Design For Craft Development

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Design For Craft Development: Strategies For Gujarat Handlooms & Handicrafts

Chatterjee, Ashoke


It is a privilege to be with you today to look at the situation of handloom and handicraft development in our state, and to try together to put design to work for this great purpose. Other speakers have mentioned the key importance of design for marketing success. While this is true, one of the major problems is that these terms — ‘design’ and ‘marketing’ —- are little understood and frequently misunderstood. Perhaps the same can be said of ‘craft’ which is such a huge sector and yet commands insufficient attention when one thinks of its enormous importance to Indian life and to our economy. So the first challenge is to sort out the confusion in our understanding of words we use and of the sector we want to serve.

Let us begin by looking at the handloom and handicrafts in a national context. Although it is said that craft provides employment second only to agriculture in India, no one can tell us with any accuracy how many artisans are engaged in this sector. Official estimates range from 4 to 6 million. This is a gross underestimate. At best, it applies only to a list of crafts under the auspices of the Development Commissioner. Other estimates range from 36 million to 200 million. If the purpose of all our efforts is ultimately to ensure sustainable livelihoods for people, the challenge of identifying who we want to serve, and whose lives we want to uplift, is clearly a first priority. How can investment be demanded and planned if we are not clear about the scale of the task?

It is estimated that the buyer value of crafts is approximately Rs60,000 crores a year, which means an output cost of Rs28,000 crores. Textiles are estimated to comprise 50% of this figure. In the current year, it is estimated that India will export craft products worth Rs8,000 crores, or almost $2 billion.

The market for crafts can be broadly divided into domestic and export markets. A recent study suggest that households with an income above Rs4 lakhs per year comprise our major market. It is estimated that there are about 14 million urban households in this category, together spending about Rs3,500 crores or Rs2,500 per year per household. These families are located in the 8 major metros (which include Bangalore, Pune, Hyderabad and Ahmedabad) and in several other cities such as Chandigarh, Cochin and Bhubaneswar. This is the domestic market for Gujarat crafts. It is a market that today is influenced by vigorous competition, mass retailing of factory-made products, rapidly changing lifestyles, as well as by new demands for quality and speed. This market is categorized not only by changing lifestyles and taste, but also by the collapse of certain traditional markets (such as craft purchases by temples), by the growth of new markets (such as crafts for fashion) and by the opportunity to tap or to revive potential markets such as craft inputs for buildings and their interiors.

If competition is tough at home, it is ruthlessly stringent in export markets. I mentioned that this year handicrafts exports (including durries and carpets) are estimated at Rs8,000 crores. The USA is our biggest market, followed by Germany, UK, France and Japan. We need to understand these markets carefully because their specific requirements constitute our opportunity. The USA leads in all categories except two: shawls (Saudi Arabia comes first) and zari (where UK leads). There are some 6,000 establishments participating in India’s craft export trade. Their clients are primarily department stores, chain stores, gift shops, art outlets, museum shops, retail units specializing in interiors and so on. Each of these establishments has special requirements. Each may have in-house buyers (department stores and chains most often do) while others deal through wholesale importers, catalogues and other channels. A marketing strategy (and therefore a design strategy) must be sensitive to how this trade functions at all these levels and what makes competition so difficult as well as so rewarding. Trends vary from season to season, and most of these outlets today are working on plans for 2005! Merchandizing (or the ability to communicate and present products effectively) is very important. It includes such elements as labeling, packaging and promotional material. Delivery requirements are very tight, the cycle of production and shipment is usually limited, while payments may take time to realize. And everything is dominated by a demand for high quality and effective quality control. There is no mercy for mistakes.

Increasingly, these aspects of the export markets are also apparent at home, where competition from other manufacturers in India as well as from outside is being keenly felt. You must all be aware that only last year we had the extraordinary experience of Chinese craft “factories” exporting “Kutchi embroidery” made in China to Gujarat where it has been sold and exported as genuine Kutchi craft! Such is the nature of the changing world scenario through what is known as globalization and liberalization. If we do not keep ahead of it, it will overtake and flatten us.  What then will happen to the millions of artisans who must be our first concern? Their future depends on a marketing ability which they must acquire or which can be made available to them by their partners.

