Putting Ideas First

Education/Learning, Policy

Putting Ideas First: The use of knowledge as a catalyst for development, equity and growth in the crafts sector

Sethi, Ritu

The crafts of India display a tremendous variety not just in the materials used and skills employed but also in terms of their widespread dispersed, sel organized production and by whom they are made. Competition with large-scale industries, the availability of machine-made imitations of hand products, the decline in the transmission of skills to younger generations and an inability to adequately understand and tap consumer markets are all contributing to the dwindling of what is still a relatively vibrant cultural legacy. Against this context, this article explores a path to development and sustainability, emphasizing access to information and the necessity for knowledge-based intervention in the creation of an enabling environment for the craft sector in India.

Crafts1 and their regional setting are extremely complex from the making of the Nadaswaram, the classical wind instrument in Narasingapettai to the Perhkhuang, the bamboo string instrument from Mizoram, from the idols cast in bronze in Swamimalai to the Dhokra – lost wax metal castings of Bastar, from the weaving of Eri and Muga silk in Assam to the embroidery of the Toda tribals in the Nilgiris. The variety is enormous, and craftspersons2 work with materials as diverse as metal, wood, clay, paper, glass, grass, fibre, leather, and textiles, with enormous regional and individual variations within each group of specialization. There are a multitude of characteristics and situations, materials and processes, contexts and regional variations, each requiring a specific approach.

Equally relevant when talking about crafts is the need to recognize the widely dispersed nature of production with the existence and parallel coexistence of isolated individual family units, craft clusters, home/cottage industries, and small-scale and medium-scale enterprises. From rural hamlets outside the city of Banaras where brocade weaving is a home based activity involving family members to Bagh in Madhya Pradesh where the iconic block prints are produced in karkhanas with over a hundred persons employed.

Skills and techniques, craft ritual and folklore are handed down orally, within and across generations, taught through alternate knowledge transmission systems that do not form part of mainstream educational systems prevalent today. Specialized crafts and handlooms are hereditary specialties passed on from generation to generation. The Moosaris of Kerala who cast the bell metal Charakku cooking utensils in diameters of up to 8 feet, the Patola yarn resist saris woven by members of the Salvi family in Patan characterised by mathematical precision in the multiple tying, dying and weaving, the Sthapatis of Swamimalia who cast the bronze idols are only some such examples.

Mainly located in rural3 areas, the craft sector provides employment to many millions4 of people, an overwhelming majority of whom belong to the weaker, more vulnerable sections of society, being either Scheduled caste or tribe or belonging to minorities or to other backward classes. These immense numbers of self-employed, self-organised, skilled craftspersons are the bearers of India’s traditional knowledge, the source of Indian creativity and keepers of our national cultural identity.

Over the last few decades shifting dynamics have led to an erosion of livelihoods in the craft sector. The crisis in crafts has been ascribed to many reasons, not least being the disappearance of traditional markets with a dramatic shift in consumer choice from hand-crafted, woven goods to factory-made products. The economies of scale inherent to the factory sector result in the mass production of goods of uniform quality at prices unmatchable by craft people. Simultaneously, the availability of replicated and craft products that are marketed as handcrafted, handwoven and traditional at far lower prices than the original has hit crafts people hard. Across villages and cities the once ubiquitous terracotta water container has been replaced by cheap, factory moulded plastic copies, with none of the advantages of the cooling and healing powers of clay for the user and to the detriment on the livelihood of local potters. From factory printed Bandhini, the traditional tied and dyed textile of Rajasthan and Gujarat to the rubber reproductions of the Kolahpuri chappals, the sari and cards printed with Madhubani and Warli motifs to the famed hand woven brocades of Banaras now replicated on the powerloom, are only a few such examples. All this has had a direct effect on earnings and livelihoods resulting in immense suffering and hardship of craftspeople.

