Cultural Investing

Economics, Employment/ Livelihood, Livelihoods, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

Cultural Investing: Artisans, Livelihoods, and the Indian Context

Jongeward, Carolyn


The right to a livelihood is denied to millions of the world’s  poorest. Among those living in abject poverty are artisans in India. Their centuries-old means of earning a living has been shattered by modernisation and industrialisation. India’s Artisans Status Report states: Today most of India’s artisans are struggling for survival. Many have given up and moved away from their traditional occupations. Others cling on desperately not knowing what else to do or to whom to turn. Their skills, evolved over thousands of years, are being dissipated and blunted. Their progeny are not willing or able to carry on the family tradition, and a rich culture is on the verge of extinction. (Satyanand & Singh, 1995, p.1).

Strengthening the economic viability of craft communities is important to the sustainability of artisan livelihoods. This is a matter of survival for artisans. It is also necessary for the preservation of the world’s cultural diversity. Interventions based on the modernisation paradigm, and its narrow economic criteria of material progress, are not likely to create viable craft producing groups. This paper argues that there are other criteria by which the value of artisan activity can be framed. A more inclusive and holistic framework, congruent with an emerging paradigm of sustainable rural development (Shepherd, 1998), has potential to support the dignity and autonomy of artisans, the continuity of indigenous knowledge and cultural diversity, and the sustainability of local economies and communities.

Artisan Livelihoods
The crafts sector of the Indian economy is comprised of an estimated twenty-three million artisans (Dastkar). In terms of employment and contribution to the economy, this sector is second to agriculture. Many agricultural and pastoral communities also depend on their traditional crafts as a secondary source of income in times of drought, lean harvests, floods or famine. For women, craft is the largest arena of employment, as they use craft to enter the economic mainstream to become wage-earners (Tyabji, 1999). Between 1961 and 1981 there was a 29% decline in artisan population, and the number of women working in the artisan sector dropped by 73%. This trend accompanied a major shift from small scale to large scale industries, as well as a decline in household sector work and an increase in non-household sector work (Satyanand & Singh, 1995, p.15).

Artisans are among those in India who have the lowest social and economic status. Many are lowest in the caste hierarchy. Exploited by traders and middlemen, artisans have very little income. Indebtedness is a way of life. According to some scholars every feature of economics, society, and state was designed to keep artisans in their place in the scheme of things and strictly limit their mobility. Lack of education, illiteracy, and restrictive caste  barriers give many artisans a fatalistic acceptance of their low social status.

The words “artisan” and “craftsperson” are often used interchangeably and I will continue this use throughout this paper. The Hindustani word for craftsperson is “one who works with his (sic) hands” (Dastkar). This relates to the root meaning of manufacture, “to make by hand” (Merriam, 1975). The earliest specialists of manufacture made goods for everyday use such as, baskets, cooking vessels, agricultural implements, cloth, footwear, and ornaments. They also made sacred objects in accord with religious beliefs and ritual occasions.

Throughout millennia of Indian history, craft production has been a major means of livelihood. A system of manufacture was based on hereditary skills and forms of expression, and markets evolved through a traditional patron-client relationship. Intrinsic to the Indian way of life, craft work was essential to village and
trade economies. By the first century A.D., overland and maritime trade routes linked India with China, Mesopotamia and Rome. During Moghul rule, artisanal activity flourished and India exported vast quantities of textiles to markets throughout the world, attaining industrial supremacy until the end of the 18th Century.

Under British rule, the traditional Indian manufacturing economy was destroyed by means of a vast increase in imports of British manufactured goods to India, the imposition of protective tariffs against Indian exports, a drain of wealth in the form of raw materials to England, and the emergence of capitalist modes of production. Millions of artisans were forced into starvation. Pandit Nehru attributed India’s appalling poverty to the British destruction of India’s traditional artisan economy (Bhasin, 1997). Although Gandhian economics envisioned the continuity of craft as an essential and meaningful part of the Indian economy based in rural villages, the rulers of modern India did not take this development perspective seriously. Political and societal choices favoured modernity over tradition.

