Soon after Independence in 1947, India incorporated handicraft and handloom production as important elements in ts new development objectives. The Industrial Resolution of 1948 recognized the need to protect cottage and small-scale production against competition from mass manufacture. The First Five-Year Plan reserved certain spheres of production exclusively for hand industries. A network of support organizations for the sector was created in the 1950s, each offering numerous schemes of assistance. The network included the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), the All India Handlooms and Handicrafts Board (AIHHB), the Offices of the Development Commissioners for Handlooms and Handicrafts, the Central Silk Board, and the Coir Board. At a time when rapid industrialization was the overwhelming preoccupation, these measures reflected a commitment to hand production that had motivated the movement toward Independence, drawing its inspiration from the Indian renaissance. The khadi revolution, innovated as resistance against colonial rule, became one of the great chapters of the freedom struggle. Mahatma Gandhi’s emphasis on self-sufficient village communities, symbolized by the spinning wheel and khadi production, inspired a central position for crafts in free India, as part of its search for identity and confidence within change and transition.
Definition: Half Full or Half Empty?
Fifty years of planned development has seen an enormous resurgence in craft awareness, a booming craft trade (estimated at Rs60,000 crores annually), craft retail chains in the public and private sectors, a multitude of craft-related activities in the voluntary sector, a pivotal role for craft expression in India’s overseas diplomacy, and systems of recognition for craft excellence. Yet none of this achievement has succeeded in rescuing India’s artisans from crisis. Once the backbone of the economy, today they are threatened by shifting tastes and lifestyles, by the end of protective systems in a new era of free trade, by the absence of organized marketing systems, and by all the implications of so-called structural adjustment as state-led planning gives way to market forces. The impact of these national and global trends can be devastating. Self-employed artisans have no independent capability of responding to competition, either from mass production or from imported substitutes. In the retreat from centralized planning and in the rush toward globalization (defined primarily by western norms), the mood among artisan communities in one of anxiety. Issues of craft identity and economics are perhaps now more difficult to resolve than they have ever been, and solutions will depend on a generation little influenced by the freedom saga or by the ethic which once made hand production central to an Indian ethos.
To meet this challenge, a first task might be to define the sector with some accuracy. The very terms ‘craft’, ‘craftsman’, and ‘artisan’ are difficult to define and use in an Indian context. These imports have little correspondence to local history or experience. A working definition was attempted in a remarkable report by a Task Force on Handicrafts established for the Eighth Five Year Plan: “Handicrafts are 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.” A parallel definition, much less embracing, comes through established government systems. This is the list of skill and product categories brought under the Office of the Development Commissioner for Handicrafts, from an original intention of export promotion. The list excludes vast areas of hand production and therefore huge numbers of artisans. The lack of clarity in the way terms are understood and used is reflected in a database inadequate for rational planning. There is no clear notion of the size of the sector. The number of artisans has been estimated at anywhere between 4, 6, 36 and 200 million! There are no estimates on the value of thousands of handmade products made in villages and towns from natural and recycled materials: utensils, dwellings, implements, locks, toys, sailing boats, or even the
ubiquitous mud pot made in every village and town, and celebrated as the ultimate icon of India’s heritage. No estimate includes the women of the seven northeastern states, almost everyone of whom is a weaver or basket-maker. Perhaps no other nation has such a huge invisible work force, contributing so much to the nation’s economy and welfare, about whom so little is known, and without whom the India we know would cease to exist. The finest investigation in this regard has been the SRUTI study based on
census information from the 1980s. The Report underlined the greyness of its data and called for a more accurate assessment of the scale and range of artisnal production. A study by NCAER in 1995-96 estimated that over 4 million artisans produced handmade products worth about Rs30,000 crores at cost, of which about half was accounted by textiles. The current output is estimated at Rs45,000 crores, with a market value of Rs60,000 crores. Exports are believed to account for about Rs8,000 crores of this figure.
If the economics of handicrafts is a major concern, it is the only one of several key factors. There is the challenging reality that crafts also represent the search for deeper meaning in a materialistic society. Products made by hand have come to suggest the ideal balance between nature and man. They have commanded respect as a powerful means of learning and expression, and as indispensable to a sense of personal, societal and national identity. This ethic continues to challenge interventions in the sector, and Five-Year Plans can seem of little consequence to issues of contemplation and spiritual worth. Perhaps India can profit from an observation by Dr David Baradas, an authority from The Philippines. He suggests the need for activists in Asia to put aside wasteful debates on the supposed conflict between craft culture and craft commerce, and to concentrate instead on segmenting two clear areas for intervention. One of these is craft as cultural symbol, with an emphasis on value systems, and on the preservation of context and identity. The other is craft as product and commodity, with its need to accommodate contemporary taste, technology, design, material and above all to understand the consumer as well as the scales of production essential to successful marketing. Craft interventions should reflect careful choices made from these options, and the sensitivity essential for achieving a balance between them.
