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The changing phase of Indian handicrafts

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In the pre-Independence era, an artisan’s job was confined to putting all his sweat and blood into producing a piece of craft, without his talent getting much recognition in the society. Moreover, what was starker was the role played by middlemen who usually grabbed the major portion of profit. There was a strong need for a government agency to combat this evil. More so, there was a need for preservation of cultural heritage.
Ira Mehra unearths the endeavours that have kept the movement going, despite its star-crossed fate.

In 1952, the All India Handicrafts Board was set up under the ministry of textiles. It was established with the mission of creating employment opportunities to achieve higher standards of living for the craftspeople. “We strive to achieve qualitative improvement in production and increased productivity of artisans for augmentation of their incomes, and for that we come in direct contact with non-government organisations as well as the artisans themselves,” says Sanjay Agarwal, development commissioner, Handicrafts.

Next to the agricultural sector, it is the village and small industries (VSI) sector that provides the greatest employment opportunities in a developing country like India. Thus, an integrated income generation programme becomes a necessity in the handicrafts sector to support the survival of many.

Dastkari Haat Samiti, an initiative taken by Jaya Jaitley in 1985 in New Delhi, is a not-for-profit association registered under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. It is a nationwide association that has provided a common platform to artisans all over India to showcase their craft. Jaitley believes that there is still a huge market for handmade products. According to her, more than the technical training, artisans are taught how to craft a product according to the tastes and preferences of the contemporary market, without bringing about too many alterations in the originality and traditional value of the craft. “Basically, the craftspeople don’t require much of technical guidance. What is required is how to translate their knowledge into products that will sell in today’s market,” asserts Jaitley, president, Dastkari Haat Samiti.

The Samiti organises various exhibitions, haats and bazaars across the country to enable the craftsmen to come directly in contact with buyers. Dilli Haat, an innovative marketing infrastructure for traditional artisans, is one such major step taken by Jaya Jaitley in this regard. Set up in 1994, Dilli Haat has brought together about 50,000 small crafts producers to sell their products directly to about 1.5 million customers till now. “Bazaars bring craftspeople directly in touch with a wide variety of customers to create personal contacts, gain better knowledge of the various market segments, and expand their marketing base with increased confidence,” says Jaitley.

On the other hand, there is a totally different picture presented by certain artisans who are the members of some non-government organisations. Although the ministry and the NGOs claim that they have been successful to a great extent in improving the standard of living of these artisans, the artisans themselves are not very satisfied with the progress. “Day by day, the rentals are rising, and so are the costs of transportation and raw materials. It’s very difficult for us to keep up with the rising cost of production as we have to pay out of our own pockets,” voices Shiv Kumar, an artisan of Orissa’s tribal craft.

Despite tremendous efforts being made in the area of social empowerment and technological upgradation of craftspeople by the ministry as well as the NGOs, there are loopholes still. Some craftspeople even consider closing down their business. “The grants provided by the ministry do not reach us. There are many organisations that reap away the profits earned by us. The net profit is so meagre that we find it really tough to make ends meet, and can’t even think of passing on the business to our children. We tell you the reality we are facing,” says Rahim Khan, a craftsman at a bazaar.

Some artisans agree that the NGOs have supported them, but only in the initial two to three years since their inception. They feel that India is losing its real artisans by rewarding fake artisans, who sell others’ work. A shared sentiment is that whatever they are today, it is because of their own perseverance and efforts. “We are innovative enough to create our own designs; we don’t need any assistance in that from the organisations,” says Bharati Dayal, a Madhubani painter.

“There is no place for real craftspeople like us in the society – unlike the recognition received by my grandmother, who was a national award winner,” says Manoj Kumar Jha, grandson of Sita Devi, a renowned painter. Manoj works with Bharati Dayal.

Certain non-profit organisations also feel that the work done by the ministry of textiles is slow and protracted. “There is a lot of red tapism. It takes a long time to get a response to our proposals,” agrees Alpana Neogi, secretary of Samridhi, an NGO in Delhi.

Yet, there are a few who think otherwise, and feel that organisations like Dastkari Haat Samiti have done a great deal of work for their upliftment. “I am highly grateful to Jaya Jaitley, who has given us a place of our own to work and sell our produce from. Now I am able to market my products directly, which has built up a lot of self-confidence and made me independent to a great extent,” says Rehana Begum, an artisan at Hanuman Mandir.

Craftspeople are quite vulnerable to exploitation. Local market for crafts is dwindling since there are no distinct advantages of raw materials or market in these areas. “If a craftsperson stays at a remote place, he finds it hard to access the market. Earlier, the craftsperson used to sell from his own place. If he has to sell in the urban market, he has to adapt colours, designs, etc., according to the facilities available. All that depends on his affordability,” says Purnima Rai, vice president, Delhi Crafts Council. As far as the future of handicrafts sector is concerned, she says, “Handicraft is a chicken-and-egg thing; it will survive if we work towards its survival.”

Purnima is also associated with Kamala, a craft shop of Crafts Council of India formed after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya in 1964. It is an endeavour in providing sustainable livelihoods and professional marketing support as a viable means for developing traditional crafts.

Handicraft in medieval India was artistically exquisite, but technologically backward and organisationally primitive. It was the time when the handicraft industry became stagnant. People did not know the art of valuing a handmade product. On the contrary, it is seen that people have started rediscovering the merits of traditional craft. A handmade product has a touch of love and passion, and inspires a sense of identification with one’s product. And this makes it different from a machine-made product.

“Something made by hand is very beautiful and has the spirit of the maker, unlike a machine-made product, and holds a very special place in our lives. Since it still exists, we should make doubly sure that people want to continue working with hands. We have to tell people that it gives good economic returns and is a good profession,” adds Purnima Rai. She also believes that it is very important for a craftsperson to be well acquainted with the knowledge of marketing. It makes them independent and self-reliant. This has helped them in a big way to leave behind the age-old times when the plight of craftspeople was worse than a labourer’s.

It can be seen that artisans cannot rise above their socio-economic level if the organisations continue to concentrate exclusively on technology and economic relations, forgetting the people involved in these activities.

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