Seldom has Laila Tyabji spoken about herself. For more than three decades, Laila has been engaged with veritable crafts and craftspeople of the country and that has been and rightly so, at the centre of her discourse. The renowned crafts scholar and the chairperson of Dastkar — a society for crafts and craftsmen, allows no break in the pattern when we meet her for an interview at her office in Shahpur Jat in Delhi. And even as the rest of the city is yet to shake off its slumber, Laila and her team are present in full force on an early morning on the day of Dussehra working towards the 19th Dastkar Nature Bazaar beginning on October 8, one of the most awaited happenings on our cultural calendar. Dressed in a maheshwari printed in Akola — she has a sari collection that many are envious of — and a stunning aquamarine string of beads, Laila traces Dastkar's journey, an institution she co-founded with Jaya Jaitley, Poonam Muttreja, Bunny Page, Gauri Choudhry and Prabeen Singh in 1981, oscillating between its past and the present.
Excerpts from the interview:
On Dastkar Nature Bazaar
Bazaar is only the public face of Dastkar. It is the culmination of a whole lot of processes where we work with craftsmen on enhancing skills, capacity building, etc., which is why the end result is that we register 10000 footfall each day of the bazaar and that too when so many crafts bazaars have come up. But it drives me crazy when people say, oh, you have such a nice job, you travel and pick up stuff. I dislike these two words ‘pick up’ and ‘stuff’. We don’t pick up, we help them develop their crafts and diversify.
On the topmost agenda of doing away with the exploitative middlemen
This has been something that has been part of our objective right from the beginning when we began 30 years ago but it didn’t mean every middleman but the exploitative ones. I don’t want every craftsperson to become an entrepreneur when they should be focusing on their craft. The idea is to educate the artisans about the value of their skill and educate the buyers about the worth of the craft and only then fair trade can take place. We need the middlemen whether it is Fab India, hi-end stores or the government emporias.
On Dastkar’s initial phase
It was a voluntary part-time thing. We realised that even if you help craftsmen produce a good product, it’s very difficult for a traditional artiste on account of his typical attire and language limitations, to get past a door of a swish boutique or a designer showroom. So, in the early days, we decided to do some hand-holding by marketing their wares. We had to do all kind of things, receive them at the stations holding banners, arrange for their lodging but today they are so confident. They know which dharamshalas or guest houses to book and find their way around. In 1981 when we had the first bazaar we had 15 groups of craftspeople and this year the numbers have increased to 160.
On interacting with the artistes
Every month, I spend around ten days in the rural areas trying to understand their needs which can’t be done sitting in Shahpur Jat. A group of women weavers in a village may not move out of their village due to the constraints of the society, so their needs would be different from a set of male leather workers.
On pet projects
The objective behind the Dastkar Ranthambore Project was to try and find source of income generation for the villagers who had lost their homes and had to be resettled. They had lost access to wood, water and the forests they had been living for generations. Valmik Thapar asked me what we could do in terms of economic rehabilitation. So, when I met them they were all very bitter and said there are no crafts here. I hated doing it but I had to dive into their homes and houses and find for myself how the people of this agrarian community lived. I discovered that everything they used from a gudri to toys to basket, a majority of utility items were made of out of waste material. What started from suspicion, hostility turned into 300 families and a turnover of one crore rupees. Another one was Lambani embroidery. It wasn’t known everywhere and the Lambani women at that time had switched over to making plastic aprons. I shrieked when I saw a couple of women in Sandur in now infamous Bellary district doing that and asked why you make that ghastly stuff. I was told that nothing sells and lambani is very expensive.
On the state of affairs
We are losing 10 per cent of our craftsmen every year as they are shifting to other jobs. On the other hand the global market is recognising the value of the handicrafts. Around the world, people are getting bored of the high streets same brands available everywhere.
Even in India, fatigue has set in and there is realisation that if we want something unique we will have to go back to our handicrafts because that is the only mechanism which can offer experimentation and a different look.
Berozgar Mahila Kalyan Samiti of Bihar were bonded labourers for 20 years because they couldn’t pay a loan of Rs.500 taken years ago. They were paying 18 per cent interest on it. A donation given to us by a friend was used to repay their loan following which they were trained in weaving. Today they weave beautiful tussar saris worth Rs.30-40 lakh.