Observations on Craft

Livelihoods, Policy, Research, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

Observations on Craft: From looms to the Fields- Dastakar Andhra

Sunny and Meeta


An upper middle class Hyderabadi woman, married very young with no university degree. Later as her two kids are grown to their twenties, she learns to be an interior decorator, jewelry maker and lithograph collector. In her mid-forties in 1989 when most women from similar backgrounds are agonizing over menopause she reinvents herself. Completely self-taught, traveling from hi-society parties, when few knew about such lifestyles courtesy page3, she shifted to second class train travel to dusty villages in Andhra, reviving and researching natural dyeing techniques, iron making, wood turning and lacquering and many other crafts.

Uzramma, the founder of Dastkar Andhra (estd.1995) recently passed the mantle to a young team of women, to take their work into newer ways of design, marketing and public policy advocacy for the Andhra weavers and artisans. Dastkar Andhra does not just deal with natural dyes, but have created a movement of it. From Kerala to Uttaranchal, from Orissa to Rajasthan, there are weavers, embroiderers and printers who have attended workshops. But that in itself was not enough for DA (Dastkar Andhra) and Uzramma. She encouraged students from the IIT’s (Indian Institute of Technology) and IIM’s (Indian Institute of Management) to go to the roots of dye sources and the fibre of fabric – cotton species. They learnt as they went along, among other things that our vision of creating a local product for local markets would take a life-time of work. Between them over the years they learnt the practical skills and ‘domain knowledge’ of household cotton textile production. Over the years Dastkar Andhra has become a leader in the teaching of natural dyeing skills to artisans, and provides capacity building and training services to the handloom industry in management, marketing, design, production management and chemical dyeing.

Dastkar Andhra and its volunteers researched from agricultural notebooks written by pioneering British botanists and agricultural scientists from early 19th century, they collaborated with scientists from cotton research stations in small towns across Andhra, they wrote what they discovered, which was the whole history of colonization of processes, which affect our cotton growing and processing to this day. How traditionally cotton fibre was naturally twisted and healthy from indigenous species which were hardy. The British imported Caribbean species which were long stapled rather than research and propagate Indian long staples, and by the process of packaging into bales and exporting the cotton destroyed its natural twist needing huge machinery to recreate the natural twist but leaving the fibre weak. The traditional khadi woven at the sites close to the growing areas was naturally strong, less energy intensive, more employment friendly.

So today cotton needs the maximum pesticide sprayings of any cash crop, making it resource intensive, leading to huge financial losses for farmers if crops fail leading to farmer suicides. Traditional small stapled cotton grows intercropped with other crops in many tribal areas without such problems, but in 1993 Gujarat wanted to ban such ecologically humane agriculture as the short staple cotton led to breakages in spinning factories. If spinning is done on ambar charkhas no such problems result, the high tension on the fibre in highly mechanized units leads to such breakages. You can see that therefore links for humane technology which pays attention to ecology and employment to be maintained, one needs to look at the whole cycle from natural resource utilization to all intermediate and finishing processes.

If processes were to be built around sustainable cropping, we would create appropriate technology in ginning, spinning close to the growing centres rather than try to force nature to sustain factories which destroy our natural resource base. Research would focus on indigenous long stapled crops. DA works on all of the above, and is going to start a project of transferring its appropriate technology of ginning, carding and spinning to weaver and cotton farmer communities. They even started indigo farming and set up traditional indigo vats.

They have set up a design unit to regularly develop new color palettes and patterns for Andhra weaver cooperatives and prints for Machilipattanam. They worked on natural dyeing of wool and designing carpets in Eluru. They incorporated natural dyes into lac for Etikopakka wooden toys, which was such a successful enterprise that they regularly sell out on first day of most exhibitions and do large export orders.

DA has introduced direct selling concepts of encouraging housewives to directly sell saris, suit pieces and fabrics from weavers to neighbourhoods, to spread the culture of reasonably priced handloom.

