The land of India is bestowed with crafts, so many that you can keep counting. India has been endowed with a gift that is unique, and yet in abundance. A judicious and intelligent use and development of these crafts can be an inexhaustible benefit that become a lifeline for a nation like ours, feels Manish Saksena
Every state, and within it every little village, in India has its own creative interpretation of its indigenous resources-leading to the creation of a piece of craft that is technically not replaceable or replicable, and is representative of that region.
The gamut is across clothing, jewellery, decor and even daily use objects that pretty much define and, at the same time, are derived from the region's lifestyle patterns.
The quality of the water in the rivers of Gujarat lends the vivid colours to its bandhini craft, and the beauty of these very colours adorn the women and men alike to effectively offset the arid desert surroundings. A fine example of a perfect balance and a perfect harmony among nature, its resources and its consumers.
The context of the times
India is and has been on a road to modernisation and growth. It is bound to go global for it to be a successful and an influential economy. But, where and how does that objective find a place for its crafts, and these micro self-sustainable multi-economies that exist in its villages? How do we globalise them, and yet not take away their self-sufficiency? How do we make them walk the path of modernisation, and yet not uproot them? These are tough questions, which if answered well and strategised through, can help us develop a unique and successful economy that no other nation can replicate, but only envy.
There are simple efforts, and then there are effective, intelligent efforts that have been done in the past to restore, revive and sustain our crafts.
Let us look at some of the key factors that are indisputable, and require a focused thought in order to maintain this very tender balance.
It is imperative that the craftspeople get their due and move along with the nation and its growth curve. Craftspeople by their very nature are passionate and dedicated to their craft. They are taught to worship their craft, and they look at it as their livelihood. However, there has been an exodus of sorts in many regions as they have felt unrewarded and frustrated. This situation is a prime concern.
There were times when there existed patrons of arts and artists. They were the providers for skills to flourish. Does this role of the patron in a democracy lie with the government? This is a question never answered, never understood, but implemented with some half-hearted attempts. This may not be a fair assessment, but yet in all fairness the outcome has not been standard. It is not that the privileged today value art any less.
Is it just that their money today has more uses, more avenues, and more efficient productivity? Is it that they are not sure if their investment in a craftsperson can be judicious and enriching enough? Is it that the loyalty and co-existence of craftspeople and the patron in the new dynamics is less prioritised? Is it more about the branding and the brand value that the patron seeks versus the skill itself?
These are all possibilities, but what is clear is that somewhere we have lost this beautiful relationship between the art and its patrons. More so, it is a vacuum when it comes to defining a patron. Is the government just inheriting this practice, or truly believes in it to partner with them. A consolidated policy by the government and a sustainable path for individual patrons is the need of the hour.
The question of relevance
The exodus from villages to cities is nothing new. The unskilled, the farmers who lost their lands, were the obvious victims. However, the exodus of artists and skilled creators can be and must be controlled. For, their resource is in their own hands and in their control. What it requires is a basic healthy infrastructure and life conditions that compel them to stay on and earn a respectable livelihood without looking at avenues beyond it.
Education is a must, but does that necessarily mean that it has to lead to a job, and not be your own master at what you can create? Why should education be seen as a path to a lowly job in a big city? Why is it not about entrepreneurship and market-savviness to grow and expand your craft? One formula and one technique do not apply to all. Does a cookie-cut approach to education in a rural set-up have its own demerits? Again, debatable questions, but very clearly examples of unorganised modernisation that has upset the socio-economic equilibrium somewhere.
Lastly and surely, there is this entire contemporisation drive. Designers and modernists have misunderstood and misled the craftspeople in many instances. Under the garb of making them more relevant for changing trends and tastes for a global customer, they have distorted and diluted the craft to an extent that is has lost its indigenous quality.
Is it about modernising it, or is it about enabling it and incorporating it in the new idiom? Is it not about sustaining it, yet making it appeal to a new taste, and not losing its uniqueness? A craft can only deserve its price and acceptance if it is authentic. If it is made generic and hence replaceable and replicable by watering down its inherent quality, it is bound to lose its sheen or in the modern jargon its USP.
The textile policy modifications and the ongoing efforts through the 'Make in India' initiative are right steps in the right direction. A few specifics that could really enable faster and concentrated results are:
Focus on assisting weavers with design and marketing efforts by collaborating with designers and design institutes. A word of caution here is on ensuring that the product while not losing its value, does not become elitist and of higher value. For, the true strength of its revival is its scale and popularity as well.
Improved wages for weavers is the most necessary enforcement. Retention and encouragement has the most direct relationship with this aspect.
Identification of the right skill set to invest in can be a critical input. Many years of neglect and unfocussed work have led to a lot of inferior versions of crafts. Weeding and harvesting right is key.
Marketing reach and updating the cooperative society for direct access and visibility can never be disputed. Middlemen and so-called propagators of art can really escalate and distort a craft beyond repair.
Synergy of crafts with tourism is a welcome step but the haat/mela root might not be the only way. This route, too often repeated, has led to a degenerated version of craft representation.
Handloom mega cluster schemes are needed, but ensuring only authentic use of raw material and techniques in these clusters will be a challenge that must not be compromised. A large scale uninhibited development can lead to a catastrophe.
A tight rope to walk, but as long as the rope is strong and well rooted, it will be a great walk ahead.
About the author
A lifestyle specialist with 21 years of experience behind him, Manish Saksena has been instrumental in creating landmark changes in the lifestyle industry in India through his experience in new and different formats of retail. As varied as being a part of the entry of international brands to creating successful homegrown brands, from flagship retailing in metros to Tier 2 emergence and expansion, Saksena brings with him a wealth of core consumer experience. From leading the growth, expansion and profitability of Tommy Hilfiger for the last six years as COO for its India operations, he made his foray into e-commerce with LimeRoad.com while pursuing his passion to design and sell sarees to the discerning. Today, he enjoys his role as a consultant in brick and mortar retail with Tommy Hilfiger and the best in e-commerce with Amazon alongside craft initiatives in the clusters of Kanchipuram, Kota, Maheshwar, Yeola and Gadwal. With strong roots in St Stephens College, New Delhi and the London School of Fashion, Saksena has worked in different genres and scopes with Madura Garments as creative director, with Landmark Group as head of buying, among others.