A recent headline in Canada’s national newspaper reads: “Artisans drowning in global monoculture” (Globe and Mail, October 31, p. C16). The article focuses on the impact of Western commercial products, open markets and mass media on the decline of artisan activity worldwide. This is not news to India’s artisans who are struggling for survival or who have moved away from traditional occupations. However, the loss of artisan livelihoods has become a global as well as a local issue. This is not only an economic problem. The loss of knowledge and ways of life that are part of an artisan’s work and environment is eroding cultural diversity. Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti (UMBVS) is one among many craft development organizations in India that are confronting the enormous challenges of establishing sustainable employment within viable craft communities. In a relatively short period of time, UMBVS has improved the social and economic status of hand weavers in Rajasthan and has contributed to the survival of traditional pit loom weaving. I had an opportunity to visit the Urmul Weavers Centre at Phalodi, Rajasthan, in November 1997. At the time I was researching community-based initiatives that support the continuity of hand weaving skills and knowledge in India. The purpose of my inquiry was to affirm the value of sustaining cultural diversity, particularly, the value of weaving as a way of knowing and weaving as a way of living in communities. While seeking information about innovative education and development projects that benefit hand weavers, I discovered that the Urmul Weavers Society was exemplary. Ram Chandra Barupal is chief executive of UMBVS and one of five weaver-managers responsible for running the organization. During my visit, Ram Chandra described the formation and development of UMBVS in a translated recorded interview. Beginning as an income generation project in 1987 and evolving into a successful community-based organization,
the Urmul Weavers Society has helped weavers transform their circumstances and their perspectives of themselves and others. Ram Chandra said, “It is a changing, dynamic process. When something demands that you learn, you set about learning it” (Barupal interview, 1997). Rapid social change, loss of traditional livelihoods and unprecedented environmental degradation are current global realities. More than ever, learning to learn
is a key survival skill. An ability to learn to adapt, “be in transition,” work together, solve problems, and innovate is increasingly important. In this paper, I draw from the example of UMBVS to explore how craft development organizations can create opportunities for artisans to learn new skills and transform their perspectives. My purpose is to show how new meanings for craft emerge through this learning process.
A significant precedent in Rajasthan for emphasising learning in development was the Rural University, also known as the Jawaja Project, which began in 1975 under the inspired guidance of Ravi Matthai (Gupta, 1992; Matthai, 1985). Generating self-reliance and mutuality was central to the deep involvement of people in development activities. The Jawaja Weavers Association emerged through a long process of learning to establish trust between outsiders and villagers and also to mobilize the resources of those who wanted to participate in the project.The Rural University emphasized people learning to help themselves and others, learning to help their community and other communities. Outside “experts” were also learning about the experiences and views of the villagers and they aimed to make themselves dispensable.
Urmul Weavers Society
The story of Urmul is a story of learning that has transformed the lives and perspectives of weavers in a number of villages of West Rajasthan. It is also a story of outsiders, including myself, who have participated in different ways in the learning process. The time of my visit to Urmul coincided with the semi-annual meetings held in each village to discuss whatever issues or problems of weaving production had occurred in the preceding six months. These meetings were also a time when the UMBVS managers shared information about new designs, markets, and initiatives. I was invited to attend several of these meetings. One afternoon I travelled by jeep with Ram Chandra Barupal, Revata Ram Panwai, manager of income generation projects, Bhagta Ram, weaving training
master and Kunjan Singh, textile designer employed by Urmul. Kunjan spoke English and she generously translated parts of conversations and taught me about Urmul.
Making a Difference
The village of Karwa is sixty kilometres east from Phalodi, about an hour and a half jeep ride on narrow roads through dry land. When we arrived, the Karwa weaving manager and two elders greeted us. We were told that the meeting would be delayed until weavers working in the fields returned at the end of the day. At dusk, when only a few weavers had arrived, the meeting was postponed until much later in the evening. Ram Chandra suggested this was a good time for me to put questions to the weavers. I asked, what is different now that you are weaving for Urmul? One young man said that now he has much more respect from people in the village. He used to take construction work to earn money, but now weaving lets him earn money and feel respected at the
same time. An elder expressed the satisfaction of being respected for their work, in contrast to the sense of desperation that forced them to take anything in pay. There used to be competition; if someone asked 10 rupees
for a piece another would undercut him by saying his weaving was only 8 rupees. Now there is a fixed price for each piece which everyone knows. “We are a community now,” he said.
