Dastkar and the Marketing of Craft

Case studies, Craft, Handloom, Art, Markets, Marketing, Trade, Organisations, Institutions, Movements

Dastkar and the Marketing of Craft: A Subsidized Con Trick or a Success Story

Tyabji, Laila

Many of those entering the big orange doors of the Dastkar shop in Hauz Khas Village, in search of a hand-crafted gift or embroidered kurta, are quite unaware that anything except lower prices and the absence of air-conditioning mark it out as different from the other 70-odd shops and boutiques that surround it. Others, activists and NGOs, question why Dastkar, a registered voluntary society and development organisation, has anything to do with a “commercial” activity like marketing.

For Dastkar, however, the Dastkar exhibitions and Bazaars and our shop – run on a non-profit basis, with craftspeople owning the merchandise, and donating 20% of their monthly sales to the running costs – are a linked and essential part of the support services we give to craft producer groups all over the country and. Helping craftspeople learn to use their own inherent skills as a means of employment generation and self-sufficiency is the crux of the DASTKAR programme. Giving them a market to do so is the culmination of as well as the catalyst for the varied DASTKAR projects, training programmes, product development inputs and loan capital assistance to our family of craftspeople.

The Dastkar shop and the Dastkari Bazaars are where we test-market not just the potential of Dastkar-developed products, but the efficacy of Dastkar-developed solutions to the problems of the craft sector in the current economic climate. Is craft commercially viable today; or is it just a subsidized development sector cop out? Much depends on the intervening agency or NGO.

The means to earn and be independent is the carrot that can lead rural craftspeople into the development process. Similarly, an attractive cost-effective product is the carrot that can tempt the urban consumer into contributing towards that development.

Guiding the process – from identifying the skill and creating awareness of it’s potential in both craftsperson and consumer; developing, designing, costing and then marketing the product, and finally (but as importantly) suggesting the proper usages and investment of the income generated, – is the role of the NGO or development agency. And there’s the rub….. A cause, however meritorious, or a slogan, however emotive and catchy, does not sell a product. The consumer does not buy out of compassion. The end must be competitive – not just in its worthiness of purpose, or the neediness of its producer – but in cost, utility and aesthetic.

The handicrafts sector is always thought of as a very comfortable place to create more income and employment, especially for women. It is a home-based industry which requires a minimum of expenditure, infrastructure or training to set up. It uses existing skills and locally available materials. Inputs required can be easily provided and these are more in terms of product adaptation than expensive investment in energy, machinery or technology. Also, income generation through craft does not (and this is important in a rural society) disturb the cultural and social balance of either the home or the community.

The energy of a new source of employment and income can have a catalytic effect in revitalising communities that were as denuded and deprived as the arid, devastated landscapes around them – Urmul, SEWA Lucknow, Banascraft, Ranthambhore, Sandur Kushal Kendra, are just some of the examples Dastkar has been personally involved in. SEWA Lucknow started in 1984 with 12 women, a tin trunk and 10,000 rupees. Today there are 3,800 women and an annual turnover of over two hundred million rupees!

But there are dangers. Success stories are to be learnt from, not blindly followed. The craft sector is already a very crowded place and the existing market inadequate for the number of producers trying to squeeze into it. We should think carefully before creating more. Strategies, however successful, should not become static. In the Dastkar Ranthambhore Project, (started 4 years ago to provide work to women in re-settled villages displaced by the Ranthambhore Tiger Park) the 100-odd women today sell about eight lakhs of goods a year through DASTKAR. But, as numbers and production capacities increase, they have to think of markets and products with an outreach beyond Hauz Khas Village and urban bazaars. The next step is their own shop in Ranthambhore, selling products developed for village consumers as well as tourists visiting the park.

Similarly, SEWA Lucknow gradually built up its production capacity, brand name and turnover for the first ten years, selling one-of-a-kind kurtas and saris, exclusively through it’s own periodic exhibitions and sales. Today – with sales at each five day exhibition an unmanageable 7-8 million rupees – it needs to, and is in a position to, branch out into wholesale and export orders; and is exploring the possibilities of an all-India infrastructure of franchise marketing. All too often when we think of employment generation for women; we think of that employment as a kind of handout or hobby. We should be very, very sure that that employment, and the payment for that employment, is not just a subsidized placebo, but an integrated part of a long-term economic strategy.