This coupled with an aggressive and sustained marketing push from the organised factory sector has rapidly expanded its market share, largely cannibalised from the markets of the handmade and hand woven. Craftspersons, themselves caught in a cycle of low output and marginal profits, and dispersed across the country, lack the marketing might and lobbying power of the organised manufacturing sector and are unequipped to tackle this pressure. Compounding the crisis is the lack of interest in the younger generation of craft families in continuing in craft practice due to perceived prejudices and inequalities of status, which have led to issues of deskilling, urban migration and unemployment. Hence, any path toward development and sustainability in the crafts cannot be isolated from this larger context and must simultaneously take into account all these dimensions. While seeking meaningful formats to work in, any developmental initiative will have to grapple with these baseline issues to meet the challenges of coming years and above all reposition this sector – the largest after agriculture in terms of employment – on a sustainable growth trajectory.

It is hardly surprising that there are any number of debates around the appropriate path to development, equity and sustainability. This paper presents for discussion a particular focus – knowledge intervention as an underlying premise for creating an enabling environment for the craft sector in India.

The selection of this focus on knowledge as an instrument for constructive change and a catalyst for introducing systematic, significant windows of opportunity for the crafts and craftspersons in an area of diverse traditions and pursuits, divergent customs and contemporary relevance is for five distinct reasons

First. At the outset, it is well-documented and proven that free and open access to information creates an environment that empowers individuals and societies.

Second, for any strategy or action to succeed, an accessible framework of information and data is a necessary prerequisite, as the availability of information works as a problem-solving methodology which can be applied as a tool for development, essentially as a means of removing bottlenecks to viability and growth. Given the scale and potential of the sector, the absence of hard facts and lack of information not only on the numbers involved but also on changes and developments in this area, have been a major reason why the sector has so often been ignored at policy levels and by development experts.

A third reason for this approach is that although techniques and skills are abundant, craftspersons themselves often remain isolated owing to their inability to access information. This lacunae of information thus curtails the ability of craft communities to respond effectively within the contemporary matrix, in effect crippling those who suffer from the twin drawback of information deprivation and poor outreach. At a time when the rest of India is going through a phase of resurgence facilitated by the growth of the general economy, the effects of economic reform and benefits of the rapid spread of information technology have largely bypassed the craftsperson, creating a new form of deprivation and impoverishment for those with no access.

Fourth, for revitalizing crafts, especially languishing ones, the documentation of crafts is an invaluable reference source — and imperative for the development of the sector, for preserving traditions and protecting copyright. There is an urgent need to research, analyse, categorise, and document craft traditions and developments. For developmental intervention to be effective it is necessary to study traditions and develop an understanding of the constraints and parameters within which craftspersons operate. Craftspersons themselveds do not have access to the knowledge of their forefathers and there is a very real danger of techniques, motifs, designs and traditions dying out due to change, underuse, or even the death of a specialised artisan or craft family/group. The fact that many craft traditions are oral makes documentation even more critical. In the absence of any documentation, oral traditions, once lost, can never be revived. It is a permanent loss. This cannot be overemphasised. To quote Hampate Ba ‘ Africa loses a library when an old man dies.’

The fifth reason for the use of knowledge-based interventions, is that despite the progress in communication technologies, there are glaring gaps in awareness, information and exposure about the crafts and craftspersons. In fact, there is a surprising lack of information about craftspersons and craft products in the public space. Information, even when available, is hard to access, often out of print, and frequently out of reach. This seems even more glaring considering their contribution not only to the economy in terms of employment but also their immense cultural significance.

The challenge ahead lies in designing frameworks that are sensitive to the sheer complexity of the sector while simultaneously reflecting its dynamism and pervasive plurality. This knowledge-based intervention though poised as a value-added and productive process is distinctly complicated by the fact that most craftspersons are not yet active players, either in accessing information or in leading change. While globalisation and its consequent ramifications have fostered change it has required all of us to take on an anticipatory stance. To move from being ‘victims’ lamenting a loss to an informed lobby with the ability to highlight and address, successfully, issues that affect the sector while simultaneously establishing its contribution.

It is time to put ideas first – through the building of an information and knowledge infrastructure for the crafts. To remedy the relative neglect of this aspect at a time when – despite the value of crafts being recognised world-wide –innumerable factors continue to endanger their very experience.

What is critical at this juncture is to explore the issues that confront the process and to evolve methods of thinking and acting – guidelines, if we may – that contribute to making this process a meaningful exercise.

