In Context

Advocacy, Craft, Handloom, Art, Economics, Employment/ Livelihood, Entrepreneurship, Business Devt.

In Context: Practicing Craft Today

Sethi, Ritu


Issue #002, Winter, 2019                                                                            ISSN: 2581- 9410

Many of the contributors to this collection of essays have highlighted the positive results of the efforts made in India since Independence to sustain traditional crafts and textiles. Abduljabbar Khatri and his son, Adam, for example, have expressed this most eloquently in their essay. But as I reflect on the business of craft and craft practice in today’s context, the tenor of my essay is cautionary. Injecting a note of prudence in this short piece, I focus on just four issues that may pose a threat to how the crafts are managed and sustained as they negotiate globalization, urbanization and an enhanced modernity in the years to come.

1 The Paradox of the Digital

India has leapfrogged into the digital world like duck to water. As of January 2019, the country had over 560 million internet users, a figure that is projected to grow to over 660 million users by 2023.  Second only to China, its current internet footprint covers up to eighteen thousand cities and over two hundred thousand villages. The power of the internet is increasingly reflected in new possibilities and greater opportunities on offer for communication, for business and the speeded-up transmission of ideas; it is unsurprising then that this is shaping and shifting traditional craft practice. Craftspeople are googling, carrying on business conversations, accessing new markets and materials, receiving designs, sending photographs and fulfilling orders online.

     While few craftspeople manage their own websites, large numbers have Facebook pages. However, the number of commercial online sites selling craft products has proliferated, opening up new channels of sale and often generating entirely new customer bases – all of which increases the digital footprint of their crafts. Online dissemination of information on crafts and its practitioners has also played a key role; one such effort is Asia InCH, the online encyclopedia of traditional craftsmanship in South Asia that is the initiative of the Craft Revival Trust (CRT), the organization with which I work (and founded in 1999). Asia InCH has information on over two thousand one hundred living and endangered crafts and their practitioners in the eight countries of region – India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Laos, Sri Lanka.  

     With mobile subscriptions in India topping 87% per 100 inhabitants further seismic shifts can be expected as plans for even more affordable smart phones are being rolled out. Ranked as having the lowest mobile data rates in the world (US$ 0.26 for 1 GB) we can expect far greater change as many more Indians come online. And therein lies the paradox; while there is an all-round delight with speeded-up communication, the other side of the coin is the disruptive force of digital technologies on the handmade – a threat perhaps equal to, or greater than that encountered at the time of the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century when the great transition from hand production to new machine manufacturing processes took place which led to the proliferation of factories and the advent of mass production. 

     Digital technologies are the disruptive phenomenon of our times. A double-edged sword, we cannot do without them anymore and yet, as we speak, new technologies are being developed to transfer and to reproduce with unimaginable accuracy and at lightning fast speeds:  3D printing is already old hat. The shifting digital sands are likely to bring in increasingly fundamental social and economic change in the way that we produce and consume. The question that faces us today, therefore, is what the effect of these juxtapositions between the traditional handcrafts and ever mushrooming digital developments will lead to? If I were to extrapolate into the future based on evidence from the present, two broad scenarios seem to be emerging: the first that excellence in crafts will continue to rule. Time taken to slow-produce handicrafts with minute attention to detail will continue to have a great cachet and the demand for bespoke, customisation heritage products will continue to excite attention in the future. On the other hand, the situation that we already face – that of copying and faking – will only escalate. 

2 Copying and Faking 

Leading on from the digital is the age-old issue of replicated and fake craft products – now made more urgent. The stories are endless from power-loom copies of hand loom, resin casts duplicating wood carvings, digital and silk-screen prints of embroideries, of appliqués, of shawls and of weaves; transfers of  tribal and folk art, lost wax metal figures made in molds, and the many other instances  that are replicated in thousands and marketed as handcrafted, hand-woven and traditional at far lower prices than the original. 

Copying is a profitable business for many. This freely available cornucopia of heritage goods requires no investment in product development. Furthermore, the instant recognition and ageless appeal of these products and designs that are replete with cultural and symbolic value offers a ready market. This replication with no fear of reprisal thus makes for a win-win business model!

