Crafts in Retail

Markets, Marketing, Trade

Crafts in Retail: The Kamala Experience

Rai, Purnima


Only  a few centuries ago, in  pre-industrialised India , almost everything that served a purpose in daily life was made by hand using simple tools and locally available raw materials.  Ranging from utilitarian products to highly decorated and complex ones, the staggering diversity was a result of the creative interplay between form and function, between material and process and between meaning and expression. A variety of influences which included climatic conditions, religious and cultural beliefs, availability of raw materials and a definitive aesthetic were the matrix out of which sprang this vast multitude of objects made for clothing, ornaments, personal decorations, ritual and votive offerings, the built environment and much else.

The cycle of making and usage was perfected over several hundreds of years in a number of different ways.The gathering together of artisans in markets in villages was perhaps one of the earlier systems . It was usually held in specified locations and provided a pre-determined point of exchange. The sale was made directly from maker to consumer and would probably have included the barter system of trading . Interestingly, this system continues to this day both in rural and urban areas and the volume of business transacted in some of these markets can be quite substantial.

In contrast, during the Moghul period a large section of handcrafted production was organised in workshops which produced highly embellished and decorative articles as well as textiles mainly for the use of the royalty and the aristocracy. Paintings, woodwork, jewellery, jade work, bronze and weapon making, inlays both in wood and stone and the superb textiles made during this period reflect the direct involvement of the patron.  Such objects and textiles were also enriched by designs and techniques which show influences from other civilisations.

Another way of trading, that of export, has a very early origin. For several thousands of years Indian textiles have been bartered and exchanged in trade with countries stretching from China to the Mediterranean. Through overland and maritime routes these textiles were traded as commercial commodities made to the requirements of a foreign consumer. Entire townships in India were sustained by this demand for many hundreds of years. Export of textiles to the East was also significant and catered to niche markets like the royalty in Thailand.

It was during the colonial rule and immediately afterwards in the transition to industrialisation in the last century that the many of these known channels of trade for hand crafts and textiles suffered large scale disruption affecting the livelihoods of the millions of artisans who produced them. The slow mode of production and fragile inter-dependent system of trading prevalent for many centuries was shattered by the onslaught from mechanised production.  ‘Technological’ advances and other discoveries of the time also had their own adverse effects , the discovery of synthetic dyes in the West almost killed the unrivalled production of natural dyed cloth in India.

The challenges that the artisan had to face in order to survive in this changed climate were manifold.  On the one hand, some of the traditional handcrafts had to find different, usually urban markets in which they could be sold, and on the other hand, the new markets thus found were looking for products which would compliment a new way of living, thus an element of design and adaptation had to be introduced. With the markets and the clientele receding and becoming more and more distant, the artisan in rural areas was often dependent on an intermediary.  Many of the NGOs ( non governmental organisations ) who worked for the sector were impelled to take on this pivotal role but it was inevitable that some private enterprises proved to be exploitative.

One of the first organised attempts soon after independence at marketing crafts in retail was the the iconic Central Cottage Industries Emporium ( popularly known as the Cottage). Cottage was started by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in 1952 and was able to effectively showcase the diversity and richness of Indian handicrafts sourced from many different parts of the country.  Kamaldeviji’s dedication and energy soon made Cottage a true repository of Indian crafts known all over the world. It became profitable enterprise as well ; many branches were soon opened across the country. Along with the Cottage Emporiums, several State Emporia were also opened in New Delhi. Brilliant in its concept, that of bringing before the urban public, authentic crafts from the various states of India, within some years official indifference and lack of vision ensured that barring a few the rest had lost their pre-eminent role in promoting crafts.

Many years later, the Dilli Haat , modelled on the bazars prevalent in many rural parts of India was opened in Delhi.  This unusual and interesting effort was the result of a partnership between Dastakari Haat Samiti , an NGO and Delhi Tourism ( a governmental body). It was built on a long strip of land reclaimed by building over an existing nala ( waste water channel) in the centre of Delhi.  Space here was at a premium and would normally have been impossible to obtain. Along with crafts, stalls for various regional cuisines were also set up.  The traffic-free pedestrian space provided a secure and vibrant environment and artisans were able to interact directly with customers. Many large exhibitions and craft related festivals and events are held at Dilli Haat fulfilling the main objectives of the initiative.

However such efforts were few and far between; there was a glaring paucity of professionally managed marketing initiatives for craft, especially in the context of the extraordinary large numbers of skilled artisans still working in the country.  Most NGOs who were in touch with craftspeople and worked for the development of crafts at grass-root levels viewed the idea of ‘marketing’ with a bit of scepticism. It is likely that they believed that marketing entailed a ‘commercial’ aspect that was at odds with their objectives. NGOs like Sewa, Dastkar, Dastakari Haat Samiti as well as the Crafts Councils were happy to work on promoting crafts through bazaars and exhibitions usually availing of grants from the government. They were indeed successful in their attempts at linking the rural producers with the urban customer. Such efforts also laid a fertile ground and framework for future developments in the retailing of handicrafts.

Amongst the few private organisations that stepped in and invested in marketing the handmade in retail in the initial period was Fabindia. It became known for establishing many benchmarks in how to work in a professional manner with the artisan. Clothing brands like Anokhi and Tulsi also successfully established their retail outlets for designed and hand worked textiles.

