Excerpts from Crafts in Transition

Craft, Handloom, Art, Safeguarding, Endangered, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

Excerpts from Crafts in Transition

Chatterjee, Ashoke


Excerpts from
Crafts in Transition
Prof. Ashoke Chatterjee
15th April 2005

It is interesting to listen to professionals whose basic preoccupation is what constitutes development? What sustainable development actually means? And how do we measure it? One of the remarks that stuck in my mind was made by a lady from Geneva who said these days what measures, what gets counted is what comes otherwise it slips through the cracks. I was thinking of this because year before last when we were celebrating 50 years of ‘craft renaissance’ a lot of issues came up from the master craftsmen and their chelas (disciples), the people who are the next generation of craftsmen. I wonder two years down the road with the political and economic changes that have taken place what really has happened to those issues raised. I would like to focus on the economic aspect as I think the cultural aspect of craft is something we have paid much more attention to over these years and have more consensus on then the so called development aspects.

Let me just give you some figures that may be out of date but they are figures that I have been using. I haven’t been able to find any better ones. These go back 10 years so make adjustments for that. According to the NCAER, the output by 4 million craft persons a decade ago was above Rs. 30,000 crores in output, not in revenue. I called them up yesterday (14th April 2005) and according to them the figure is about Rs. 50,000 crores output today. That is the output of 4 million artisans but how many artisans do we have in this country. And since the preoccupation of all our Governments and this one in particularly with the Government Minimum Program is poverty elimination, how many people are we talking about? How many of these people are below the poverty line? 4 million people in our country is not a very large figure, but in a single Government document, the number of artisans ranges from 4 million to 200 million. The question also needs to be asked as to who constitutes artisans. Is it those who produce the kind of products which come under purview of the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) because those are only a fraction of the hand-skills used in this country? What about ironmongers and those who make bullock-carts. Are they artisan or not, are they craft persons or not and who looks after them. Interestingly, in the 4 million under the NCAER there is no accurate figure for the number of potters or of weavers and yet any time we celebrate crafts the pot and the loom are what we claim to celebrate. And yet we don’t really seem to know how many people depend on that.

I am told that today the market value, what comes out of these 4 million or more craft persons is about Rs. 65,000 crores of which about Rs. 9,000 crores is exports. Of the Rs. 10,000 crores of exports that come through the list of crafts under the Development Commissioners office only Rs. 10 crores goes to Government. So we can see how much income in generated in all kinds of different ways but we don’t know how accurate these figures are. There is no one who’s willing to vouch for them but there is a consensus that so called artisan sector is the largest employer in this country after agriculture. Yet there is no protection, no statistics, no comprehensive planning for this sector at all. I shouldn’t say at all but I would say it is completely inadequate.

I am told that over the last few days a figure was tossed around at Habitat Centre that by 2010 our present government is committed to generating another 100 million jobs. These jobs are not going to be found in the organised industries or in the urban sector and that the largest potential for this job creation is in activities which are linked to natural resources and to the management of our natural resources. This observation was made in the context of forestry and struggle between people and forest policies in this country. So I thought what we might just consider is where does this, what we are committed to and work for, after these 50 or 60 years, what impact have we been able to make on poverty and is there a larger role for us in the sector to try and get little bit more cohesion and support for this sector.

I was not at recent meeting at Jodhpur on Cultural Industries which was under UNSECO’s sponsorship. But an interesting document has come out there called the ‘Jodhpur Consensus’ and it is an approach to what is now been described as ‘cultural industries’ which includes crafts and craftspeople. In the context of guiding principles which emerged from Jodhpur it talks about the importance of these cultural industries not just to the economy but also to socio-economic stability and the sense of cultural identity within much of the world. And this seems to be addressed primarily to the countries of Asia and Pacific region and it points out the need for a much stronger investment in understanding these cultural industries and of supporting them into the future.

Couple years ago when we had that celebration of craft renaissance there was a discussion which was kicked off by the President of India on what is actually wrong today and what was said was poverty was the main problem of artisans in our country – competition from mass manufacture and competition from life styles, inadequate access to markets, to technology and to finance, ignorance amongst the general public about craft, references made to change in taste and the waves of vulgarity coming in from both within our own society and outside and the point that was made that I think was significant is violence.