     For craftspeople and their communities who are at the receiving end of this free-riding it has led to a huge economic loss of income and livelihood – a loss that can and does threatened hand-production. This has clearly emerged in the NCAER Hand loom Census 2009-10 where over 33% of the weaver households interviewed felt that the greatest threat to their livelihoods was from the mill and power loom sector. This is further compounded by craftspeople’s feelings of marginalization and helplessness because of their inability to prevent or effectively deal with this copying and faking. It is equally a loss of the collective knowledge of their forefathers. . Stakeholders, craft communities and others no longer have the luxury of time to deal with these issues as we are now faced with a digital present in which these cases of copying and ‘passing off’ will only multiply. 

To illustrate the point, several images have been included in this essay that readers will recognize as some of the iconic crafts and weaves that have been replicated by machine processes but are passed off as handmade.  

     In common with many other countries, India too has some legal recourse. The Geographical Indications of Goods Act (G.I. Act), a sui generis intellectual property right legislation was notified in 2003. This Act is applicable to products which corresponds to a specific geographical location or origin be it a village, town, region, or country. The use of a Geographical Indications Act as a certification that the product possesses certain qualities, is made according to traditional methods, or enjoys a certain reputation, due to its geographical origin. Often associated with agricultural and food products (Champagne, Basmati Rice, Mizo Chilli, Alphonso Mango, Darjeeling Tea, etc.) its extended protection includes products of traditional knowledge that are associated with or deriving from local cultural traditions. In the case of craft (and others) the Act protects the moral right and intellectual property of communities and the potential economic benefit arising from their creation. Of the 343 G.I.’s that have been granted to date in India  a little over 60% of the total are in the area of heritage arts, crafts and textiles.  A noteworthy number as IPR protection is being taken seriously by craft communities and as part of government policy.

     The G.I. Act is historic as for the first time in India it provides a means of protecting the trade-related intellectual property of communities as a public collective right as it confers exclusive legal right to the holders of that particular G.I. to produce and market the G.I. goods. Once a G.I. is registered it forms the basis for ownership and production and sale by anyone other than the producers concerned can form the basis for initiating action, thus curbing fakes as well as the entry of spurious goods into the market by others. I would go as far as to say that this Act has started the process of leveling the playing field for the creative producer community of traditional handicrafts, folk and tribal arts and the weavers, among the others it covers. 

     However, more than sixteen years after the enactment of the Act we are confronted with many challenges. The first among these is a paradox; the registration of G.I.’s is developing apace yet no handicraft G.I. has been used as a powerful tool and a marketing opportunity: why? Iconic heritage crafts associations have not taken the next logical step after registration to benefit from the provisions of the Act to brand and market under their own powerful logo – a right conferred on them alone. Additionally, why have none of the registered handicraft G.I.’s used the law to proceed with legal action against counterfeiters infringing the Act? There has not been a single case to date. This under-utilisation of a powerful legal instrument is an indication of opportunities lost, rather than of competitive advantages gained. We need to close this G.I. gap, to acknowledge that heritage crafts are valuable business assets and prized brands and enforce the legislation.

3 Dealing with success: regulations and compliance

In the past many of the traditional crafts were largely produced by extended families, within tight-knit patterns of professional kinship in which business and production was arranged. With craft production now increasing year-on-year, workshops and karkhanas (ateliers) are expanding and the old order is changing.  In the rising production and export graph the share of hand loom in total cloth produced in the country has increase from 11.82% in 2015-16 to 12.61% in 2016-17. Export statistics of handicrafts too reflect a per annum increase of 10.8%.  On the ground in Bagh, Madhya Pradesh, for example, Ibrahim Khatri, master block printer, states in his latest CV that he employees 4500 people to fulfil the many orders he receives from urban customers. 

     With success comes greater scrutiny and like Caesar’s wife, heritage craft businesses need to be beyond reproach. The business of craft is required – like other businesses – to follow the law of the land. The Factories Act of 1948 applies to any workshop or karkhana that has 10 or more artisans. A plethora of other laws and Acts are also obligatory, including: Contract Labour Law (1970); Apprentice Act (1961); Child Labour Act (1986); Employees’ Provident Fund Act (1952); Minimum Wage Act (1948); Air Emission and Control of Pollution Rule (1982); Chemical Management (15 Acts and 19 rules have been laid down) ; Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act (1974); Environment Protection Act (1986); and so on, and so on.

     While we talk of the ‘zero carbon footprint’ and the ecological- and environmentally friendly nature of the crafts, we will sooner rather than later have to back up these claims with on-the-ground proof supported by facts and figures. This is not helped by newspaper reports, field research and anecdotal evidence which reveal widespread water pollution, dismal work conditions, use of toxic chemical and dyes and in addition, below minimum level pay. For instance, the exploitative daily wages of weavers in Bodo land, Assam and in the outskirts of Banaras of INR 35-50, sweatshop type conditions, poor lighting and ventilation, lack of sanitation, are only some of the problems on a long-list.

