With the onset of the new economic order in the early nineties, I believed that a special thrust had to be given to the craft sector to enable it to face the challenges of the coming decade. Crafts had to be looked at through hard economic mindsets rather than remain a part of a romantic-looking poster. This article was published in The Indian and World Arts and Crafts Journal in January, 1993 and reprinted in A Podium on the Pavement, New Delhi: USBPD, 2004.
There are some favourite catchwords of the nineties which signify people’s concerns and indicate an increased awareness of a new set of world values. Some of these are ‘eco-friendly’, ‘women’s issues’, ‘holistic development’, ‘crafts’, ‘vegetarianism’ and ‘organic’ materials for health. These are a part of the concerns of those seeking more peaceful alternatives for survival in a world which continues to be overtaken by profit and poverty-poverty not just of the economic variety, but a depletion of the moral fibre of ideologies and of humanitarian concerns. Unfortunately, however, the real agenda is drawn up by those who speak of ‘global markets’ and a ‘New Economic Order’. In this context it is important for all of us who are in some way involved in the propagation of our indigenous arts and crafts to shed the image of ourselves as the beautiful people of the crafts movement and see the situation as it really is. If we are prepared to do that we may manage to equip ourselves with enough commitment to convert our concerns into an abiding article of faith impinging on all spheres of our work and affecting all sections of our society. This alone will ensure the dignified survival of the craftspeople of India.
The urgency of the situation is belied by the proliferation of craft shops, boutiques, bazaars and emporia in the more well-to-do neighbourhoods of the country. Crafts are more popular, handlooms are more fashionable-this is the impression created. But is it really so? How many craftspeople and weavers are benefiting? The data collected by the Operations Research Group, a Tata-owned organization which serves the mighty corporate sector, found that in 1989-90, 69 per cent of the total artisan households in India earned up to Rs. 750 per month, which works out to Rs. 5 per day per head in an average household of 5 persons. Among the minorities and the really poor, where a family includes elders and more than three children the situation obviously becomes much worse, only 0.3 per cent of all artisans earn Rs. 4,000 a month. Among rural artisans (who are much larger in number than the urban artisans), 29.6 per cent households earn only Rs. 350 per month, 47.9 per cent earn between Rs. 350 and Rs. 750, 19.4 per cent earn between Rs.751 and Rs. 1,500 and only 3.1 per cent earn Rs. 1,500 a month. That is as high as it goes.
The craftspeople who come to the Surakund Crafts Mela, the Crafts Museum and the periodic bazaars are still only a chosen handful. Repeatedly buying the odd Tilonia chappal, Jawaja handbag or Sambalpuri ikat sari while thousands of roadside patterns, village weavers and deprived shoemakers go under because their markets have been taken over by the ‘New Economic Order’ must make us sit up and realize that there is far more that we have to do for the crafts and crafts people of India to survive as a thriving sector of a self-reliant economy. For this the attraction to handicraft and handlooms, the arts and folk styles of daily life must not just remain in the domain of the educated elite.
Handicraft and handloom bazaars should not be popular just because we get ‘arty’ things at a fairly inexpensive rate but because health, environment, education, self-value, exposition of cultural diversity and other such vitally important areas are linked to the need for sustaining crafts. We need to get beyond the romantic and aesthetic to face the grim realities of what craftspeople are up against. For this we must draw in shoppers from a vast section of people and link their concerns with the crafts movement more directly.
Let me demonstrate the ecology argument with a few examples. Take the kulladh – the earthen cup-made by our potters all over the country. With one crore passengers travelling by rail everyday, one lakh potter families would be kept at work daily if each traveller took just one cup of tea in a kulladh instead of a plastic or paper cup. The mud of the kulladh goes back into the earth without harming it. Hygiene is maintained by ensuring that it cannot be reused. Paper is saved and non-degradable plastic is avoided. Imagine the dimensions of a simple decision to use kulladhs everywhere-at every bus stand, canteen, cafeteria, roadside tea shop and, of course, the ‘arty’ restaurants? Not only the all-things-ethnic lovers but political parties, trade unions, schools, hospitals, offices and voluntary organizations across the country could lobby for implementation of this policy in their sphere of influence. Then it would be a real movement which would be difficult to destroy because there is simply no argument to do so. Economists should calculate how many kulladhs could be used in a day if all these organizations were to convert themselves accordingly. The employment thus generated would excel that of the corporate sector which is capital intensive and mechanized. Clay and fuel would be required but it is time that the potter’s right of access to these should equal the access of industrial houses to materials required for paper pulp, yarn and various other products. How many craft-lovers and craft-users can channel their efforts into making this a reality? People connected with the large corporate sector would not just decorate their gardens or front lobbies with earthenware pots to show their love for crafts, but should see that in their entire sphere of influence everyone uses only the simple lowly kulladhs. It is when such objects are used as a matter of course rather than as a fad of the intellectual and social elite that the crafts of India will find their rightful place. The vanguard or catalyst role has, of course, to be played by this section of our society, to influence all other sections.