An NGO or women’s group however, often comes together with different priorities and objectives – health, social awareness, environmental issues or education. The income generation component of their project is tacked on later, when they discover that without an immediate economic solution it is difficult to make an entry into the target community, or win their confidence. It is then tackled in an off-the-cuff, short-term way by people who, whether they are grass roots activists, Gandhians or missionary Fathers are obviously not professionals in merchandising and marketing! All too often, making money (let alone a profit!) is dismissed as the least worthwhile and meaningful component of the project – a rather degrading activity for a social welfare organisation.

I agree that income generation, by itself, should not be considered a synonym for development. It cannot – and should not – be. It is, however, if used skillfully, the entry point for many other aspects of the development process – education, health and family planning, social awareness, women’s upliftment. The primary aspiration, the first request, of human beings everywhere is economic freedom – from husbands and fathers, from exploitative landlords, from money lenders or middlemen, or whatever. Therefore it is frightening that this crucial aspect, on which the livelihoods and future of lakhs of men and women depends, is undertaken in so casual a manner.

So often the key decisions of identifying the product and it’s potential market are taken quite at random. There is no market survey, no checking of locally available raw material or un-tapped traditional skills, no costing, no identification of potential buyers or marketing chains. There are no production plans or financial forecasts. Endless schemes for tailoring units, patchwork, knitting, weaving are initiated. Unemployed craftspeople become Trainers and, in turn, train more unemployable people to make more unsellable products. Endless cross-stitch ‘Duchess sets’ and crochet table covers proliferate, regardless of a glut in the market of thousands of similar, useless, badly put together and over-priced products. Subsidized discount sales, stipends and grants disguise the economic unviability of the stock-piles of unsold goods. The inherent skills, strengths and motifs that exist in every traditional community are not even studied or understood.

Nowhere in the commercial sector would the development and sale of thousands of lakhs of rupees of products (let alone the livelihoods of thousands of people) be left to part-time amateurs (however well meaning) with no experience or training in economics, product design or merchandising. But in the craft and development sector, a bureaucrat (who has come from the Waterworks Department and will be in Family Planning next year!) can become a arbiter of what a export line of soft furnishings should look like; or a nun be forced into making decisions on employment strategies for empowering thousands of tribal weavers.

Obviously they have no alternative except to plunge in and follow their instinct. The imperative to do something and to do it soon, is just too strong. The field organisation does not know whom to contact, and the institutions that are supposed to help, whether NID, the Export Promotion Council, State Development Corporations or the IITs and Marketing and Management Institutes, are often very remote – both geographically and in their understanding of the problem.

So, more carpet training centres start in non-wool producing areas at a time when the traditional carpet industry is already in recession; Tribals are encouraged to laboriously embroider satin-stitch tea cosies with Little Bo Peep on them (regardless of the fact that the intended consumer increasingly drinks his tea ‘ready made’ in a mug!); Meanwhile industrialised units in Trans-Jumna replicate tribal jewelry in white metal to meet the export and retail demand of frustrated buyers unable to buy the traditional product in its traditional place. Kantha embroiderers are given designs out of WOMAN & HOME; a well-meaning Managing Director of Orissa Handicrafts sets up a Training Scheme to teach Kantilo bell-metal craftspeople to copy Moradabad Brass; a highly skilled craftsman is brought to the level of an unskilled one by a well meant but pernicious daily wage scheme. There are hundreds of similar, unthought through, emotively conceptualised but potentially damaging initiatives all over India today.

Like any other entrepreneur, the NGO should explore the gaps in the market before production, rather than saying, “Well, I’ve got this product, let’s see where I can shove it in”. This is ridiculous and self-destructive. Nor should one say, “X did this and it was very effective so lets duplicate it on an all-India basis”. The success of the SEWA Lucknow experiment had people approaching DASTKAR to start chikan embroidery training units in places as far-flung as Madhya Pradesh and Bangladesh – each of which has its own unique heritage of much more appropriate local skills! The Sandur Manganese Company ran a Welfare Project for Lambani women at a loss for twenty years, before Dastkar suggested that the rich, inherent embroidery skills of the women could create much more marketable products than the machine tailored, badly constructed pink plastic bags and bibs they had been trained to make. The Lambani women went on to sell 3 lakhs at their first solo exhibition and now have export orders from all over the world.

