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Crafts Aren't Just Our Heritage, They Are India's Global Comparative Advantage

23/05/2016 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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India, Gujarat, Kutch, Dhrang village, Ahir ethnic group, embroidery

M.N Upadhyay in his book Handicrafts of India beautifully described the diversity of Indian crafts and textiles: "To write about Indian handicrafts is almost like writing about the country itself. So vast, complex, colourful, and yet with a simplicity and charm, difficult to attain under comparable conditions."

[T]he global market for handicrafts is $400 billion with India's share below 2%, representing a tremendous growth opportunity.

The historically imbibed plural aesthetics of Indian handicrafts are priceless economic and cultural assets of the country. The production of handicrafts is (after agriculture) the largest source of income among rural populations -- an estimated 11.65 million Indians were engaged in craft production in 2013. This is expected to grow to 13.93 million in 2017 and 17.79 million in 2022. Data from unofficial sources indicates that up to 200 million artisans depend on their crafts for a livelihood, suggesting the need for a more rigorous mapping and understanding of the sector. A 2013 report in The Hindu states that the global market for handicrafts is $400 billion with India's share below 2%, representing a tremendous growth opportunity. It further states, "According to the 12th Five Year Plan, handicrafts production is expected to double between 2012 and 2017 and exports are projected to grow at the compounded annual rate of 18% during the same period. As a result, the craft sector will employ an additional 10% of individuals per year up to that time.

We need public-private engagement in this segment more than any other, so that the original and historical 'Make in India' products can be revived.

However, a growing array of critical issues encompasses the dynamics of the multi-layered crafts sector. While the question of employment viability hovers over artisans struggling to meet ends meet today, there is also a responsibility to ensure that age-old handicrafts sustain into future generations too. The question of posterity becomes vital as we passively witness the fading of certain craft forms (some have already vanished) -- the very survival of certain artisan communities is threatened. India has highly skilled and trained artisans or karigars, and we must share the responsibility to further boost their livelihood prospects. We need public-private engagement in this segment more than any other, so that the original and historical 'Make in India' products can be revived. Crafts are not only our heritage, they are our global comparative advantage.

[I]ntegrating disciplines like fashion, design and craft is an ideal way to foster 'Craft in India' through quality innovation...

The last decade has seen several designers and entrepreneurs redefine and explore new avenues of business with the reinterpretation of traditional craft forms through design interventions and collaborative initiatives with craftspeople. The government's 'Make in India' initiative is breathing life into some relatively unknown varieties of indigenous fabrics. Thanks to the efforts of designers and some state governments, fabrics such as ikat and uppada silks are seeing a surge in popularity, as are the more popular Banarasi and khadi varieties. This has, in wonderful ways, formed a bridge between rural and urban India and producers and consumers, previously somewhat distanced by geographical and emerging class divides as India economically thrives. While this movement has not been equitably spread, the impact has been laudable.

Collaborating to contemporize 'Craft in India'

YES Institute's 'Craft in India' series, through its inaugural initiative 'Living through the Crafts: Reinventing Traditional Embroidery' held in April 2016 in association with the National Museum, Ministry of Textiles and the 'Make in India' initiative of the government probed through the language of embroidery, the role of artisans in the creative industries. An insightful discussion between Laila Tyabji, crafts revivalist, founder of Dastkar and a Padma Shri recipient, fashion designer and gara embroidery reviver, Ashdeen Z Lilaowala, and master embroider, Asif Shaikh, focused on revising the role of artisans from labour to valued craftspeople. Credit-sharing and recognition are the best forms of gratification for artisans who have over years been devalued as "skilled labour".

Over the past 30 years, the number of Indian artisans has decreased by 30%, indicating the need to re-invest in artisans to safeguard history, culture and livelihood.

Asif Shaikh, a UNESCO Seal of Excellence winner, recently curated 'Walking Hand-in-Hand' at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, which witnessed collaboration between several designers and craftspeople to facilitate the inter-exchange of knowledge of skill and craft and market and design development. It empowered artisans in innovative ways, allowing them to perceive their role as "design enhancers" and "entrepreneurs". It has been noticed that the nature of contribution of artisans transforms radically when they feel respected and valued. 'Walking Hand-in-Hand' fruited into a collaborative fashion collection with equal honours shared by designer and artisan. Collaborative experiments certainly show a way forward and could be replicated at a larger level to pave the way for a hierarchical/structural change. This is also an interesting means to define new aesthetics -- integrating disciplines like fashion, design and craft is an ideal way to foster 'Craft in India' through quality innovation, adding creative value to the contemporary design market through indigenous craft.

Multi-layered challenges

While design interventions have become imperative in the revitalization of crafts, these traditional forms also become vulnerable to various external forces in the process. There is always the possibility of practitioners adopting the motif and style of older crafts, but rarely the technique and age-old aspirations that have sustained them. A larger debate between the handloom vs. powerloom continues to hover over the craft, fashion and design segment. Handicrafts comprise the second largest source of employment in the country after agriculture. Yet India's handicraft industries are in a state of crisis. Handloom, or fabric woven by hand, makes up just over a tenth of India's total textile production. Within the handlooms, a spectacular range is created by weavers across the country, from the Kanchipuram weaves of Tamil Nadu to pashmina and shahtoosh of J&K, from bagru and ajrakh of Gujarat to the eri and muga silks of Assam. Many handloom motifs and patterns cannot be replicated on powerlooms, imparting an astounding exclusivity to manual diligence.

Given that the artisans and communities are the custodians of their indigenous craft, documentation training and efforts must be pushed at the ground level...

Sustainability is the way forward, which in this case implies both survival of crafts integrated with livelihood prospects and environmentally sound practices. The handicrafts sector has a low carbon footprint since it is essentially driven by human power. However, most of these crafts are intuitively imbibed and practiced making them temporal assets, dependent on communities and future generations for survival.

As the industry faces the threat of becoming unrewarding, centuries-old techniques and skills could be lost permanently. Over the past 30 years, the number of Indian artisans has decreased by 30%, indicating the need to re-invest in artisans to safeguard history, culture and an important source of livelihood. Documentation of the material and production process becomes highly critical -- so far, it's an area that has been given negligible attention. Given that the artisans and communities are the custodians of their indigenous craft, documentation training and efforts must be pushed at the ground level, conjunctly with private and government bodies.

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