For ages the economic and social fabric of humanity has revolved around the tenet of Sustainability, till we decided to interfere. What was once instinct, now needs to be done with a great deal of thought and deliberation. Village life was totally based on the locally available resources. Our villages were completely self reliant even after the advent of urbanisation. But the younger rural generation, lured by the glamour and the glitter of the City, soon started aspiring for the so-called good life. Needless to say, this is cause of considerable concern- loss of traditional and cultural knowledge and skills, overcrowding of the cities etc. Their skill sets and overall education does not get them the jobs they aim for- they end up in more menial jobs than they imagined. Most importantly they lose a holistic way of life in the pursuit of livelihoods. There is need today, more than ever, to go back to our environment for inspiration and this is where Sustainable Design starts.
Sustainability is defined as the avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance.
Aesthetics would refer to giving or designed to give pleasure through beauty.
Design is the art or action of conceiving of and producing a plan or drawing.
Put all these together and we would have created a piece of art that endures.
The intention of sustainable design is to “eliminate negative environmental impact completely through skilful, sensitive design”- to use renewable resources, impact the environment minimally, and connect people with the natural environment.
It is most beneficial when it works hand in hand with the other two counterparts of sustainable design – the economic and socially sustainable designs. These three terms are often coined under the title ‘triple bottom line.’ It is imperative that we think about value in not solely economic or financial terms, but also in relation to natural capital (the biosphere and earth’s resources), social capital (the norms and networks that enable collective action), and human capital (the sum total of knowledge, experience, intellectual property, and labor available to society). – (Source Wikipedia)
We applied these three principles in the design innovation process at Tamaala to come up with the Terracotta Mobile Amplifier. It combines different types of art/craft forms hence the impact on 3 cluster artisan livelihoods. It is designed for contemporary use since it amplifies the sound emitted from the ubiquitous mobile phone. The appeal to the younger generation lies in the possibilities beyond machine made electronics. For us, in a world that is full of automation and machine made products and reduced need for human employment, the Terracotta Amplifier stands for discovering possibilities in the handmade and for generating multiple jobs for the artisans across clusters.
A little bit more about our innovation. It is made of clay, hence environmentally sustainable. It is handmade, hence each piece is unique. It uses the principles of acoustics for amplification and does not use electricity, hence reducing the consumption of electricity in comparison to its more popularly used alternative, the blue tooth speaker. By purchasing this product, you as a consumer are generating livelihoods for three types of artisans in three regions of Karnataka , namely Ramanagara, Channapatna & Raichur).
The cons are of course, the amplification is not as much as a bluetooth speaker, it does amplify sufficiently for a small space outdoors ( like a picnic spot ) or in a closed space like the living room of a home or an office conference room. It is breakable ( well, technically so is a bluetooth speaker!).
The Terracotta Amplifier is a perfect example of using simple science to create something which meets all the needs of the hour- achieving sustainability goals, empowering and protecting rural livelihoods, enabling the merging of indigenous art and craft into mainstream economy, promoting handmade as the future of a stable circular economy and of course preserving and promoting traditional art forms of the country. It’s the beginning of an idea…
HANDMADE IN INDIA:
The government has re-launched the manufacturing policy of “Make in India” and also “Welcome to India from China” for companies looking to relocate. But why is our policy & action so weak when it comes to “Handmade in India” ? In fact, this was not even a slogan, until this morning. GI, aka Geographical Indications number about 78 in non-textile/fabric handicraft – i would recon this is about 10% of our unique native craft forms ( we have about 780 documented clusters) – which implies the rest are not documented/not protected/not supported sufficiently. The handicraft sector is the second highest employment generator after agriculture- officially 80 lakh, but the actual numbers are estimated to be many times more ( some estimate it to be as high as 5 crore Indians ) .In spite of this, it does not even have a ministry of it’s own – it is a poor subset in the Ministry of Textiles.
Indian handicrafts is about 13,000 CR. which makes up about 6% of the Indian gifting market. In a covid scenario, let’s keep the other 50% aside as exports are not really going to happen in the near future.
This 13,000-15,000 crore industry employs officially ( as per the Ministry of Textiles, which strangely oversees this vertical) about 80 lakh artisans pan India. I believe the market itself is a little bigger if one were to look at the unrecognised art forms and if one were to add the livelihoods at the lower skill levels ( basket weavers, broom makers, potters etc ) – Pan-India would be about 5 crore individuals. In most native art forms, entire families get involved in the making process, so the actual numbers could be even more.
Most of the artisans belong to the marginalised communities of India. Helping this sector will have a direct impact on reduction of poverty levels in our villages and definitely reduce Urban Migration from these clusters. Why is there still no concerted effort or focus ?
