A Future Handmade

Advocacy, Cultural, Creative Industries, Op-Ed

A Future Handmade: Revisiting Gandhi and Gurudev in a Transformed India

Chatterjee, Ashoke


Cultural and creative industries, as defined in UN systems of accounting, today comprise over 6% of the global economy, with a combined GDP potential of $4.3T. Tucked within these staggering statistics are India’s crafts, representing its second largest source of livelihood. While that fact is acclaimed by the highest in the land, activists on the ground struggle to find robust data to back the claim. The Economic Census of 2012 was the first to include artisans, after strong civil society advocacy. The Census has lifted estimates well beyond the 13M artisans previously acknowledged. While numbers are still being crunched, anywhere from 40M to 200M Indians survive on hand production, depending on definitions of ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’. Statistical confusion has been critical in the neglect of a sector often dismissed as ‘unorganized’ despite age-old systems of organization and a competitive advantage as the world’s largest resource of craftsmanship. Global players envy what India chooses to ignore.

Globalization brings with it unparalleled opportunities at home and overseas as well as unfamiliar challenges that may now be critical to survival. Among these is compliance to standards established in world markets which are now emerging at home. Compliance first arose as a discipline essential to exports. Oft-quoted examples are the employment and working conditions of children and women that constrained shipments of carpets and garments. Those  overseas warnings  suggest that tomorrow compliance may be as critical to domestic success. Product safety, material standards, occupational health, IPR, and a growing list of environmental as well as social concerns are within India’s emerging regulatory frameworks.

A few years ago craft activists faced another homegrown jolt. After decades of complacent confidence in craft values inherited from Tagore, Gandhi and KamaladeviChattopadhyay, activists were suddenly informed by high rankers  that hand-production was an embarrassing reminder of Indian backwardness, a ‘sunset industry’ out of sync with aspirations of modernity and global influence in a new millennium. In a struggle to respond, the craft sector has since positioned itself as an alternative that offers cutting-edge  advantages: low carbon footprint, empowerment of the marginalized, huge opportunities for non-agricultural incomes in rural India based on local materials and skills, and unlimited prospects in world markets hungry for handmade quality that is certified, sustainable and ethical. Home and village-based earnings can reduce migration into city slums, while  providing safety-nets to millions still at the margins: women, minorities, tribal communities. Within  globalized sameness, Indian crafts have demonstrated a confident modernity exemplified by brands like Fabindia and Titan, and by Mumbai airport’s transformation as an acclaimed art experience. It recalls cultural diplomacy that has for decades projected artisans as Festival of India ambassadors. If all this helps makes a case for India’s handcrafts, the need remains for martialling data and evidence toward sector investment. A priority is to establish how ‘green’ Indian craft actually is, or should be. Then, how greenness is to be monitored, sustained and paid for in a market where domestic prospects are overtaking the export obsession.

How green must crafts really be? How much will green cost, and how can buyers be persuaded to pay a premium for it?  What answers may have emerged from Green Bazaars in several metros or the experience of Indian players creating natural products for global chains? If demand takes craft production to new levels, can they remain green? Not long ago the Crafts Council of India (CCI) brought together khadi weavers to confront a technology intervention that could have destroyed the USPs that give their fabric its world reputation. The conclave found that protecting this Indian advantage was not just about spinning and weaving. Khadi  required standards and codes to embrace soil and water, raw material supply and processing, occupational health, fair remuneration, and enforceable certification systems. The concept of environment needed to extend into conditions in homes and workplaces — not just where the loom is located but beyond to a myriad pre- and post-loom operations. User education must lift the perceived and actual value of hand production, with assurance that what is sold as hand-made is actually made by hand. Mechanized processes to reduce drudgery must allow enhanced value-addition through craftsmanship. Other requirements included access to finance and materials, awareness of fair trade, IPR protection, social and food security … The expanding check-list was clearly beyond the capabilities of any single stakeholder. The message from khadi to the rest of the craft sector was obvious: tomorrow’s opportunities will demand new partnerships of awareness, knowledge and preparedness.

Urgent issues await such collaboration. Crafts using wood and natural fibres are losing their sources of traditional material, like the ivory carvers before them. Sandalwood, rosewood, teak, red sanders: all face extinction while alternatives need testing and innovation. If grasslands continue to shrink, what happens to everyday green icons like chiks, chatais and jharoos? Moradabad’s famous brassware has lost its sheen through mindless mass production and dreadful conditions of work. Through an astonishing diversity — from baskets and fish traps to architectural and interior systems, tough bridges and lighter bicycles — cane and bamboo applications could transform the economies of the northeast and other deprived regions. Yet India is well behind its Asian competitors in protection of these forest resources, training of artisans, design innovation and marketing savvy. With growing concerns over child safety, makers of wooden toys in Chennapatna (Karnataka) and Varanasi may now need to return to natural dyes they once used — a new notification on lead content in paint is soon to be enforced.  But then, natural materials can have their own toxic impact. In Bagru (Rajasthan) and other pockets of dyeing and block-printing the environmental impact of effluents threatens closure of units releasing their waste into unprotected drainage lines. In addition to cow vigilantism, leather artisans face ostracism because of fallout on air and water quality. The crisis of water is everywhere. In Kutch, a community of world-renowned makers of ajrakh fabric was devastated when the 2001 earthquake sealed their groundwater source. An entire community shifted to a new location, Ajrakhpur. The crisis has followed them: groundwater levels have fallen dangerously.  Clean, affordable technologies for use and re-cycling will now need linkage to natural resource management with artisans as stakeholders, not just as users.

Being truly green is thus a capacity to be built on knowledge, both traditional and new. This may not be easy. India’s second largest industry is bereft of the research, organizational and advocacy capacities of sectors regarded as ‘organized’. Most B-schools ignore craft management, and high-profile confederations seldom bring their clout to craft policy and decision-making. Hope vests in networks of young artisans, entrepreneurs, designers and activists attempting to demonstrate sustainability in the market and committed to craft as a larger cause.
CCI, with affiliates in ten states, will grapple with these issues at a forthcoming National Meet. The focus will be on sustainability that makers and users can practice: approaches and standards that can be practical in the marketplace, in the environment and as ethics. This may need inter-disciplinary linkage on a scale entirely new to the sector. The effort will be worthwhile. From the EU, of all places, has come a slogan: ‘The future is handmade’. China twelve years ago identified two industries critical to future influence: IT and handcrafts. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be read as a powerful case for artisans and their capacities. More significantly, no other industry offers sustainability as a vision that is economic, environmental, social, political and even spiritual. Echoes of Gandhi and Gurudev, in an India so transformed from the one they knew.

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