The first step would be to create a baseline foundation of the crafts a census-cum-economic survey on the situation at hand. The process needs to involve all the constituents while rooting the work in a development framework with the craftsperson at the centre of the exercise. Defining the terminology, clarifying misused definitions, counting the numbers, making available a list of creators of the craft form, are some of the tasks that need to be undertaken. At another level is the documenting of community knowledge, traditionally transmitted orally, the raw materials and their processing, colours and motifs used, the ritual or symbolic significance of the process of creation, techniques employed, values ascribed to a piece, the norms, perceptions and beliefs associated with a piece, are some of these. Presenting not only the skills and techniques involved but the specific meanings of the form of expression, meanings derived from the local context in which the craftspersons operate and the purpose for which they produce. A small step in this direction has already been taken by the Craft Revival Trust to create an accessible infrastructure for the crafts on the web. Making information freely available on craftspersons and on a wide variety of craft subjects available, to anyone at anytime and anywhere.

The next step would be to build a theoretical framework that ‘legitimises’ and amalgamates the principles and concepts of oral, and local knowledge of craft practice within the commonly accepted scientific and technological infrastructure. This knowledge, an intrinsic part of craft practice developed over the ages has responded and evolved to changing ecologies and environs. For instance the understanding of plant material by craftspersons to weave baskets, thatch homes, make furniture, build bridges, make music, create colour and a myriad other uses is only one such example. We need to apply scientific rigour to the study of processing of materials and techniques of craft production wether it be plant or metal, leather or clay, stone or wood by uncovering and studying the underlying principles at the heart of the technicalities of craft. Studying the parameters and creating standards and applications while retaining the creative, removing the subjective approach. This collaboration among scientists, technologists and the bearers of oral craft knowledge through application of stringent scientific principles to traditional hereditary knowledge to document concepts, principles, applications and practices could lead to a uniquely Indian knowledge system, creating networks and linkages both within and outside the sector giving India a global edge.

A third step would be the introduction of craft study in the curricula of schools and colleges, recognising that the current lack of awareness, not only on the material cultural manifestation but also on producers, is a form of deprivation for everyone of us. This need has become even more immediate with the passing by Parliament in July 2009 of the Right to Education bill and the push to universalise access to education at the secondary level especially since there is an underlying belief that knowledged garnered from text books is superior to received oral knowledge. Simultaneously, there has to be a move towards greater equity, a removal of barriers within academia and scientific and technological laboratories, against the bearers of craft-related knowledge for a more equitable, even-handed inclusive education. Moving beyond tokenism to create substantive chang. In 2003 De’MontFort University, Leicester, UK awarded an honorary Doctorate to the master Ajrak hand block printer and natural dye revivalist Ismail Khatri.

Simultaneously information relevant to the crafts sector and for craftspersons has to be better disseminated to reach the target audiences. This includes making sure that information related to government schemes and programs, responsibilities of institutions like the National Handloom Development Cooperation, weavers service centres, etc., banks and financial institutions programs be transparent and easily available to craftspeople. Linked to this is sensitising such institutions to the needs of craftspersons, by training them on how to work with the sector. Concurrently there is need to create linkages and networks to help craftspersons out of their relative isolation by improving their access to market intelligence on trends and forecasts, product and design development, technological improvements that reduce drudgery, and other areas that draw them into the mainstream of progress.

Fifth, using international legal instruments like Geographic Indicators (GI), for which India has become a signatory, for protection of intellectual property of craftspersons. While building and strengthening the post GI registration measures to prevent unauthorised commercial exploitation and protect the craftsperson. Simultaneously work towards identifying a national community rights approach the strengthens and makes communities aware of their rights.

We are aware that these are paths as yet not travelled. However we are optimistic about the contribution that can be made and we need to continue to push out boundaries and create the freedom to learn study, preserve, choose, connect and reach.



  1. The term ‘craft’ has been used in a generic manner to include the hand crafted and hand woven, inclusive of pre and post loom work and pre and post craft work.
  2. The term craftsperson has been used generically to cover weavers, artisans, pre and post loom work and pre and post craft work.
  3. According to the 2001 census there are 6,38,365 villages spread across India
  4. Official government statistics estimate that over 135 lakh people are engaged in this sector – 65.51 lakh in handlooms and 70 lakh persons in handicrafts.

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