How often, and we have experienced this only too tragically in Gujarat though it is not confined to Gujarat, when society explodes in our country the first targets are artisan communities. Many of them belong to minorities or to marginalized and disempowered groups and how often their tools, their looms and stocks are the first things that get put to the torch or hacked up when there is violence. So the point was made that artisans come from already marginalized groups and that they are largely unprotected. They are a silent majority amongst the work force and they are not represented. I have been thinking about the work and whatever contact I have had with the craft sector and the other sectors in recent years that perhaps if we want to get this sector recognized more intelligently, we need to link it more purposefully with some of the waves of change or of thought which are going around the world. I talked about poverty reduction and that clearly is an important aspect in everyone’s thinking these days, but there is the whole issue of human rights and empowerment. If the majority of our artisans are those who are deprived of their rights, who have difficulty in accessing their rights and are not empowered then what is it that we, who are in the position perhaps to do something however modest, what should we be doing about restoring or providing to them to the first time, their rights as important drivers not only of the economy but of everything which this country stands for or should stand for.

The other aspect related to human rights is democratic frameworks. Without democratic frameworks creative expression is impossible and that too comes out of this Jodhpur Consensus. They talk about the importance of democratic frameworks for creativity and not too many weeks ago I was with some of our colleagues in Pakistan and I noticed amongst the artist and designers and young people that I was talking to of their great concern that creativity in their part of the world had been stifled because of the absence of democratic frameworks, something perhaps that we take for granted. They were able to quote instance after instance where creative expression was inhibited because of a lack of the national commitment to democratic frameworks. Do we take that for granted in India and have we been able to take that more seriously in terms of addressing the needs of artisans.

The other is the search for both cultural and individual identity which I think marks the whole turmoil that is taking place in the world and certainly in our country. This search for identity that preceded the independence movement, the role of crafts in that in trying to address issues of identity in what has happened since. As a footnote to that a phenomenon which perhaps as someone who’s spent a lot of years in design education has struck me has been, and perhaps I am overstating it, the virulent attack taking place over the last decade on the Sari which has gone completely unanswered by society. The fashion industry has come in hammer and tongs with their expertise, with their organisation, with their knowledge and their skills and one of the things they have hammered at is to persuade the Indian woman to drop the Sari. I had an extraordinary experience awhile ago when I was asked to attend the Lakme Fashion week in Mumbai and we had a debate which turned out to be rather difficult because men have been wearing western clothes for years so who are we to talk but we did a little exercise which was great fun. I suggested to them that rather than just talking, outside the room the models were getting ready for the big ramp show rushing about in their designer clothes and trying to get themselves organized. The lady who had introduced me was a lady of middle years and very elegantly dressed in a simple Tussar silk sari and so I suggested we clear the table and I challenged anyone to go out and bring any two or three of the models and we put them on the table-converted-ramp with this lady to my right. There was no doubt in my mind as to who would win the contest. I just mentioned that because I think something is happening here which strikes me has elicited no response to this demand by an industry that we should change our sense of identity to something which has not come through democratic consensus but through market forces, telling us what we must look like, dress like and what shade of skin we should have.

The other element which I think is important for us to perhaps try and link to the future of crafts in India is that of the environment. There could possibly be no more urgent concern today then what is happening to our natural resources and to what kind of a world we will leave for the next generation if we don’t do something drastic to protect our natural resources and to adapt our life styles to a more responsible use of our natural resources. So if for example a 100 million jobs are to be created in the next 5 to 10 years in this country what kind of jobs will those be, what kinds of goods and services will they produce. Are we going to have another sea of plastic waste around us, of depleted forests, of poisoned water, of horrific decline in our biodiversity? Or is there is a way to find jobs and incomes and food in people stomach that can be most sustainable in terms of our natural resources and in that respect, it seems to me the craft sector has great deal to offer. It’s not the crafts are not polluting, they can be, but there is surely a much greater chance of a less of an environmental foot print from the craft sector then perhaps from any other.

The Jodhpur consensus about which I spoke describes cultural industries as those industries which create content, use creativity, skill, and intellectual property and produce goods and services which have social, economic & cultural meaning. They talk about cultural industries as those which create enduring resources for development. They talk about cultural industries, including crafts, as a capital asset which countries should use for their economic, social and cultural development. They ask for support to these industries not as an expenditure but as investment.

I was looking quickly through some of the five year plan documents which have come through the years including the excellent one that is done for the 8th 5 year plan, some 10 or more years ago and I don’t think anywhere, even in the 8th plan document has the investment in craft been seen as something more than expenditure. The Jodhpur consensus talks about cultural industry as something which brings back far more than that actually put in. It talks about the need for support crafts as wealth creation and as poverty elevation. It asks for crafts and other cultural industry to be linked to the latest driving force for poverty elimination programs around the world which is the millennium development goals of the United Nations. There is no specific millennium development goal which addresses the needs of these industries. And as someone who has been part of the effort to get, for example the millennium development goal for sanitation, what does it mean once you get a goal? It is translated into a figure, into target and though that in itself may not be the answer. Yet if you are on the table as a millennium development goal you are able to access sources of support. You are able to open certain doors. You are able to bring to the table certain issues which otherwise would not get recognised. So is there is a case from the Asia Pacific region for us to demand some kind of goal within the United Nations system that would give teeth to something like this.

