Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
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CRAFT: March 21, 1999

An umbrella for craftsmen

Kamala Ramakrishnan

The clarion call reverberated throughout the length and breadth of this ancient land. It was a word that promised freedom from political and economic exploitation and enslavement, a philosophy that guaranteed a revival of lost national pride. As the nationalists made huge bonfires of imported goods, the magic of the word "Swadeshi" as enunciated by Mahatma Gandhi became a catalyst for political action. "Swadeshi," which simplistically translated means "buy Indian," was India's greatest need of the hour.

Yet Swadeshi was not a totally new concept. For even through the years of the 19th and early 20th centuries that marked the renaissance of Indian thought, social reformers had begun to highlight the importance of village-based crafts and industries for cultural and economic regeneration. But it was Mahatma Gandhi who broadened this concept of self-sufficient village communities and gave the people a simple symbol of this profound thought - the lowly Charka, a tool that proved to be a mighty weapon in the fight for freedom. And on the strength of the nationalist fervour that was so generated India achieved its goal: Independence.

But the battle for a comprehensive revival of handicrafts and handlooms had just begun. The long years of colonialism had successfully marginalised Indian traditional arts and crafts. Infatuated with their foreign rulers and their goods most Indians repudiated everything Indian. As the finished goods of Britain flooded our markets and India became to its foreign rulers just another source of raw material, indigenous industry collapsed. Rather than face penury, many craftsmen turned their back on the skills that had been passed on to them through generations and sought other employment.

It was indeed a dismal scene and India, like many countries in similar situations, would have lost its vast repertoire of traditional skills in weaving and handicrafts but for the crusading zeal of a few visionaries. These visionaries, with the support of the many governmental and non-governmental organisations in the field, have helped handicrafts and handlooms thrive in post-independence India.

Indeed, from the beginning years of the 1950s, handicrafts was incorporated into India's economic planning and acknowledged not only for its aesthetic qualities but also for its earnings potential. The All India Handicrafts Board was set up in the Fifties with the primary aim of not just reviving crafts but also providing holistic schemes that would improve the quality of life of the artisans. Parallel bodies were set up in each state through the Sixties to Seventies to provide comprehensive help to every form of craft. These State Handicrafts Boards also turned retailers through their respective State Emporia.

While the All India Handicrafts Board and its State level counterparts rarely took up welfare schemes on their own, they provided funds to non-governmental organisations for promotional and training programmes. These projects aimed at finding markets for crafts and providing training in those crafts where demand often outstripped supply. The training programmes have through these years not only honed the skills of traditional craftsman but also created many first generation craftsmen.

Shyam Jagota

To provide technical support to the craftsman, four design centres were set up, in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Bangalore. These centres provide documentation of motifs, patterns and products drawn from varied sources. This is made accessible to artisans and even individuals. Trying to marry contemporary needs to traditional forms, the design centres constantly develop new designs that are available to craftsmen and State Handicrafts emporia for mass production. All these governmental efforts have not only created awareness for the craft form but also to an extent succeeded in infusing some quality control. Tasks in which they were helped by a number of organistions and committed individuals.

One of the important personages associated with the craft revival movement in India is the late Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. A close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, she shared his views on village industries and crafts and championed the cause of not just the craft but the craftsman himself. "There is so much beauty in the simple articles used in village homes," she declared "but we have forgotten to honour the craftsman." Kamaladevi was the moving spirit behind many of the schemes floated by the fledgling Government of India to restore Indian crafts to their former glory. A member of the Handicrafts and Handloom Board, she tried giving their policies a direction. In 1965 she set up the Crafts Council of India. Located first in Bombay it has shifted to Chennai since 1976. The founder President was Rukmini Arundale whose institution Kalakshetra was also a centre for revival of all arts and crafts.

