Giving Design Back to Craftsmen

Craftspersons/ Artisanal, Design, Designers, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

Giving Design Back to Craftsmen: Transformations in an era of Global Change

Ranjan, M P

From Tradition To Modernity
The Eames India Report of 1958 is a never ending source of wisdom about Indian crafts and design and looking back we find that little has changed of the core values that, the architects and designers, Charles and Ray Eames had articulated in their monograph that was responsible for the setting up of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. The note of caution that they held out is more real today with the pace of change and communication taking all of us on a roller coaster ride of our lives and with us the fortunes and travails of the multitude of craftsmen who have had an undisturbed tradition for over five thousand years of slow and evolutionary change. All this is gone. The comfort of slow change is shattered by the lightning speed and impact of communication that the Eames’s predicted in their report.

I quote

“ …The change India is undergoing is a change in kind not a change of degree. The medium that is producing this change is communication; not some influence of West on the East. The phenomenon of communication is something that affects a world not a country…

”They go on to add,”…The decisions that are made in a tradition-oriented society are apt to be unconscious decisions – in that each situation or action automatically calls for a specified reaction. Behavior patterns are pre-programmed, pre-set.

It is in this climate that handicrafts flourish – changes take place by degrees – there are moments of violence but the security is in the status quo.

The nature of a communications-oriented society is different by kind – not by degree. All decisions must be conscious decisions evaluating changing factors. In order to even approach the quality and values of a traditional society, a conscious effort must be made to relate every factor that might possibly have an effect.”


Designing A New Capacity
This explains why design is now becoming so important to the practice and in the very survival of the crafts sector. I have heard many NGO representatives and mastercraftsmen quibble about the dominance of the designer in the crafts arena. All I have to say at this stage is that they should shift their focus from the designer to look at the language, the mind-sets and skills of design in an attempt to appropriate these capabilities for themselves. Design is a very old human capability that has been forgotten by the mainstream educational systems and the traditionalist alike. Both these streams need to reestablish contact with the discipline if we are to face the vagaries of change that is upon us from all directions. Design is here to stay. The craftsmen have got dislocated from their stable milieu of village-markets and live user-contacts in predictable social settings by the rapidly expanding rings of communication that is both imploding and exploding at the same time bringing with it new competition and uncharted change, all at once. It is here, in a climate of chaos that the designers thrive, in their ability to map patterns of the emerging trends and fashion alternate scenarios in response. The language of design is the substance of complexity and of the management of a multiplicity of factors in a mode of synthesis rather than by analysis. Designers’ work in teams with methodologies drawn from over a hundred disciplines and creative solutions are crafted and delivered in real time or almost, in some cases ahead of time if we are lucky to have a visionary in our midst. The design language that I am speaking of needs to be explained and defined so that it is not confused with the bizarre offerings that come by the labels called marketing hype, style or even interior decoration. It is indeed a very different kind of activity that needs to be at the core of society and it has been a core human activity known to man ever since the beginning of civilization. However, now this activity needs to be done in tandem with dramatic change, with leaps of creative imagination and with equally rigorous testing for it to be credible and acceptable. It is as different from science as it is from art and it uses the tools and methods of all of them in a contextually determined manner. Design can be studied and the capabilities can be acquired along with the required mind-set change that takes it to different vantage from both art and science. It is this kind of assimilation of the design language that will make for the renewal of the crafts traditions and ensure the sustainability of our living crafts legacy.

Christopher Alexander, another architect and writer who visited India in the early sixties to study the Indian village for its generic qualities understood the evolutionary processes that had helped shape the Indian villages and establish their stable culture. This in turn had spawned the wonderful material culture and traditional mores that we are now seeing torn apart by the inexorable change due to the rings of communication moving both ways. Alexander was searching for the roots of meaning in the evolution of form in the man-made environment – and what better place was there to look at – than at a small Indian village that had an unbroken evolution of over five thousand years. For him the form of the village revealed a deep structure and in the process he extracted the language of form from which all human settlements could be unraveled and understood or be synthesized and created, as the case may be. For me it is a great source of pleasure to gaze at the Indian village forms and the network of ponds and roads from thousands of feet up in an aircraft and to reflect on Alexander’s insightful analysis of the evolution of human settlements.

Alexander has now gone on to apply his learning from the Indian village to many levels of design thinking and more importantly to position design ahead of the sciences in the manner in which our worldview would be influenced by their influence in the years ahead. According to Alexander, in the past century architecture was treated as a minor science with architects trying to be scientific in a hope to keep up with the “scientific” times. In the future, he says, it would be design that will shape our worldview in a manner similar to the role that was played by physics in shaping the worldview of the 19th and 20th centuries. His new four-volume work articulates this new understanding of design and we will see the influence of this renewed discipline in the years ahead.

This places design in a completely new context, that of providing leadership for our very understanding of change and with an even greater role in the shaping of our world in the days ahead. Our craftsmen cannot afford to be left out of this transformation activity or remain passive bystanders to the critical processes at work and there is no reason that the role should be appropriated by a body of designers solely by virtue of their training and in the absence of any effort to help the craftsmen resolve this dilemma for themselves. Now that we have established a new and greater role for design that is inevitable we need to look at the activity of crafts and the possibilities and challenges open to the craftsman in a living tradition in transition through tumultuous times.

