Tuesday 8 February 2011

Saving Crafts

Over the last year, I've been thinking on and off about how to save crafts in India from dying out. Interestingly, Subir Dutta, CEO of Apoorv.com, startled me a couple of days ago by saying that 23+ million people hand-making things from India, and that the overall market is Rs. 10,000 crores, largely for export (does this include handloom textiles ?) So what is the issue ?

The following dynamic seems to be at play
  1. Many crafts are dying out due to (a) being substituted by factory made products, (b) becoming obsolete, (c) or simply going out of fashion
  2. In general, traditional craftspeople do not earn very much, peanuts actually. And its hard work. Due to the caste system, it starts from childhood.
  3. Children are reluctant to follow in their parents' footsteps. School takes up time. Learning crafts is hard work, and at the end of the day, working in the city as a labourer often gives better returns
Some of the crafts are really beautiful. Patola, the double ikat from Gujarat, comes to mind. This dynamic of crafts dying out is true more generally of traditional trades and knowledge. For example, there are castes / tribes which specialised in capturing birds, and had nearly specific techniques to catch as many as 60 different species of birds. This kind of knowledge will surely die out as there is no real market for this skill any more.

So what has happened to keep crafts alive so far ?
  1. There is a strong push to try and keep the children in the community, essentially by raising the price point at which the work sells
  2. There have been a number of interventions by the design community to bring in fresh designs to the traditional craft. This may be as simple as recoloring, changing the patterns, or even changing the end products.
  3. There have been a number of interventions by supporters of crafts to rethink the marketing process for the crafts, in order to get a better price for the craftsperson
  4. And there have been some training initiatives also taken
However, the hard reality is that most of what is now produced as crafts / handmade is of relatively low quality. It has a market principally due to the design and marketing inputs, and due to the fact that it is hand made, not for the intrinsic quality of the work. Some part of the market is for souvenirs also. Sure, there are masterpieces still being made, but those are few.

The quality is not so great as the artisans are under pressure to create as per specific designs, on a piece-work basis, with no space for experimentation or failure. There isn't enough money in it. And so all changes have to come from the marketing side. This automatically puts a cap on the price that can be charged by the artisan. As an aside, I learnt that they forward thinking crafts persons involved in Durga Puja in Kolkata are putting their children through Art School, so that they have the real skills to command a high price.

Why we are trying to fight a losing battle, to save something that, by and large, is not worth too much ? We aren't trying to save the Palanquin manufacturers, or to take Adam Smith's example, the makers of hand made nails. So why these particular crafts ?

And most importantly, isn't this really a perpetuation of the caste system when we ask children to take up their parents' trades, regardless of their own inclinations ? Maybe they are better at being software engineers. Or growing rice. Or basically any of the millions of things that someone can do for a living today.

Looking at other countries, there are a number of areas where there is a strong and growing supply of hand made articles at price points that make sense for the artisan. In the US, quilts come to mind, but take a look at basketry or textiles or even pottery. Some salient points come out :

1. There are no traditional craft persons. These are people who have learnt these techniques out of interest. A lot of them are women. Look at Indian classical dance for similar models
2. There is a whole ecosystem built up around it. Art schools. Craft supplies. Craft lessons. Craft DIY books. Contests. Craft tours. Magazines. Galleries. Kits for children to get them started.
3. A lot of it is sold as art, and usually not for use. 

My recommendation is that we take the stance that what is worth preserving is the craft, but not the craft person. This will have the following implications :
1. The top tier of crafts persons need to get formal art and design training
2. The 2nd tier would probably get into training
3. Start up a concerted effort to create a funnel to get young children to get interested in crafts
4. Create craft training centers, where the objective is to teach any and everyone how to do crafts
5. Add crafts to all the art schools - why is it limited to pottery, and not basketry ?
6. Develop and support the rest of the eco-system. 
7. Create centers where the equipment is available, well maintained and can be used by people from the community, a little like a library.

Over time, we will have a change in the people producing various crafts. Those in a craft would be there out of interest, and probably produce very high quality work. Some people will be able to make a proper living out of being part of the ecosystem. And the children of the current artisans would still have the choice. But it would be harder - they would need to produce high quality and creative work, not just mass produced souvenirs, where the money goes to the designers and the marketing people.

Some crafts will die out. And some will be so vibrant that their creations will surpass everything done so far. I would love to see and buy crafts that are really art rather than pathetic crafts at a mela, which I don't need but I feel sorry for the artisan, and guilty about not supporting India's heritage.

At the implementation end, entrepreneurs should look at the overall ecosystem to identify niches that they can serve profitably. It comes down to business model again. It may be as simple as specializing in all aspects of a particular craft. Or you can go horizontal and create craft supply shops, or craft schools, or a publishing house.

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