Uzramma has a theory of craft as a world view which harmonises nature, production processes and aesthetic impulse to lead to a more emotionally and spiritually satisfied creator, and a more ethical consumer of products. Her e-mail to a young friend describing her reason for involvement in artisanal activity, shares her passion adequately;

“If one feels, as I do, that the critical direction to be sought in social action and social involvement is towards addressing the underlying causes of violence in society, the economic sphere is the logical locus. In the early days of involvement, I thought that ‘constructive action’ was enough, but I soon came to realize that without political dimensions, no amount of development of the constructive would suffice. At the same time it is clear to me that the political alone without a sane, clear and fully articulated working methodology for the practice of economic activity is insufficient.
It is the artisanal world where tools of production, knowledge, and [in the subsistence activities such as bamboo, pottery, etc] the raw materials, are cheaply and freely available to all, and because of this large scale access, potential exists for equity participation by all including producer families, in the benefits of the activity.
In this country, artisan occupations are a vital and vibrant part of society, whereas in other places, including China, they seem to have been relegated to a niche. Within the existing artisanal world, there are lots of problems to be confronted and understood, mainly but not only the relation of the artisanal to the market economy. The market economy itself is a lifetime study, with its historical roots in medieval Europe [Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation is a must read]. There is also the question of technology, which can be addressed at various levels. When one is directly involved with an occupation such as the domestic production of cotton cloth, doubts about directions and levels are addressed in a real context.
The challenge in our work has been to link the developing and expanding philosophical understanding to the minutae of daily interchange, whether within the office, where we spend most of our existence, or with the other participants in the activity, ranging from weaver, dyer and spinner families to the customers of the fabrics. Articulation and exchange of thoughts, ideas and doubts is undoubtedly inadequate in the process, but we are aware of the problem.”

By Uzramma

Subba Raju, a PhD from IIT, Mumbai, now lives and works in Timbaktu, Anantapur district. He says that from the time he was in the 5th standard he knew that he wanted to be a teacher, and would be daydreaming in class of what his classroom would be like, the dimensions of the blackboard etc. Like him, I had a dream from an early age, but unlike his, it was a vague, inchoate dream, of a better world, better ways of being, above all, without violence. It was developed in isolation, within myself and I seemed to lack the means and the ability to communicate with others or to share my inner world, perhaps because circumstances did not allow the development of that companionship; I had no sisters and my brother is 9 years younger than me. I was engaged to be married, against my will, at the age of 18, married at 19, had my first child at 21.

A strong component of that better world was justice or equity, inclusiveness, it had to be for everyone. A sense of beauty had to include a way of being. This comes I think from the long Sufi tradition and is my version of religion. Read a lot when I was a child. Though my brief undergraduate life was enjoyable, it did not include any intellectual companionship, except that of Gita Patnaik [Mehta] who was a year senior to me…she was typical of the intellectuals of my little circle who were from the upper levels of society and essentially frivolous, wit was prized above all.

There were strong political and public service traditions in my family. My father’s brother was a leading light in the early days of the Communist party of India, and my father’s whole family was always sympathetic to that political stream, my generation considered it part of their heritage, along with his mother’s political activism [she fought against purdah and child marriage and was an MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly)].

I had always been attracted by hand-tools, and in museums been more interested in folk rather than to court crafts. In England I finally connected with my leanings towards artisanal work and craft. Learning goldsmithing & engraving, the co-ordination of hand, eye, brain, changed my inner world and my way of thinking. The elation that comes with solving a technical problem is one of the most satisfying feelings in the world. Also of materializing something that begins as a picture in the mind.

The years in England bred a discipline and a determination to overcome the wrenching loss of self that came with displacement. That, and the new world opened up by the use of hand-tools were the two radical influences. From those experiences came the confirmation of the inner conviction that it was the artisan way of thinking that held the clue to the Brave New World, a way of problem-solving based on the pragmatic understanding of materials and circumstances, of the real as expressed in the making, the close meshing of mind, eye & hand, not the delusions created by the mind without those restraints. The will to take an active part in reaching the distant ideal also took shape, within a context of strong emotional disturbance, and early in the exile I began to take steps towards a return to India. I couldn’t breathe there, though I soaked up the cultural life of London, the off-West End experimental theatre and the art films.

