|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.
“ …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
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 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
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
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.
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