India’s Crafts

Craft, Handloom, Art, Op-Ed, Policy, Safeguarding, Endangered

India’s Crafts: Crisis & Opportunity

Chatterjee, Ashoke


What can India do with an industry that offers employment to millions dispersed in primarily rural locations, with an immense export potential and a low carbon footprint, contributing competitive skills to range of key industries, and offering a huge social and political safety-net? Does India take it to the top of its planning agenda? Or relegate it to the backburner as a ‘sunset’ activity not in keeping with super-power aspirations?  No prizes for a winning answer.

Craft Considerations
Consider that craft represents an unbroken Indian tradition going back centuries, that hand production was central to India’s struggle against colonial domination, and that after Independence, India pioneered craft planning as a development strategy. Consider that handcraft is acknowledged as the largest source of employment in India after agriculture — confirmed most recently by none other than the President of the Republic. Consider the vital contribution of crafts as alternatives as well as seasonal supplements to agricultural employment (and thus as a brake on the misery of migration), and that crafts often take advantage of local and re-cycled materials. Consider again that women, minorities, Dalits and tribal communities constitute the majority in this employment-intensive industry — the very communities the Government is committed to empower.  At last count, craft contribution to Indian exports was over a whopping Rs21,000 crores, and that excludes exports of gems and jewellery, another hand-intensive activity. India’s cultural and trade diplomacy worldwide through Festivals of India as well as the current ‘Incredible India’ campaign would be unthinkable without crafts at their center. Consider further that hand skills shelter the mainsprings of Indian creativity and innovation, and that talent from this sector has enriched a range of industries including machine tools, hospitality and tourism, space, construction and now nano-technology. Consider further that today hand production represents a green industry with major ecological advantages at home and in markets overseas — as well as links to movements that are inspiring the world: women’s empowerment, the recognition of indigenous people and traditional cultures and knowledge, protection of the planet, using the hand to revitalize education, and for progress with a human face. These factors have helped the craft market to remain reasonably stable during the recession. Consider that the human development indicators (HDI), which now drive UN systems for assessing progress, embrace an understanding of sustainable livelihoods that is powerfully represented by the case for India’s crafts. All this, and we haven’t yet considered craft as a core factor in national identity, deeply rooted in Indian thought and in its finest cultural, social and spiritual expressions. Consider finally the awful reality that decision-makers know very little about the scale, impact, potential or significance of a sector so encompassing in its significance.

Six, thirty or 220 million?
The key to recognition is often scale. No one is sure of how many millions are involved in the processing and production of textiles, wood, metal, textiles, fibres, stone and innumerable combinations of these and other materials. Or of the contribution artisans make to GDP. The only certainty is that despite their numbers, the dispersal of artisans robs them of any political clout. Some suggest over 6 million artisans now, while estimates in 1994-95 based primarily on National Sample Survey data suggested over 8 million. The Eleventh Plan targets 8 million in handicrafts and 7 million in handlooms, or a total of 15 million by 2012. An estimate in 2005 was 30 million. Contrast this with a figure of 173 million suggested by a speaker at a September 2009 forum to discuss IPR implications of craft trade. Others guesstimates range from 200 to 220 million. (Perhaps none of these figures acknowledge the entire adult population of the Northeast states, where every women and man is an artisan, weaving textiles and fibres and making products, homes and even high-tension bridges of cane and bamboo). Estimates of turnover vary widely, except for exports.  Available statistics reflect lists of crafts selected according to administrative fiat. Others fall between the cracks despite their scale: ubiquitous clay pots, chiks and garlands familiar at urban street corners, the products made of re-cycled waste and sold in haats all over the land, and those that embellish India’s year-round festivities. (Kolkata alone is estimated to spend some Rs200 crore on ephemeral products handcrafted for a single Durga Puja — what does that suggest for the combined worth of other festivals, or the revenues generated by stone artisans building temples and mosques worldwide?)

Definitions, players, data
Defining crafts with any precision may therefore be the dilemma that has driven the sector into the black holes of planning. A UNIDO classification includes beedi rolling, fireworks and even fishing hooks, while Lakshadweep has an ancient tradition of boat-making that literally sews timber with rope. The Office of the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts) offered a workable definition in the Eighth Plan: “Items made by hand, often with the use of simple tools, and generally artistic and/or traditional in nature. They include objects of utility and objects of decoration”. Workable to be sure, but what the definition leaves out may be much larger than what it includes. The dilemma is that nobody knows for sure.

