The future of crafts is bright, but it's all about economic sustainability and educating youngsters, says Vijaya Rajan, chairperson of the Crafts Council of India

Her commitment to craft is extraordinary, and there is an unbroken thread of continuity in this journey of hers. Vijaya Rajan, chairperson of the Crafts Council of India, and past president of the World Crafts Council (WCC), Asia Pacific Region, is known for her administrative skills. For 40 years, she's worked for the revival and promotion of this sector, which provides a source of livelihood for millions. Here, she speaks of her passion, and “the yesterday, today and tomorrow” of crafts in the country.

How did the journey begin, and what direction did it take?

My husband and I moved to Delhi in 1968. I was introduced to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, pioneer in crafts revival. The next day, she appointed me the secretary of the Crafts Council! May be, she spotted my passion for crafts. I worked there for seven years. In 1964, Kamaladevi, along with Aileen Webb and Margaret Patch, started the WCC in New York. Soon after returning to India, she founded CCI. Later, State chapters were set up. Meetings in Delhi were often held by Kamaladevi in my house. Artist Gujral, and former President of India R. Venkataraman were among those who attended (when Kamaladevi called, who could refuse?). When we moved back here, Kamaladevi announced that she had decided to shift the headquarters to Chennai! Rukmini Devi Arundale agreed to be president, but said she'd not like to be associated with the day-to-day adminstrative work. Kamaladevi replied ‘Vijaya will take care of all that'. But, Rukmini Devi attended each and every meeting! The first development was the setting up the Kalamkari unit in Kalakshetra. Today, the CCI has over 1,000 members in many States.

What were the reasons for starting CCI?

Creating awareness was one. We started with all-India workshops in terracotta and basket weaving, and then began popularising crafts one by one — Toda embroidery, kalchattis (stoneware), kalamkari… Then went on to design intervention. We evolved with Government schemes. Then progressed to getting resource people, obtaining foreign expertise, and introducing improved tools. Quality has always been a priority, as also documentation. Our next thrust was marketing, holding exhibitions, and then the opening of our “Kamala” outlets.

How is CCI different from other NGOs?

We have no specific agenda — such as gender, producer groups or fair trade organisations. We focus on not only groups but also individual craftsmen. Voluntary work is our USP. I will man a stall for half-an-hour, if necessary. The welfare of craftspersons is our prime concern. Now younger people are also coming in. CCI has gained recognition nationally and internationally (UNESCO partners with us for their programmes in India).

Are young people attracted to craft?

Young people like ethnic wear. But, they are not so fascinated by decorative craft. They want utility and a contemporary look. If there's something they can fit into their lives, they're happy. It's important to educate the young on craft.

What has the Government's role been? What can be done to sustain craft traditions when many are giving up their hereditary occupations? What are the threats?

The Government has done a tremendous job for crafts. The Geographical Indicators Registry is a good development. But, apart from the Office of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts, Ministry of Textiles, other Central and State Ministries should also be supportive. There's a feeling among some that this is a ‘sunset industry'. How can that be when handloom ranks as the second largest, and handicrafts the third largest source of livelihood and employment in the country?

One of the threats we face is the way Indian craft is being imitated. Many craftsmen's families, it is true, are beginning to work in factories.

So, it all boils down to how economically sustainable it is?

That is the final step in the evolution. Corporates can help as mentors. Craftsmen should be helped in their villages as is being done in Indonesia — seen as a business enterprise, and not as a charitable act — from raw material procurement to marketing and pricing.

Has CCI played a role in formulating Government policy?

Yes. We have a role at task-force level, which gives its recommendation to the Planning Commission for every Five Year plan. We've also been consulted in the formulation of some of the DCH schemes such as the Shilp Guru Awards.

What is the future for craft?

Bright (if it is tapped properly)! Otherwise, we won't be working in it.

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