     As large retailers themselves come under scrutiny to sell and source ethically, the onus will fall on them, as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and master crafts persons and weavers, to ensure that norms are followed. Regulation will range from the use of responsibly-sourced raw material, pollution and environment standards to work conditions, better ergonomics, and fire and safety issues. Adherence to child labour laws, minimum wages, and basic human rights, etc, will, likewise, become essential. It is only a matter of time before heritage crafts producers will need to fulfill these basic expectations. In addition, with increasing interest overseas in heritage craft products, the need to comply with international codes of business will soon be the norm – or orders will dry up – as these are the necessary prerequisites that importers will demand. Regulatory compliance and standards are an essential part of an ethically-driven business approach – thus adherence to them will serve to make the cultural heritage tag more meaningful.

4 Hierarchies of value: formal education v. received knowledge 

At a seminar titled ‘Craft Nouveau : A decade of education for artisans’, a number of  those who had been involved in some way or the other with design education for artisans in India came together. Organised by the Craft Revival Trust it was held in collaboration with Somaiya Kala Vidya (SKV) the artisan design and business management educational initiative in Kachchh district, Gujarat and its founder-director,  Judy Frater. (See Ruth Clifford’s essay for discussion of SKV and other initiatives for artisans). The focus of the seminar was to reflect and take stock of the decade of education for crafts persons and to map the road ahead. There were many points of interest to take away but here I address only three that are of particular relevance to the discussion of how cultural heritage is managed and the role of design in sustaining India’s craft traditions

     The first is to highlight the amazing vitalization wrought by education on young craftspeople and their transformation into designers and business graduates. themselves, by the SKV faculty and their advisers, as well as by representatives of NGOs, designers, domestic and international marketers and others who had interacted with them.

The second point to address is the impact of education on status and power experienced by the SKV graduates, an issue returned to by many of them and the craft patriarchs present like  Shyamji Vishramji Siju (master weaver), Dr Ismail M Khatri and Irfan Ahmed Khatri (both master ajrakh printers) and Dayabhai Kudecha (weaver and entrepreneur). While economic success was being achieved by many, without relevant and appropriate education there remained an inequality between their status as craft practitioners and others such as designers and design-entrepreneurs involved in crafts. “New” inputs into their craft were assumed to be exclusively in the ‘others’ domain while they – the craftspeople whose tradition was being explored – were relegated to a biddable, subservient role as labour hired to do a task directed by others. Education gave them back their rights.

     The third key point to take away from the seminar was the aspirations of these young men and women. Currently the Indian crafts sector is the second largest source of employment after agriculture; the numbers are uncertain but it is estimated that about twenty million craftspeople and weavers continue in twenty-first century India to be educated in skills that are learned through oral transmission and apprenticeships outside the mainstream educational system. There is no policy in place that recognizes and acknowledges this oral learning – now called ‘received knowledge’ – within the formal educational system or, indeed, the employment process. 

     It is common knowledge in India that there is an increasing lack of interest in the younger generation to continue in craft practice; this is due to several reasons, not least among which is the perceived prejudice and inequalities of status experienced by craftspeople. Among the problems they have to contend with is the widespread belief that information garnered from text books is superior to received oral knowledge. The dissociation between these different forms of learning and knowledge has been inimical to us all but especially to the rising generation of crafts persons. The question that arises is – what can we do to fill this huge aspiration gap? 

     It is not only critical that methodologies are developed that contribute to design education frameworks but also that they are sensitive to the sheer complexity of the sector. They need to make a meaningful and sustained contribution that is free from tokenism – taking a leaf from SKV and Kala Raksha Vidyalaya (KRV) in Kachchh, and the Hand loom School in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh which also offers design education for artisans. Study of the processes and models adopted in other countries that have realized the value of handicrafts now the number of craftspeople has been decimated may also be of benefit; for instance, Japan supports rigorous training in over two hundred  traditional crafts; France awards the title of Master Of Master of Art (‘Maître d’Art’) to those with an exceptional mastery of techniques and know-how who further transmit their skills and knowledge to students who will be able to perpetuate them; Sweden has National Folk Craft institutions; Korea, and now increasingly China, invests heavily in training the next generation of craftspeople that are open to traditional practitioners and their families as well as new entrants