Sector professionals and volunteers recognize heightened awareness and interest in crafts as the major achievement of 50 years of planning. They point to other achievements such as the recognition accorded to individual masters, the revival of several threatened crafts, and growing markets. Yet they also despair that high quality is often drowned in a sea of handmade trash. While the upper end of the trade flourishes, a loss of craft quality and of craft presence is felt in the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens. These
reflections were echoed at a major gathering to mark the birth centenary of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, the pioneering spirit behind many craft institutions familiar today. It was a unique opportunity for analysis from the perspective of master artisans and their pupils. The key spokespersons were the gurus, honored as repositories of excellence and as the keepers of tradition. Their sishyas were present to represent the aspirations of tomorrow’s masters. The overwhelming message from the elders was that planning had made no meaningful change to their status. That remained low and was one of anxiety and uncertainty. Poverty, ill health, disrespect, harassment and exploitation were the dominant realities. Their quality of life had changed little despite government awards or Festivals of India, and even despite the acknowledged expansion of their markets. The gain, according to the gurus, was reaped by others: authorities, traders, designers, scholars, and of course by consumers. The latest fear was the loss of Government patronage through changed policies. Unable to understand or control market forces, the masters felt hopelessly vulnerable to threat, both old and new. Capacities were missing which could help them take advantage of new markets, technologies or networks. In stark contrast to the eagerness of organized industry to see the last of government regulation, artisans had little capacity or preparation for self-reliance. Their search was for saviors, and for good old days, based as much on myth as on reality.
The seniors had other concerns as well: market ignorance of what constitutes quality or why one should pay for it, scarcity of raw materials (such as essential woods) through environmental degradation, the contempt of the ‘system’ for their own learning and scholarship, and recognition systems that honored those who were not “authentic”. The younger generation were decidedly less pessimistic, eager to acquire new skills in marketing, finance, and technology (including access to computers and cell phones!). A
Government spokesman suggested that master crafts persons should themselves catalyze new systems and new partnerships between artisan communities and potential allies in the private sector, as well as in specialized institutions of design and technology, and in government and non-government agencies. Critical to such progress would be their ability to organize for collective bargaining. It was made clear that Government’s role would now be that of facilitator, not patron or implementer. Capacities for self-reliance would therefore need to be acquired through stronger alliances with non-government partners. It was suggested that systems of cooperation, particularly within the next generation of masters, would be indispensable for the advocacy and action necessary for real change. Craft unions and revival of guilds were among strategies recommended. (Few dared to suggest cooperatives, a word despised for its association with corruption and inefficiency). An offer from Government was that the gurus should help set up and run common facility centers and business service centers, with official assistance. The response was eager but tentative. If enterpreneurship is the most basic skill required for survival in a globalized world, it is a capacity that will clearly need to be developed anew among India’s artisans.
Craft Marketing and Entrepreneurship
The low level of marketing know-how within most sector stakeholders is possibly the greatest failure of past decades. Of the estimated Rs10,000 crore turnover of crafts listed under the purview of the Office of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, only one percent is executed through government channels. The private sector (much maligned for its exploitation as
‘middlemen’) handles the rest, with some help from NGO and other channels. Despite this dominance by the trade, there is little dialogue or cooperation between the private sector and other craft channels. Indeed, many in the NGO sector have yet to come to terms with the market, which they often regard as antithetical to issues of identity, culture, emotion and spiritual significance. The reality remains hidden that stomachs must be full before any of these social factors can be achieved. While crafts in urban India are
closely associated with government emporia, there is still not a single professional marketing agency for crafts in the public sector. Most authorities (as well as NGOs) mistake selling for marketing, and for them the process of identifying needs and satisfying such needs at a profit is unknown. The pathetic condition today of many handicraft cooperatives and government emporia is evidence of this lacuna. What India can do through marketing professionalism has been demonstrated primarily in the private sector. Its leaders continue to set current standards of quality, the examples of fine Government-run emporia having moved into oblivion.Marketing requires design, and ignorance of marketing is reflected in low comprehension of the design process. This is most often regarded as an add-on, as a relationship of exploitation and extraction rather than as an indispensable partnership. The design skills of craftsperson themselves is thus underplayed and seldom linked to the market. This inhibits their ability to access new technologies and new disciplines critical to value addition through productivity, the use of contemporary materials and finishes, and through the reduction of drudgery and waste.