Crafting a Challenge
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. However this potential should not get translated into mere wage labour but to value added employment that is both dignified and rewarding. The new craftsman would need to be both informed and competent to handle change and for this we would need to look at the processes and opportunities that are available for the education of the craftsman. The word education too will need to be redefined and we will return to this at an appropriate stage.

The existing handicrafts sector has massive resources of fine skills and technical know-how and are still active in various parts around the country in the form of the traditional wisdom still embedded in the fabric of our culture. But not for long! The handicrafts sector is an enormous source of employment, particularly self-employment, for a vast numbers of people and it 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 main 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 endeavor.

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. 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. This needs to change and change quickly and in the right direction

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. Prof. Gui Bonsiepe in his book has analysed the innovation perspectives in science, technology and design which shows us that the nature of innovation and the objectives and processes vary a great deal from one to the other while all three kinds are needed in an integrated manner to achieve market success. In India we have invested heavily in science and technology infrastructure while ignoring design over the years and for the crafts sector too we will need to correct this imbalance if we are to move ahead. Further the orientation of our institutional investments have been industry focused while crafts have been more or less relegated to self sustaining role with the exception of the very limited funding through the offices of the DC(H). This situation has continued unchanged due to the lack of a coherent plea from this decentralized sector and also based on some unsubstantiated fears and romantic notions that innovation in the crafts would destroy traditional values embedded therin. This is far form the truth and needs to be corrected forthwith. The crafts sector must make political demands on the access to and the use of the existing infrastructure of our national and regional institutions as well as seek to establish new initiatives that are focused exclusively on the needs of the crafts sector. The quality of these institutions and their facilities must not be in any way inferior to the standards set in the Institutions of higher learning across the country and there is a pressing need to encourage craft related and crafts mediated education at many levels in India. India is perhaps the only country in the world that has such an active craft tradition and therefore we need to develop our own models and not find ready made solutions form oversees. We will need to find the money for this transformation and the business potential of the alone is good reason for this and the other triggers are the hope for sustainable employment and decentralized development across the length and breadth of India as against the explosive development of the metros alone. We need a lot more research into mapping the traditions and opportunities in the sector and for this many areas of expertise needs to be encouraged to engage with the crafts from the perspectives of their own disciplines. The DC(H) could support research at the University level on numerous topics of local and national concern and build a significant body of knowledge that can be the driver of decision making and investments for the future.

Besides the hereditary craftsmen and their children, we need to look at a much broader catchments of human resources that can be mobilized to revitalize the whole crafts movement in India and in the process help build a competent and creative India of the future. This broadening of the base would help dilute the stranglehold that exists in the perceptions about crafts being a lowly activity and address the decay that is evident in the caste politics that is still in vogue today. 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. This kind of education is frightening and the course must be set right to enable our current craftsmen and the potential young craftsperson’s from being decapacitated by the spread of modern education with its limited focus on language and numeracy.

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 each 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 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. This can and must be done near their homes and these must be rooted in the local needs to be relevant.

New Initiatives in Education
We would need a two-pronged approach to education of the craftsmen. One to deal with the sustained creation of new craftsmen through the revised programmes in schools that I had called for at the CCI organized Shilpa Guru seminar in Delhi last year and the second to help our master craftsmen cope with the change through a special programme of education tailored for their need. This would need a massive infrastructure, nothing short of a crafts university, which can carry on systematic education of all players in the crafts sector and with a special emphasis on the needs of the craftsman.

I 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 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 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 craftsperson’s to meet the challenges ahead.

We need to do a lot more and to do it urgently. 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 throw 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 the platform for a creative India of the future.

Innovative Structures for Fusion with Education
For the continuing education of our master craftsmen we need to establish channels and institutional frameworks that could give them an ability to cope with the changed circumstances. I do not pretend that I know all that needs to be done in this sector but we should be able to look at a variety of models to cope with the huge variety of regional and material differences that need to be managed. The University system can be leveraged to bring design and other critical conceptual skills to the crafts community through special programmes offered to local crafts people during the summer and winter breaks that may be a slack season for the establishments themselves. Recently the award of a doctoral degree by a foreign university honoured one of our master craftsmen in Kutch is an interesting development to examine. Our own national initiatives to set up the Shilpa Guru and Mastercraftsman awards need to be taken well beyond mere recognition to include empowerment and the assimilation of transformational capabilities as well. This process must be very sensitively mediated since all our craftsmen are acutely aware of their strengths and of their weaknesses but the process of involvement must be with kid gloves rather than through some raw edged and abstract scheme that are not developed with their active involvement.

These two pronged approaches would help create young crafts persons in the long run through our school systems and create a recognised group of master craftsmen through the continuing higher education channel as well. Both these approaches need to use the vehicle of design and technology education in much the same spirit that the UK has been sustaining its programmes for design & technology at the school level. In India with its living crafts traditions distributed all across the country we still have the opportunity of linking these streams to the so called mainstream of the educational system so that both can benefit from this fusion.

