Our Past As Our Future

Craft, Handloom, Art, Education/Learning, Op-Ed, Reviews

Our Past As Our Future: Weaving Tomorrow at Chirala

Chatterjee, Ashoke


Over 300 weavers gathered in Chirala (AP) in November for a 7-day meet on “Rethinking Indian Industrialization of Crafts”, organized by REEDS (a Hyderabad-based NGO), Handloom Futures Trust, the National Federation for Handloom and Handicrafts, Maastricht University and the University of Leiden. Participants came from twelve states and Thailand, Taiwan, China and Laos. Some travelled four days and nights, all carrying looms and spinning wheels. A weavers’ camp set up at a school drew the local community to a unique sharing of knowledge and hope. Indigo vats were installed by Indian and Thai dyers. A display by Registry of Sarees showcased 200 years of khadi experience. Curator Mayank brought 24 pieces of exquisite fabric gathered from across the country. Translators and scholars were on hand at workshops and discussion which reflected the capacity of artisans to absorb from one another across all barriers. An Andhra weaver learned intricate weaving techniques from Laos. Weavers from Kutch demonstrated the importance of wool within the handloom scenario, while another from Chhattisgarh resolved problems in dyeing Uttarakhand nettle yarn through exchanges with Jagada Rajappa (Hyderabad) and weaver Tang Wen Chun (Taiwan). A year of meticulous planning unfolded effortlessly along Chirala’s magnificent shore, the sea a metaphor of timelessness.

Old As The ‘New-New’ And Other Findings
Weaver interactions were a backdrop to two days of discussion, bringing together weavers and scholars from around the globe on issues of craft and pedagogy, law, labour, livelihood and future directions. The invitation included some head-spinners: explorations would take place “of 4-E cognition (embodied, embedded, extended, enacted) in the case of sciences, crafts and technologies”. Comparisons from ancient Greece and Rome with India suggested ways of ‘anchoring of innovation’ in history, with the past integrated into the future. Prof Ineke Sluiter (University of Leiden) recalled Socrates using craft to demonstrate knowledge, “making craft always morally good”. Prof Sluiter revealed that concepts of progress in the West are returning to the wisdom of antiquity — “Old is the new-new”, a lesson perhaps in our struggle with the ‘sunset syndrome’ that has devastated our sector, and a reminder that the slogan we have made familiar – “The future is handmade” — originated in the European Union fifteen years ago!

Prof Wieber Bijker (Maastricht University and Norwegian University of Science & Technology) contrasted experiences in China and India. Handcrafts and artisans were attacked as decadent during China’s long history of upheaval and revolution. What was lost is now proving difficult to recover – a warning to India’s neglect of its incomparable craft resources. Historian Miko Flohr (University of Leiden) underlined what makes scholarship so critical: “The humanities offer innovative thinking that can contribute to sustainable economic development through the importance of understanding the social and economic roles of crafts like handloom weaving in their ecological context, and how crucial it is that the delicate balance between such crafts and the environment is not disturbed. This, in fact, should give these traditional crafts quite a special place in our thinking about sustainable economic development”. Dr Valentina Fava (Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic) suggested fresh business models that support sustainability rather than mass production. For her, marketing strategies based on value propositions must transcend short-term profitability, a point supported by Prof James Leach (CNRS France) in his call for understanding livelihoods as much more than income. Significantly, Prof Leach called for a reciprocal relationship between scholars and practitioners (my emphasis) “so that we can be partners in an ecology of process, and not just about production”. The importance of such partnerships was perhaps Chirala’s most significant signal.

Prof Dorothy Ko (Columbia University) appealed to India to learn from China’s bitter experience rather than to blindly mimic growth models that entail huge human and environmental costs. The world is looking at India for another path of caring, and for a new value system based on sustainability and humanity rather than on greed. Chinese artisans today are eager to learn from India and to partner in building market opportunities in both countries and to drastically reduce dependence on western markets. Her appeal for collaboration offered a startling contrast to our image of China as a ruthless competitor, exporting factory-made rip-offs.

