Resurgence | Episode 3: Resurgence of Crafts & Industry | Webinar Transcript
Resurgence | Episode 3: Resurgence of Crafts & Industry | Webinar
This is an edited transcript of a discussion between the panelists listed below, moderated by Suresh Venkat.
Padma shree Laila Tyabji - Founder of Dastkar.
Neelam Chhiber - Co-founder of Industry Crafts Foundation.
Devika Krishnan - Designer and Business developer in the crafts space.
Dr. Tulika Gupta - Director of the Indian Institute Of Crafts and Design, &
Christine Rai - Founder of Indian Inc.
Suresh - Laila, first question to you, give us an overview, how has the crafts sector been doing in the last 10 years well before COVID-19.
Laila - There are sort of two parallel paths, one is positive and one is negative, so let us get the negative one over with first because that is a much bigger scenario. This is not the first time that crafts people have been in deep crises in the last 10 years. They had a massive blow from demonetisation which almost knocked the whole sector completely out of sync for many months. They staggered back, only 18 months later to be slapped with GST, which in itself is not a bad thing but was so wrongly implemented and which did not take into consideration at all the way the crafts people work, how small craft entrepreneurships work, and so that was really terrible, and then we had the lockdown in Kashmir for five months which was really a kind of mini thing of what is going on in a macro sense all over India today where people were simply not able to work, they didn’t have finance, they didn’t have buyers, they didn’t have bazaars and markets, and now we have this (refers to Covid lockdown) which also has no visible end in sight because even if the lockdown is relaxed, it is going to take a very long time for people to stagger back and the markets are going to be very different. Now I did say that there was a parallel, positive trend in the last ten years is that crafts all over the world, have suddenly found a market again and an appreciation, after a long time of the international market being dominated by global brands and by hand made being considered a rather sort of primitive, rather niche kind of activity. I think all over the world, particularly in the West, there is a recognition that it is actually a very good thing and it resonates with all the kind of concerns we have about the environment, about consumerism about all these kinds of things, but unfortunately, these two paths don’t really meet and if people, not just the public and the consumers and the media, but the government itself realized that actually India has a gold mine sitting here, these millions of crafts people, who could centre stage in this new global marketplace, it would be wonderful, but it needs a lot of investment, not just of finance but also R&D, of design, of product development, of finding different types of marketing platforms, so we are at this scenario today. Of course, the immediate problem is that there are no markets and there’s no money and there’s no sense of direction, but it is also an opportunity as a course to rethink and so I’m not wholly pessimistic but nothing is going to happen unless we really think about the crafts sector in a very new way.
Suresh - Alright, that is a good point to bring Neelam into the discussion. Neelam, your company uses the word creative manufacturing instead of craft, why do you use that term?
Neelam - Purely because there is so much of width and depth in this sector it is a phenomenally wide spectrum and it cannot be encompassed by one term and it was very clear to me and each person interprets this sector in their own way. It is phenomenal to see the uprising. I mean look at the amount of attendance you have for this session, so there is a huge inner attachment that almost every Indian has to this sector. That is undeniable. So in this multitude, diversity of everything, each one of us has to work where we feel the maximum for, because like Laila has also shared, there is very little support you get from the larger ecosystem. So you have got to be driven by your personal passion. So, I started my career working with artisans in Bastar, very poor Dhokra artisans, and when a very wise NID person told me, choose a craft that you can work in with your own hands. So I worked with them with my own hands and I lived with them and I saw their dirt poverty but enormous richness. Lost wax metal casting is one the world’s most complex forms of casting and the most ancient. It is like a science, but passed down culturally. So it has got every possible angle to it. What I learnt from those 2-3 years was that primarily, crafts was a form of livelihood, so I have stuck to that. So after that next 30 years, I have said, to me it is about livelihood, it is about income generation. Everything else comes secondary. I have to put my passions aside from the whole cultural context,and other contexts because all that is very valid. But I am going to focus on crafts as livelihoods and therefore we call it creative manufacturing because we believe that and also for me it is the livelihood of the masses. It was not about the livelihood of a few master artisans, because to me it was the livelihood and inclusive growth of these people sitting in villages. I mean the numbers are out there, we were the world’s second largest economy pre industrial revolution on the backs of these people. This was the factory of the world, we all know that, right. So how are we going to come up with a solution for the many. So for me, it had to become creative manufacturing, it had to become making them into SMEs, but keeping just two tenets of the original, one was ownership. Crafts was always an owned business, craftsmen owned it, they were never employees, so we built cooperative, we built producer collectives, so we can have two thousand women in the collective, we can have 500 women in a collective, so that is the path we took, and we have taken the path of handmade, you could call it commodity manufacturing.
Suresh - Got it Neelam. One of the things Gandhi said was mass production means production by the masses, not production just for the masses. On that note, Devika, you work with crafts communities in Kashmir and Rajasthan and various parts of India. Give us a sense of how the lockdown has affected them. I know how it has affected all of us, privileged people sitting in urban suburbs, we are finding it hard to get chicken liver pate and all that. How is it really affecting the people in the crafts communities?