What factors contribute to this scenario ?
- Most modern households and lifestyles exclude our native art
- Most modern architects and interior designers exclude native art completely in going for the sleek western look which goes well with the glass & steel buildings they build.
- Our educational curriculum though excellent overall in building analytical skills( CBSE, ICSE & State boards ) do not have art/craft in the curriculum. And even if electives are prescribed by the board in the senior grades – the schools do not offer them for lack of teachers or lack of parental demand. Taking a leaf from the Singapore system – If there is an inclusion of traditional craft/art in the curriculum which can be mapped to each state or art clusters nearest to the city or town – we can not only create opportunities for the local craftspeople to be teaching these art forms but also create a generation of patrons who will be empathetic and supportive of these art forms.
- The consumer in India prefers imported products primarily those from China – for instance the gifting market in India ( Marriages, Birthdays, House-warmings, Official engagements, Conferences, Events etc ) is about 2,24,000 Crores and Handicrafts made in India by our rural & tribal artisans makes up a measly 6% of that.
- Government policy towards handicrafts has been subdued and lackadaisical at best – in fact the entire handicrafts department is a subset in the Ministry of textiles. Textiles & Handicrafts are two different industries and require wholly different/unique approaches. It does not justify the fact that Handicrafts is India’s second largest employment provider after agriculture. By allowing institutions/centres like RDTC to close naturally ( via superannuation of its employees viz. senior artisans) they are slowly vacating parts of their responsibilities. Senior employees ( who would like to remain anonymous ) feel that the amount of resources available and the wealth of knowledge will die away with the last batch of retirees in just another 5 years. Also every governmental entity centre, state have their own unique agenda and hence the action/results coagulate.
- The number of interaction points for patrons with artisans is a minimum. Most handicraft is purchased through Govt.Handicraft showrooms. Organisations like Dastkar and Hundred Hands have helped bridge the gap. But these platforms are not sufficient for the large artisan base.
- Many items which are sold as Indian Handicrafts are not made in India. A routine visit to a non-government Handicraft showroom can throw up a number of brass idols, ceramic idols and many decor items which are in fact Made in China but are sold as “Indian” creations. The primary reason for this is the margins these machine made products offer the retailer are much higher than their Indian counterparts. Also the machine made finish is sleeker and more perfect versus the minor aberrations of the naturally handmade creation. One cannot blame the retailer, given the disproportionate rents & overheads they incur – they do it for survival.
- The other threat from Chinese imports is that they can almost kill a handicraft cluster, case in point the Firozabad glass makers.
Art & Craft historically thrived under the patronage of Kings – take Karnataka for example – Krishna Devaraya, the Wodeyar Dynasty,Tipu Sultan were all great patrons of art and craft. In fact it’s well known that even the great Raja Ravi Varma ,became the great artist he finally was, due to the sponsorship of the Wodeyar king. The craft clusters in and around Mysore, Channapatna, Ramanagara bear testimony to this patronage. Of course the Kings vacated their responsibilities on all fronts and retired to the privy purse; and they were not replaced by the government on those fronts equally as in this case. We need a concerted effort at reclaiming our rich handicraft & art culture which incidentally is also sustainable in terms of the kind of materials/process and generate more employment for the skilled, semi-skilled artisans and build a better future for all Indians.
The slogan is a good beginning…
What is reverse migration:
Let me define it as best as i can, since there does not seem to be a ready reckoner for this:
It’s the movement of the urban migrant from the cities and large towns to their hometowns – viz smaller towns and mostly villages. This happens due to one of the following ( credits to Swades )
1] Enhanced rural economic development
2] Reverse migrants come with advanced skill and technical know-how
3] They become role models and agents of change for the rest of the villagers
4] Relocators feel an enhanced sense of pride due to improved societal recognition
5] Development of indigenous means of livelihood such as sustainable agriculture, local crafts and businesses, etc.
The last reason, not listed, which is the cause for the massive migration happening now , and which no one could ever imagine in their wildest fantasies:
6) loss of job opportunities due to governmental action, such as the lockdown at present
I would like to share our own experiences with reverse migration at Tamaala:
Case 1 : Return of the Channapatna Artisan’s son
We have a senior citizen artisan whose son returned from Saudi owing to a job loss – he worked for a Pakistani Oil & Gas company & owing to a change in the labour rules, Non-Saudi’s started getting laid off. With a baby and wife, he had a family to feed, so the family was quite concerned about their future as the father did not make enough to support everyone.