The Crafts Council of India ( CCI) , an NGO working in this sector since the 60s , entered the retail space for marketing handicrafts in 2005. By then it had become apparent that one of the pressing needs of the sector , that of marketing , required much more than the sporadic attention it was receiving. Along with Delhi Crafts Council, a regional chapter, CCI set up KAMALA, a small retail outlet for crafts in New Delhi dedicated to the memory of its founder Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.

Starting with the interiors, the approach to be taken at KAMALA was clear , it needed to reflect the philosophy of the handcrafted. Therefore natural materials like bamboo, stone and textiles were used throughout the interiors along with simply worked out displays using bamboos.

Interiors of KAMALA using natural materials like bamboo

The ambience was designed to offer a harmonious and up-market experience to the customer while buying crafts, the attempt being to ensure that craft is displayed in the best possible manner and in a setting commensurate with its inherent value. As a corollary , the prevalent widespread practise of selling craft at a discount was actively discouraged at KAMALA. Such ‘incentives’ only served to devalue the handcrafted product.

Some of the noteworthy efforts in regenerating traditional crafts that have worked well at KAMALA include bamboo chiks which is a traditional craft of the northern region.  It started  initially as a design project undertaken by Delhi Crafts Council ( DCC ) intended to introduce new designs into the market to address the steadily dwindling demand for chiks.  The project , however, in spite of many efforts like promotional exhibitions continued to be commercial unviable for DCC. Therefore,  another attempt was made to revive it now through KAMALA. Proper systems of measurements, quality checks , necessary documentation and most importantly regular interaction and monitoring of the artisan were some of the aspects to which due attention was paid this time. The success of this consistent input which could be carried out at KAMALA with some ease,  is evident in the sizeable quantities of chiks currently being processed , they are also being exported. The orders have increased dramatically over the years, so much so that the next generation of chiks makers, who had gone into alternative sources of employment like driving scooters and other menial jobs have once again gone back to the craft and are able to earn a decent living from the orders.

As far as innovations are concerned , at KAMALA the artisan himself is always an integral part of the process. His insights are found to be invaluable, reflecting as it does a thorough knowledge of the material coupled with years of experience in dealing with the technicalities of production along with a creative ingenuity suited to his craft. Such a dialogue is also essential to help retain the identity and special features of each craft.

Umar Daraz, a gifted kite maker from old Delhi, also in need of work, is an example of such a close collaboration. The idea of creating wrapping paper using his kite making skills was conceived and discussed with him. He came up with startlingly modern designs and colours which became instantly popular, so much so that the range was expanded to include gift bags and notebooks. He was able to introduce several innovative ideas like using ice cream sticks as ties in the gift bag.

Wrapping paper and gift bags made by Umar Daraz, traditional kite maker.

These appliqués are created by Sirali, a non-traditional self-help group of women in Jharkhand who have also trained in design workshops with DCC. Through their work they have been able to interpret and express the modern world around them in a completely authentic way. Suggestions regarding colour schemes and sizes are all that is required for them to supply regular orders through the year.

Appliqué on cushion covers done by Sirali, a self help group from Bihar

There is a section devoted to traditional folk paintings , of which an enormous range is available readily. Interesting frames and ways of hanging are worked out to display them.

Kasuti ,a traditional form of embroidery done on a khadi saree with a new colour range different from the original colours of the embroidery. The designs and techniques remain traditional.

embroidery done on a khadi saree

Papier Mache containers made by Chakradhar, a papier mache artisan from Bihar. These are painted in graphic designs by his daughter . The suggestion of using colour sparsely was made to him and has made a difference to the visual appeal of the product.

Papier Mache containers made by Chakradhar of Bihar

It is gratifying to note how quickly most of the artisans supported by KAMALA have become adept in the use of modern technology.  They have been able to bridge the gap of long distances by communicating using the latest technology and ‘apps’. This ease of communication has greatly facilitated the sourcing and supply of products from distant corners of the country , this in turn has benefitted the artisan by saving both time and money spent in unnecessary travels. Each and every time, the artisan has proved to be pro-active and forthcoming in his dealings once a basic level of trust has been established.

Over a short period  KAMALA has become self sufficient and does not need any subsidy to keep it running. Besides the commitment and voluntary services of the team of members responsible for running it , all operational and infrastructural costs are covered from the sales and all profits are ploughed back into the project. The fact that a single outlet of about 1600 square feet takes care of the needs of almost a thousand artisans speaks volumes for the potential for growth of such participatory ventures.

KAMALA is a retail space with a difference;  it is run by two organisations with a stated objective of supporting and sustaining artisans , nevertheless it is important to look at the value of providing such a service. Although essential, economics is perhaps only one aspect of the endeavour.  Keeping the artisan at the centre of this initiative, KAMALA is able to provide an important and much needed interface between a new market and the artisan who often feels he is working in isolation but is eventually able, with some help, to make sense of the enormously expanded global world and his own special place in it.

The world connected with handcrafts is going through unsettling times thus affecting the second largest community in the country in terms of employment . It is common knowledge that everyday many hand skills are disappearing , many more are being steadily decontextualised and de-rooted. It is therefore critically important to look at creating new and enabling environments for crafts to survive. It is not a matter of aesthetics or profits, what is at stake here is the potential for harnessing large numbers of human beings in occupations that allow them to lead lives of dignity and self worth. It is important to realise that many of these traditional occupations using hand skills are not only repositories of cultural identities but are also investments into an ecologically sound future. All currents trends predict with certainty that ‘handmade’ is going to become the luxury brand of the future. An awareness of such an outcome and India’s central place in it should play an important role in shaping the future map of handicrafts and the many hands that make such a future possible.

First published in Varta.

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