The widening of our horizons as to what constitutes handwork will also help the crafts movement go forward immensely. Compartmentalised activity has in a way immobilized a concerted surge forward. For instance, for creativity to continue and encompass changing trends in society, traditional skills need encouragement to adapt and recreate rather than remain purist. Classical traditions in music, dance and theatre are lending themselves to modern themes, both secular and social, but crafts have not been helped to do so to the extent necessary or possible. Stone and wood carvers steeped in the tradition of making statues of god and goddesses, kalamkari artists depicting religious epics, mithila painter’s familiar images can surely allow more space for secular or non-sectarian themes such as the glorification of Nature, equality of the sexes, care for the community, importance of the girl child, anti-dowry, anti-rape campaigns and the preservation of water and other forms of energy. Surely our craftspeople should make their skills relevant to mainstream issues instead of constantly glorifying only gods and propagating myths and superstitious beliefs. If those of us who are part of the crafts movement are shocked and angry with the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya and the Shiv Sena attack on Muslims and all sorts of other ‘outsiders’ in Bombay, should we not guide our artisans to be relevant even outside the religious mindset? This is not to undermine the kind of sustenance religious festivals and establishments give to the artisan sector. For instance, the palm leaf baskets and tiny earthenware dishes with ghee wicks used or prashad and offerings at the Lord Jagannath temple at Puri keep thousands of potters and basket makers employed. Tomorrow, of course, the religious order may not be concerned if these are replaced by plastic and aluminium containers made in factories, but for the present at least, religious activity sustains artisanal activity quite unnoticed and unprotected by the doyens of the craft movement. Can we protect these markets or create new ones on such a scale? These are crucial questions require considerable introspection before they can be answered.
Educationists also have a special role to play, for which the promoters of arts and crafts must make special efforts to encourage. There have been valiant but minuscule efforts at orienting unique and rich contribution the craftsperson can make if they are taught at regular schools. The spiritual value of handwork, the recognition of our aesthetic heritage an respect for this toiling section of society that goes beyond admiring them as museum piece curiosities are important seeds to be sown in fresh minds. If our children at school can spend a couple of hours a week talking to, and working under, the benign direction of an illiterate potter or weaver, the value of real education would be understood by them. Many simple scientific principles can be taught by craftspeople. Regional embroidery traditions could be learned by young school girls. Why should Archie comics, Walt Disney cartoons or Barbie dolls define the world of fun and entertainment for our children? Have we nothing to offer from our folklore which could be depicted by folk painters? It goes without saying that the use of regional languages as a medium is important if we want to spread the movement beyond the English-speaking dapper youth of our jhuggi jhonpri (slum) colonies take to Fido-Pepsi T-shirts and imitation Levis much faster than our children agree to go to a birthday party in handloom or khadi clothes once they are old enough to say ‘no’.
While we continue to expect government to formulate bold and far-reaching policies to help the craft sector; we should realize that the responsibility really lies with us. The minister in charge of handicrafts and handlooms has most often had the least clout in the cabinet, and could not possibly support the economic reforms being pushed through by the government to the obvious detriment of his portfolio; so he probably has to remain silent. Most ministers will promise help to diametrically opposed platforms and, in that kind of situation, the group with the most money or political muscle wins. It is never the crafts sector unless we become their effective vanguard, not just their buyers of baubles.
When we influence the local teashop owner to switch to kulladhs, or force the imposing Krishi Bhawan to use handmade palm leaf waste baskets, instead of frittering our energies in symposiums, seminars and lectures, esoteric and academic, the crafts ‘movement’ will truly move ahead.