India has a long and unique history of art, with several indigenous crafts and practices passed down across generations of artisan communities. Unfortunately, many of these artisans today face a struggle for survival, competing against the cheap, rapidly produced products of the modern age. It is time modern industry helped these artisans claim their rightful share of the global market.
It’s pretty evident that India’s biggest need to fully leverage the demographic dividend is to create jobs, and to create them close to where the rural population lives. Getting the youth of Rural India to the cities for jobs is not quite the best way to get them gainfully employed. Economic opportunities need to be taken to small towns and villages. Creating opportunities without uprooting the youth from their environment is perhaps the best way to create sustainable and socially relevant solutions for India today.
India has nearly 3,000 unique Arts & Crafts, many of which are as old as Indian civilisation itself, and are an embodiment of India’s intellectual and aesthetic properties. They have the potential to be revived quite quickly, leveraging and adapting existing skills to suit both traditional and modern markets.
The founders of Heart for Art Public Charitable Trust believed this to be the best approach and set out to get it done!
They set out on a tour of some of the arts and crafts of South India, covering the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka. The tour hoped to find out all about the state of the arts and crafts of these states—their opportunities and challenges. Soaking in the ethos of small town India, the founders hoped to understand the lives of artisans, their aspirations, and what gives them pride.
At Bidar, they met Salimuddin and his team of artisans practising the 400-year-old craft of Bidriware. At Mahabalipuram, Prof. Bhaskaran and his team of granite sculptors took them through the work they have been doing to sculpt temples (a craft practiced since the 5th century AD) for various parts of the country, and for the Indian diaspora around the world. At Swamimalai, they met the team carrying on the work of master craftsman Rajan. Rajan, a few decades ago, revived the Chola-period craft of lost-wax method sculptures.
The team met the people working to revive the Kottan crafts of Chettinad and the region’s Athangudi tile-craft. Their journey continued as they met artisans and organisations that are keeping the woodcraft of Channapatna alive. These artisans have created a vibrant set of quality products that are now being exported. The tour ended at the small town of Navalgund in North Karnataka. There, a handful of women jamkhana weavers are keeping the craft from the Adil Shahi period alive.
After all this exploring, the real journey was yet to begin!
City folk often assume that improving design and quality, and making craft products “compatible with urban sensitivities”, is most important. Says Padmaja Jalihal, founding Trustee of Heart for Art Trust, “We actually found something quite different. We saw that artisans, organisations like the National Institute of Design, some NGOs, and existing social entrepreneurs had done enough. They had helped adapt new designs and improve quality. Besides, the artisans themselves had innate abilities to create new products based on inputs and market opportunities. So they clearly didn’t need much help there.”
“Give us opportunities, give us dhanda (business),” was the apparent refrain commonly heard from the artisans. For them, the pressing need seemed to be access to opportunities, and helping them communicate their craft to urban markets. Above all, they desired the recognition that they could – and did – quality work! “We saw that WhatsApp and courier services from their towns allowed artisans to quickly ‘showcase’ their work. They could close orders and then ship the finished product anywhere in the world,” continues Padmaja. She and her team originally helped market products of the Tambat craft from Pune.
This revelation showed her the need to do it for many more crafts in our country.
Retail markets have changed with changing business models, technology, and the Internet. Today, modern market linkages need to be created for India’s Art & Craft products. They need to take on plastic products, cheap Chinese goods, and the allure of the world’s consumer brands. Here’s what we must do to convince the modern consumer world of the joy of handcrafted elegance:
- Availability of quality products online, at modern retail places, malls, super-markets, and airports. It is important to get the products to where consumers of the world shop.
- Agencies need to conduct marketing campaigns online and offline. We must make PR efforts to educate consumers, leveraging India’s storytelling and advertising industry capabilities. India’s handicrafts need the equivalent of the Incredible India campaign.
- Get the best designers to work on the design, utility, and packaging of the products.
- Designers, engineers, marketeers, and financiers must collaborate to create startups that energise this sector.
- It is imperative to get the corporate sector involved in supporting and adopting the Arts & Crafts of the country, through CSR programmes and Corporate Gifting.
- Getting Architects to work with traditional artisans in commissioned projects for private and public spaces will provide a huge boost.
- Finally, it is important to engage consumers, the youth, and design students with products and stories of Arts & Crafts. They are our future consumers, and potential future marketeers.
It is time to go beyond the efforts of the oligarchy in the Art & Craft world—beyond the Dastakar Haats & Samitis and the State Emporia, to create a pride in the ‘Made in India’ brand.
There is a need to go beyond the status quo, and revitalise this exciting sector. It is possible!
During India’s freedom struggle, and in the 1950s-60s, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay brought forth the importance of Indian Arts & Crafts in the social and economic fabric of the nation. She helped setup the Cottage Industries Emporia, the Crafts Council of India, and the Theatre Crafts Museum in Delhi. The setup of State Handicrafts Emporia followed. Enterprising private efforts created a modest exports market of handicrafts that supplied the Indian diaspora around the world.
In the last decade, a number of efforts around the country have begun to change its Arts & Crafts world for the better. A renaissance of India’s Arts & Crafts is underway. The National Institute of Design and its students have engaged with many of India’s Arts & Crafts, documenting them and infusing them with new design ideas and quality improvements.
A number of efforts – such as Varnam and Maya Organic in Bengaluru that have worked with the wood craft of Channapatna, Coppre in Pune that has worked with the Tambat (Copper) craft, and the efforts of Gaatha to market India’s Arts & Crafts – have begun to bear fruit. Jaypore, Craftsvilla, ROPE International, and a number of other efforts have caught the imagination of venture and social sector funds. They’ve created a vibrancy that’s creating opportunities for India’s artisans. Heart for Art is working to add to this vibrancy, and create more opportunities for India’s rural youth and artisans.