Rethinking What We Do


Rethinking What We Do: Scholars commune at Chirala

Chatterjee, Ashoke


Over 300 weavers gathered in Chirala(AP) in November for a 7-day global meet on “Rethinking Indian Industrialization of Crafts”. Organized by REEDS (a Hyderabad-based NGO working with rural communities),Dastakar Andhra and other partners. The conference drew participants from Kutch, J&K, Chhattisgarh, Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland and Sikkim, from every southern state, as well as from Thailand, Taiwan, China and Laos. For some, the journey meant travelling four days and nights — carrying looms and spinning wheels. A  weavers’ camp, with exhibition and work spaces, was set up under trees and shelters at a local school, drawing the local community into what  was perhaps a first:so many weavers  coming together in India to share knowledge and  hope. Indigo vats were installed by Indian and Thai dyers. An exhibition of khadi products by Registry of Sarees displayed 200 years of experience. Curator Mayank and his team from Delhi brought 24 pieces of exquisite fabric gathered from across the country. Translators and scholars were on hand as workshops and discussion reflected the enormous capacity of artisans to communicate and absorb from one another across barriers. An Andhra weaver was seen learning intricate weaving techniques from Laos. Another from Chhattisgarh overcame problems in dyeing nettle yarn from Uttarakhand through his exchanges with Jagada Rajappa (Hyderabad) and weaver Tang Wen Chun (Taiwan), while a contingent from Kutch demonstrated the importance of wool within the handloom scenario.

‘Old’ as the ‘new-new’ and other findings

As a year of meticulous planning unfolded effortlessly,Chirala’s magnificent seashore was always in sight to remind one of the timeless scale of human ingenuity. Weaver-to-weaver interactions offered a ‘reality show’context to two days of discussions that followed, bringing scholars and weavers from around the globe together on issues of craft and pedagogy, law, labour, livelihoods and future directions.The invitation signalled formidable scholarship– the conference would include “explorations of 4-E cognition (embodied, embedded, extended, enacted) in the case of sciences, crafts and technologies”.Academics compared Greece and Rome with India’s handloom situation and explored how such ‘anchoring of innovation’ is happening in other societies.Prof Ineke Sluiter (University of Leiden) recalled how Socrates used craft to demonstrate knowledge, “making craft always morally good”. She underlined the need to understand the past as our new future. “Old is the new-new”, Prof Sluiter revealed, demonstrating how concepts of progress in the West are today returning to the wisdom of antiquity.(A lesson for us, as we struggle with the ‘sunset syndrome’ that devastates our sector?)Her reference reminded one of the slogan we have so often used as our handle for advocacy – “The future is handmade” — which originated in the European Union fifteen years ago!

An important lesson underlined by Prof Wieber Bijker(Maastricht University and Norwegian University of Science & Technology)  was in the contrasting experiences of China and India. Handcrafts were attacked as decadent and artisans disappeared during the Cultural Revolution. What was lost is now proving difficult to recover – a warning to India in it neglects of incomparable resource of hand wisdom.A disarmingly optimistic view from Dr Anique Hamelink (University of Amsterdam) went unchallenged: “The textile crafts of India are a valued historic tradition and a thriving modern industry at the same time, offering an encouraging example of modern entrepreneurship and design innovation anchored in tradition and sustainable production methods”.Historian MikoFlohr (University of Leiden)offered an insight into what can make academe a critical partner: “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”. 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. She said 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 have a new sense of mission and are eager to learn from India and to partner with it to build market opportunities in both countries which would drastically reduce dependence on western markets. Her appeal for collaboration was a startling contrast to the image of China in our sector: unbridled competition, based on copies and rip-offs. Dr Valentina Fava (Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic) underlined the need for fresh business models that support sustainability rather than mass production, pointing to the need for marketing strategies that are based on value propositions that transcend short-term calculations of profit, a point supported by Prof James Leach (CNRS France) in a call for understanding livelihoods as much more than income and for bottom-lines that reflect this truth.  Significantly, Prof Leach also called for a reciprocal relationship between scholars and practitioners(my emphasis) “so that we can be partners inan ecology of process, and not just about production”. The need of such a relationship and for a strategy to achieve it was perhaps Chirala’s most significant signal to us.

Markets: red herrings or sunrise opportunities?

Despite references to the marketplace, there was comparatively little space at Chirala for understanding Indian’s experience in craft development and marketing or the crisis of neglect that continues as our most difficult experience. The centrality of the buyer and user in the handloom discourse was most often left as an assumption rather than as the responsibility of creating demand and a willingness to pay for handmade quality by responding to new needs and new aspirations,. This, despite discussions around such critical experiences as Malkha cotton in Andhra and Kala cotton in Kutch. Chirala also highlighted a disturbing reality that for some scholars the way markets work (and therefore the way some of us work) can reduce artisans to passive subjects, exploited as skilled labour rather than respected as keepers of wisdom and knowledge.