Devika - So, at first when it happened, there was panic. I think for the first week, all the phone calls, all the chats, all the videos were about what are we going to do, where is it going to end, are we going to die. I mean, there was absolute panic, one about the virus and two about what is going to happen about our future, and I think it is also because systems were not in place. You know, it was like suddenly the world just vanished beneath your feet, but then the state government started to pull in, you know, agencies started to pull in, we started to restructure what we were doing. So I can actually take you through maybe three examples of three different geographies. So if we look at Yemmiganur where I am working now with weavers, these are cos count weavers who do 60s and 80s count cotton, largely 60s count. They make sheets and lungis and towels. There are 3,700 weaver families in Yemmiganur and close to 10,000 looms, and my task is actually, I would take Neelam’s term of livelihood and stretch it a little further and say that crafts is a way of life. So you farm, and when you are not farming, you craft. So, it is living. If I do not craft, I do not live. So, in Yemmiganur what we did was we had just commenced on the training. The weavers themselves said they wanted to upskill, they wanted to know the science behind their weaves. They wanted to know the science behind cotton which is grown there. So, we had worked this entire 6-month curriculum up and we were to commence the whole thing on the 26th of March, a day after Ugadi, which is our New Year and guess what happened. So, it took us 2-3 days to sort things out and we quickly converted our training into lesson plans and we actually created texts. So, now we have chapters on natural fiber, on types of looms, on types of weaves, on types of yarns, on what a Dobby is, how to set your own Dobby, how do you repair it. So, all of this was done in English, and thankfully the weavers’ children go to colleges, so they translated all of that into Telugu, and we have these little textbooks and it is great because we are getting feedback from them. And what we are also doing is just making plain kora cotton fabric, so we are ensuring there is bare minimum engagement going on, that we have not shut our looms down, but we are not making fancy sarees and stuff like that. In Kashmir if I go to my second geography, nothing has changed there since August 5th. We have been in lockdown since then. In fact, everyone is happy out there, because at least now there is the internet and their cellphones even if it is not 4G, it is just 2G. In Ranthambore, 80% of our turnover depends on local sale from tourists, so we are in a fix now. The women there are telling me if there is any hope in the horizon, if there is any promise that they can work towards, they would be happy. So these are 3 different scenarios.
Suresh - Tulika, in your view, what has been the most successful designer craftsperson collaboration that you have seen say in the last decade?
Tulika - Thank you Suresh. It is very difficult to say which is the most successful. Now I think most of the Indian designers are working with crafts people. There is hardly any designer that does not engage crafts people in any form. So, I think it is commendable that we have a lot of websites now which have come up, and specifically, I would like to give examples of iTokri. There is no designer in between. They directly source from the crafts people and it is there for people to buy and when they send it home, it comes very beautifully wrapped in a very handcrafted package with a little note that is given to you. So apart from the bazaars that happen regularly, which is very important, in situations like these, I think it is very very important that more and more visibility or transparency comes to the fore, where we can use technology completely, and like I said, naming one designer is very difficult, all the designers are working with crafts people, and all of them are wonderful collaborations. It has to result in sales. You know, you could have wonderful products, but then if you do not advertise enough or if you do not sell enough, that is also an issue, because ultimately, it is about livelihoods as Neelamji said or Lailaji said, also Devika mentioned, it is all about livelihoods and that is what here at IICD also, we continuously strive for that, whoever comes here for education, whether it is a crafts person or anybody else, they should be able to sell their products, and I think that is really very important. I have not worked as a business person, but I have worked as a faculty, in education for a very long time, and here what I see is, a lot of the times designers become very romantic and they have a lot of wonderful view about things that they can make and then it all falls flat when they are not able to do basic things like costing and selling it properly, all the young designers I am talking about whom I have seen grow over the years and so, that I think is also very important for designers to keep that in mind, to discover new markets, and I think technology has really helped it, and going further, even including things where we can trace where everything has come from will be very important, because we see a lot of fake products in the market. I am sorry to say that they have designer labels but the products are fake sometimes. It is not genuine craft work at all.
It is really sad. I think we can use technology right now, there is this new technology block chain that is coming up. I think that they can really be used wonderfully for these kinds of things.
Suresh - Speaking of new markets and costing, Christine, you have been buying Indian crafts for a long time on behalf of foreign buyers, on behalf of companies outside of India, because Indian crafts have a market outside India as well. Which forms of Indian craft are on top of mind when it comes to foreign retailers or foreign buyers.