The Crafts Council of India is primarily a voluntary non-government, non-profit organisation. Its main role is to ensure that the craftsman finds the right market and the fair price he deserves. With this objective it holds periodic exhibitions and undertakes orders for the craftsman and provides visibility to him. The CCI also holds seminars and documents these discussions. From the days of its inception the Crafts Council has aimed at finding new markets and consolidating the old and in a couple of cases tried giving technical guidance and marketing to crafts that had lost their traditional market.

Dastakar, another organisation devoted to re-vitalising crafts, also aims at improving the economic status of the craftsman and in the process promoting the survival of the craft. It attempts to provide a link between consumer and craftsman and solves their problems.

Similar motivation provides the base for Sasha - a West Bengal based craft organisation. It works with the craftsmen of Eastern India. Indeed most localised craft groups or women's groups like SEWA - a women oriented experiment and Urmul and Tilloria of Rajasthan, Oxfam of Andhra Pradesh and Dastakar Andhra aim at an integrated rural development and more often textile crafts receive greater emphasis than handicrafts because of their greater saleability.

Much earlier, the Government had understood the potential in the handloom sector and by the early Fifties realising that a number of handloom varieties were just dying out, had set in the process of revival of the handloom industry. The All India Handlooms Board was set up in 1952 to coordinate production, design, marketing and technological development. In 1955 the all India Marketing Cooperative Society was formed to develop markets. But one of the best gestures to genuine improvement of the handloom sector was the establishment of the Weavers Service Centres and Institutes of Handloom Technology in every state. Mainly set up to protect the handloom sector from the inroads of the powerloom and the mills, these 24 Weavers Service Centres have been helping weavers in improving their design and technical skills. Constantly interacting with individual weavers, cooperatives and exporters, they stay tuned to the needs of a changing market and provide the ordinary weaver with the wherewithal to adopt to the market.


Even while accepting that the government remains the single biggest contributor in the grand revival of Indian crafts and handlooms, one cannot but be aware of the part played by cooperatives, private entrepreneurs and the patronage extended by the important families of an area.

Cooperatives wherever successful, have proved extremely beneficial to the weaver or craftsman. They provide finance, design inputs through interaction with design centres and finally and most importantly, marketing. Unfortunately riddled with problems of mismanagement and division of castes, subsects and creed, the full strength of the cooperative movement has not been realised in India.

Patronage has helped wherever it has been extended wholeheartedly. The success of the Gorpada family with the Sandur experiment in North Kanara and that of the Holkars with Rewa in Maheshwar are standing examples of what dedicated commitment can achieve.

Helping in the revival of hand made crafts and textiles by making them commercially viable has been the single biggest achievement of a few entrepreneurs in the field. Equally dedicated, even if it was the commercial angle that appealed to them, designers like Ritu Kumar adapted India's vast repertoire of design and skills to a more contemporary taste. A pioneer, she not only created awareness in the elite and helped refurbish the image of handcrafted textiles but set trends that has reached a less affluent section too. Exporters have also added their mite and built up awareness all over the world of Indian arts and crafts.

Today one can safely say that like other Indian traditions, its unbroken traditions of handicrafts and hand made textiles will more than survive. But there are other battles to be won. The festivals of India under the guidance of Pupul Jayakar did bring a tremendous awareness of India's traditions within the country and abroad. But its aftermath has spawned a plethora of inferior quality goods that have flooded markets in India and abroad and could finally negate all the effort of decades.

And above all one question constantly raises its head in all discussions on Indian traditional crafts. In India, crafts have never meant what they did to the West. There, crafts meant studio crafts practised by a few for a few. Its objective was mainly aesthetic and decorative. In the Indian context crafts supplied a totally utilitarian need. It was part of daily life but it aimed at transforming the purely functional into a sublime work of art. But in the changing scene today, pushed to a corner by cheaper industrial products, crafts have taken on a more elitist hue. Most organisations in this field have to finally realise that they will have to find the ultimate answer - can crafts continue to be a vital part of the common man's daily routine or should it become even more elitist with the stress on producing far less but of such impeccable quality that one can be proud to proclaim them as one's own.

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