Based on the conviction that artisans, their skills, and their ways of life have social and economic significance, India’s Artisans Status Report was compiled to provide a sensitive overview of the artisan sector. In defining “artisan,” the report describes essential characteristics as follows: a person who makes goods or provides services to others using his or her own skills and labour. Further, artisan skills are traditional, which means their skills have been historically associated with a particular artisanal activity even though these may have been adapted over time to evolving technologies, materials, and products. Artisans work individually or at the household level and they are self-employed in the sense that they enjoy the whole produce of their labour, or the whole value added to the materials on which their work is based (Satyanand & Singh, 1995).

The status report outlines major reasons for the current state of poverty among artisans, including: (a) disappearing markets, (b) technological obsolescence, and (c) poor government planning. First of all, there has been a dramatic shift in consumer choice from artisanal goods to factory made ones. This has been the result of a number of factors: (a) aggressive marketing and advertising strategies of the organized industrial sector; (b) mass production of goods of uniform quality at prices which artisans cannot easily compete; (c) financial incentives, benefits, and reliefs extended to the organized industrial sector but ordinarily not available to artisans; (d) preferential access to credit, raw materials and infrastructure extended to organized sector but artisans have handicaps such as, a lack of capital to purchase good quality materials in bulk, scarcity of raw materials, and absence of infrastructure in the way of work sheds, power, and storage space; and, (e) preoccupation with urban and export markets which diverts energies and resources that otherwise could be invested in building up local and sustainable markets for artisan products.

Second, technological advances have benefitted the factory sector in terms of efficiency and quality of output, and machines can imitate intricate designs that once were the exclusive domain of artisans, passed down from generation to generation. Dependence on capital-intensive western technologies and lack of investment in indigenous technological research has resulted in the failure to develop technologies appropriate to the craft sector.

Third, after 40 years of planned development, government planners remain conceptually confused about the role of the craft sector in India. Some stress the importance of keeping the cultural heritage alive. Others emphasize the employment generation potential of the sector. As a consequence, artisans have been viewed as part of the welfare sector, propped up by subsidies and grants, rather than as part of the core economic sector (Satyanand & Singh, 1995). According to Bhrij Bhasin, former director of the Handicraft and Handloom Export Corporation and the Cottage Industries Emporium of the Government of India, A great deal of lip service is paid by the government in India to crafts production and development, but official policy is actually active in destroying the traditional crafts support base. On the one side, there are extremely powerful forces of industrialism, capitalism, and consumerism and, on the other side, there is the ruling elite actively welcoming these forces. Crushed in between is the humble artisan. (Bhasin, 1997 p.2).

There is enormous diversity among the groups called artisans or craftspeople. India’s Artisan Status Report differentiates eight groups of artisans according to the kinds of raw materials they work with: metal workers; wood workers; potters; textile workers; gem polishers and jewelers ; cane, bamboo and fibre workers; tailors; and leather workers. Each artisan group is further differentiated according to the parameters of: location (rural, urban, semi-urban); access  to raw materials (procured independently, supplied by customer or by co-operative); skill or technology used (manual, semi-automated); purpose of product (utilitarian, decorative, repair); market site (village, urban, export); sales channel (market, trader, co-operative), and employment status (self-employed, wage earner, co-operative). When this range of parameters is applied to artisanal activity, there are over fifteen thousand differently identifiable types of artisans in India (Satyanand & Singh, 1995) and the need for specificity within particular contexts is clear.

The nature of materials, skills, products, and employment are central to the above classification of artisans. This classification is congruent with the use of the word “crafts” 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 the core economic activity of a community of people called craftspeople” (Panchal & Ranjen, 1993, p.7). This definition of crafts, however, gives emphasis to the application of indigenous knowledge to the processes of transforming materials into products.

There are also cultural dimensions and intrinsic meanings associated with being an artisan or craftsperson. For example, particular features of an artisan’s environment–natural, social and cultural–shape artisan identities and world views. These in turn influence what an artisan makes and why he or she makes it. Secondly, knowledge, aesthetic sensitivity, and imagination are critical attributes which inform the processes by which a craftsperson works well with tools and materials. Third, meanings both inspire and emerge from the creative process of making things. The world of the artisan’s work is imbued with meaning. Eliade (1978) writes, “The imagination discovers unsuspected analogies among different levels of the real; tools and objects are laden with countless symbolisms, the world of work–the micro universe that absorbs the artisan’s attention for long hours–becomes a mysterious and sacred centre, rich in meanings” (pp. 34-35).