Christine - I just wanted to add that I am also representing the entire buying agents’ fraternity in that I represent the buying agents’ association. It is a very new body we just formed about 4 years ago, but surprisingly, COVID-19 it is in times of crisis that you come together more, so we are in talks both with ourselves, our members as well as with the industry at the moment and getting a lot of great information. To get to the question, yes, Indian craft is widely known, it is widely appreciated. I would say the top forms that international buyers really understand are block printing and I would score screen printing a craft as well. You probably want to slap me because we are the people that say well if you cannot afford real ikkat and you want that look, you can screen print it, but do not call it ikkat, it is a pretty print on the screen. I deserve to get slapped, but our job is to actually be that person in the middle that says, “you want that look, you can still make it in India, don’t go and make it in China, but let’s to a screen print.” That is unfortunately one of the things we do. Khadi and handloom weaving, weaves have a huge role to play, whether it is scarfs, whether it is in a towel, whether it is in just curtains or other types of home furnishings. Embroidery we still see a lot of hand embroidery in fashion again at apparel, a huge amount and on fashion accessories. Probably, a little too expensive hand embroidery to put onto cushion covers and things that tend to be machine embroidery now. Wood carving is one of India’s biggest in its all handcrafts still and metal crafts. In the hardlines catch would be sheet metal, all the textures, the hand hammering, all the work is done on them as well as sand casting and forging. So these are in the top 10 and probably in the textile side kantha work is still going strong. I think the western consumer, the foreign consumer, I should not say west because we have east up here, Japan and Australia. On the bottom side, you asked that question, I would say probably that Kashmiri embroidery things like namdas are not really understood, although I love them and I actually made a customer buy some namdas once and it was quite interesting they changed the colour, so we did dark navy namdas instead of a lighter blue and they were quite pretty, but I don’t think they sold very well. The customer did not quite get it. Bidri work which is one of my personal favourites is a nonstarter. It is just too expensive. There was a company in Bangalore several years ago that did the most beautiful creative design that came from Bangalore. A guy called Vicki Sardesai, and he did a whole Bidri collection, totally modern, beautiful, I think it was a cherry blossom design or something and it was absolutely exquisite. Chikankari and tilla work are too expensive. Chikankari is too beautiful but when we convert it to a western price point, people like it, but it does not really hold its own. So I think working with a foreign client, the price relationship is really important. You got to know your market, you got to know what the price points are, and I think you can still buy crafts. I note for many of you curse where the other part is not necessarily handicraft but that is where we see the hand crafts always moving in a more industrial way. We had a huge program, if I could just share briefly, of hand hammered copper tankards, thousands and thousands of pieces and we got the program in India and production is going a bit slow and the customer said well we can get it made in China but they were machine hammered and I can’t tell you how horrible, it looked like a golf ball. It was sort of mechanized and we managed to save the order. We still shipped it from India and it was all hand hammered, so I felt very proud of that. I think what is happening now though is that the foreign customer, I am seeing quotes and I am seeing people really wanting to look more at hand crafts. The market that is still alive and is probably going to grow many folds over the next few months is e-commerce and what better space to tell the hand craft story than on a website because it is not in a store where customer service is too hard, we cannot do the signage, we cannot do this, you have a little tag on the product to tell the story. So, I see e-commerce being a great vehicle for us to tell the craft story and I think it will go hand in hand in this new world and people post COVID-19, I am already seeing it, people actively wanting to move away from China mass production. Due to the tie-ups there is much business that could go to Vietnam has already gone. Vietnam is now full. They do not have the capacity for anything. So, India is going to emerge and I think that our craft heritage can continue. I think our craft skills can continue and I think in home décor as well, it is already happening. There is a lot of talk about people saying how people are wanting to eat together more, they are cooking together. India does beautiful tableware, not so much in ceramics, although that is starting to grow, but just wooden chopping boards, wooden blocks to serve your cheese, including the cutlery. I wanted to just end my remarks with a quote from quite a famous lady, she is sort of a trend forecaster, called Li Edelkoort. She just recently said we will start up again with new rules and regulations allowing countries to get back to their knowhow and specific qualities, introducing cottage industries that would flourish and grow into an Arts and Crafts century where manual labour is cherished above everything else. I really believe there is great hope.
Suresh - Neelam, apart from working with crafts people and improving the quality of craft and manufacturing, you are also attempting to create a new business model, what you call a kind of form of capitalism or more inclusive form of capitalism. Tell us about that creation of a new business model.
Neelam - Well, it is very clear what Devika said that farm and off farm, right. So if you look at why the government has never taken this sector seriously, I finally analysed it is because we never linked it enough to farm. There is a lobby for farmers. You look at the USA, you look at Kate's Foundation, you look at all the large donor agencies, they have a section for farm, farmer, agri, but there is nothing for artisanal production. So, I think there is a lot of work that needs to go on how we tell the story. It has taken us 26 years, we first started calling it creative manufacturing and now we call it ‘off farm’. NABARD for example, has been told that they need to support the formation of 2000 non-farm producer companies, but I do not like the word non-farm, because the Indian government strategy on farm and on inclusive growth in farm is producer companies. So we have 7000 agri producer companies. We have a small farmers agri consortium which supports the building of farm producer companies. Off farm producer companies, silence, nothing. So, NABARD said okay, we will support 2000 non farm producer companies, I do not know how much headway they have made, but basically, look at Amul. Amul is value addition, the milkman owns the company that makes the cheese and the gourmet chocolate and the gourmet yoghurt. So, we got to do the same thing for inclusive growth. Verghese Kurien has got this wonderful quote that says- that with professional management, we can transform the lives of our farmers. So I say with professional management, we can transform the lives of our artisanal producers. Just do a quick matchup between farm or farm-farm or farm and you will come up with a plethora of solutions. The government may even listen to you a little more seriously, but I think, essentially it is all about a kinder economy is that artisans get value only if they make the end product. I will just make it less abstract. Let us take cotton. Why are our cotton farmers committing suicide? If the cotton farmer could own the brand that made the cotton shirt, it is as simple as that. Amul is owned by 3 million milkmen. So, we have got to look at this at scale and the only thing I have learnt from the whole Verghese Kurien experience is that whatever he did 60 years ago, happened because of certain circumstances. I believe what will happen in our sector, I can see it happening already. Thanks to COVID. I do not think we can do what he did in the way he did it 60 years ago. I think today it will be about networking, it will be about collaboration, it will be about technology, which can super assist collaborative thought and network building. We will not be able to do it the way it was done then, but there are new ways to do it, and there is a new way to build a kinder inclusive economy that is owned by the base producers. Cotton farmers should own the brands and the weavers must own the brands, the spinners must own the brands, exactly what Gandhi said. Today, we have the word brand. And how are you going to make these inclusive supply chains, you can make them across materials. You don’t have to worry. For years people told me it is impossible to do an Amul in this sector because Amul is just one raw material, it is a commodity product. So, today, we are talking about a platform for inclusive entrepreneurship. It is a societal platform. Societal platform is a thought which has emerged from EkStep and Nilekani philanthropies that today we need to build platforms that are owned by society, Ubers and Olas, that are owned by private investors. So, there are new ways of doing these things. These are all collaborative platforms and I am deeply impressed by this huge force of energy that is entering the sector where people are keen to collaborate now caused by this pressure. You can sell low-end products, high-end products, everything on these platforms.