Part of this mystery may be the private sector, which handles the overwhelming bulk of India’s craft trade at home and abroad and yet is seldom seen at the tables of development planning. Often accused of being exploitive middle-men responsible for the misery of artisans, private entrepreneurs are kept at arms length by both authorities and NGOs, even as they continue to provide major access to market channels, finance and risk coverage. Huge craft empires have been built out of cities like Moradabad, Agra, Kanjeevaram, Varanasi and Jaipur. Yet few of these entrepreneurs divulge either their experience or their future directions. A handful of Indian craft brands — including Shyam Ahuja, Fabindia and Anokhi — have won  worldwide reputations for excellence but are absent from planning circles. The major efforts at public awareness have come through pioneering NGO struggles that have taken several into active retailing. Contemporary Arts and Crafts, Sasha, Dastkar, Dastkari Haat Samiti, Crafts Council of India, and SEWA are among the examples. It is their experiences which today provide voice to both the current crisis of neglect as well as to the enormous potential of the sector toward national wellbeing. Partnering as well as confronting authority, these institutions are dependent on the very Government schemes and programme that as activists they find inadequate to need.

The responsibility for craft planning is vested primarily in the Offices of the Development Commissioners for Handicrafts and Handlooms, both Offices situated in the Textile Ministry. Grappling with confused definitions and jurisdictions, they have set ambitious directions for the years ahead. Government estimates suggest that craft production in 2007 had increased to over Rs36,000 crore from about Rs20,000 crore five years earlier. The 11th Plan target is over Rs82,000 crore, representing an estimated average annual growth rate of 18%. Exports in 2006-07 were Rs21,000 crore as against at about Rs12,500 crore in 2002-03, again a growth rate of almost 18% annually. The target by the end of the 11th Plan is Rs44,000 crore, doubling India’s miserable share of global handicraft trade from 1.4% to 2.8%. Investment during the 11th Plan period is an estimated Rs1,812 crore (up from Rs447 crore in the 10th Plan) with an emphasis on developing geographic clusters, support services in marketing, design and technology, R&D, training, and welfare schemes. Handloom production estimated at over 6,000 million sq m in 2005-06 is to rise to over 8,000 million sq m by the end of the Plan, an estimated annual growth of 5%. Handloom exports are expected to grow annually at 15% from over Rs4,600 crore in 2006-07 to over Rs9,200 crore by 2012. Added to these are investments by the Ministry of the Industry in the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), the Ministry of Rural Development’s reported proposal to set up a Rs50,000 crore fund for skilled workers, and the craft-related programmes in each State. The impression could be of an India ready and willing to take crafts to scale.

Growth: the barriers and hope
The reality can be very different. Official schemes remain hugely difficult for artisans to access, and several benefits are nullified by policies and practices of other authorities — tax and octroi are prime examples. While so-called organized industries receive single-window facilitation by governments and trade federations, there is nothing of the kind to serve scattered artisans who must run from pillar to post to access finance, design, technology and market access. Corruption is rife, and needy artisans have become familiar with the culture of bribes. If private traders can be exploitive, well-meaning NGOs can lack the know-how that a stringently competitive marketplace demands, or resist the for-profit attitude that sustainability requires. Research into buyer trends is little practiced, and most often confined to individual buyer-maker relationships rather than shared across the sector. Marketing, the key to survival and growth, is a discipline still rare to Indian craft. The predominant attitude is a charity syndrome of “Please buy” at cluttered melas and haats. The need instead is for design and production responses to needs clearly identified through research, supplied at the right price and place through all the channels of contemporary retailing. Global recession has further underlined the critical importance of marketing competence including unfamiliar challenges such as IPR threats (primarily from Chinese factories) that face every major Indian craft including Banarasi brocade, Moradabad brass, Kanjivaram textiles and even traditional festival and puja items.