Charles & Ray Eames, The India Report, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, 1958 (Reprint 1991)
Colin Caborn, Ian Mould & John Cave, “Design & Technology”, Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, Surrey, 1989
J A Panchal & M P Ranjan, “Institute of Crafts: Feasibility Report and Proposal”, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, 1993
M P Ranjan, Meghna Ajit, Kuntal De, Richa Ghansiyal, C S Sushanth & Deborah Zama, “Bamboo & Cane Development Institute: Feasibility Report for proposed National Institute to be set up by Development Commissioner Handicrafts, Government of India”, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, 2001
Rashmi Korjan, “Outline of Curriculum for BCDI Training Programmes”, in CD-ROM edited M P Ranjan, “Beyond Grassroots! Bamboo as Seedlings of Wealth”, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, 2002
Christopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts, 1964
Jay W. Forrester, “System Dynamics and Learner-Centered-Learning in Kindergarten through 12th Grade Education” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1992
Jay W. Forrester, “Designing the Future”, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1998
Jay W. Forrester, “System Dynamics: The Foundation under Systems Thinking” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1999
M P Ranjan, Nilam Iyer & Ghanshyam Pandya; Bamboo and Cane Crafts of Northeast India, Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, New Delhi, 1986
M P Ranjan; “Ecology and Design: Lessons from the Bamboo Culture”, keynote address at the International Bamboo Cultural Forum, Oita November 1991 & subsequently published in Japanese in Asian Cultures’ Quarterly Magazine AF no. 65, 1992, The Asian Club Foundation, Tokyo. pp 60 – 63
M P Ranjan, “Bamboo as a Designer Material: Its Properties and Manipulation”, in Bamboo Craft Design: Proceedings of the Jagruti workshop, Eds. A G Rao and Madhavi Koli, Industrial Design Centre, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay 1994
M P Ranjan, “From the Land to the People: Bamboo as Sustainable Human Development Resource”, UNDP, New Delhi, February 1999
M P Ranjan, “Green Design and Bamboo Handicrafts: a Scenario for Action in the Asian Region” in Proceedings of the Vth International Bamboo Workshop, Bali 1995
M P Ranjan, Yrjo Weiherheimo, Yanta H T Lam, Haruhiko Ito & G Upadhayaya, Bamboo Boards & Beyond: Bamboo, the sustainable, eco-friendly industrial material of the future, (CD-ROM), supported by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Asia Pacific Centre for Technology Transfer (APCTT) and endorsed by International Network of Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) & International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID), National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, 2001
M P Ranjan, The Levels of Design Intervention in a Complex Global Scenario in proceedings of the Graphica 98 – II International Congress of Graphics Engineering in Arts and Design and the 13th National Symposium on Descriptive Geometry and Technical Design, Feira de Santana, Bahia, Brazil 1998.
M P Ranjan, Meghna Ajit, C S Susanth, Richa Ghansiyal, Kuntal De & Deborah Zama, “Bamboo & Cane Development Institute: Feasibility Report”, Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Govt. of India, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, 2000
M P Ranjan, “Beyond Grassroots: Bamboo as Seedlings of Wealth” CD-ROM of NID-BCDI projects, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad & BCDI, Agartala, 2003
Gui Bonsiepe, “Interface: An Approach to Design” Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht, 1999
M P Ranjan, “Design Before Technology: The Emerging Imperative”, Paper presented at the Asia Pacific Design Conference ‘99 in Osaka, Japan Design Foundation and Japan External Trade Organisation, Osaka, 1999
M P Ranjan, “Rethinking Bamboo in 2000 AD”, a GTZ-INBAR conference paper reprint, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, 2000
M P Ranjan, Jatin Bhatt, Madhurima Patni & Dr. Darlie Koshy, Craft Design: Major Education Programme, Curriculum Development Committee Report, Institute of Crafts, Jaipur, 1997
M P Ranjan, “Crafts in General Education”, Paper presented at “Crafts, Craftspersons and Sustainability” seminar organized by the Crafts Council of India, New Delhi, November 2002
M P Ranjan, “Crafts Training in India: New approaches and Initiatives”, Paper presented at “Kamala” a seminar organized by the Crafts Council of India, Bangalore, April 2003
M P Ranjan, Traditional Wisdom for Modern Design: Craftsmanship as a sensitive way finder for education, Paper prepared for the seminar organized Dastakar and OXFAM from 14th & 15th April 2003 at Anandgram, New Delhi

Paper prepared for the Brainstorming workshop on “Continuity embedded in change: Design and Technology up-gradation in handicrafts sector” organized by NISTADS, New Delhi, 3 – 4 June 2003


Your views


Access 70,000+ practitioners in 2100+ crafts across India.


10,000+ listings on arts, crafts, design, heritage, culture etc.


Rich and often unfamiliar vocabulary of crafts and textiles.

SHOP at India inCH

Needs to be written.