This brings us to another challenge. Most of us believe that marketing is selling. For 50 years the attitude in Indian crafts has been “This is what we make. Please buy it ”. This is not marketing. The marketing attitude is “This is what we know you need. Here is a quality product that responds to your need. Please buy it.” I hope you can see the difference in these two attitudes. Design is part of the marketing chain. If we do not understand marketing correctly, there is no way that we can use design inputs intelligently. Marketing is the identification of a need and the satisfaction of that need at a profit. Most craft organizations in our country, particularly those under government control, claim to be marketing organizations. Very few really are. Most merely sell, and that too not very efficiently. Marketing demands a foundation of research to provide information on what buyers want, when, and how much they are willing to pay. This then leads on product development, which is where design is of critical importance. Technology to improve quality and productivity must keep ahead of the market. Therefore linkages with specialist institutions becomes essential because marketing is a team job, demanding many specialist inputs. Financial systems to support the marketing cycle are critically important. Without them, design cannot function. Sales must be respected as a specialist function which embraces merchandizing and which extends to customer service after a sale has been completed, and to feedback from the market so that the marketing cycle can begin again, based on the experience of performance.

I hope I have said enough to place design in its context. You will have several examples of design intervention shared with you today. Please keep in mind that design is not about art or making things pretty. Design is a problem-solving process. If we do not understand the problem properly, no amount of design will serve to beat competition and keep ahead. Therefore we must accept that design interventions for the crafts of Gujarat must be concerned with improving craft products and systems in our state from the user’s point of view. I cannot stress this point enough. We will need partners with specialist knowledge of marketing and technology. We can take inspiration from the models of design intervention that have been made in the craft sector by market leaders like Shyam Ahuja, Fabindia, Anokhee and even by Gurjari in the days when it was an accepted leader for craft quality. A seminar organized by the Crafts Council of India  and NID in 1990 identified case examples of successful design intervention (including those by Gurjari) and these remain relevant still.

If all these challenges were not enough, let me also remind you that we have yet another critical dimension to our task. This is that we must look at challenges and opportunities from the perspective of artisans, and the needs of their families and their communities. We in the crafts sector spend a lot of our time extolling India’s great craft heritage of thousands of years. But we know little about the quality of life which traditional artisans face in our society, their low level of earnings, their difficult socio-economic conditions, their lack of access to technologies and to market information, the absence of opportunities for lifting their craft and managerial skills. If we must put sustainable livelihoods as our first priority, then we have to start from the level of earnings needed by artisans, and the realistic costs of their production and distribution. It is then that we can select products and systems, prioritizing those which have marketing potential sufficient to meet the requirements of artisans. And then we must aggressively explore and develop markets at home and overseas which can deliver the earnings and the quality of life that must be our basic objectives.

How far we are from these goals, despite 50 years of achievement in craft development and promotion, became clear at a seminar held in New Delhi in November to celebrate these five decades of experience. Many distinguished craftspersons attended the seminar. All of them had received high national and state honors and were gurus of great experience and wisdom. Yet with one voice they said that their position in society and in the economy was still so low that they wondered how anyone could expect their children and shishyas to carry on their traditions. They spoke of exploitation, indifference, harassment, lack of education and health and old-age supports, as well as the new threats of competition at home and from imported products. At the same seminar, senior Government representatives made it clear that the role of Government in the years ahead would be to facilitate what craft communities, private enterprise and NGOs could do for themselves in the craft sector. Government would no longer be the implementer nor the prime patron. The need of the hour, according to these officials, was self-reliance and the collective strength for bargaining that could influence the political and economic environment. If design is to make a difference, it must be design as part of a marketing system that can encourage the self-reliance so essential today.

I do hope these observations can help us to go back to the analysis made in July and August last year toward the development of cottage industries in Gujarat for the Tenth Five-Year Plan Period. That analysis included current strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats which apply to crafts in Gujarat. If we look at those now, can we identify a marketing strategy intelligently geared to sustainable livelihoods for the craft communities of Gujarat? Do we have a marketing system in place which can support design intervention, and take it through successive marketing cycles? Can we identify from our experience the consumer needs at home and abroad to which initial design intervention can be directed? Answers to these questions will then suggest a design strategy that will meet the challenge of this time. It will be design that strengthens artisans to control their markets more effectively. It will be design that can help repay the great debt we all owe to the craftsmen and craftswomen of Gujarat. They have for many years been the symbols of the best that India has to offer, not just in terms of craft products but equally in terms of our identity and our national self-respect.

Thank you.

Keynote Address at “Design Interventions in Handlooms and Handicrafts Sector” Seminar,

NIFT-Gandhinagar, 11 March 2003

Dr Amarjeet Singh, Shri Arvind Agarwal, Smt Villoo Mirza, Shri Wagh and friends.

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