Sustainable Future for Craft Traditions

Mahatma Gandhi had placed the centrality of hand-production within the framework of India’s struggle for independence from British imperial rule. The bonfires of imported clothing, the hand-spinning of cotton yarn and the donning of handwoven clothing called “the livery of freedom” by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of free India, were all potent symbols of the Mahatma’s vision for a self-reliant India that was closely linked to the resurgence of its village industries.

Craft has been the focus of researches and books in different fields. The focus has been towards specific aspects, such as job creation and the impact of the sector on the overall economy of a country. This approach, then, risks focusing only on measuring the sector and/ or its impact, overlooking the specific features which makes crafts and other forms of cultural creative goods unique. The production and consumption of these kinds of goods is linked to culture, an approach that can bring out these nuances is necessary. 

Craft is not industry. Nor do artisans perceive it that way. Traditional craft in India was not made in large-scale factories or production lines. In Kutch, a desert region in western India, an individual or family conceived the object to be made, produced or procured the raw materials needed, and created it; it was holistic creation. Nor was craft distributed in mass. The artisan knew the user, and delivered his work to him directly. Each artisan family had its own clientele, and there were often hereditary, personal relationships between makers and users. Traditionally craft was made in a community-based horizontal social structure, in which artisans all held more or less equal economic and social status. 

In the 1950s as India began nation building, balancing traditions with modern technology and ideas, it focused on rapid industrialization. With inflation and the influx of cheaper industrially produced products, traditional clients of rural India began to prefer plastics, synthetics, and mill made fabrics to hand craft. At the same time, the concept of design as an entity was introduced to India. Seeking alternative clients, artisans looked to more distant, unknown markets, often through intermediaries such as designers and traders. The commercialization of craft used an industrial model in which the assumed goals are to manufacture faster, cheaper and in a more standardized way.

The introduction of design, as “intervention,” began a process of separating concept and execution, resulting in the perception of artisan as worker. “Intervention” further comes with an implication of power and hierarchy: that designers have valuable knowledge, while artisans have less valuable skills. Thus also began cultural dis-empowerment. Relegating artisans to worker status results in minimizing value for their work, little to no opportunity for creativity or recognition and, finally, waning interest in craft, particularly among the next generation of artisan families.

Education for Artisans

The concept of the design education program is to value traditional craft as cultural heritage, to take traditional knowledge as a pre- requisite and provide what is understood as higher or specialized education directly to artisans. The goal is to enable artisans to increase their capacity by utilizing their strength—creativity—as well as labor. Simultaneously, by bringing artisans in touch with contemporary markets and teaching them to innovate within traditions, traditions are also sustained. The intent is that through education artisans gain respect as well as income. Underlying this concept is the belief that money-profit, scaling up, etc., is not the ultimate goal. 

Changing Goals and Perspectives

Artisans understand that craft is more than earning a livelihood. They are working to earn a livelihood; simultaneously they are also clearly working for satisfaction. They have choices in means of earning. In institute intake interviews, many artisans have cited the freedom of working independently as an important benefit of earning through craft. They also understand that there are other measures of success. When a group of weaver graduates was recently asked if they considered themselves successful, nearly all of them answered yes. Asked to define success, they detailed the following: “We confidently know good design, we now have our own concepts and identity, we know how to take feedback, we can talk to our customers. Success is having a voice,” 

Strikingly, not one artisan spoke of success in terms of money. “My early goal was money,” Dayabhai explained. “My goal was to educate my children. Now, it is to be my own person. My elder son told me not to weave. Now people from all over the world come to my house, so I have value. It’s not about just money.” Asked if their goals had changed because of design and business education, Prakashbhai laughed. “Before the course, we had no goals!” he said. “Previously there were no choices,” Dayabhai concluded. “Now, weavers who continue their tradition do it by choice. We can share our experience with the next generation. Now we can think of the benefit to our community.”

Approaching Creative Craft Culture—Craft  Communities in the Market

In Kutch, craft was traditionally exchanged in a barter system. Weavers, printers and dyers gave fabrics to herders and farmers, and in turn received milk, goats and grain. When asked how they insured that goods exchanged were equal in value, Irfanbhai, Ajrakh printer and SKV Governing Council member, said simply, “We didn’t.” People received what they needed when they needed it. The shift in conception between this traditional valuation system and the commercial market is enormous.

Crafts is receiving a growing attention, the Do It Yourself (DIY) movement as well as the focus on craft within policies for urban generation and economic development seem to show that craft is also an important sector that can stimulate cultural but also social and economic development

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