Updated: April 6, 2012 20:22 IST

The Saturday Interview - Charting culture

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Jaya Jaitly talks to Anjana Rajan about the craft traditions of India, and keeping them alive

To the fashion-conscious urban Indian youth of the 1980s, Jaya Jaitly's name has been associated with turning Indian handlooms and craft traditions into trendy statements. Associated with crafts and craftspeople for over five decades, from Jammu and Kashmir to Kerala, Odisha to Gujarat, she was among the founders of Dastkar and Dilli Haat. She is now synonymous with Dastkari Haat Samiti, a nationwide association of craftspeople, of which she is founder-president. Her artistically designed State-wise Crafts Maps of India have, over the years, been used in diverse ways, including by UNDP to target rehabilitation efforts in the wake of natural disasters. This week, her coffee table book, “Crafts Atlas of India”, based on these maps, will be launched by Niyogi Books. Excerpts from an interview.

Although traditionally crafts have been part of everyday life, today buying handicraft is a somewhat elite preference, with readymades, plastics and synthetics high on average Indian shopping lists… Has awareness increased over the years?

The best of craft has become expensive and rightly so since handwork should be appreciated rather than looked down upon. However, places such as Dilli Haat were created for the middle classes, students and not really the elite. I deliberately made it a place for equalisation of customers and crafts people. It is not expensive because there are no expensive overheads and one doesn't pay for a brand name.

We have not had enough of a campaign to educate people that in our climate natural yarns and fabrics are better for the skin and general health. People who like comfort usually realise this. It is the economically weak that has taken to synthetics because they are cheaper. I would like to think that my setting up Dilli Haat made crafts accessible to common people. Young people [still] throng the place. This is matched by a sustained effort at projecting the need of sustaining the livelihoods of their producers.

There is hardly ever a satisfactory correlation between the labour invested in our intricate arts — say sari weaving — and monetary returns…

Yes, sari weaving is a particularly sad and widespread case. Weavers earn not more than Rs. 100 to Rs. 150 a day. However, there are situations now where master weavers are willing to pay even Rs. 300 to those willing to weave the elaborate gyaser cloth in demand from Buddhist communities and Tibetans worldwide.

Besides eliminating the middleman and increasing haat opportunities, what else should be done, and is the government's contribution enough?

Artisans need easier access to raw material, and innovative and dynamic marketing platforms. In Vietnam, I saw how raw material is brought to craft villages and clusters. For marketing, we either provide the pavement or a dull emporium. The haats have made a big difference, but most lie unutilised because the government agencies in charge have no interest or imagination. Perhaps a public-private partnership between government and NGOs could make them work better. I had suggested a support system of craft kiosks at airports and metro stations, as well as the State taking, say, a floor at a mall to provide good competition with industrialised products, and offer skill demos and such so that people can see how difficult hand skills are and why it is worthwhile spending on a handmade scarf as much as people are willing to pay for a lipstick!

Are the crafts maps of India selling well and being promoted?

They sell well at the outlets we supply to, but book distributors can't bother with maps so we only have a small personalised distribution system. State governments show interest if there is an interested official. We get enquiries from different parts of the world but are now trying online selling through websites associated with us. I guess the latest book as an Atlas takes it to a different level, but I still want to make each map available to students and travellers.

What are your current projects?

My pet project now underway is called Akshara. I am working on teaching crafts people the value of literacy, and that after schooling they need not abandon hand work since their traditional talent and our collective heritage would be lost. We are merging their regional script with craft skills through calligraphy — or just texts — and its application to weaving, stone work, wood carving, painting, metal work and many other craft processes. They are fascinated by the idea. Sometimes designers are helping. I lead them through new thought processes, and together we are creating a new aesthetic.

I am also working on a book on the woven treasures of Varanasi, a book “The Story of Dilli Haat” and a small gift book containing photographs of artistic crafts with quotes from Mahatma Gandhi, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Japanese potter Soetsu Yanagi and others.


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