I came back on visits to Hyderabad from 1981 onwards, asked Laila how to start, she suggested contacting the AP Handicrafts Development Corporation. I began my forays into the artisan world through them and offered my services free of charge for design development, first for Kondapally and Nirmal, which they accepted. They sent Venkaiah of the Design Development Centre with me on my first few trips. This overcame my clueless-ness of how to reach village India. I went to Kondapally and began by working out a richer colour palette than the one they used. It met with great initial resistance, but has eventually been a factor in the subsequent success of Kondapally.

I knew socially the founders of Dastkar, and it was Bunny Page who suggested that I should start a branch of it in Andhra. Initially, appointed consultant to APHDC in 1989, I visited several artisan clusters, including where possible cotton handloom weaving societies though that was not part of my brief. Interventions with varying degrees of success were attempted in Nirmal, Kondapally, Etikoppaka, and on longer terms in Kalahasti & Eluru.

I ‘always knew’ it was cotton handlooms that were to be the eventual field. I cannot find the roots of this knowledge within myself. It comes I think of an intuition of how closely cotton and cotton cloth is enmeshed in the Indian psyche and my own feeling for soft cotton cloth. Somehow that softness is related to the desire for non-violence, peace and harmony.

In May 1990 I met P B Srinivas, and for the first time had the experience of sharing ideas and developing thoughts in collaboration with someone. We shared an exploration of Foucault, which both of us had independently begun, and were jointly struck with excitement at the discovery of Foucault’s ideas, which for me were a continuation of my meditation on power. PB introduced me to Illich, and again it was deeply exciting to share the experience. We admired Gandhi’s boldness in experimentation, his confidence in his own intuition, his absolute rootedness and sense of reality.

I knew there was a sweeter, richer life outside the bourgeois world of table-napkins and handbags, one closer to ground reality, and I found it in my wanderings with Srinivas in the villages of Adilabad. The bliss of outdoor bathing in Kusnapally in water fresh from the well, manchi neelu, good water, good enough to drink. Middle class friends thought I was heroic to travel in buses; I found it comfortingly real.

I was interested in theoretical exploration of themes & ideas but was not academically trained or rigorous enough to develop ideas…..find myself in harmony with the ideas of the Anarcho-Syndicalists.

The work of Dastkar Andhra has been very much a group effort, my contribution has been intuitive rather than practical. Because we started off in an exploratory fashion, we were able to cast about until we developed a complex, mutually supportive set of activities centred around cloth, cotton, and dyeing involving direct contact with artisanal production, archival research, practical experimentation and marketing. It was this exploratory way of working, I think, that in the early days attracted the IIT crowd and other young persons of high caliber. A few months ago I was able to hand over the responsibility of the organization to the younger members.

I’m still in charge of the small-scale spinning development, and will be for the next three years. This is a revolutionary technology, [developed by an IIT engineer, L Kannan, who has been associated with our cotton exploration for the last 12 years, since the first Traditional Sciences Congress held by the Patriotic & People-Oriented Science & Technology Foundation] through which producers can complete the cycle of cotton growing to cloth in their own regions. It brings the idea of self-reliance back into khadi, not individually through svavalamban but through production by interlinked producer collectives. Once we are able to get small-scale power generation it will become even more self-sufficient.

Now I spend more time in my jewelry workshop. My designs are abstract, graphic, gold on silver at present, later I want to add copper. I want to convey a sense of movement through the lines, mobility, freedom, change. I want to challenge conventions, of precious/non-precious metals, of traditional jewelry as investment loaded onto the woman. There is a sense of cosmic right to which a maker must be true but societal rules must be challenged, shown to be restrictive, hierarchic, pandering to power.

I would like to spend more time talking to young people, not necessarily formal talks, but sharing ideas, dreams and experiences.

Footnote: on my sending the essay to Uzramma for review she wanted to expand on her experience. Her musings give a personal depth to the ideas one has been writing about and gives a feel of real-time interactivity while sharing such issues.

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