The family and the father immediately swung into action, they paid a travel agent an enormous sum (INR 1 lakh) to ensure that he would generate a job & a work visa for his son. Tragically, they were cheated after a year long wait, though they did manage to get a small portion of their money back after innumerous follow-ups.
He tried getting jobs in Bangalore, I also made some introductions but to no avail as his experience was not suitable to the kind of mid career sales jobs he was seeking. Now the natural question in the reader’s mind would be – why would he not work with his father and help him in his craft work. That brings me to the next point – most of the artisans who educate their children, educate them away from their traditional art. This happens similarly unfailingly and in 90% of such artisan families. They feel that an artisan’s work is not for the educated child, they have a brighter future – jobs in the city, marriage into a good family and a house & car, maybe.
Back to the father- he works with our chief artist and makes co-created designer candles, toys and almost 50% of our channapatna collection. He started asking us for more work as he desperately needed to make up for his son’s unemployment. We ramped up our requirements from him. But it was certainly not enough to feed another family, the sales of these being seasonal – there was a limit to how much we could pre-make.
So we came up with another option of the son helping out his father sell more. Since he seemed to be potentially quite good at communication (could speak a couple of Indian languages etc.), I asked his father to get him to do more of that – the father also approached the Cauvery handicrafts director for stall options in the Mysore Palace campus and at Cauvery handicrafts emporium. This enabled the son to sell more and at higher margins hence supplementing the family’s income to a sustenance level..
Case 2: The Potter’s son returns
We have a potter family of 5 (from near Jigni village ) who help us in the Eco friendly Ganesha project ( last year we made about 2000 Ganesha idols and it created livelihoods for about 32 potters overall) . Their elder son is married & has a small family unit wife + 1 child. He makes his living by running a transport vehicle. The younger sibling was pursuing a graduation in Bangalore and his aim was to get a post graduation and migrate abroad( read Gulf) for a job.
After seeing the engagement and opportunities created by us he changed his perspective about his future. He started helping his family in making the Ganesha idols which implied that he was fully engaged for a period of 3 months and helped the family make much more idols than was otherwise possible. We’ve noticed that the younger generation not only brings a higher energy level into the making process but their education enables them to do things more systematically improving productivity for the family – this was clearly demonstrated by his involvement.
Today he wants to pursue KAS ( Karnataka Administrative Services) and he says he is inspired by people like us – he says he can do much more for his community & his family if he were to be part of policy making & implementation. Here’s to brighter days ahead for him & his family!
Case 3: The Gond artisan who feeds his family & educates his brother
We work with a few tribal artists from the Gond region and one particular family is filled with extremely high talent. This family of parents and 2 brothers and a sister are all celebrated artists( by us & our patrons at least) and the intricacy in their work as well as the depiction of folklores in their work is not only unique, it is also beautiful to the beholder.
So we were taken aback when the younger brother got through an engineering degree – we felt we’re losing a high potential artist. When we understood that the college was reputed, he had enough facilities and hostel provided free of cost etc. of course we were happy for him. The elder brother wanted to move to the city to earn a living and support not only his parents but also enable his younger sister to be married. This really put us in a fix. Anyway we decided to pitch in for the sister’s marriage and sent in some money. In return, and much later and despite us not asking for it, he sent us some paintings which were sold out fairly quickly. So while the sister’s marriage was taken care of, they still had an issue with the overall earning potential of the family as 5 artisans suddenly became 3. And the brother though otherwise enjoying almost nil tuition and hostel fee did need some money on the side (mobile recharges etc).
To help out we got into a long term engagement with the remaining family members, sending them advance money for art works they could send us later. This helped a bit and the elder brother decided not to move to the city and look for a job. We had also planned an extensive workshop in Bangalore with all the 3 members teaching their art forms over a 3 week period. This was for wall murals as well as canvas & paper art.
Almost at the same time the DC of that region saw these artisans work on one of his village tours and gave the elder one the opportunity to create wall murals in all the district government buildings, all for a good sum of money, and he almost gave him a recurring contract where he would be engaged for at least 6 months of the year. So, though disappointed slightly with the cancellation of our workshop idea, we were quite happy seeing the family come upon good times, finally.
These are some of our experiences with rural & tribal artisans. There are a few more such instances, I have shared the ones that were unique, and we hope that we can create more opportunities in the future.
According to Technopak, the total size of Indian corporate & personal gifting market put together is about 250,000 crore today. The organised gifting market must be easily 100,000 crore . By organised, I mean the sellers operating via the rule books, imports, duties paid etc. and GST billed buyers. It’s no surprise that this sector is dominated by imported goods. Chinese, Hong Kong … it’s not a very long list. One has to hand it to the Chinese in their manufacturing efficacy and creating products that suit the contemporary lifestyle and their ability to price products much lower than the perceived value.
