|I am fortunate to have been involved in the setting up of two significant new Institutions that are focused on the creation of trained human resources and strategies for the Crafts Sector in India. These are the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design, Jaipur set up in the mid ninety’s and the Bamboo and Cane Development Institute, Agartala. Both are informed by the vast body of work carried out at the National Institute of Design over the past forty years in our collective attempts to understand the role of crafts in the Indian context as a major resource for both design education and for the economic and social development of India as a whole. During the various deliberations that led up to the establishment of these new initiatives a number of insights emerged on the role of the crafts in India and the need for expanding the involvement of new players in the strengthening of the sector and expanding it in many new directions through design and strategic interventions. Some of these concepts were captured and formed the basis of our strategic initiatives for new education of designers and craftspersons to meet the challenges ahead.
The problems of the craft sector are manifold and it also represents a major area of opportunity for development planning in the scenario of the scanty financial resources available in our economy for such a widespread development initiative. Crafts are a great source of employment in our villages and towns.
The existing handicrafts sector has massive resources of fine skills and technical know-how which in some cases are products of centuries of evolution and are still active in various parts around the country in the form of traditional wisdom embedded in the fabric of our culture. The handicrafts sector is therefore an enormous source of employment, particularly self-employment, for a vast number of people who are otherwise involved in agricultural activities, represents an opportunity that cannot be ignored. In many areas, production of handicrafts is the sole sources of income for the communities for whom it is the only source of sustenance.
Traditionally, such handicrafts producers deal with local markets with which they had direct links through contact with the consumer, be it a bazaar buyer or a local patron. However, with the vast economic changes that have been taking place, most of these crafts are facing a very bleak scenario by being marginalised by a variety of industrial products, squeezing traditional markets or the margins generated by their endeavour.
CRAFTS IN A NEW LIGHT
It should be understood here that the term Crafts is used in a very specific sense to mean those activities that deal with the conversion of specific materials into products, using primarily hand skills with simple tools and employing the local traditional wisdom of craft processes. Such activities usually form a core economic activity of a community of people called craftsmen. The emphasis here is definitely not on Art although a very high level aesthetic sensibility forms an inherent part of our definition of craft along with a host of other factors that constitute the matrix.
This being an economic activity that is exposed and influenced by all the competitive pressures of a dynamically shifting marketplace, our new generation of craftsmen would necessarily have to depend increasingly on high quality market intelligence and strategies design to be pro-active, particularly while dealing with remote and export markets. The generally low level of education that is today available to the average craftsmen adversely affects their ability and responsiveness to such changing needs.
It is further restricted by the acute absence of capital and the lack of a free flow of knowledge about the competitive shifts that are constantly taking place in this information centered world. While the Know-How (How-to-make-things – knowledge & skills) exists abundantly in the crafts sector there is a severe shortfall in the Know-What (what-to-make – strategies & designs) that curtails the ability of crafts communities to survive intense competition or, better still, develop value-added solutions in the complex economic and social matrix in which they exist
Besides the continued and sustained development of the traditional crafts and their traditional stake holders, such as hereditary craftsmen and their children, we need to look at a much broader catchments of human resources that can revitalize the whole crafts movement in India and in the process help build a competent and creative India of the future. Much of our youth and the students of the modern education systems miss the critical values of crafts that were imparted in the traditional societies in India in the past in our villages. Today the so-called modern education has reached our villages too without any re-appraisal of the relevance of the inputs and the content and capability that they impart to our young learners.
The crafts sector by its very nature is heterogeneous, both from the point of view of the material and technological processes used in each of the crafts as well as in the situations in which the craft communities work in different regions of the state or the country. This implies that individuals working in this sector would necessarily have to be flexible and broad-based in their approach and be able to understand the large variety of technologies and have the competence to work in a generalist capacity A flexible outlook and a regional focus could give us both variety and relevance to local context in bringing the new crafts capabilities to our young learners as an integral part of their broader learning to cope with the new age ahead.
Crafts training with expanded mandate
While the programme proposed and implemented at the IICD, Jaipur were focused on the creation of young designers for the crafts sector our efforts at the BCDI, Agartala was on the creation of a new class of crafts-persons who would also act as entrepreneurs in the remote villages of our country, particularly focused on the development of the Northeastern sector. The curriculum that was designed from ground up looked at the needs and capabilities of the young candidates who were expected to join the programme offered there. We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to test our curriculum with three batches of craftsmen trainees, most of whom were women, and the results are indeed heartening. We now need to look further a field and see how crafts education can be introduced to the regular school system and the experiments done in the United Kingdom through the introduction of design and technology at the school level may through some light on directions for explorations in India.
Besides learning about the materials and technologies relating to particular crafts the students in our schools could also be exposed to critical project based situations as well as be placed in direct contact with craftsperson’s and other individuals working in the region through which they would gain insights into the human resource needs and aspirations of the handicrafts sector within the local context. Such an exposure carried out under the guidance of specially sensitized faculty, perhaps local craftsmen, would help develop the broad-based competence that is required as well as instill in the student a capacity to face complex problems and develop strategies for the resolution of these problems. I do believe that crafts education that goes well beyond mere hobby classes or vague introduction to the fine arts at the middle and high school levels can and needs to be innovated to make India a creative and potent force that it was when handicrafts was the basis for our local and export economy in the past. I do hope that we move towards such educational innovations that can indeed make a creative India of the future.
Paper prepared for the seminar organized by the Crafts Council of India from 4th to 6th April 2003 at Bangalore