For the weavers of Karwa, self-respect and a sense of community are central to their transformed perspective. These qualities emerged slowly as a result of changes in their circumstances after joining UMBVS. Before UMBVS began training weavers to make new designs and establishing markets to sell their products, weavers in many villages of the region had stopped weaving. Many of them had been investing money in yarn, dyeing the yarn, weaving, and then taking their products to markets. Sometimes their work would sell, but often they lost their investment and had to take out loans from money lenders, which resulted in the loss of some of their belongings. Some weavers had arrangements with merchant- middlemen in Jodphur, Jaiselmer and Bikaner. The middlemen provided weavers with dyed yarn, but paid very low wages for the weaving while selling it at a good profit. Ram Chandra Barupal’s story reveals the struggle to learn to weave at a time when many weavers had given up. Ram Chandra came from a village in Jaiselmer district where the stony rough land was not conducive to farming. He left school after ninth grade because his family was poor and he saw that he needed to earn some money. He did physical labour, including work in the salt mines. His father did not weave, but on occasion Ram Chandra tried to weave on his great uncle’s loom. Then, at sixteen, he decided to learn to weave. His family did not approve because they wanted him to go back to school. Ram Chandra worked alone to figure out how to make a warp, set up the loom and weave. He persisted even though no one supported what he was doing. Weaving appealed to him and he appreciated the historical and cultural aspect, knowing his ancestors had also been weavers. He thought weaving was a better way to earn money than doing tough physical work. Gradually he earned ten to
fifteen rupees for his pattus above the cost of the wool. Later he began buying wool in bulk and having other weavers make pattus which he sold at fairs and outside markets.
Nobody in his village knew how to do the traditional embroidery weave. So Ram Chandra bought a woven pattu from a fair and over six months taught himself the Bhojasari technique of inlaid weft. Gradually he became known for his unique pattus. Since he was able to weave fast and his quality was very good, he began to earn up to thirty rupees for a pattu while others earned ten to twelve rupees. However, when his family was in debt, Ram Chandra stopped weaving to earn more money. He took out a loan to buy seed to sell. He sold food at hotels and at fairs. He bought sheep and goats, reared them, and took them to sell in big markets in Delhi. He invested in a fodder machine and made fodder for cattle. But he didn’t make a profit from any of this work. When the Government of India sponsored a famine relief effort in the nearby Bikaner district in 1987, Ram Chandra went to work there on a watershed management project, building a small dam. Whenever he earned some money he returned to his village and his loom to weave.
Organizing the Weavers and Forming a Society
Leaders from the Urmul Trust, an autonomous organization based in Lunkaransar in the Bikaner district, had an important role in the foundation of UMBVS. They prepared the ground for weavers to participate in their own economic and social development. Sanjay Ghose and Tarun Salwar saw the potential for a good income generation project in the weaving of pattus using the traditional Bhojasari and Mhulani embroidery styles of the region. In 1987, they began looking for weavers who were able to do this technique. At an annual fair near Pokhran they met weavers who introduced them to other weavers who knew the traditional embroidery styles.
When people from the Urmul Trust met Ram Chandra Barupal and saw him weave, they asked him to come and work for them in Lunkaransar. They offered him a stipend of 450 rupees per month to learn new designs and train other weavers. At the time, Ram Chandra was earning more than 800 rupees by sitting at his loom. He told
them, “I’ll learn here. I’ve learned myself. Give me a new design and I’ll figure it out myself.” When the Urmul Trust persisted in asking him to train local weavers in Lunkaransar, Ram Chandra said, “No,” because there were
weavers in his village that he wanted to train first. He said that after teaching them for one year to weave and do the embroidery styles, then he would be ready to train other weavers.
Ram Chandra was one of five weavers that the Urmul Trust brought together from Jodhpur, Jaiselmer and halodi districts to live in Lunkaransar and learn aboutcreating and running an organization. The weavers learned the basics of marketing, accounting and shop keeping. They learned yarn dyeing and techniques for weaving new embroidery style designs and products designed by a student from the National Institute of Design. Dastkar, an NGO that helps bridge the gap between rural artisans and the urban consumers, helped with marketing advice and support. In the first year, fifty local weavers were trained. The Urmul Trust supplied village weavers with wool and paid them on a piece rate basis for everything they produced. Dastkar helped the Urmul Trust by arranging exhibitions and selling the woven products at city bazaars. However, few weavers in the villages were clearly informed about the Urmul Trust. They thought it was a rich international organization and they wanted to earn as much money as possible. The weavers produced in quantity, but their quality suffered and the Urmul Trust accumulated a large amount of poorly made unsold products. The Urmul Trust called a meeting of weavers and Sanjay Ghose explained Urmul’s objectives, saying, “You are poor people who have been taken advantage of. We want to organize you into a group that one day will stand on it’s own” (Barupal interview, 1997).
