Life & Style

Artisans get creative to stay afloat in a crisis

An artisan of label Lavangg, engaged in Awadhi embroidery   | Photo Credit: Creative Dignity

Here this day we choose to celebrate

Examples of women who dare to create……

Bengaluru-based rapper Irfana Hameed will recite the poem,penned by Lakshmi Hiranandani, to celebrate women-run small businesses on the Instagram account, Swara - Voice of Women (@swaravow) this week. Swara, established by Kottayam-based entrepreneurs Asha Scaria Vettoor and Lakshmi in 2018, aims to provide voice and agency to rural women artisans. After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Swara is rethinking its business model. Could a rap song attract new consumers?

When India first went into lockdown in March 2020, like every other sector, handloom and craft also faced the brunt. Good Samaritans pitched in with donations, but what artisans wanted was work and a means to sell their finished products.

A year hence, organisations working with craftspeople have tweaked their marketing strategies, liaising with e-commerce platforms to sell artisan-made goods. For instance, Mumbai-based Johny Joseph, CEO of Creative Handicrafts, has begun setting up an online business portal. The Andheri-based organisation works with artisans in several pockets in the slums of Mumbai. It employs 300 permanent and 500 temporary women staff for garment production. “Since we are part of the Fair Trade Movement, 80% of our products are exported; our buyers have been generous despite the lockdown,” says Johny.

A look at the earnings, however, still lead to a grim picture in some places.

“The income hasn’t been great, but it keeps morale up,” says Sudha Rani, founder, Hyderabad-based Abhihaara Cooperative Society that works with ikat, Gadwal and Narayanpet weavers. “Designing masks helped artisans sustain an income,” she adds, “Tailoring units also re-purposed existing yardage to make home furnishings.”

Though WhatsApp cataloguing has helped sell cotton sarees, Sudha says it doesn’t match retail sales. “A good sale at a craft exhibition in a city like Delhi gives artisans working capital for the next three to four months. When we participate in these exhibitions, we also take stocks from smaller weavers who request us; they are the worst hit now,” she adds.

Homing in

As it became common for people to work from home (WFH), artisans’ product catalogues went through an overhaul, to cater to this new clientèle. In Chattisgarh, artisans designed lamps with in-built oil dispensers, for home décor. “When artisans have time, they innovate,” says Meera.

Pudur Lakshmi, a weaver from Narayanpet in Telangana, learnt tailoring through video tutorials by Abhihaara and takes orders for masks, cushion covers and salwar kameez sets. “My husband and I are Narayanpet weavers. Last year, I learnt tailoring thinking it might come handy if we face further lockdowns. We earn around ₹2,500 per month through tailoring. It is not enough, but we are able to do something until we can revive the loom to produce more cotton saris,” she says.

Koyalagudam-based Punna Swapna, whose family has been into ikat weaving, has also taken to tailoring: “We still weave ikat cotton saris, but the demand is less. I stitch masks, dresses and table covers.” Pre-pandemic, the family earned ₹10,000 to ₹12,000 per month and now makes around ₹7,000, which she says is barely enough for a family of five.

Getting organised

To ensure social security for artisans, it was also necessary to bring better organisation to the sector. Industree Foundation that works with artisan clusters in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Odisha, moved many of its artisans from informal to formal, producer-owned cooperatives to give them better access to welfare schemes.

Industree has been supporting Greenkraft, situated on the outskirts of Madurai, where women gather to make baskets from banana bark. Industree also works with artisans in Nagapattinam, Tirunelveli and Pudukottai, apart from Ektha Apparel in Bengaluru, and the Odisha Forest Sector Development Project. Women constitute the major workforce and also hold supervisory and marketing managerial posts.

Jacob Mathew, CEO of Industree Foundation, explains that the initial challenge during the pandemic was getting to the workplace. The women had to figure out a way to gather in small groups in their villages to work, rather than heading to a larger community centre.

Work orders had not stopped but adapting to the lockdown slowed the pace of work. At the village level, supervisors had to ensure child labour was not involved, when production shifted to artisan homes. Changes had to be made at the production level.

Earlier, if a basket was made as a collective effort — one artisan working on the base, another the sides, and a third giving the finishing touches, the lockdown demanded that the groups that gather in a village complete a product on their own.

Digital upskill

Short video training modules were given to the artisans on their smartphones. “We provided artisans with smartphones to stay connected,” says Swara’s Asha, who was presented the Digital Women Awards for Social Impact 2020 by Google.

Asha and Lakshmi guided their team of 11 women tailors to create a collection in indigo and Dabu print, which was sold from multi-designer stores in Kochi, Toronto and London.

The conglomerate Creative Dignity (, formed in April 2020 in response to the pandemic, hired student interns from fashion institutes to train artisans in making digital catalogues that could be used to sell their products on e-commerce portals and WhatsApp networks. “We helped nearly 5,000 artisans in 300 clusters, across 15 States, create digital catalogues,” says co-founder Meera Goradia.

Organisations such as FICCI FLO and IMG Reliance helped market the products, and e-commerce portals such as Okhai, GoCoop, iTokri, Jaypore, Gaatha, Freedom Tree, Tata CLIQ, Kalgudi, A Charmed Life and Zwende stocked finished products made by the artisans. “By December 2020, nearly five crore worth of stock was sold,” says Meera.

Unmana Rynjah, who started Arras India in October 2019, used the pandemic year to start a new website. Arras works with weavers in Boko and Bijoy Nagar on the outskirts of Guwahati, Assam. “Pre-lockdown, exhibitions contributed to 30% of revenues. We had no sales from June to October 2020.”

Once the website was up and running, Unmana trained weavers and by March 2021, they launched a line of Western upcycled scarves. Reboot and reinvent is most certainly the mantra to go by in these unsettling times.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 5:17:44 AM |

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