Simply getting the product right is not enough either, without the right market outlets to match. NABARD recently approached DASTKAR to replicate its Ranthambhore project in villages throughout the area; several hundred had been sanctioned by the State Government towards rural development in the district. But when they were told that the creation of craft production units on such a scale would mean investment in a matching all-India network of marketing outlets and advertising, they disappeared, never to be heard of again….! Amul Dairy is the rural development success story. It gives employment to 16 lakh people. But it would not be able to do so without an appropriate distribution system; however good the milk, butter and cheese.

India is unique in still being able to produce a hand-crafted product at a price that matches, or is even cheaper than, it’s factory-made mass-produced counterpart. But public awareness of the cost-effectiveness, functionality and range of craft products is limited by their being sold only in exclusively “crafty” outlets. Hand-crafted leather juthis and bags should be sold with other leather products; hand-crafted baskets, bed linen, durries and planters be available in neighbourhood household emporiums; hand-crafted furniture in furniture shops rather than once a year at the Surajkund Mela.

A mind-set that restricts anything hand-crafted to a line of Government Emporia on Baba Kharak Singh Marg, the Crafts Museum and an occasional Bazaar, will only succeed in the increasing marginalisation of crafts and their producers. So will the idea that craft should be purely decorative bric-a-brac, and that tourists and the urban elite are its only target customers. The current much coined terms “exclusive” and “ethnic” are singularly limiting and inappropriate when marketing skills and products with a potential producer base of 23 million!

Those of us working in the craft sector are often accused of concentrating on the aesthetic rather than the economic; the cream rather than the bread and butter. Crafts in India have many applications, and an incredible potential. We should neither neglect the simple utilitarian crafts, or down-grade those that are art forms. It is sad to see the functional basketry and matting of the North East gradually being squeezed out of their State Emporia because they occupy more shelf space and are less value-per-unit than costume jewelry and garments. It is equally sad to see the living skills that made the Taj Mahal reduced to making pillboxes.

Serving tea in bio-degradable terra-cotta khullars on Indian Railways is often used as a paradigm for the practical, rather than esoteric, usage of craft. I agree, and far prefer the taste of earth to plastic. However, a khullar is the simplest item in the Indian potter’s repertoire. He is capable of making many other creative, useful and value-added products. I think the recent addition of planters, jars, lamp and table bases an equally exciting example of matching traditional producer skills to changing consumer needs. It has added a new energy to road-side potters colonies all over India, that might otherwise have died when the frigidaire replaced the surahi in the urban Indian home.

Every area, every community has a different tradition, a different need, a different capacity. Production and marketing plans should be based on these. Ideally an NGO should link the craft community to a consumer community which is close by; using locally accessible materials to make products in local demand. That way, both NGO and craftsperson are in control of the dynamics of production and market, supply and demand. One of the most satisfying Dastkar projects was where a group of women weavers from Tezpur approached Dastkar for help to enter the urban Delhi market. Dastkar product development, design and organisational inputs helped create a product that now sells so well in the local Assam market that they do not need the Dastkar Bazaars and Delhi market at all!

All the more disappointing therefore, that so many activist groups and NGOs opt for the urban retail market of exhibitions, sales and Melas, instead of the rural and institutional marketing that would be so much more appropriate to their areas of expertise and experience. Free too, from the moral dilemmas of a Gandhian organisation making and trying to flog high-price, high-fashion garments; or radicals agonising over whether to advertise in the Hindustan Times!

In recent times, the survival of many drought or disaster-prone areas of rural India has depended on craftspeople re-discovering the skill and potential of their hands. As Ramba ben, a craftswoman from a Dastkar project in Banaskantha told me,

“The lives of my family now hang from the thread I embroider”.

So, I do think income generation through the marketing of craft is something that can work – both commercially and as a catalyst for change and development. But it will only work if we think it through very carefully – with our heads as well as our hearts; with reason as well as caring.

First published in the CAPART magazine ‘Moving Technology’.

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Tyabji, Laila