Product-related marketing problems had to be faced. Pattu weaving was traditionally done in wool, but the market for new woollen products such as cushion covers was seasonal. And people living in the cities of South India did not want wool furnishings because even the winter months are not cold. With product and marketing
advice from Dastkar, the decision was made to weave with cotton in order to reach a broader market and provide a steady income to weavers throughout the year. Problems with the yarn dyeing also diminished the popularity of products. Sales stagnated until several weavers were trained at Lunkaransar in the use of new chemical dyes and the quality of yarn colours improved.
Products started to do better in the market but there was still trouble with quality and with sending products on time. Urmul Trust could no longer accept poor quality work. Sanjay Ghose and Tarun Salwar went from village to village, explaining to weavers that Urmul Trust was a large institution with health and education programs and it was not imperative for them to support the weavers. They shut down the weaving production for two months to emphasize the need to increase the quality of finished work and stop dependence on the Urmul Trust. Only the very good weavers and the trainers continued weaving during that time.
In 1989, a meeting was called at Phalodi to discuss the formation of a weavers’ organization separate from the Urmul Trust. Subsequently, meetings were held in the villages to encourage weavers to become active in developing the organization. To instill a sense of ownership for the society, each weaver was asked to contribute 1000 rupees as capital; profits and losses would be shared by each member.
According to Sanjay Ghose, UMBVS “was borne out of a sense of desperation. They had to do something to get work otherwise they would have been reduced to absolute penury” (Ghose, 1992). UMBVS was registered formally and an elected executive committee was comprised of the five weavers who had been working at Lunkaransar. These leaders went back to Lunkaransar to learn more about running an organization. Each according to their interests, they learned about stock keeping, accounting, and marketing.
Soon the UMBVS leaders wanted to leave Lunkaransar and set up their organization in Phalodi, a central location for the weaving villages of Jodhpur, Jaiselmer and Bikaner districts. Sanjay Ghose and TarunSalwar were keen for the weavers to go on their own, but others at Urmul Trust did not support the idea. Instead of waiting and possibly not having any support for the idea later, the UMBVS leaders decided to leave for Phalodi. It turned out that half the weavers wanted to work in Phalodi and the other half wanted to stay in Lunkaransar. Some weavers mistrusted the leaders. They believed the leaders would exploit them, earn all the money, and do nothing for them. To settle the dispute, a compromise was reached and Urmul Trust sent four people to Phalodi to work
there, including a manager, a designer, and an accountant.
The UMBVS leaders soon realized that the managerial staff sent from Urmul Trust had high expenses on marketing trips. The Urmul staff stayed in hotels that suited their higher social background. When costs were totalled the leaders realized how much profit was needed just to cover these expenses. They decided to manage without the staff from Urmul. However, some weavers opposed this idea, continuing to mistrust the leaders and believing that the presence of the Urmul Trust staff members ensured fairness. Differences in perspective and learning across these differences was integral to the formation of UMBVS. Despite the resistance of some weavers in the villages, the leaders persisted. They wanted the freedom to run the organization themselves. They knew they were being blamed for losses that were due to a management problem. So they sent the staff from Urmul Trust back to Lunkaransar. Then the leaders were very strict about their own expenditures because they wanted to prove UMBVS could make a profit. They lived spartanly; they took buses, never taxis, and slept outside in inexpensive tariff hostels. By the end of the first year in Phalodi, UMBVS made a profit. After covering the Urmul Trust losses of the previous year, the organization was able to distribute a bonus to the weavers. When they received a bonus for the first time, the weavers finally believed in UMBVS and saw that the leaders could manage the organization on their own.
Living and working in a rented house in Phalodi, the weaver-managers were discriminated against because of caste. UMBVS needed their own building, especially for training more weavers. A meeting was called and the weavers decided to contribute to the purchase of land. UMBVS also applied for and received international funding from Action Aid and Save the Children’s Fund. In 1994, the construction of Urmul Phalodi Weavers Centre was completed. UMBVS began to train more weavers by providing a three month training session at the Weavers Centre. Since 1997, women who want to join UMBVS and learn to weave have taken part in a women’s weaving training programme.
