The national turmoil triggered by demonetization is acknowledged to have had its most serious impact on India’s ‘informal’ sector that constitutes up to 80% of the economy and depends critically on cash for survival. While signals have come in about distress across the hinterland, the impact of demonetization on craft communities is still unknown. What is clear is that in addition to the long list of all that still needs to be done for India’s artisans, there is now an additional need for capacities to cope with an increasingly digitized economy. With margins of error in the craft sector already slender, what can activists do to turn disruption into opportunity, and to speed new skills within communities already struggling in markets transformed by global competition?
Recent bad news suggests how casually the interests of millions at the margin can be disregarded by the powerful. The good news may be that today young ‘artisan entrepreneurs’ — a term reflected in the Economic Census 2012 — have a capacity to respond that is astonishing and deserving of response. Just days after currency notes were demonetized, Somaiya Kala Vidhyalaya (SKV) brought to Ahmedabad a team of four ‘artisan-designers’ to present their collections at a gallery show: Aslam Abdul Karim Khatri, Purshsottam Premji Vankar, Rajesh Vishramji Siju and Talha Gulam Khatri. Mentored by Judy Frater, the team came prepared to speed billing by swiping cards so as to leave more time for customer interaction. Lessons learned in e-commerce, merchandising and point-of-sale efficiency were now quickly applied to the cash crisis — professionalism in practice. Buyer-seller interaction focused on design, technology and market trends. The conversations were about ideas and choices, and the values and realities which drove them. Sales reached record levels, and demonetization was never mentioned.
A few days later this Kutch team joined with other craft colleagues in a round-table organized at the India International Centre by SKV and the Craft Revival Trust. The key issue was market understanding, and the challenge for craftsmanship to drive the market rather than be entirely driven by it. The key capacity identified was education that could strengthen hereditary knowledge with new opportunities through design, technology and communication. Artisan-designers spoke with one voice on what had empowered them through the pedagogies pioneered by Judy and her teams at Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya and SKV. The power of traditional artisanship had emerged as a contemporary capability. Negotiating successfully with market forces, tradition was now the future, not just the past. A driving intent was to transform the imbalance of artisans laboring for others within their own tradition, uplifting them instead them as designers, innovators and market leaders in their own right. New confidence and capacities offered choices of design and entrepreneurship that now go well beyond job work that fulfills only the requirements of external actors.
With tradition as their DNA, the commitment of these practitioners emerged as a culture of quality rather as products or skills fixed in time. They had no illusions about what was stake in this difficult negotiation over distances, trends, taste and cultures. Laxmi Puwar is now SKV faculty. She spoke of how she had learnt to understand the USPs of her craft and how long-term implications of her decisions were invariably more critical than short-term gains. Dr Ismail Mohmed Khatri, ajrak doyen, spoke of his community’s journey since pioneering interventions in the early 1970s made in cooperation with NID and Gurjari, and how these had defined a craft movement which was to have global implications. Master weaver Shyamjibhai recognized that craft decisions had a community-wide impact. These demanded a thoughtful responsibility to protect dil bhavna as the enduring USP that connects yesterday with tomorrow, and that make pride in quality the ultimate bottom line. Weaver Dahyalalbhai is today a designer, business graduate and entrepreneur. He shared the impact of market forces within a small community of artisans, and how competition could be turned towards collaboration rather than cut-throat insecurity. Anuradha Kumar (Fabindia) and Anjana Somani (Delhi Crafts Council) spoke from the client side of the table, underlining transformed relationships between buyers and artisans as they collaborated as equals in critical decisions. Among these were quality issues related to respecting the capacity constraints of artisans, avoiding over-exposure or quick-fix mass production that can destroy the very qualities of hand and eye that markets must be educated to value. Laila Tyabji (Dastkar) observed that a decade after the Kala Raksha experiment first emerged, the market was now asking for the artisan-designers by name, each with his or her own USP identified as a brand in its own right. In this journey, an older generation’s despair about craft futures had also to be overcome. For Aslam, Purshottam, Rajesh and Gulam SKV knowledge offered the prospect of a better life through craft, and their once-skeptical families were now encouraging other young talent to enroll.
To sustain this sense of hope, the most critical element may be that of respect — respect for traditional wisdom, respect for the hands and minds that have carried tradition to the present day, respect translated into a quality of life through secure livelihoods, and respect that was in itself the outcome of education. Jaya Jaitly (Dastkari Haat Samiti) pointed out that in this achievement, education was of both maker and user, a process of redefining and enriching tradition continuously. The market was the space within which this mutual learning takes place and in which it must succeed through demonstrating both relevance as well as sustainability. Ritu Sethi (Craft Revival Trust) recalled that it was not so long ago when merchants assessed the value of embroidery by weight rather than by quality: “We have come a long way since then, only to be challenged by technologies which now claim an ability to dispense with the embroiderer altogether!” In times of such rapid change and threat, to what can one cling for security? Manjari Nirula (DCC) cited the Santa Fe art and craft market, a three-day event that is the largest of its kind with a very special buyer-seller ethos. This year 160 artisans from all over the world welcomed 26,000 visitors and achieved $3M in sales in just 21 hours — 90% of this value directly transferred to participating artisans. More important even than volume was what this sale represented: an educated audience, aware of craftsmanship and of the cultural, economic, ecological and functional value of hand production.
Both in Ahmedabad and in New Delhi the currency crisis was parked at the door. Not a single participant raised it as a top-of-the-mind concern, even as stories of banks and ATMs were exchanged over chai. The lesson perhaps is that despair can overtake those helpless to influence the times we live in or to move with them. Empowerment demands education for self-reliance, not just schemes. The artisans brought together by Judy and Ritu have reminded that the times are indeed changing, and that change may not be all bad news.