Suresh - Devika, gives us the sense of what design intervention into a craft sector, commitment to Kashmir being an example, what it does for the community. We know what it does for the design of the craft itself because that is visible to us. Tell us what it does to families, what it does to children, what it does to people who live in the community.
Devika: Any intervention that happens where we are talking about like Neelam said, enhancing livelihoods, enhancing incomes. If I take the example of say Ranthambore, the Dastkar Ranthambore is a hugely successful crafts enterprise which is primarily made for making livelihoods to people who were affected by the formation of the tiger reserve in the 80s, people who were displaced, and from inside the core zone to outside, and when it became a no man’s land, like nobody could enter the forest, people who lived in the villages outside could not enter either. Crafts were just a means to an end. The larger purpose was to actually give these people something to do because they had lost their old way of life. So it has been hugely transformational. I am seeing now the third generation, so for the first generation who Laila started working with in 1989, they were not literate, they were very young mothers who were married at a very young age and had their children before they were 20, they had 5 or 6 children. Their daughters then got till 8th grade and now the granddaughters are working elsewhere because they are all nurses and teachers and MBAs etc. A project like this in a geography where female foeticide is really rich, it is a huge difference it has done to women. It is a huge difference it has made to livelihoods to people who lost their old way of life. So, it is not the product so much as the purpose that has been solved in this. If we look at CtoK now, CtoK to me has thrown the ball like it is a gamechanger in an initiative because till date, till I took on the task at CtoK, all the projects that I had dealt with had the pool of beneficiaries who we worked with. We worked within their skills, we gave them design training, business training, set up their enterprise or ramped up their enterprise. So, there were 50 people that we were addressing. They formed the enterprise. Wherein CtoK, the scale is something else with the same amount of funding that they got for setting up a 50-people enterprise. We actually ended up training and helping set up 27 different enterprises. We worked across 11 crafts. So it was not like we had those bunch of people we worked with and we linked markets and da da da da da. We had these 27 people who generated employment for 10 to 100 people each, so the reach is much more, but the greater beauty of the CtoK project is that CtoK brought hope and purpose to a land and a community that was completely sunk in uncertainty and conflict for 3 decades. Most of the people who we worked with over there are in their 20s and mid 30s. They were born into this conflict. This is not a fight of their own. They were born into something that they don’t want to be a part of. How do we address that? They have all had an education, they all want to get ahead. They are the millennium lot. They have their gadgets. They are linked to the net and they want to get ahead, and CtoK has actually addressed that need, and I think that even with the brakes that August 5th put on us, we still have managed to sort of move ahead and it was just the perfect synergy -of designers, of the core team, of the funder, Srishti stepped in and provided business management training to some of the artisans. It has been a lovely collaboration.
Suresh: Laila, you have been working with the crafts sector for about 38 years, how important is government policy when it comes to this sector, is it a make or break?
Laila: It is very important looking at the macro picture, because the numbers are so huge, and though I agree with Neelam that there are solutions, there are collaborations, there are sort of shared platforms, my own experience is also that each community is very different when you enter it. It has a different set of needs, it has different skill sets, it needs different sort of steps, and I think there needs to be a pool of available investment both of people and of money who are going to go and work in these sectors, and I do not think it can be left absolutely to chance whether it is a designer, or an NGO, because we do tend to unless there is an absolute need and someone comes to Dastkar and says will you work in Kashmir or will you work in Ranthambore. Designers or entrepreneurs tend to choose softer options of say textile crafts and things and there are many crafts in many communities who have a huge potential and need as well who just are not addressed. So there have to be some macro schemes, there has to be some boost, but unfortunately, the government funding has remained absolutely the same in the last 40 years and they are sort of strung with red tape, they are so complicated, they do not reach out to people and it is very difficult to access them. So whenever we ask the government for funding for anything, we are usually told that not even 25% of the funds available for craft are utilized but it is not utilized because no one wants that money but because it is so complex to get hold of it.
Suresh: Christine, with international buyer source from India, are they looking at India as a production base or a factory or are they looking for Indian design as well?