The announced theme of the gathering was “Rethinking Industrialization of Crafts”, with the term ‘industrialization’ understood primarily as machine-driven challenges. Yet we activists claim that handcraft is India’s second largest industry after agriculture, and the re-thinking that has engaged many of us is the need to recognize handcraft as a gigantic Indian industry – one deserving of attention, respect and investment in its own right and on its own terms. The syndrome of artisan exploitation is a familiar reality that still marks so much of our sector, nowhere more so than in the income-levels that prevail and in appalling conditions of work. To change this situation market demand must deliver a quality of life to artisans that can only come from a willingness to pay for  handmade quality, away from the ‘bargain’ mentality so attached to Indian hand production.  This is what we have fought to achieve: a fair value for craftsmanship. Empowerment through lifting the capacity of artisans to negotiate and to flourish within the contemporary situation may need stronger understanding not just within Ministries but also within academe. 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?Artisans shared the same concerns and hopes that surround us each day at CCI: the collapse of official support systems, the recent horrors inflicted by demonetization and GST, the need for new capacities to match new markets and to cope with competition and change, for all that is required to not just survive but to flourish in today’s environment. And above all, a demand for respect and the hope for a future may exist that can encourage other generations.

While respect and hope are values we share with scholars can be founded, let me also add that scholars at Chirala offered extraordinary insights into marketing. 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…”Uzramma used the example of Malkha cotton (high quality at affordable prices) to interpret the marketplace can be an arena where alternatives and options can demonstrate “markets that come after ideas in the head” and emerge as enabling rather than as domineering, spaces.

Scholars and scholarship

Collaboration between academics and artisans was suggested to make these multiple values apparent and to encourage people and authorities to invest in craft development, leaving a question for those like us  — neither scholars nor artisans — who work in and through markets. Are we suffering an identity crisis in addition to everything else we complain about? Have we failed to emerge as ‘scholars’ of another kind, in our own right, by experience if not by academic qualification? Why is what we do not top-of-mind although founded on action research and constant testing and responding to real needs of both makers and users? Could it be that we have not marshaled needed evidence, with the rigour that scholarship demands? Is our documentation invisible or inadequate? Can we overcome a fear of discussions that might fly way above our heads and make us feel insignificant? Is there a mirror here to that earlier absence of economists and managers as craft partners? Scholars should surely be the first to understand what we do and why we do it. Like us, they hardly matter at the highest tables of decision-making — both scholars and activists are uninvited, one for residing in ivory towers and the other as purveyors of myths rather than of solid arguments. Chirala made clear both the need as well as the opportunity for change through new arguments and fresh evidence. Scholars are essential to both. Consider just three recent examples that have featured in this Newsletter: the debate on what constitutes intellectual property and geographic indicators in our sector, or that infamous jacket displayed at the V&A that raised so many issues of ethics, technology and cultural sensitivity.

Opportunities emerged in a summary of Chirala achievements by Prof WiebeBijker: 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 that replace a welfare approach with a fresh understanding of crafts as an engine of livelihood as well as a unique and powerful response to the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Prof Ulinka Rublack (Cambridge University) described Chirala as “one of the most inspiring conferences I have ever attended. It 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”. (The CCI mission, wonderfully endorsed!)

For us at CCI, other questions arise: What might all this mean in terms of building the capacity of craft teams, the resources we have for research and published documentation, the opportunities we may now need to bring minds together to reflect on experience and to partner in future work? How might we assist craft scholars in their efforts at creating knowledge resources?Without partnership with those working in markets, how could scholarship possibly move beyond conferences into the field? Or how can those in the market provide the evidence and direction they need without the rigour of scholarship?  How best can we draw scholars and scholarship into our teams as peers and partners who can help test our assumptions and findings and enrich the quality of outputs and outcomes? It is not that such partnership with scholars is new to the sector or to us.  Consider the seminal “Bamboo &Cane  Crafts” of the northeast by the NID team led by M P Ranjan, our own path-breaking projects and exhibitions (examples include Stone Crafts of India Chamba rumals, and the Hyderabad exploration of natural dyes) and those of others (Martand Singh’s Viswakarma, pastoral cultures demonstrated by Sahjeevan, Rajeev Sethi’s showcasing of Indian creativity at Mumbai’s new airport,CCWB’s efforts at the British Museum and elsewhere, Dakshina Chitra and Judy Frater’s path-breaking experiments in Kutch). Scholarship has been the foundation for every one of these. CCI partners have included scholars of distinction: Lotika Varadarajan, JasleenDhamija and Jyotindra Jain are among them. Through the Craft Revival Trust, Ritu Sethi has regularly brought activists and scholars together around concerns and priorities we share.Sahapedia and IGNCA have offered other opportunities,while Uzramma (Malkha) and Annapurna   Mamidipudi (Max Planch Institute for the History of Science) have helped transform through lectures and writing our understanding of Chirala’s inspiration: the place of the weaver and her loomin a new millennium. What this suggests is the need to more consciously nurture linkages, integrate them into work and advocacy, and create opportunities that ensure that knowledge from the ground and from the top is brought together to strengthen efforts in a common cause.

Past forward  

Chirala did more than offer a wealth of clues for partnerships in the “ecology of process”.  It also recalled our Santiniketan gathering in 2016, and the fact that the beginnings of our movement a century ago were anchored in Rabindranath Tagore’s decision to position the future of Indian handcraft within academe – within auniversity, re-defined as a space embracing universal wisdom and knowledge, demonstrating the contemporary relevance of humankind’s heritage.  The past as the future – that is Chirala’s message to us, just as Gurudev predicted in 1919.

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