     There is an urgent need for a move towards greater equity between different types of learning and knowledge, requiring a removal of the barriers in academia, and elsewhere, that are currently weighted against the bearers of traditional knowledge. Similarly, it is imperative that we in India move beyond tokenism and create enduring and substantive change through institutional development, the formation of indigenous technology 


While we in India have experienced the huge effort made by the Government of India (and other organisations) at sustaining traditional crafts and textiles, craft futures continue to present considerable challenges. As a nation we cannot forge ahead unless we push to establish a more equitable, even-handed and inclusive environment for craftspeople to work in. It will require meaningful initiatives and a concerted effort to ensure that this essential part of our cultural fabric is sustained and that these keepers of our traditional knowledge are nurtured, taking their rightful place in the near future. Our future depends on how these issues are tackled – we must build to our advantage and not let our unique cultural heritage be frittered away.

List of illustrations

laboratories, the endowment of University Chairs to the bearers of traditional knowledge as well as awarding them honorary doctorates in recognition of their expertise. In this collection of essays, we have a contribution by hereditary block printer, Abduljabbar M. Khatri and his son, Adam; Jabbar’s brother, Ismail Khatri, was conferred with an Honorary D. Art by De Montfort University, Leicester, UK in 2003 in recognition of his knowledge and contribution to textiles scholarship.

Footnotes Statista : The Statistics Portal. Accessed on 2 March,2019

 The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a specialized agency of the United Nations. India Profile (Latest data available: 2018) Accessed 2 March, 2019

Cable : Accessed on 2, March 2019.

Sethi, Ritu. Deconstructing GI to create value for the handmade.

 National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER): Handloom Census of India 2009-2010. Table 6.14. Pps 136-137. NCAER, New Delhi.

Report on Chikan embroidery of Lucknow :

Report on weaving in Sualkuch, Bodo weaving and Chennapatna Lacquer toys Accessed on March 5, 2019.

Signatories to the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), administered by the World Trade Organization (WTO) can set in place international legal instruments like the GI to provide the judicial framework of rights and principles with associated policies and procedures to prevent misuse.

 Introduced in India in 1999. The GI Act was notified on 15th September 2003. Geographical Indications have been in existence, in various countries across the world for several decades 

GI is defined as “A geographical indication (GI) is a name or sign used on certain products which corresponds to a specific geographical location or origin (e.g. a town, region, or country). The use of a GI may act as a certification that the product possesses certain qualities, is made according to traditional methods, or enjoys a certain reputation, due to its geographical origin”.

The GI has been granted to iconic products like Kancheepuram silk, bidri, Madhubani paintings, Molela clay plaques, Kani shawls, phulkari, chikan embroidery as well as to the lesser known Solapur terry towel and the Bhawani jamakkalam. Accessed on 15 March, 2019.

 Sethi, Ritu. Deconstructing GI to create value for the handmade.

Offences under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999 are punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than six months, extendable to three years. Also enforced is a fine – this may not be less than Rs. 50,000 but may extend to Rs.2 lakhs.Cases other than those relating to the traditional crafts on GI tagged products like  Darjeeling Tea, Scotch Whiskey and other have been brought to the Law courts. 

Actual cloth production increased from 7638 million square meters to 8007 million square meters in the same period Ministry of Textiles Annual Report, 2017-18, p.51. Accessed: 30.3.19.

An increase of Rs. 31038.52 crores (2015-16) to Rs. 34394.30 (2016-17) Ministry Of Textiles Annul Report 2017-18. Page 200. Accessed : March 30,2019 

Also refer to Abduljabbar Khatri and Adam Khtri’s essay (http….).

Organised by the Craft Revival Trust at the India International Centre, New Delhi on November 30, 2016.

 SKV was instituted in 2014. Kala Raksha Vidyalaya, its precursor, setup in 2003, was also founded and directed by Judy Frater. 

See also: Chatterjee, Ashoke – ‘Kala Raksha and Kala Raksha Vidyalaya’, 11 October 2017.

 For YouTube link to the seminar, see:

Also read: Ashoke Chatterjee: The currency of Dil Bhavana. 11 October 2018

see also: pallasmaa, Juhani (2009), The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture. London: Wiley.

 Created in 1994 by the French Ministry of Culture to preserve intangible cultural heritage, the title is awarded for life.


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