Christine: It is really a bit of both. It is not one or the other. There is a lot of people come to India because we can produce quite a lot, believe or not, I mean our handicraft exports that go out which covers some textile is about $3.8 billion and doesn’t include carpets, carpets are another $1.5 billion, so we can produce, but I think intrinsically people do come to India with some awareness of the handicraft writing, but it does depend on the brand. People, I would say, very few people nowadays buy very ethnic-looking products. I think it is important that there is an element of modern look or clean design, the right colours to fit into that country’s home, I mean, people love the block printing and the wood carving as I said, but they don’t want the traditional necessarily , but you know, there is nothing wrong with contemporising design and, there are a couple of examples in the US market. There is a man called John Robshaw, who works extensively in India and he is not just block printing anymore. In order to do mass production, he has taken his designs onto screen, but he still tells, Neelam mentioned- telling the story is really important, and I think he tells a story and then there is another small brand called Roller Rabbit based out of the US east coast and she does the same thing. So, whether the design is Indian or whether the design comes from abroad, it is quite an interesting blend and I find there is a lot of good collaboration there. Some of the client’s brands have in-house designers, sometimes they just put concepts together and they expect the Indian exporters to interpret it and there is a lot of design as we know in India. So, you know it’s question of marrying the two and a lot depends on the relationship between the buyer or the designer who is buying from India, the factory or the exporter or craft producer and then the buying agent role is quite in the middle there to try and make sure that it all works and we get the best out of it. We have seen quite a lot of Indian designers, Ayushi we talked about earlier, Mukul Goyal selling their own products internationally, I mean there is a lot of that happening, but we also have quite a lot of western designers, Michael Aram is one, who came to India as a graduate from design school and set up his metal studio in India. I mean he didn’t really have an Indian connection, but he loved the handcraft, he just based himself here and he is now quite a big international brand. Now, is he Indian, is he American, you know he is really quite a bit of both, it is hard to say. So, you know there are plenty of people who come to India and just say, okay well we can buy, you know, X million out of India, but by and large you don’t come to India for mass produce, you come to India for something a bit more interesting.
Suresh: Neelam, You wanted to weigh in on that?
Neelam: Another most successful co-op in the banana bach basketry has happened only because of IKEA. Role that brands, global brands and let us face it, it is organised retail and global brands that are going to actually push a change in the system. Individual consumers have much less power compared to what larger brands and organised retail have. So I tried very hard to build a self-sustaining co-op on B2C orders that the brand Mother Earth I created gave, I couldn’t, because the order sizes were too small. So finally, our relationship with IKEA is 7 years long and IKEA is a unique company. It is something started by IKEA commercial. It is not IKEA CSR, it is because IKEA’s sustainable development goals are circular economy and women's empowerment and the head of sustainability at IKEA corporate has said what better way to meet those two than increase our natural fibre buy, let’s buy less plastic, let us buy more natural fibres because they are in the circular economy.
Christine: Yes, we like IKEA, they put their money where their mouth is actually, they are among the few.
Suresh: Tulika, Why do you think people are saying we don’t need IKEA-type retailers? Is that because large stores tend to be soulless and small boutiques tend to be quirky and fun?
Tulika: Well, I think it is because it is the mindset and not really, IKEA is one of the amazing stores around the world and also, you know, what I would like to say is in tune with what everybody was talking about more organised. So, IKEA is more organized and we need more organization in this sector in India and that is why I strongly feel, as Laila ji was saying, there is money, but it is very difficult for people to get access to that money. So, my recommendation if the government is willing to hear is that we need a complete ministry for crafts, it should not be a part of textile ministry, it is a part of MSME, it is a part of textile ministry has DC handicrafts, so I think there has to be like we were talking about agriculture and farm and no farm as Neelam ji was saying, but I feel it shouldn’t be called no farm, it should be called a craft sector completely, which has a ministry, which looks after the needs of the people. It has to be more organised. Then we look at the census, the census is not complete, it needs a better census, it has to be more organised for us to be able to do better justice to it and if I go back 300 years, what we see is that you know Madras Checks was a brand in itself, then there were Calicos and there were Chintz and so on and so forth, everything was Indian handcrafted and we were delivering to the consumers from the west and to the east. We were also giving to Thailand and you know there was Saudagari Textiles and there was so much Indian craft. I think the time has come that we can develop it, thanks to stalwarts who have brought it up again. It started with Pupul Jayakar and people like that who realised that we need it and I think now time has come that we have to make it much more organised and profit seeking. It shouldn’t be, “khadi ne kuch kiya, subsidy diya to bik raha hai,” subsidy nahi chahiye, it has to stand on it is own that here it is and this is the best and it has to be for a market, it is not that we produce random products for anybody to buy, it has to be that you know that this is catered to the east, to the west, to India, to north of India, to south of India because tastes are different across the country and across the world. So I think that is very, very important, it has to be targeted, it has to be organised, census has to be done in a proper manner and a ministry which allocates funds properly to various sectors, we talk about artisans, we talk about crafts people, but they are not the only ones suffering. There are small businessmen who are designers. Now, some of the artisans have become designers and then they have employed people coming from Bihar. You know currently from IICD, we are supporting a lot of artisans and they say, Ma’am, we have money to support ourselves, but these people who have migrated and who are now working as block printers in our company, they need support, can you give them food. So the whole thing has changed, you know it has evolved over so many years. So the current situation has to be studied, that has to be kept in mind and everybody should benefit out of it and that will only happen when we organise like IKEA does, so that organisation has to come in, you know, and from the side of government it is very important.