The domain of artisan livelihoods encompasses values and sensibilities that are not only material. I emphasize the primacy of artisan knowledge, as well as material and non-material requirements and influences. An artisan is part of a local and extended community of people with knowledge and ability to make particular objects by hand using relatively simple tools and equipment. His or her knowledge is developed over a long period of observation and practice–observation of a proficient or master craftsperson and practice in refining the variety of skills required to make a craft item well. An artisan’s knowledge encompasses hand skills, visual and creative thinking, aesthetic sensibility, and familiarity with craft and design processes and forms. Having acquired detailed knowledge related to the materials, tools, and forms and processes of his or her craft, an artisan produces objects that can have functional, aesthetic, and cultural value. Qualities of craftsmanship, such as, attention to detail, imagination, innovation, and refinement distinguish excellent craft work. The life and work of artisans exemplify particular ways of knowing and ways of being in the world. However, to sustain the continuity of their work and means of livelihood, an artisan requires access to appropriate materials and information about the kind of products that potential customers need or want to buy. Craftspeople need to know how best to reach their buyers and how to ascertain the value of their work and what price to ask. Changes in the marketplace have direct impact on artisans and influence the perspectives and attitudes of the communities to which they belong.

Craft and Sustainable Development
Tensions exist at the intersection between indigenous artisan knowledge and global economic forces at the end of the twentieth century. There is an apparent lack of fit between the world of the traditional artisan and that of modern urban-based societies. There is incongruence between indigenous artisan meaning systems and the operation of modern markets. In terms of quantity and speed of production, artisan technology and skill cannot compete with industry. However, the picture changes dramatically if you take the view that “the highest technical skill is hand skill….the human heart and hand together provide the highest technology that can ever exist” (Singh, 1997).

A definition of artisan as producer of goods and services for others underscores the difficulties for artisans in the context of the modern economy. There is a swing against small scale village industries and indigenous technologies. Multinational corporations–favouring macro-industries and hi-tech mechanized production, and supported by sophisticated marketing and advertising–have edged out traditional rural marketing infrastructures. Operating on a small scale, artisans can’t compete. They are exploited by middle men and trapped in cycles of debt. They are seen to be backward and not getting on with developing along western lines of progress. Their work is considered “ethnic” by urban elite. Artisans are often forced to abandon their traditional occupations, migrate to urban areas in search of a “better life”, and take up unskilled daily wage labour to earn a subsistence livelihood at wages that are often better than what they can obtain from their craft.

From another viewpoint, based on a more inclusive definition of artisans as people who have valuable knowledge, skills, and sensibilities, the loss of artisan livelihoods is not only an economic problem, it is also an erosion of cultural diversity. With artisans “drowning in global monoculture” (Stackhouse, 1999), the decline in artisan livelihoods worldwide is a global as well as local issue. Alarm is being sounded for the loss of ecological habitats and biodiversity worldwide. A similar alarm needs to resound for the loss of highly developed craft skills and knowledge, and the ways of life that are a part of an artisan’s work and environment.

Shepherd (1998) argues that old paradigms of development are breaking down and a new paradigm of sustainable rural development is being formed. Conventional development, a part of the modernisation paradigm, is guided by notions of material progress–growth of income and wealth, and poverty alleviation. Despite promises of prosperity, development schemes based on the goals of materially wealthy western societies have failed on a number of counts. They have failed to benefit the poor. Instead, the poor are victims of development projects that have destroyed land and resources, displaced traditional occupations, and ruined local economies. Particularly in rural areas, the poor have been marginalized by the development path taken by their societies. They have been devastated by the environmental degradation and social deteriorization that has come in the wake of development projects (Sainaith, 1996, and Sheppard, 1998).

The word livelihood is commonly defined in economic terms as the minimum necessary to support life, or the means of subsistence to obtain the necessities of life. This definition is congruent with material values of the modernisation paradigm, but inadequate to account for non-material values that are integral to traditional livelihoods. The language of sustainable development gives new meaning to the word livelihood, more aligned with the concerns of artisans.

Sustainable development refers to improvement in livelihoods which does not undermine the livelihoods of future generations (environmental sustainability) (WCED, 1997) and can be sustained over time (institutional sustainability). Livelihoods refer to much more than just income and wealth: quality of life and of society, security, and dignity might be just as important to those whose livelihoods need improving. (Shepherd, 1998, p.3).

