago.
The capacitation needed to survive this challenge is as much one for craft communities as it is for the craft institutions that seek to serve them. The challenge is strongest to non-governmental agencies. Many have been dependent on government support for their development activities and have little experience in dealing with market realities. There is a stirring now toward more self-reliant directions. Important demonstrations have been made, yet a critical mass is missing. To build one demands new partnerships: a fresh nexus of craftspersons and crafts activists working with economists, designers, managers, social scientists and scholars.
Market success has to be at the heart of this effort, for unless the craftsperson can be assured a decent quality of life through sustained earning, nothing will keep the next generations loyal to their heritage. The only sustainable assurance can come from buyers. Understanding their future needs, wherever they may be located, demands the market research upon which India has spent nothing all these years. It is the ability to manage the market that will ultimately decide whether India's unique commitment to crafts, as an expression of its identity and of its wellbeing, is to flourish in the millennium just ahead. Perhaps it is a new understanding of "swadeshi" that we need, not as an archaic slogan but as a vigorous, contemporary understanding of our real needs and prospects in an interdependent world.
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