Suresh: Laila, is the solution to the craft problem or creating a ministry like Tulika says, what would you like the government to do?
Laila: Well, I think there is a lot of debate on that and some people say that a separate ministry for the craft sector will make the craft sector even more marginalised that it is and while others feel that no it would give it more visibility. I think the jury is out on that one, but I do think that there needs to be a complete shift in the government perception of the sector where they are not looking at it as picturesque, but rather primitive activity, which has to be propped up with subsidies. They need to look at it as a sector of huge potential in the international as well as the national market and they need to look at it long term instead of the short SOPs that they give in terms of these little schemes and things and I mean even the design and product development which I think all of us agree is a crucial area if Indian crafts is going to stop looking backwards and look forwards. It has to be that the designers who are sent out to work with crafts people need to be briefed, they need to be a potential buyer at one end and there needs to be a crafts community at the other who are also expressing their wishes, their potential, their skills. At the moment, it just doesn’t usually. Some poor kid is sent off there, doesn’t know the A to Z of the craft techniques and technology, they don’t know for which markets they are selling, they don’t know their price points, they don’t know even sometimes their sizes and the crafts people think of designers as some sort of magic wand who is going to come and change their lives for them. So, I think there needs to be a lot more communication, there has to be a lot more planning and I think in all this, the government has to be the person who is enabling and not actually running. I mean my first thing would be to shut down those government emporiums and those state handicrafts corporations because I think they actually make people think that craft is incredibly boring and depressing and too expensive and irrelevant and I think instead of that if we could actually have people writing in proposals which make sense which have business plans and the government either funds this or doesn’t. It is not actually necessary to have the government in it at phase 1, I mean, Dastkar for instance decided some years ago, about 20 years ago that we wouldn’t take government money and we actually are completely unfunded now. We support ourselves from the revenue we generate. It is possible, but if you are looking at the craft sector in the long-term perspective, which I think we have to, then I think you do need a government which is open, which is flexible and which is responsive.
Suresh: What do you think it will really take for the Indian crafts sector to grow at a rate to create sustainable wealth for the actual producers, that people at the bottom end of the chain who are actually doing all the hard work?
Christine: It is going to take a few things. I think quite a lot has actually already been said interestingly, although in different contexts. Design does play a huge part, I think whether it is from India, whether it is from abroad, there needs to be good collaboration. I think design schools you know and I can see that Tulika has already very cued up as to what is going and I think the design schools play a tremendous role in understanding, you know in teaching how the craft is working, I mean it is too difficult, it is not my world to say how you would marry it up more than you are already doing, but I think more marrying up, more exposure on both ways for the craftsman to designers and designers to crafts people because you know that is an obvious one. If that is a good collaboration, then, sky's the limit. As Neelam I think mentioned is you know, elements of technology whether it is working in the virtual space, why should crafts not be allowed to use some form of technique that makes things a bit quicker, I mean, I am not a purist so Laila may be slapping me later, but..
Laila: No, I am saying exactly the same thing.
In order for the craft to expand, they need to be able to produce more than output. So, I think a small amount of mechanization. I realise in India we have very complicated schemes. I was talking to somebody who is on the faculty at NIFT and he was telling me even if they do that, then they don’t qualify for handicraft, they go in some other sector and I am like does it really matter, you know if they could just be allowed to do their jobs. So I think all that mechanization, that investment is essential. How do crafts people get money, I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about what the schemes are. But why can’t there be these micro financing and then teach them to entrepreneurs, I mean, you have got all the young generation from the craftsman, your next generation can be doing all of this, doing stories on Instagram, telling the story of craft. So I think there is huge potential and it has all to do with modernizing, thinking modern, not just saying craft is stuck. I loved the idea of glitzing Baba Kharag Singh Marg in Delhi and turning those emporiums into vibrant places, I mean, you do have Kamala there which I think is a very good example of what craft can look like which is the Delhi Crafts Council store, which I send everybody to shop there and I am like skip the rest because it is all dusty and tired and boring, that is not what craft is about, it is not what the export craft is about. The craft that is being exported is very vibrant and amazing, but there is a lot of work being done by the middleman and I think the crafts people themselves could do a huge amount and it is companies like IKEA, I think there is a company called Westtown which is working a lot down with the grassroots and interested. So encouraging people like that to come in and work in India will definitely help to expand and grow and teaching business skills, business accounting, basic training and I don’t know where we are in skill training, there seems to be a lot of talk about it, but when I actually talk to crafts people in a rug weaving area or wood carving or wherever and I say are your children going to do this job and they usually say no and that is very concerning because who is going to do that job when their children don’t do it. So how can we energise, maybe by giving these you know not so complicated certificates of training diplomas. In the old days in Britain, where I am from originally, you could go to college, technical college and just do a 1-year diploma and learn to be a plumber or an electrician. Why can’t we have crafts training like that and you need a certificate and the certificate is really important, it gives recognition and it gives skill training and we will have more people who will be able to do it. So I think that is quite important and just a lot more support in a business way. Like Laila and Neelam, I don’t believe the government should be giving hand-outs, I think we should teach people to fish and feed themselves because if they do that then they will be bigger, better , stronger and I think there is huge potential and there are so many people. I mean if we just take a map of India and stick a pin in it, you are going to find a craft skill or a craftsman. We need to encourage, we need to grow. We need to grow because when they grow they will become stronger and more successful.
