Take a “halwai” (a sweetmeat cook) a master at his job of making samosas, jaleebi’s and pakodas, send him to Alaska and ask him to make food for the populace there. In addition to not being equipped for the weather, he will have a real problem figuring out what that culture, palate and table require.
This is what we expect craftspeople today in India to do. One stone craftsperson stated the problem clearly – “We know how to cut, polish, engrave, but we no longer know what to make, we hesitate, we just don’t know”. There are many reasons why the craftsperson feels like this today, the result is that he no longer feels in control of the process of creation and production. His relationship with resources, design, production, market has changed from interdependency to dependency. Is this acceptable? Some say it is inevitable and necessary. They argue that crafts is just “industry” and urge crafts to follow the way of industrialization – increased volume of production, mechanization, making to order, piecework, vendorisation. This is the only way the quality of life of craftspeople will improve is their conclusion.
By that logic the quality of life and work of the Moradabad brass workers, the Sahranpur wood carvers, the Dhangadhra stone carvers, the Jodhpur carpenters must be at par with the owners of the export houses they work for. The craftsperson’s children should also have the freedom to choose a career, and not have to follow the trade because of no alternatives.
Lets be honest, most craftspersons are now workers – industrialization of craft has not helped migration across class and caste, neither has it helped the person who works with her hands to value the job she does. In society her role and sense of identity is devalued from what it was 70 years ago.
What industrialization has done is increase the sales in the short term of various products and in the long term rob the worker of the ability to respond to change and innovate.
This is the key area that training needs to address for the next 15 years. Whenever I come away from craft training programmes the question that remains with me is – Are we caught in a vicious cycle of “fire-fighting” instead of “fire-prevention”? Are we training craftspeople to catch up with what they do not know instead of preparing them for the future by developing their capacity to cope with the pressures of ambiguity and skills associated with resilience and creativity?
Over the 50 years of Independence the efforts of the Government and other institutions have raised the skill and technology levels of the craft sector. Now we need to build capacity of entrepreneurship and innovation. This seems a reasonable objective, but should we adopt capitalist and hierarchical structures or can we learn from the mistakes of the sweatshops and hope to have alternative methods of production, marketing and resource and energy management.
Is craft in India going to be the future space where green economics, fair trade, ecology, well-being and local re-generation come together in new ways? Is it possible to find new ways to re-generate our tradition of sustainability and of working with materials to produce beautiful objects? Our processes for many years used sustainability principles, before industrialization appeared. A grass mat weaver used to get the grass from a member of a local community whose job it was to wander on the river banks and pick good quality stalks which in turn grew in “common” ground and was looked after by communities who tended that crop. Interdependence was a norm. But those ways do not hold good anymore.
Too often in India craft refers to the past. In a rapidly changing age, the idea of Indian craft provides a security blanket of familiarity and tradition, which does not allow us to ask what craft is capable of contributing to our culture and to our future.
While there is a need to make craft production more efficient and organized, we cannot forget that craft is different from a machine shop or factory of industrial or consumer goods. Articulation of this difference is what we need to do rigorously through greater discussion and reflection.
We need to periodically ask the question “what craft is or has the potential to be in the future” to be able to arrive at a better understanding of the right kind of training for craftspeople.
It is important for a debate and discussion of this core idea if directions are sought in training.
To illustrate why we need to do this let me site the example of Medical Training:
The fundamental first step
Is it a celebration of the Handmade or is it a celebration of Tradition or Culture or Indigenous Wisdom or The making of meaning or The expression of unity in diversity or A dance of the cosmos. Who decides?
Is the craftsperson of the future really an entrepreneur or an exporter or a designer or a storyteller or ecological producer or a skilled worker or a vendor or an artisan? Again who decides?
There is an urgent need to provide opportunities where stakeholders can gather to discuss such questions and through facilitation and engagement find ways forward.
“Craft in India was and still is a rooted tradition – it is a process by which a community reflects on its condition – this sort of reflection is actually a search for identity. The more we move craft towards ‘market’ and ‘customers’ the more we move it away from its greatest source of renewal. That is not to say customer requirements are not important; rather there is a need to dialogue with craftsmen about ways of dealing with these concerns.”
