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Awaken the artisan


UNESCO’s Awards of Excellence for Handicrafts for South Asia are meant to make traditional craftsmen aware of what is needed to succeed in a changing market. A conversation with the jury who were in Chennai recently.

Exquisitely detailed: (Clockwise from top left), Silver filigree from Karimnagar; Guldan from Multan, Pakistan and singing bowl gift set from Nepal.

Each exhibit vying for “UNESCO’s Award of Excellence for Handicrafts” was awash with colour and creativity, holding a mirror to the synergy of the artisans’ vision with his environment and reflecting, as 17th century Japanese printmaker Hokusai put it, “not just the truth but the meaning behind the truth…” Here a reed mat or blue pottery guldaan explored “the splendour in the grass and the glory in the mud”, there a lovely silver filigree bowl spun sheer lace out of metal while a wealth of textiles, stoles, scarves and shawls from the subcontinent wove gossamer dreams out of cotton, silk and wool. Superb Nakshi kantha embroidery took the art of “painting with needle” into realms of celebration, polished turned wood bowls rivalled glass in their polished perfection and amidst colourful truck art items and exuberant tribal metalware, an exquisite Balaposh shawl from West Bengal gently wafted the attar trapped within its quilted layers…

The craft exhibits were arranged for display at the Chennai venue for the jury meeting held under the aegis of the Crafts Council of India who were facilitators and organisers of the UNESCO Award of Excellence for Handicrafts programme for South Asia. The entries were drawn from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Maldives. Instituted in 2000, the Award aims to encourage artisans to produce handicrafts using traditional skills, patterns and themes in an innovative way in order to ensure the continuity and sustainability of craft traditions. The craft entries were judged on a package criteria of excellence in quality, authenticity and ethnicity, innovation, incorporation of eco-friendly and socially responsible norms and marketability.

The UNESCO-approved panel of judges featured eminent players on the world craft stage: Ms. Judith Espinar, Founding Chair of the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, Ms. Liliana Fassino, Researcher on Traditional Craft and designer, Ms. Rathi Vinay Jha, IAS (Retd.), Founder Director of the National Institute of Fashion Technology and Mr. Kim Jin Tae, Chief Director of the Korean Craft Promotion Foundation. Also present on the occasion were Ms. Moe Chiba, Programme Officer for Culture, UNESCO, New Delhi and CCI Chairperson, Ms. Vijaya Rajan.

Excerpts from a conversation with them on the Awards, UNESCO’s role in promoting traditional craft, on the craft scenario in South Asia and India’s special place in it …

What is the overriding concern of the UNESCO in initiating the Award of Excellence for Handicrafts?

Moe Chiba: The UNESCO’s concern is that crafts should not die. In Pakistan, most crafts have died out, and along with it a whole slice of heritage. The Awards programme is UNESCO’s flagship programme to support craft producers.

Marketing seems to be the pivot of UNESCO’s Award Programme. Don’t you think excessive focus on commerce, unknown foreign markets and innovation not only puts diverse pressures on craftspersons but also takes crafts away from their roots?

Moe Chiba: I’d say marketing is very important. For craftspersons, it is their means of livelihood, especially in the case of India. As we all know, the market has changed. Earlier, the Maharajas were the patrons. Now the artisan has to learn to deal with other clientele which could be urban as well as the foreign market. We want to broaden his consciousness that in all this, quality is critical. As for innovation, it is tricky. However, the Awards criteria also includes authenticity and tradition so the artisan has to evolve and innovate within that framework. Both tradition and innovation can cohabit, coalesce and be comfortable. This is where the jury is important, to judge whether innovation is in any way threatening tradition…

Rathi Vinay Jha: Innovation could be to make the craft product more utilitarian and marketable.

Lilliana Fassino: Innovation should not be just for the sake of innovation. It should improve the quality of the craft product.

What are the eco-friendly strikes most visible in the entries?

Vijaya Rajan: The use of vegetable natural dyes in textiles and wood products was perhaps the most visible feature.

Liliana Fassino: Yes, in the past 10 years, many exciting fashion designers have sprung up in India with their unique feel for Indian textiles, the use of natural dyed fabric, etc.

In this ‘moveable feast’ of handicraft entries, do you perceive a common thread, a common language as it were?

Kim Jin Tae: Yes, in textiles particularly. Perhaps it is a subcontinental sensibility. Or it could be the region’s. Even China and Korea are strong in textiles.

Lilliana Fassino: Yes, I could perceive a thread of excellence and commitment. All the entries are of a high order. I work in India and can vouch for the amazing quality of Indian textiles, their great beauty and their traditional sense of colour.

What do you perceive as the strength of the Indian artisan?

Judith Espinar: I am totally convinced that India is the richest cultural country in the world. In several areas, especially in textiles, the artisans express richness of techniques and organisations. All this was definitely reflected in the exhibits. I must add that leadership by the Crafts Council of India in organising the UNESCO Awards of Excellence was inspirational. I have been truly inspired by their dedication towards the preservation of the Indian craft culture, by their energy and passion.

Craft pluralism and ethnicity as a reflection of human cultural diversity was amply reflected in the entries.

Vijaya Rajan: As an observer, I was struck by the diverse range of products, by the talent of the artisans of the region. As long as we celebrate this diversity, the craft culture will continue.

Does UNESCO offer any form of craft training for artisans?

Moe Chiba: We do not offer training. We work with the CCI to put together standards, guidelines, etc which can be used by any workshop. We are also trying to develop a working relationship with Design Schools in Europe. Every year we send two students from India and Bhutan to the Royal College of Art, London and so far it has been a good experience in terms of developing product lines. The next challenge is to introduce them to the European market.

What would winning the Award of Excellence mean to the artisan, especially in the Indian context?

Moe Chiba: We hope that by applying for this award, the consciousness of the artisan will awaken to the fact that quality is important and also broaden his horizon.

Rathi Vinay Jha: The award will go a long way in keeping the quality of craft, in giving pride to the craftsperson. I am very proud of what the Government of India has done for crafts. In fact, I feel we should give incentives to craftspersons as they do to industries. We need to support the craftsperson to be proud of his craft, his vocation.

Vijaya Rajan: It is a marketing tool, especially in the international arena. All award winning products will carry the Award of Excellence tag which itself will interest buyers, both domestic and international. Besides, these labelled products are exhibited at the Santa Fe Folk Art Market, Maison d Objet, Paris every alternate year. The awards definitely open up new windows of opportunity, exposure and commerce. And the pride and self esteem of the award winner can hardly be quantified…

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