Neelam: Next time please poll, how many men and how many women in the audience. I am serious. I believe when you have spoken this assembly line and mass production whatever, we need more left brain, right brain, all kinds of people in the sector. Jacob, my husband, went to Toyota to understand, he went to Japan on a 3-week free training to understand Lean production. So we used the principles of Lean production in our co-ops to make it more efficient like she said, but do you know what Lean production is based on? He met an 80-year-old teacher, the guys who founded Lean production, who founded 6S, who founded the Toyota way of manufacturing, all artisans. Jacob came back and said Neelam, from a Toyota assembly line there is a blue Innova, then there is a yellow something else and there is a green something else. The Toyota assembly line doesn’t spit out a 1000 blue Innovas, no, it is all customised. So I really think design education has never taught enough about production, manufacturing, so it took me 20 years to find out what a production engineer is and there is this Indian Institute of Production Engineering in Bombay and then I got the interns and I said take every craft and break it up into processes. So there is a lot to this sector and the last thing I will say is this sector has to mingle with other sectors.
Alright, Laila, quick comment from you before I go into audience questions.
Laila: Well, first of all I absolutely agree that we have to improve the technology of craft, not only to make it quicker, I don’t think perhaps we need such quick craft, but to make it more acceptable to the people, less hazardous to their health, more easy for them to do and more appealing to them as a profession because let us not forget we are losing 15% of our crafts people every decade and I think that the drain is going to be even faster now. So to just increase customer awareness of craft or make them want people to create markets is not enough unless you have crafts people who want to join the sector. They are all extremely savvy now, they are much more proficient at whatsapping and Zoom and all this than most of us are and they use it a lot, I mean, I have been doing so much design development in last few days on WhatsApp, but I think we need to empower them to use all that and that crafts should be directed now by crafts people and their potential and their requirements rather than either by government or by the NGO sector or even by designers.
Tulika quick comment before we go.
Tulika: I just wanted to add that that is why craft education is very, very important, you know because as Christine also mentioned just now that a lot of youngsters don’t want to do it and we have been facing this, so I think it is not important for the child of craftsman to take up the same thing if he or she doesn’t want to like a doctor or a engineer’s son doesn’t want to become a doctor or engineer, it is up to them, but we need crafts schools to enable other people to become if they want to get into the line of crafts and we have good schools in the country, but we need many more. So my emphasis on ministry of crafts is because then we also need to have at least 1 institute which is a craft institute in every state of the country and like at IICD, we invite crafts people to teach, so they are teachers. You know they teach because what they teach we cannot teach, none of us can teach. So I think that is very important that we get them in as faculty. We include their learning and we build a strong education, you know, like how computer science or something else has come up, like that craft education really needs to be a part in this country and only then we will be able to do justice, I feel.
Suresh: I am going to ask Devika to answer this question. This is what differentiates an equitable collaboration between designer and craftsperson and when does it become glorified slave labour. Tough question. So Devika if you would like to take a crack at that? What is a true equitable collaboration?
Devika: Okay, the answer is that it is if I say from my point of view, when I work in a community or with the community, there is no me in the process, I am water. So I go in, I don’t have a plan. I mean I have a business plan. I know what we need to achieve in terms of livelihood, in terms of earning, in terms of which market to tap and what to do, but I have no idea of what to create. I sit there and I soak up what they create and very often like Laila knows that the stuff that I cook up, say in Ranthambore is a completely new craft because our task there is to actually generate employment to communities that weren’t into craft before. So I would spend a couple of weeks in a village talking to women day after day and there is really no skill in terms of craft that can be sold, but you know they braid hair really well, so what can we do with the skill of braiding and then you sort of plug in the fact that your main centre generates a whole lot of chindhi, a lot of scrap, until we braid the scrap and we think we could make mats and flat products out of it. The women for the life of them cannot make a flat mat out of a braided stuff, so we get these stuffs and we sort of think should we make bowls, should we make hats, should we do this, should we do that and suddenly somebody says, oh this looks like a turtle and then we say, oh great let us make turtles, and then from that turtle, now the chindhi animal brigade, I think 30 animals formed and it is our fastest selling product and it was no craft. So I do not know at what point there was me and at what point, them. It has never been me and them, it has been together. It is the same thing that the birds we do now. So we know there is no slave in the picture.
Suresh: This question is simple, Neelam. Why hasn’t a craft-focused e-commerce platform taken off in India? Why don’t we have a big giant e-commerce craft player?
Neelam: Because we don’t have supply chains to back it. It is all about supply chain. When the person or the brand or the company based in the US says move this ikkat from hand Ikkat to screen print ikkat, what is that person saying.That the supply chain for the hand ikkat is not in place. The number of artisans for hand ikkat are in place, but the organized supply chain is not in place, and that is actually what Laila is referring to when she says that government support is needed. Because are these supply chains going to be built by every exporter? not possible. Again, I want to call out, the government is not going to give you the money to build the supply chains, it is not going to come from there, we are going to come up with our own ways of how we are going to build supply chains for scale.