Challenges and Changes
Since its inception, the vision of UMBVS has been “To establish a society free of inequalities and oppression.” Their mission is “To organize the target group and help them to actively participate in all aspects of their development by making them more aware of their rights; to keep traditional craft alive by upgrading their skills.” The goals are to free weavers from exploitation by traders and middlemen, provide alternative marketing support and regular remunerative employment, and to bring about social and economic development,
including the preservation of art and culture in a professionally managed environment (UMBVS unpublished report, 1997).
In pursuit of these aims village weavers, UMBVS managers, and outside experts have encountered many challenges, and learning experiences have transformed perspectives of individuals and communities. According to Ram Chandra Barupal, the most important achievement of UMBVS has been to help weavers break out of the constraints of the caste system. Weavers belong to the poorest sub- section of the villages, primarily backward castes of the Meghwal community. As they have become united and formed a strong identity, they have been able to fight caste oppression. Over time, there has been a significant psychological change, a feeling of relief and self-respect. Ram Chandra said, “It is a change to your psyche that you are not looked down upon so much anymore. It is no longer only the higher castes that are worthy” (Barupal interview, 1997).
In addition, UMBVS has helped weavers’ break the constraints of poverty. As members of UMBVS, weavers are paid at the end of each month by a production manager who picks up finished work and pays on a piece rate basis according to the size and detail of each design. Earlier, weavers worked for the well-off higher caste people. They took loans from them, and were indebted to them. Now, very few weavers are in debt, but if needed they can take out a loan from the society. Women also can have savings and get loans. By earning a decent living through weaving, the weavers’ social and economic status in the villages has improved. They are viewed differently by other villagers and their voices are heard more often.
UMBVS sells their woven products to stores in major Indian cities and also for export. However, marketing continues to present major challenges. UMBVS must continue to make high quality products, adapt materials and colours to market demands, and fill orders on time. The organization has established reliable contacts but still needs to maintain, assess, and expand marketing contacts. To meet the demands of the export markets UMBVS has to be very specialized and meet deadlines. At the same time, they take into account that weavers are farming during the four months of agricultural season. In 1997, the Urmul managers tackled the legalities and paperwork for government permission to receive international funds directly rather than indirectly through other organizations. They also learned about forming a company and getting an export license in order to bypass the middlemen in international sales.
An enormous commitment of time and energy is required in the operation of UMBVS to bring the benefits of the organization to as many people in the villages as possible. The vision and determination of the UMBVS managers has been vital to the growth of the organization. By listening to the needs and concerns of villagers, UMBVS has helped weavers feel that it is their organization and their wishes being carried out. However, the UMBVS leaders are continually trying to involve more weavers in the community development process. Some weavers were initially more concerned about their own welfare. Competition and suspicion made it difficult to establish trust and cooperation. However, discussions at annual meetings, awareness camps and exposure visits have helped villagers see different points of view.
When UMBVS was formally registered in January 1991, there were seventy weavers from six villages. In 1997, membership had grown to one hundred and fifty weavers from thirteen villages in three districts of West Rajasthan. Weaving is the central activity of the organization but other activities include a Women’s
Development Programme, an Integrated Rural Development Programme, and the implementation of an extensive education programme in conjunction with the Rajasthan Government. The scope of UMBVS continues to expand and people from more villages want to become members of the weavers’ society. However, UMBVS
managers do not want the organization to become too big and they train only five new weavers a year.
UMBVS has already become so big that there is too much work for everyone to do, especially the managers and staff. Along with success have come problems of high work-load and poor communication within the rganization. For example, Ram Chandra is often away on business and he is less available for staff to ask questions and consult with. UMBVS has a dedicated team of workers and strong organization of weavers at the village level. However, they recognize a need to spend more time in the villages and to establish a communication team within the organization. There is also the question of how to bring other people into leadership roles and share the knowledge and responsibility for running the organization.