Markets: Red Herrings or Sunrise Opportunities?
Chirala’s focus was on scholar/artisan relationships. Fair enough. Yet without market activists as key players, how can change be achieved in any new arrangement? Despite discussions around critical experiences such as Malkha cotton in Andhra and Kala cotton in Kutch, there was comparatively little space at Chirala for understanding Indian experience in craft development, or the current crisis of neglect. The centrality of users in the handloom discourse was left as an assumption rather than as a responsibility for creating a public willingness to pay for handmade quality, and to achieve this by responding to new needs and aspirations. Chirala highlighted a disturbing reality that for some scholars the way markets work (and therefore the way some of us work) reduces artisans to passive subjects, exploited as skilled labour rather than respected as keepers of wisdom. In its “Rethinking Industrialization of Crafts”, the term ‘industrialization’ was understood primarily as machine-driven challenges. Yet handcraft is India’s second largest industry, and the re-thinking that engages many of us is that of recognizing handcraft as a gigantic Indian industry, deserving attention, respect and investment in its own right and on its own terms – with the artisan at the centre. Exploitation is a familiar reality through appalling income-levels and working conditions that prevail. For change, market demand must finally deliver both respect and a quality of life to artisans through recognition of handmade value, away from prevailing mentalities of buying cheap. This change is what CCI and partners have fought to achieve. For us empowerment comes not only from artisan pride in heritage but also from her capacity to negotiate and to influence what happens in the marketplace. In the words of Prof Leach “People choose things for many reasons, and price is one factor. Another is quality and also perceived quality …. Something that we might call aura or the intangible aspect of quality that includes reputation, knowledge, and the desire of the purchaser to identify with or be included in an image of themselves…” The mission of KAMALA emerged in Uzramma’s example of Malkha cotton (high quality at affordable prices) to interpret the marketplace as an arena where alternatives and options should demonstrate “markets that come after ideas in the head” and emerge as enabling, rather than as domineering, spaces.

Scholars, Scholarship and Us
While collaboration between academics and artisans was suggested to make multiple values apparent, Chirala left questions for those — neither scholars nor artisans — who work in and through markets. Are we suffering an identity crisis that is making us invisible? Have we failed to emerge as ‘scholars’ of another kind, in our own right, by experience if not by qualification? Why is what we do not top-of-mind although founded on action research, testing and responding to the real needs of makers and users? Does our evidence lack rigour? Is our documentation inadequate? Do we fear discussions that can fly way above our heads? (I never did fathom what ‘explorations of 4-E cognition’ was all about!) Does this situation mirror the earlier absence of economists and managers as craft partners? What might all this mean in terms of building the capacity of craft teams, of resources needed for research and publication, of opportunities required to bring minds together for reflection and partnership? How can scholars join as peers and partners to help test assumptions and findings and to enrich outcomes?

The value of such teamwork has been established. Consider the seminal “Bamboo & Cane Crafts” of the northeast by the NID team led by M P Ranjan, our own projects and exhibitions (including Stone Crafts of India, Chamba rumals, and the Hyderabad exploration of natural dyes) and those of others: Martand Singh’s Viswakarma, DakshinaChitra’s concept of re-creating craft environments, pastoral cultures demonstrated by Sahjeevan, Rajeev Sethi’s showcasing of Indian creativity at Mumbai’s new airport, and Judy Frater’s path-breaking experiments in Kutch. Inter-disciplinary scholarship has been the foundation for every one of these. CCI partners have included scholars of distinction: Lotika Varadarajan, Jasleen Dhamija and Jyotindra Jain are among them. Through the Craft Revival Trust, Ritu Sethi has regularly brought activists and scholars together around shared concerns and priorities. Sahapedia and IGNCA have offered other opportunities, while Uzramma (Malkha) and Annapurna Mamidipudi (Max Planch Institute for the History of Science) have helped transform our understanding of Chirala’s inspiration: the place of the weaver and her loom in a new millennium.

Today scholars and activists are uninvited to tables of decision-making — one for residing in ivory towers and the other as purveyors of craft myths. Chirala made clear both the need as well as opportunities for change through fresh arguments and fresh evidence. Scholars are needed for both, and should surely be the first to understand what we do and why we do it. Consider three examples from our Newsletter: debates on intellectual property and on geographic indicators, and that infamous jacket displayed at the V&A which raised issues of ethics, technology and cultural sensitivity. What this suggests is the need for conscious nurturing of scholarship as a resource, integrated into work and advocacy, and for ensuring that knowledge from the ground and from the top is brought together in a common cause.

The Past As Future
“Chirala demonstrated that we can unite academic knowledge and the knowledge of artisanal practitioners to recollect sustainable economies and products of great beauty … adapted to modern lifestyles”. Our mission, wonderfully endorsed by Prof Ulinka Rublack (Cambridge University) who described Chirala as “one of the most inspiring conferences I have ever attended”. Significant opportunities emerged through Prof Wiebe Bijker’s summary of Chirala achievements: the centrality of India-China exchange, the technological sophistication of weavers and other artisans, their need for self-worth, the importance of a new politics to replace welfare approaches with fresh understanding of crafts as an engine of livelihood as well as a unique and powerful response to the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Chirala also recalled our Santiniketan gathering in 2016, and what we learned there of the beginnings of our movement a century ago through Rabindranath Tagore’s decision to position craft revival within a university, re-defined as a space for embracing universal wisdom and for demonstrating the contemporary relevance of humankind’s heritage. The past and the future seamlessly bound – Gurudev’s mission in 1919 and Chirala’s message today.

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