Problems of definition, the inability of official schemes to reach those for whom they are intended, the absence of strong marketing capacities within Government and NGO agencies (both of whom are at the fringes of craft trade), and the near-invisibility of the private sector in craft planning despite handling the bulk of production, export and development are all factors contributing to current concerns. The hope lies in demonstrations of what can be done. These have been well made by teams of Indian artisans, designers, traders, authorities and activists over many years. The challenge is to bring scattered demonstrations together into the realm of policy, and take them to a scale worthy of India’s craft heritage and ability.  The single largest challenge the sector faces is to build the marketing systems (including design, product development, finance, production, distribution and merchandising) that can link Indian artisans with growing opportunities at home and abroad. To resolve it needs investments and management skills at a scale well beyond anything presently on the horizon.  To encourage major investment, and to manage investment well, requires policy changes and new institutional structures. Such changes are unlikely unless the case for Indian craft is strongly made, and is based on facts rather than on guesswork.

Historical quirks
History offers clues to the current crisis. When planning commenced in India some 60 years ago, handcrafts were brought under what was then the Ministry of Commerce & Industry. The perspective applied at that time was to meet the need of earning scarce foreign exchange through exportable Indian crafts. Later, as this Ministry transformed, the Offices of both the Development Commission of Handicrafts as well as the Development Commissioner of Handlooms came to be placed in the Ministry of Textiles. A major range of non-textile crafts are thus today under a Ministry totally unrelated to its materials or manufacturing processes. Handlooms, although textiles, are under the purview of a Ministry preoccupied with the needs of the mechanized sector. The Khadi & Village Industries Commission, which is responsible for a large number of hand activities, is supported by the Ministry of Industry. Official statistical compilation reflects these historical and administrative quirks: monitoring, licensing and taxes often do not distinguish hand activity and powered small manufacture.  Unlike the formal manufacturing sector (which is organized, legally constituted and protected toward share holder interests), handicraft, like farming activity, is not premised on the guarantee of minimal returns. The rate of suicide among Indian farmers and weavers indicates the extent of calamity that has been reached, a calamity underlined by national income calculations which are similarly biased to estimates of production and value addition from the formal sector.  Despite historic accomplishments in national census statistics, the absence of focus on the hand sector remains a glaring omission. This fractured approach extends from the Centre to the States, compounded by the near-zero recognition by authorities of the cultural heritage and knowledge dimensions of those who practice hand activity.  The result is that at a time of unprecedented challenge – as well as of great opportunity – the sector lacks the coordinated, professional direction that is essential for its survival. Crafts are considered ‘unorganised’ despite their systems of organization that have lasted for centuries. There is no space in Indian planning that can bring together the range of economic, social, political, environmental, cultural and ethical concerns required for nurturing crafts as a ‘sector of sectors’ of enormous future  significance. All this, despite the growing literature of cultural economics as a discipline which appreciates that cultural goods and services actually add much more value than what is realized in the market.

Cultural industries: the concept
This situation becomes all the more extraordinary in the light of India’s initiative in 2005 to host a world symposium that culminated in the Jodhpur Consensus. Through it, 28 nations together resolved to recognize cultural industries “as a source of capital assets for economic, social and cultural development” as well as “a vital source for the cultural identities of communities and individuals which lead to further creativity and human development….What cultural industries have in common is that they create content, use, creativity, skill and in some cases intellectual property, to produce goods and services with social and cultural meaning”. (Remember the Mahatma and khadi?) The Consensus reflects an awakening within the West and in international agencies on the importance of craft and the expanding range of cultural industries that include, for example media and entertainment. The Jodhpur Consensus was an outcome of a joint initiative by India with UNESCO, UNIDO, WIPO, ADB and the World Bank (which went through a cultural awakening during its Wolfenson era). Japan, Taiwan and Korea have long attributed their success in electronics, computer and the automotive industries (including of players like Sony, Honda and the I-O Data Device) to craft attitudes embedded in the national psyche. Japan has recently registered the city of Kanazawa has a ‘City of Crafts’, recognizing that “the spirit of artistic production made possible Kanazawa’s own industrial revolution” and made it the home of top engineering companies. Switzerland, Scandinavia, Germany and Italy recognize their craft heritage in the success of precision and engineering industries as well as in design leadership. Thailand and China are making major investments in craft strategy (the latter encompassing their own and anyone else’s that can be copied). The USA and UK are rediscovering the potential of their craft sectors. The Smithsonian Institution (Washington DC), long an advocate of indigenous and world crafts, states that “Cultural institutions are more than the anchors of an improved quality of life. While often so heterogeneous that their collective contribution goes unnoticed, they are fundamental contributors to the economic health of the communities in which they are found”. In England and Wales, a mere 32,000 makers generated in 2003 a turnover of L826 millions “which is greater than the fishing department, the forestry and logging division, the manufacturer of motor-cycles and bicycles or the manufacture of sports goods.” All this is still to be reflected in India, despite having the economics as well as the ethic of craft handed over on a platter almost a century ago by the Mahatma and Gurudev.