In the context of economic and cultural globalization, can the craft sector be reframed within the emerging paradigm of sustainable rural development to protect local livelihoods and environments? Can artisans procure a sustainable livelihood by means of their craft skills and knowledge? The inadequacy of the modernisation paradigm to address the concerns of artisans necessitates a more congruent framework of analysis and criteria of progress to address the challenges of improving economic viability of craft communities. Sustainable rural development represents a shift from an industrial approach to technology development “to an organic or holistic approach, with sustainable improvement replacing profit as the implicit objective” (Shepherd, 1998, p. 10). The values and processes of sustainable rural development provide a relevant framework for formulating appropriate responses to challenges of improving artisan livelihoods. In the following I focus on four key issues: (a) local economy; (b) dignity and autonomy; (c) participation; and (c) learning.

Local economy
There is a growing awareness that solutions to complex problems among the rural poor may be found in small scale, local economic activity, with the use of low levels of technology and application of indigenous knowledge and skills. There is a movement towards local production for local consumption, reclaiming the economy in the service of people and communities. Microenterprise and village-level savings and credit associations create opportunities for the poor to increase their survival chances and economic security.

The craft sector has been tragically neglected. However, there is an increasing emphasis on redefining craft as an economic and development activity. With enormous resources of fine skills and technical knowledge, the craft sector represents an opportunity for employment for vast numbers of people who are otherwise involved in agricultural activities; and for some people, craft represents their only source of sustenance. Numerous development interventions use craft as a means of income generation. Craft is seen to be a catalyst for economic and social revitalization of fragmented and marginalized communities. Craft can also be an important entry point for aspects of development such as, education, health, community building, women’s emancipation, and the discarding of social prejudices (Tyabji, 1999).

Craft development interventions confront unique problems and challenges. In order for the craft sector to develop as a means to sustainable employment, intervening agencies need a working knowledge of design, product development, and marketing. Often NGOs and development agencies view craft as an income generation tool but they do not understand the problems of craft production and sales. Dastkar, an organization founded in 1981 and based in Delhi, works with 65 craft-producing groups throughout India to improve the economic status of artisans and promote the survival of traditional crafts. They provide input in terms of craft productivity and sales to help traditional artisans and low income craft groups to bridge the gap between rural producers and urban consumers. Dastkar’s programmes include: skills upgrading, credit, raw materials, product design and development, management training, and marketing support (Dastkar).

On the other hand, designers who work in craft development must be aware of the diversity of craft traditions and the problems and capacities of particular artisan groups. They need to be able to sensitively interpret a craftsperson’s tradition and design products that adapt traditional skills to suit contemporary tastes and needs. It is important that craft design and marketing interventions are not alien or in conflict with the artisans’ social, aesthetic, and cultural roots. In their work with craftspeople, Dastkar tries to create relationships of mutual understanding and trust, rather than imposing solutions from above.

Dignity and Autonomy
Craft products can be exchanged for money and they are expressions of a cultural heritage, but what is alive is the skill of the artisan who makes the objects. Increasingly, craft development organizations that aim to help artisans attain economic self-sufficiency  put the artisan at the centre of the process. They focus on the artisan as a human being with basic needs and rights and as a skilled worker who has abilities to make beautiful and useful objects. This represents a shift in emphasis from the craft product, and it’s role in the Indian economy, to the artisans themselves who have a significant role to play in finding solutions to their problems. Where the making of craft is a matter of survival, the objective is to help artisans  survive with dignity.

Autonomy, freedom, dignity, and peace–intangibles that have been neglected in the modernisation approach to development, are integral to the sustainability paradigm (Shepherd, 1998). These are essential qualities that enable people to feel secure enough to take control of their means of livelihood and to make choices about their future. Artisans who benefit from craft development initiatives gain self-respect and confidence that their own abilities can make a difference to the quality of their lives (See Jongeward, 1999a and Tyabji, 1999).

One of the implications of putting artisans at the centre of craft development interventions is the need to involve artisans in processes of change that effect what they make, how they work together, and the life of their communities. The importance of participation in development processes is increasingly recognized. This indicates a change in perspective about who’s needs are first and what’s important. In practice, encouraging participation means making spaces for the poor and marginalized to express their needs and concerns. It also means encouraging their involvement in decision-making and fostering a sense of responsibility for their own affairs.