Suresh: Is there a danger of serious dilution of the craft form itself when these economies as scaled are driven by the export market when we want more of something and then we are willing to mechanize or dilute the actual craft, at what point does it cease to be the craft itself?
Laila: I think the thing is not so much the numbers, because India has the potential to produce craft in numbers, though again because different crafts are different. There are some where there is a huge potential for multiplication and there are other crafts which do not have the numbers. But I think they all could deliver. The question is time and the money to buy the raw material to produce it. Usually the exporter, or particularly, the e-marketer is expecting a finished product. He might pay for it quite soon, but he is not going to invest in the process of the production and sometimes if you want to upscale the numbers, you have to improve the machinery, the equipment, buying raw material really extraordinary, how many crafts people still buy raw material from the mainstream market because they don’t have the capacity to buy in bulk or order in numbers in advance. So all those things have to be streamlined and put into place and there is where I think this whole investment is required to create these stable production units from crafts people who still work as a kind of family activity, sometimes even part time along with agriculture.
Suresh: Can you give us an example of a country that has managed their intangible cultural heritage and crafts sector very well from a government policy level. Can you think of a country that has done this well?
Christine: There are so few countries with craft centers. Probably, Japan has this very precious craft there. It is the only country that I am reasonably familiar with. I don’t know Vietnam or Cambodia. I would think, countries east of here. Actually strangely, Morocco still does seem to, I don’t know what the government involvement is, but if you go as a tourist to Morocco, you do see they have the ceramics, they have the rugs, they have the metal working and I did visit one of their metal working places, so maybe Morocco is managing it, but it is very small scale and when somebody wants to buy bigger scale, they will come to India. If they want a Moroccan looking lantern, they will buy it in India, because I don’t think the craftsmen in Marrakesh can provide it. Maybe Japan.
I was very impressed when I went to Indonesia 2 years ago to see how they weave.
Possibly, that’s another country that is organized. I have no visibility on how the government involvement is. Maybe in Indonesia, perhaps you are right. It is between their Batic and their wood, they do have a lot of craft.
Suresh: What are the rules for marrying crafts and technology so that it is meaningful to the craft?
Tulika: There are no rules as such but I think people have to look at them one by one and the most important thing is that we do not dilute the crafts. We need tools, we need technology, but we do not have to dilute the craft. The spirit should be there. The motives are also changing and things will change. Also, I keep reading about newer technologies that are coming in; and I think you know how the doctors can do surgery with the use of technology sitting miles away; and I think something like this can also, it is called haptics, so if there is this one person who is making a beautiful pottery or he is doing a kind of some interesting work, embroidery or something, it is not machine, it is handmade, but the same person can create it faster and if more demand of similar type comes, because what I see in the west is they want very standardize products, they don’t really appreciate a lot of differences in each product, so this way technology can help us. And of course, all the e-commerce platforms. There is something new that I was studying, but I haven’t completed it, but that can really help with payments, because there is a lot of issue about karigars and artisans not getting payments and if we use that technology, the buyer is bound to pay the supplier and the karigar puts up his work and there is a kind of a bill which will go and then he will have to pay, he cannot not pay. So this way we can use technology, not to mass produce, not at all, but to create similar products by the same person faster and also to market it, to sell it.
Suresh: Is there a platform that can channelize the energy of designers who are maybe doing commercial work, but would like to do a little bit of work in the craft and do a little volunteer type?
Alright, so join ADI, step #1.
Neelam: ADI should be the platform. There are a lot of requests for these things to become monthly. Do something craft-focused monthly. I said ADI will do it. There are a lot of requests for weekly online courses. It is all in your chat, I am reading, I opened the chat right now. So there is a ton of stuff there. I have even checked how much they are willing to pay per week. One lady has said she will pay 1000 rupees per week per session for 1.5 hours.
We are thinking on these lines of creating these online courses.
Right now, I believe ADI should just start with the volunteer thing, start with something and it is just simple. I think everything happens only when it is forced to happen. You have got at least 50-100 people like me, Devika, Laila, Tulika, Christine, who will want to give back. Just start. That is the only way to do this.
Suresh: Devika, same question to you. If a dozen volunteers came to you, would you be able to deploy them?
Devika: Of course, I do it all the time. I know that Dastkar really does that.
Laila: We would love them but they have to commit to spending some time, because the craft sector is not something you can step into for a week or so. It has to be a little more intense than that.
Devika: Exactly. So when somebody approaches me and says they want to spend time working in the craft sector, I have a set of rules, and the first thing is commitment. It is not something we can plug in and plug out, but even then if the student says I have only 2 weeks to do, then I give a task for those studies, you know, create mood boards, document this technique, get the social survey done. I give tasks like that. It does not always have to be designed, and I think even in the entire discussion I want to bring this back into focus. That for me is when you look at craft and when you look at design and markets, it is people before product, always, and that we cannot forget.
Suresh: And that philosophically is the most important point.
Devika: Most important. People first, process next, product last.