Marketing quality: the foundation for hope
Efforts to apply the advantages of history to current opportunity provide the evidence and hope for new directions. Government’s support efforts for artisans and weavers, however inadequate, can claim credit for sustaining craft awareness and demand over several decades of change. Almost every craft achievement has taken advantage of official schemes that range from underwriting product development efforts and training to subsidized promotions through fairs and exhibitions as well as benchmarking quality with awards and incentives. A whole generation was influenced by the Central Cottage Industries Emporium that helped make craft part of middle-class India’s aspirations. A range of official outlets put ‘Cottage’ and ‘Irwin Road’ on the itinerary of every visitor to New Delhi.  Government’s Handloom & Handicrafts Export Corporation (HHEC) was the catalyst for early global attention, using its Shona shops in world capitals to showcase Indian excellence. Dilli Haat has served some 60,000 artisans with sales opportunities in the heart of the capital, achieving sales of over Rs600 crores in its first decade. Clones have sprung up around the country, while Pragati Maidan’s  Crafts Museum ranks with the greatest collections in the world, underlining the critical importance of reference sources to underpin the integrity of future development. This opportunity for fine craftspersons to demonstrate, sell and interface with buyers and traders within a museum environment suggests an important strategy for quality. Master artisans and shilp gurus first recognized through official channels have taken their skills around the world, occasionally succeeding to attract candidates of a new generation to remain within tradition. Even the usually sullen staff behind dowdy counters of the Khadi & Village Industries Commission offer the advantage of unmatched excellence at subsidised prices. Government support encouraged the National Institute of Design to integrate crafts into the development of India’s design profession. NID’s pioneering work in product development stimulated many young designers to make careers in the craft sector, a pattern that continued as design education spread throughout the country. New institutions have emerged, including the NIFT chain, the Institute of Craft & Design in Jaipur, Srishti in Bangalore, and the Kala Raksha Vidyalaya in Kutch.

The output as well as the limitations of early official interventions encouraged private effort that by the 1960s had introduced elements of modern marketing to Indian artisans and craft activists. Contemporary Arts & Crafts in Bombay, Fabindia in Delhi, Anokhi in Jaipur, Sasha in Calcutta were among the trend-setters later emulated by scores of other craft entrepreneurs as well as by NGOs such as Dastkar, Urmul, Dastkari Haat Samiti, SEWA and the Crafts Council of India (CCI). This collective experience of Government, civil society and a massive if largely invisible private sector now offers the foundation for a craft economy. It conveys two crucial lessons for the future: survival demands the highest level of marketing competence, and quality is what counts — at home or anywhere else.  The image and supply of craft has to move out of an association with chaotic piles of trash sold at distress prices into quality available at the distribution channels where today’s consumer makes her purchases. Haats and melas need to be supplemented with access to India’s equivalent of ‘High Street’ locations. It is there that money-spinning and year-round opportunities lie. The target must go beyond reaching those who will buy because a product is made by hand to all others looking for quality, whether created by hand or machine (or a combination of both), at an affordable price.

Even at a time of recession, the market for quality handicrafts has remained relatively stable in India as well as overseas. This suggests the advantages of a marketing message that is finding its time: the economic, ecological, ethical and aesthetic advantages of hand production. Using these messages, a new chain, Mother Earth, has just opened in Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata. It builds on the experience of a small Rs12 lakh enterprise that began as Industree in 1994 when two activists decided to provide year-round market opportunities beyond the limitations of the exhibition/mela syndrome. Using prime locations and the advantage of a 43% buy-in by Kishore Biyani’s Future Group, Mother Earth rides piggyback on the retail savvy of Big Bazaar and Pantaloons, and the conglomerate looks ahead to a revenue target of Rs200 crore by 2013. CCI has been encouraged in 2009 to expand its ‘Kamala’ activity beyond one store in New Delhi to others in Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai. The All India Artisans & Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA) has introduced a ‘Craftmark’ guarantee to help the competitiveness of Indian artisans. Dilli Haat continues to attract thousands, and artisans vie for opportunities there and at the Crafts Museum. In July 2009, the two-day Santa Fe Folk Art Festival (USA), the largest craft market in the world, sold products worth over $2M, attracting 23,000 buyers looking for quality. Artisans from all over the world (including India) went home with an average of over $10,000 earned through excellence in 48 hours, that too in market suffering recession! The signal is clear, at home and abroad. With tradition, experience and resources perhaps unmatched anywhere in the world, India’s crafts offer a sunrise prospect — even at a time of economic downturn.