Dastkar focuses on developing cohesive craft communities. The process of group formation and creating awareness and responsibility is a gradual process that can take longer than the process of designing and production, but Dastkar recognizes the importance of participation, especially for empowering women. They have seen how artisans gain confidence through participation, planning, and organizing local activities themselves.

There has been a search for alternative forms of development that promote learning and innovation rather than blueprint and top-down styles of development projects. Shepherd (1998) says, “If an agency is seeking to advance participation of the rural poor, it must develop the capacity to learn from its experience, and from the wider environment in which it operates. Similarly the  rural poor themselves will learn from experience” (p. 138). When rural development takes place as a learning process, research, analysis, reflection, and evaluation become central thinking activities. Also, participatory reflection and analysis become integral to the design, implementation, and evaluation of activities. Learning is emphasized among all those involved in the transformation process of improving livelihoods.

Organizations for craft development have a critical role in the development of new products and markets for artisans but they also have a role in fostering learning among participants and beneficiaries (Jongeward 1999b). Artisans themselves are learners when they are trained to use new tools or equipment or to make new products. They can learn every aspect of design and production in order to adapt their own artistic knowledge and understand the function of new products. Learning to work together involves learning to feel secure enough to trust one another and take the risks of trying out new things to do and ways to think. Given opportunities to learn about designing, problem solving, and managing, new leaders and innovators can emerge within community-based organizations.

Craft organizations are strengthened when they emphasize a learning orientation. A striking example is the Bangalore based Foundation for Advancement of Craft Enterprise and Skills (FACES) which was started in 1996. FACES adopted an open learning systems approach in their efforts to foster the craft community, develop the quality of craft, create equity for the tradition, and trigger entrepreneurship in the community. FACES  asks a number of difficult questions about how the values, meaning frames, and identities of artisans can be preserved even as they become integrated into the modern market and society.

Recognizing that craft interventions are not usually seen as community work, FACES is concerned about the need to sensitize professionals to do community work. To this end they appoint community facilitators, people who have previous experience in design and marketing, to stay in the craft villages for three years in order to gain knowledge of the socio-cultural context of the artisans and the communities’ approach to their crafts. The community facilitators learn to lead community discussions, identify needs for technological upgrading (eg. modifying the existing loom), encourage artisans to experiment with designs and come up with a diversified range of products; and, facilitate teamwork so craftspeople can meet large orders and achieve self-sufficiency. FACES has also developed the “home bazaar” as a means for artisans to learn about marketing their work in cities, and also for urban customers to learn more about the artisans and their craft (Raghav, 1999). In order to understand the complexity of the craft sector, and gain a rich picture of interactions among different systems that impinge on the viability of artisan livelihoods, craft organizations can use an holistic framework of analysis. To date, there is little precedent in terms of theory or practice related to the use of holistic approaches for interventions in craft communities. However, FACES used systems thinking in order to gain insight into the patterns and influences within the larger context of the craft production system. By mapping the systemic context of their intervention, FACES identified leverage points for future action to improve the overall health of the craft system (Raghav, 1999).

Will artisans not only survive but also have the freedom to choose craft as a viable option to do so? Will they want their sons and daughters to learn their traditional crafts and use this knowledge as a means of livelihood? Far-reaching social, economic, cultural and environmental changes have reduced the chances for artisans to earn a subsistence wage, and even more so their chance to utilize their traditional knowledge and skills. The right to a livelihood is a stake for millions of artisans worldwide. Also at stake is the continuity of cultural diversity which is supported by active artisan groups.

The combined efforts of many individuals and organizations will be needed to make a positive impact on the economic viability of craft communities and the continuity of artisan knowledge and skills. There needs to be greater understanding and appreciation of artisan knowledge, forms of expression, and ways of life. At the same time, the presence of a market which can absorb the products of their labour is essential. Further research will help to show how holistic approaches to craft development can sustain artisan livelihoods by creating viable local economies, ensuring the dignity and autonomy of artisans, and preserving the value of cultural diversity for the future.


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Paper prepared for presentation at the 1999 Conference of the South Asia Council of the Canadian Asian Studies Association (CASA) Montreal, Quebec. June 10
and 11, 1999.

Financial assistance during research in India was provided by the Government of India
through the India Studies Programme of the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute

This article was published in 2000 inSouth Asia: Between Turmoil and Hopeby Johnston, Tremblay and Wood (Eds.),

South Asia Council of Canadian Asian Studies Association and ShastriIndo-CanadianInstitute.

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