“I sold 60 stoles. Yardage, saris, everything got sold. I logged over Rs. 3.5 lakh worth of sales,” says Itishree Sur of Gopalpur, Odisha. In the male-dominated weaving of tussar and ghicha in Odisha, Itishree stands out as a rare woman weaver. “There are so many orders that I have lost track of sales which is over Rs. 3 lakhs,” says Bikash Mahapatra, an ikkat weaver from Maniabandha (a unique Buddhist village in Odisha where the entire hamlet is engaged in ikkat cotton weaving).
Both are a part of Antaran Artisan Connect, a philanthropic initiative by the Tata Trusts. Their happiness gets communicated to me over the phone. I have not heard of such jubilant stories from the handloom sector even in the pre-Covid era. A classic case of ‘Give man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ Several organisations such as Tata Trusts, Kutch Craft Initiative, Desi and Paramparik Karigar are helping artisans in the Covid crisis.
The mode of working is simple. The products made by the artisans are put up for sale on the website, Facebook page or WhatsApp. The buyer places the order and pays in advance against the promise that the products will be shipped when the lockdown is lifted. The money is transferred straight into the craftpersons’ account. The organisations act as a facilitator, ensuring that the buyer will have a smooth experience and not be cheated. The artisans get working capital to make more products. They need not do distress sale. For the buyer it is money well spent — helping an artist, of course with a sweet discount thrown in.
Sharda Gautam, Head of Crafts, Tata Trusts says, “We began working in 2018 in three clusters, and now in six. Tata Trusts is a philanthropic institution and our work is aimed at nurturing artisans, helping them connect with markets directly without any intermediary. We had trained the craftspersons to use digital platforms for sharing regular product updates over WhatsApp and email with buyers and for online payments. With the lockdown, our ground team had moved out. For us, it was a litmus test to see if the training and the groundwork done by us was working. It has. Since we launched Antaran Covid Campaign, Artisan Entrepreneurs have notched up sales of over Rs. 32 lakhs in a month through the Antaran Artisan Connect website.”
For the artisans this direct interaction with the market has given them an idea about the trend. Vekuvolu Dozo of Dimapur, Nagaland belongs to the Chakhesang tribe and is an expert at the backstrap loom. She says, “I did sell stoles and shawls, but my cushion covers and runners have done very well. Especially those in traditional designs.” Most weavers have experimented with new designs. Vekuvolu has made a bedspread on the narrow loom. “I joined five strips of 18 inches to make a bedspread of 90-inch width. I have made beautiful rucksacks which will be available online soon,” she adds.
The excitement is all about reaching out through a new medium without leaving the confines of one’s home. Gautam explains: “Our model is to enable B2B connect of artisan entrepreneurs but with order cancellations due to Covid, B2C was considered to help liquidate the stocks as a short-term step. With success in that domain, we are now looking at a customisation option, where buyers can give their own designs to the weaver entrepreneurs. Artisan entrepreneurs can custom make new designs because of the design education that they have received in the last two years.”
Pankaj Shah, Mentor, Kutch Craft Collective and who has been associated with the crafts of Kutch for over two decades says, “The craft organisations of Kutch — Kalaraksha, Shrujan, Qasab, Khamir and VRDI — are now developing strategies individually and together as Kutch Craft Collective for work post-Lockdown. Things will change. Also all the groups and many artisans have unsold stocks , liquidation of which is a priority. We welcome entrepreneurs, designers and individuals to buy them. The payment in advance will come in handy for the craftsmen.”
Paramparik Karigar has started a similar venture though on a smaller scale on Facebook. Vaishali Goel, member, Managing Committee, says, “We have worked with our team of craftspersons on a personal level, but this online method is new for both of us. We have started a Facebook page, where a craftsman is promoted everyday. Products can be bought directly. Our focus on textiles will begin next week.”
Will artisan empowerment with direct buyer contact usher in a new dawn for the handmade industry? Only time will tell.