I conclude these reflections on the development aspects of craft with a reference to an ally that we now have and that is the system of international development accounting that was introduced more than a decade ago by the late economist of Pakistan, Mehboob Ul Haq, the Human Development Indicators in which Amritya Sen also played an important part. This I think was a watershed event because it stated that progress and development is no longer to be measured just in terms of gross domestic product or per capita income but also in terms of human well being described by a number of factors which includes cultural identity, a sense of security of both ones personal safety as well as safety of ones culture and ones place in this world. Interestingly, we have right here on the subcontinent a country, Bhutan, which decided to gear its future and do an experiment they are currently conducting which is to develop the indicators of human happiness for Bhutan. One of the factors Bhutan has put very high on that agenda is the flourishing of their craft activities linking crafts to Bhutan sense of identity in South Asia. I think there are some forces that we can use intelligently to shift the agenda to bring crafts right up to the top of the political agenda, to be able to impact these millions of artisans in our country, whether the 4 or 6 or 200 million or more after all where does the population statistics of North East India go in these figures where every woman is an artisan. They are not factored into this. So we were talking about a huge chunk of humankind in South Asia and their future which we represent and hopefully we can help and support in the years to come. So I just put this out to you and thought we might consider if there are ways in which we can use these developments, and others you might know of to get a greater sense of priority and urgency for the well being of artisans in our country.


RITU SETHI: Well, these were the issues that I was talking about with a colleague of mine – an economist and she said to me that “the only way the craft sector will be accounted for if there is some accounting done”.

ANURADHA BHASIN: I would step back and say that you talked about 5 year plans and the millennium development. Two years ago, for the first time, the annual Economic Survey introduced a chapter on the contribution of women to the economy, which so far has been ignored. Similarly a section on craft and crafts people would be invaluable as it cuts across so many sectors in the economy.

ASHOKE CHATTERJEE: I am sure you notice that the only real study that we have was the one which was done by Shruti in the 1980’s, 20 years ago. This study of the status of Artisans of India kept mentioning page after page that the data they were working with was outdated and inaccurate. So in the 80’s we were talking about data being inaccurate. Now, 20, 25 years later we are not in any better position in fact we are worse of? As an economist what you think?

ANURADHA BHASIN: The starting point could be the economic survey which actually it is very good macro study of the economy. Once you put numbers to it then it’s I think one step easier to policy recommendation to bring it to the forefront. So much attention is paid to agricultural labour and agriculture and economy but according to what I heard from Ritu a huge section of them are also crafts people and they are invisible in this economic policy structure.

ASHOKE CHATTERJEE: One of the debates in environment issues and so called the greens keep talking about the need that if we continue at the current rate of consumption then development will ultimately be affected where as you have Mr. George Bush saying that I will continue to consume and the American way of life cannot be attacked. The interesting thing is to go back to the 1997-1998 human development report and they had an essay on ‘consumption for development’ and that is a tremendous ally for us because they point out that it is an industry like crafts where the actual consumption pattern can re-enforce long term sustainable development rather than deplete it. I am little bit disappointed that over the years that essay has not really had the impact or the recognition it should have because it is basically makes our case for us.

RITU SETHI: Could it also be because it has gone in to area of artistic production because as you said no one even knows the definition craft. Does it include someone who makes a cart or does it only mean someone who decorates the shoe. So is it because we don’t have a definition that includes and broadens the base to include more people and that we work with Development Commission Handicraft instead of working with planning commission. Is there any issue?

ASHOKE CHATTERJEE: It could be because I think there are some definitions for instance the one in the 8th plan was “Hand-crafted items made by hand often made with the use of simple tools and generally artistic and or traditional in nature. They include objects of utility and objects of decoration”. I don’t know any definition would really taking in to account there the entire gamut. What happens for example to people who make clothes? What happens to the people who sit every Sunday in Ahmedabad and sell handmade recycled products? Does that get included in the definition of craft? I do think that one of the problems is how we define craft?

LAILA TYABJI: That I think is the problem with looking at crafts as cultural industries because they get bracketed into culture, art and aesthetics. It is a counterargument. Perhaps looking at them as small scale industries isn’t a bad thing because you look at craft differently which is otherwise viewed rather romantically.

ASHOKE CHATTERJEE: We should then go back to perhaps define crafts as hand skills which would then make it easier to do a head count. For instance, embroidery is done by women who work at home so their contribution is viewed as housewives and not artisans. If we want to push craft to the top of the political agenda then we need facts and figures to support our arguments so the first action is a census.




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