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To Crafts, by Design

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

What is the real significance of Handicrafts? No two are alike for each other is a fresh creation. Standardization is alien, in fact, a negation of all that handcrafts stands for. Even the poorest enjoy a variety in the articles of everyday use where a special article was assigned for a particular use...All this broke the monotony which is perhaps the most deadening element in life. The sentiment of traditionalism alone cannot, however, take us very far in efforts to rehabilitate the Indian crafts. The modern demand is for beauty as a supplement to the usefulness…

- Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay

The needle of ‘Kantha’, the dye of Ajrakh, the threads of Ikkat, the chisel of Bidri, the hammer of Dhokra, and a thousand other tools together shape India as a proud nation of rich crafts. Crafts are great evidence of the Living traditions of India. The vast geographic spread encompasses the work of diverse cultures and social structures with a wide range of materials and techniques. It is a sector with a large number of practitioners and immense potential to reach the global market. The love for handicrafts and their mechanization is going hand in hand. While there is a need for mindful design interventions in the craft sector, we also need to revive the ones on the verge of extinction. Craft and design are often used together as both have a great impact on each other. The amount of design in craft needs to be regulated carefully before it becomes a disturbance rather than an intervention. Craft in India is not just an Industry but it symbolizes the beliefs and values of communities.

Artisans: Then and Now

The origin of each craft has its own beautiful story. The makers have always been a major part of these stories. The craftsmen would bring their emotions out through materials and tools. They used to have control over the whole process from its inception to execution. The Crafts were practiced as rituals, meditation, or purely leisure activities. The artisan’s authority would reflect on the outcome. The market back then was very limited and so was the knowledge of crafts from other regions. The artisans would be the maker as well as the seller of their own work. They would know the market, customers, and their needs. It gave artisans the freedom to align their craft to the demand of its users and experiment in comfortable confines.

The situation began to change as more and more people got involved in the process. The market definitely grew manifold with customer awareness and promotions. Now there were marketers to sell the products and artisans to make them. The middlemen broke the contact between artisans and users. The drift slowly got bigger and bigger until artisans and customers became alien to each other. The crafts started to lose that good old bond with the customers. Meanwhile, the machines took over the market with cheaper prices and uniform products, unlike crafts. The urge to make money made middlemen experiment (adulterate) the crafts. Their intention may be noble but it is affecting the art of making in a negative way. Introducing new designs, changing the placement of products in the market, Serving new products as mere decor pieces are a few among the efforts being made for the survival of crafts in the market. The new-age brands are very much concerned about handmade and authentic but in a different way.

There are plenty of brands and organizations working with the artisans and providing the platform to sell the product to a wider set of customers. A brand would have all the essential resources to study the market, trends, and develop the products accordingly. The design team would then send the designs to be developed as products by artisans. Many times the craft would move away from its original purpose and it would become a decor piece at the end. This may seem the right way for survival in the market but it’s actually not. The artisans have become nothing more than skilled labor for those very craft conscious brands. The brands are not to be blamed here. They are doing their best to bring the authentic work to market but there’s a lot more required to empower crafts than just heavy sales. There are quite a lot of government schemes and policies for the welfare of crafts and artisans but it all seems to have toiled in papers.

Why design in crafts?

Craft needs much more than help in increasing sales. There are many hidden perspectives to preserve crafts in India and each of them requires thoughtful consideration. From a cultural point of view the sustenance of traditions and context; from a business perspective, the customer demand and market analytics are of prime concern; For administrative authorities, the major concern is its social impact, employment generation, and contribution to the economy at a macro level. This is far more complicated than it looks here. The debate is never-ending when it comes to prioritizing policies for handicrafts. The conflict between traditions and meeting contemporary needs becomes a hurdle in policy intervention. Different groups have different focus areas but the common field in this complex Venn diagram is Design. Design need not be misunderstood as a mere tool for the beautification of products. It has its roots deep in the socio-cultural and economic establishment of society. Design in its true sense is the bridge between age-old traditions and market modernity. The crafts are differently organized businesses. The conventional business mantras are not going to be effective in this case. Their scale of operation varies from place to place. The market opportunities are quite diverse in the case of crafts. The artisan’s access to capital is not as smooth as any other business and the distribution channels vary from craft to craft. All of these can only be addressed when design intervenes the system.

Design until this point was considered to be a beautifying tool for crafts. It was confined to make things pretty and attractive which are meant for elites. There is a need to have a 360-degree impact of design on the craft sector in India. It’s high time we see the sector as a whole and intervene in each area effectively. Crafts in India are not stand-alone entities. It is expanding at a higher rate than ever. The collaboration with all possible stakeholders is the need of the hour. We see the impact of crafts on different domains like tourism, education, human resource development, etc. These can be potential areas of intervention in the craft sector to see wholesome growth. The collaboration of craft communities with various organizations can be the key to the overall development. The crafts hold the heritage intact but the continuation of their practice is facing a heavy decline. The awareness about crafts should be brought out from textbooks and inculcated through hands-on learning. Tourism can be more interactive and experiential than just seeing the craftsmen work. Education can be a tool to empower craftsperson as craft entrepreneur and break the shackles of skilled labor. A little change in each sector can build our craft culture so strong that it becomes a lifestyle and inspire the world to fall in love with the Indian way of living. Co-creation is the key to a sustainable future for crafts. The change in consumption patterns can help craft regain its position in the market. As consumers, we need to embrace the essence of local and handmade. Design is perpetually expanding its horizon and so is the craft sector. A symbiotic relationship between craft and design can take the nation to new heights.

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