Facts for change
These examples risk being disregarded without clear evidence of the aggregate which they represent. Changes in attitude at the policy level require strong proof on the table. The Crafts Council of India is one of several activists working for such change. A current CCI project is directed at finding the systems that can build a foundation of reliable data for the sector.  The effort draws on past studied that include an excellent sector survey on the condition of artisans by the NGO Sruti in 1995, followed by Maureen Liebl and Tirthankar Roy’s report for the Policy Sciences Center, funded by the World Bank in 2000-01. An intensive exploration of India’s creative industries was conducted by Rajeev Sethi through the Planning Commission in 2006. Census studies provide a wealth of data that needs to be extracted and interpreted in a current context. Working with the Planning Commission and concerned Ministries, CCI’s effort is to locate a methodology that can provide reliable national estimates of the numbers of people and incomes derived from hand manufacture. The study will attempt to estimate craft contributions to the national economy, establishing a theoretical ground for the emerging discipline of cultural economics. Geographic dispersal, demographic characteristics, details of activities and livelihood patterns will be attempted to indicate the potential earning power of artisans. Pilot work has begun in selected districts, applying concepts that can lead on to larger national studies. Hopefully, India can then look forward to a detailed status report on artisans, their current livelihood and income status and the impact of liberalization on these communities. With reliable estimates of employment and contribution to national income, the case for priority could put an end to ‘sunset’ speculations, moving artisans into sunrise opportunities by clearly identifying essential areas of both strength and vulnerability. Intervention priorities and support systems can follow, providing a far more appropriate policy framework than anything that currently exists.

The clinching argument: common sense
The context of these efforts is the current prospect within a ‘shining India’ of 836 million Indians remaining poor and vulnerable, most of them SC/ST, OBCs minorities and Muslims (the communities to which the vast majority of Indian artisans belong). Only ignorance and indifference can prevent the use of the craft sector to help meet their needs, providing both a massive social safety-net and a powerful economic engine. Yet the final word may not be about mere economics. Speaking to a group brought together by CCI in Kolkata to kick-start its study of the sector, Gopalkrishna Gandhi observed:

“Today an attitude faces craft and artisans in India. This is the argument of economics, of sustainability, of marketability, which is the argument of financial survival. It is the argument of material as against what is made from and with material. This argument is overtaking all other arguments. What is not self-financing, not sustainable, is regarded as being in natural decline, almost as if in some immutable scientific principle. People talk of such avocations as being in a ‘sunset’. To assess them to dip into the horizon is then regarded as something of a kindness. (The argument) is one-sided, it is shocking but in logic it is not a wrong argument. We have to examine that argument and see how and what is unacceptable about it so it can be shown to be so to those who advance it, and to those who count. Let us not adopt an attitude of aesthetic or cultural superiority when it comes to the economic argument. Arguments of the market cannot be wished away: they are reality. We have to show that arguments of the market are nonetheless misapplied when it comes to judging the work of artisans, hurting not just the artisans but the whole country. (The argument) is misapplied because in India, rather more than elsewhere, craftsmanship and artisanship reside among the poorest of the poor. How are today’s artisans to be given a sense of purpose, a sense of ‘sunrise’ rather than of ‘sunset’? We will wrong if we think that artisanship and craftsmanship are about aesthetic judgment and sentiment being on one side and commercial judgment and reason being on the other. If that is the understanding, the game is lost. The hard argument which overrides all others is about common sense. And that is that common-sense tells us that whatever we do in terms of economic planning and development in India, there will always be several hundred million people in this country, the figure being unverified, who cannot but live with and through the work of their hands. Now, it is a great compensation of nature that these hundreds and millions of people have a talent in their hand, which the assembly liners and the free-marketers do not quite concede. And that talent is the unexplored reservoir which needs to be used for their good which means the greater good of the great number of the people of India….”





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