Craft is about humanity’s creative relationship with materials – how we think, feel, look at and use all the diverse natural and synthetic materials available to us. That relationship has long been out of balance, and needs urgently to be reconsidered. Craft, as a professional practice, provides us with the knowledge we need to address some key problems. Craft, as part of our leisure and learning, helps us appreciate the quality in materials and objects. Craft, as a social process, links together makers, users and manufacturers. Craft, as part of our industry, provides innovation driven more by a balanced materialism and less by unfettered desire. Craft, as the workshop demonstrated, has far more value for the world of tomorrow than the world of yesterday.
Only when we approach craft with an emphasis on negotiation of ideas, which arise from asking pertinent questions, and testing provisional answers, rather than seeking predetermined ones – will there be a shift in the way training for crafts is planned.
How should craftspeople learn?
Dewey’s idea underlined the learning of important life skills through active engagement in meaningful activity. Young people he said learnt about themselves and about their communities by working with practicing professionals. Traditionally in India crafts was learnt like this – through an apprenticeship model. This apprenticeship model also was a space where collaborative learning took place.
In educational jargon Collaborative Learning is defined as – An instructional approach in which students of varying abilities and interests work together in small groups to solve a problem, complete a project or achieve a common goal.
“Another strength of apprenticeships is that each one is unique – there are no formulas or guidelines. Every apprenticeship can be fashioned to suit the people involved, therefore providing a more interesting and useful learning situation. To me, one of the greatest advantages of apprenticeships is that they are about people working together, without the exchange of money, and without the need for degrees or curriculum. They allow people of all different ages and backgrounds to work together”
Craft in India has survived and thrived because of this mode of learning and training – called the “Guru-Sishya parampara” where the uninitiated learns at the feet of a master. The ‘guru- sishya’ tradition of passing on craft skills, attitudes, values and myths meshed with the prevalent social structure of that time. This system worked for many centuries in India without much variation and through this space of teacher student relationship, a shared understanding of what was acceptable, what was interesting and what was valuable was disseminated. This method bred a sense of community and in the craft sector a method of working that was by and large egalitarian.
I was speaking to Eswaracharya (a wood carver) about learning in this way and he showed me another side of this process. Eswaracharya said emphaticcally – “We would get a rap on our knuckles if we attempted to contradict our teacher. If he said a motif was supposed to be carved in a certain way, and we gently suggested an alteration, or argued about the philosophy of what we were doing, it was seen as a mark of disrespect and the price to pay was disgrace and a reputation of being rebellious.”
There is valid criticism for this form of learning – this model is over dependent on the wisdom and generosity of the teacher. If for any reason the teacher did not believe in teaching the student to inquire, understand, experiment and explore, the student would just learn to be passive and would not learn the strategies of adapting to change.
So the traditional guru-sishya space was a space that originally encouraged learning.
The crafts inherently have all the attributes that constructivism demands. In spite of that learning programmes are designed in ways that do not create real understanding and therefore do not enable people to design, innovate and re-generate.
Having been invited to numerous training programmes for craftspeople by both the Government agencies and the NGO’s I have analyzed the problems that do not allow constructive learning to happen.
What should they learn?
It is strange that we hope to emulate industrialized communities through our ethnic knick-knacks. We want crafts to use means and processes of industrial production to manufacture “tradition”!
Craft provides this opportunity. Hence must be encouraged to be robust and plural in its interpretation for the stakeholders.
Design can address this specific need to design and create new kinds of material and modules for training in craft.
I think that the following are the key points that answer the question “what should craftspeople learn”
The industrialized garment export house is not going to teach garment workers philosophy or history or politics of globalization. The politics of inaccessibility keep the marginalized in their positions and do not allow any migration across class.
Let’s make sure that does not happen in craft. Its important we chose the right kind of training that ensures the empowerment of craftspeople and of craft.
It is hard for the trainers to begin a multidisciplinary approach – especially when they are faced by the daunting task of bringing current best practices and ideas of sustainability, philosophy, economics, and product design together and in different languages. But it needs to be done if real change needs to happen. This requires a new breed of people committed to this task – they need to be trained first. (In Srishti we have just piloted a course called Designer as Facilitator – and hope to do more work to demonstrate how this is possible).