In the beginning, the concerns of UMBVS were to organize the weavers to become involved in their own economic and social development. They trained weavers and learned about new designs, products, and access to markets. Although this task continues to be central, the growth of UMBVS has brought new challenges, in particular, learning about organizational development. For three months in 1997, Ram Chandra attended a leadership development training session on the management ofnon-profit organizations. Subsequently, UMBVS held a four day staff workshop to examine where they were going as an organization. They worked with a list of needs that had been produced by members of the Gram VikasSamitis in each of the thirteen villages where Urmul has development programmes. They discussed and clarified the vision and mission of UMBVS. And they examined the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats faced by the organization. Using the list of needs recorded in the villages, and keeping in mind the organization’s vision and mission, the staff created a plan for development activities during the following three years. They evaluated existing programmes and decided to eliminate those which no longer fit with their mission. And they planned new programmes to tackle the compelling problems that had been raised by the villagers. After the workshop, a document was produced as a record of their exploration and planning.
The process by which staff examined the UMBVS vision, mission, goals and strategies demonstrates one of the many strengths identified in their organizational analysis–UMBVS is a learning organization. This approach is also reflected in their efforts to create a community of craftspeople who are aware of their rights and participate their own development. The ongoing development of a learning organization, however, involves “embedding learning within the actual work processes, at individual, team and organizational/strategic levels….The ultimate goal is organizational transformation through a learning agenda” (Laiken, 1997, p. 3).
Strengthening Craft Development Organizations
How can a craft organization be strengthened by paying more attention to the learning dimensions of its activities? How can a craft organization become a reflective organization—learning while doing? Following are eight characteristics described in the IUCN/IDRC Tools and Training Series on Reflective Institutions (Dudley & Imbach, 1997):
Creating New Meanings for Craft
Meanings are never static. Meanings arise and change in particular contexts as individuals and communities ascribe value to their experiences. Sacred and secular have long been interwoven in the fabric of daily lives, and the world of the artisan’s work is imbued with meaning. Technical inventions in weaving and other crafts are often recognized. What is less evident is the imaginative activity of the craftsperson inspired by familiarity with ways of making things with particular materials. MirceaEliade (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).
What will it mean to learn to weave in India at the dawn of a new millennium? Will weavers be valued and respected, or consigned to poverty and a struggle for survival? Will weaving mean learning how to continue living in a particular landscape and community while creating knowledge that is urgently needed during a time of Global ecological crisis? New meanings for craft emerge when: (a) the craftsperson is valued; (b) economic survival of the craftsperson is ensured; (c) knowledge and skills of the craftsperson are valued, utilized and extended; (d) opportunities are provided for learning from others’ different points of view; (e) respect, trust and mutuality replace competition, self-interest and suspicion.
Craft organizations have a critical role to play in developing new products and markets for artisans’ work. They also have a role in creating conditions for learning through enabling a flow of information, ideas and concerns between leaders and craftspeople. Craft organizations can foster ongoing questioning, reflection, analysis and evaluation of actions. New leaders and innovators can emerge when people are given opportunities to learn about learning, managing, designing and problem solving. By keeping written records of individual and collective learning processes craft organizations can document their development and provide a record for others to learn from their example.
For those of us interested in craft development, it is important to know the stories of learning taking place in the lives of individuals, communities and organizations. These stories contain information and insight into the dynamic processes of learning that underlie efforts to improve the well-being of artisans and their communities. Stories of learning also reveal the obstacles inherent in the changing of attitudes, values and actions. However, stories of learning are not frequently documented. Experiences of participants in craft
organizations usually are not explicitly analyzed and recorded. Craft organizations will benefit from documenting and communicating their stories. The sharing of stories can lead to greater understanding of the challenges and insights that emerge in the work of craft development.
UMBVS evolved into a thriving community organization by building upon traditional craft knowledge in West Rajasthan and establishing markets for hand woven products. They continue to address the needs of weavers and help to create conditions for sustainable social and economic development. The story of Urmul sheds light on the dynamics of learning that transforms perspectives of craftspeople and shapes the creation of new meanings for craft. By emphasizing learning while doing, craft organizations can foster participation and ongoing processes of reflection, action and evaluation.
Craft is rich in experience and meaning embedded in traditional and changing ways of life. Craft organizations can continue to open doors of possibilities for craftspeople to adapt to challenges and take part in shaping their lives, their communities and their future. New meanings for craft are linked with questions of survival. And questions of survival are being confronted simultaneously on every scale, from individual and community to cultural and global. In this context, the emergence of new meanings for craft has significance within the global search for sustainable livelihoods and communities. New meanings for craft extend beyond the personal and local to shape understandings across regions and nations.
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