All this should make clear that there can be no greater contribution to artisans than strengthening their own ability to acquire control over markets and marketing processes. With enterpreneurship and the private sector kept at arms length all these years, the business capability essential for craft prosperity has remained dormant. Critical investments have been neglected, such as market research, without which survival (leave alone expansion) is impossible either at home or overseas. If building enterpreneurship is the urgent need, the private sector is the obvious partner. Yet this capacity is also essential within craft communities and among NGO activists. Perhaps the latter must be the first to acquire and demonstrate professional marketing within the communities they seek to empower. The opportunity recently offered by Government to mastercraftsperson and the young masters (to develop business institutions under their control) could make enormous demands on artisans and their partners. Yet it could be an experiment of great promise, as is another recent proposal for a national marketing mechanism established through existing NGO craft networks. Such models are needed to help build a foundation for sustainable growth. They are equally essential to help set fair trade standards that establish buying and retailing practices in which artisan interests come first (such as those pioneered by the late visionary John Bissell through his own enterprise). A helpful sign is in the recent innovation of urban haats that welcome artisans for direct and sustained contract with consumers, including the hugely successful one in New Delhi.
Wellbeing as Sustainability: The Craft Opportunity
All this concerns the economics of crafts, but what of its ethics and its deeper cultural and spiritual meaning? In a society so intent on mimicking western consumption practices, these values can be easily dismissed or taken for granted, such as the latest campaign to denigrate the sari. For many other traditions, it may already be too late. Yet without a craft ethic, nothing can protect its integrity. The market for craft excellence will wither without the ability to articulate and understand issues of quality and of identity essential to self-respect in a changing world. Awareness of this kind requires education, and craft education can mean
several things. Fostering public awareness is one of them. It can also mean protecting the parent-to-child parampara, encouraging opportunities for young talent from outside to enter craft traditions, creating opportunities for young craftspersons to learn and to innovate, as well as promoting crafts to train the eyes and hands of youth. Despite a realization that craft can be and should be an essential element in Indian education, artisans have had little impact on formal systems of education. There is virtually no contact between the village or urban artisan and the local school. Indeed formal education in India offers no status to the wisdom and knowledge of artisans as qualifications appropriate for entry into its system. Yet it is in the schoolroom that crafts can be a powerful tool for transforming the rote learning that still colonizes India’s children, and it is upon their discerning minds that the nation’s craft future will ultimately depend.
There is no simple route to such consciousness and taste. Their achievement is essential if a market ethic can be linked with a spiritual one, helping each generation to achieve its own balance between commerce and identity. Museums and collections are critical to this challenge. Collections can educate the public with benchmarks of quality as well as provide a resource of artifact and history from which craftspersons can draw inspiration. Great collections of the last century such as those in Calcutta, Pune and Ahmedabad have helped set standards of craft scholarship. New Delhi’s Crafts Museum will probably be Government’s most enduring contribution to the sector. The power of this demonstration is evident in the regional and local collections which it has inspired, such as those now established or underway in Chennai, Bhuj and Shillong.
The scale of these challenges to India’s craft sector can often seem overwhelming. If after 50 years of development, the sector remains in crisis, what realistic hope is possible for its future? Competition intensifies everyday. Lifestyles are being churned by social and market forces. In contrast to political and cultural values inherited in 1947, brand equity and ‘fashion statements’ often appear as the only issues of identity that command attention in today’s demand-driven market. Yet it has been suggested that by 2004 (when the global WTO regime takes full force) India’s unique sales advantage will be its handskills, and the ability to use these skills as a prime competitive advantage. There is another opportunity of equal significance. A fresh concept of development is emerging on the economic and political landscape, one that moves away from systems of national accounts toward indicators of “human development”. These indicators measure not only the state of economic systems but their environmental and social costs as well, and their contribution to human wellbeing. It is here that crafts take urgent importance, with their respect for balancing human and ecological values and with their commitment to a sense of harmony and pleasure. The Human Development Indices innovated within the UN system of international accounting are thus an enormous new opportunity for craft development. To respond effectively, the sector must quickly develop an ability to analyse its own contribution in economic as well as in social terms, and in language that communicates decisively to politicians and decision-makers. Development as wellbeing corresponds closely to the quality of life and of living envisioned through India’s renaissance and its struggle for freedom. Gandhi’s passion for craft industry was thus prescient. He saw it as a means for achieving freedom and self-respect for an India enslaved by colonial rule. Fifty years after Freedom, craft can remain a strategy for prosperity and dignity that responds to the most critical challenges of its time. February, 2003