The buyers of these products are also extremely happy as the turn-around time required for ‘customisation’ ( implies logo printing mostly ) in these products is very short.
Now let’s take a look at the handicraft industry in India.
As one can see India’s richness in Handicrafts is unparalleled. Including apparel we have 744 craft clusters across India creating 35,312 unique products ! Wow !
According to the national census of handicrafts, undertaken by the NCAER, the value of handicrafts produced last year was Rs.26,213 Crore.The total exports of crafts items was Rs.13413 Crore. About 50% + of our handicrafts were exported.
This provides huge employment opportunities to artisans that include women and people belonging to backward and weaker society.
The Indian gifting market has a general apathy towards its own craft. I am unable to find exact data on what portion currently goes to indigenous creations but my guess is that it’s a miniscule share and comprises probably of traditional products linked to our popular festivals. I apportion a few reasons to this :
- Trading in the imported products is extremely lucrative. The gross margins in imported goods is extremely high. Most land at our ports at say 10 Paise for a final customer price of INR 100/- ( Referred a few examples for this and this is generally true ) . All channel members in the gifting trade also earn good margins. There is also spare margin left to handle any graft requirements – hence sellers & buyers are happy wherever kickbacks have to be provisioned.
- Our own society for long has aspired for the ‘imported’ tag on the products they consume as well as those they gift. This is changing slightly, especially with Indians who are traveling the world realising that there is a richness in our arts & culture which is difficult to find elsewhere. But handicrafts still lack the right marketing effort. There have been pockets of success and some large ones like the Jharcraft PSU which has done fabulous work for handlooms & handicraft & art and the practising craftspeople.
- The lack of awareness of the rich arts & craft heritage of India stems primarily from the fact that Indian art is not part of our school educational system, be it CBSE, ICSE or the State board curriculum.
- Not enough has been done to promote the knowledge of Indian Art & craft. Though there are craft clusters, trade provisions & handicraft emporia, all these components do not work as one well oiled machine.
- There are organisations created painstakingly over the last three decades like Dastkar whose primary focus has been to help bring recognition and a certain premiumness to the native arts & crafts but they are still few and far between.
- Our native craft has remained static in terms of design and innovation and adaptability to a new age lifestyle. Which is also probably the reason that it’s consumption is related to traditional occasions ( primarily Hindu festivals/occasions )
- Government bodies like the Regional Design and Technical Research Centres are being phased out. These centres have both tremendous resources and a decade back had hundreds of master craftspeople. Today they are being “retired” out.
Is there any way we can get native craft & art into the gifting market ?
Why should we do it ?
Well, the why is very clear to me – with a market size in India of INR 250,000 cr., even a 1% penetration of this market value can generate employment for lakhs of our rural artisans. It can help sustain their livelihoods in their traditional craft which most of them enjoy doing even today and reduce urban migration. But is this doable ? Or a pied piper’s dream…
I would think yes, but we will need to do the following :
- create multiple levels and intensities of interactions of artisans with the potential patron through workshops/discussions. This puts a human face to the art/craft.
- build story-telling using the historical/ mythological/nativity aspects as a mechanism to create involvement in the traditional craft
- tap into the emerging/existing pride/Indianness
- look at contemporary design to make the traditional craft relevant
- design innovation to make traditional craft more acceptable/usable in modern lifestyle
All the above actions are for better customer understanding & appreciation. However there are many other things which need to be done especially at policy levels which is not an area we can directly influence and hence i have largely left that out of this discussion.
It’s important to do all the above in all forms. Every individual relates to art & craft in their own unique way. I would be very happy to receive suggestions on what the way forward should be.
Also suggestions welcome on what a boot strapped player like Tamaala ought to be doing in this space.
What keeps the rural craftspeople ticking..
Anyone who has traveled abroad especially to Europe know how well their local crafts are promoted and how well they are packaged and though exorbitantly priced , lapped up by even Indian who visit as tourists. It is these very traveled Indian who over a period of time realises that what he/she has back home is probably as rich in the arts space but lacks the right platform. Also the average urban dweller feels closer to the western world as the lives we lead ( outside of our festivals celebrated ) are largely western influenced – movies, music, weekends hangouts etc ) . But since art & craft does not exist in our education curriculum there is no way that any latent aesthetic sense or interest is built in them; hence a genera apathy to our own indigenous art forms. Most Indians may not be aware of the art form of their own hometowns.
We currently work with about 150 rural/tribal craftspeople. We originally started with just a handful but through a mix of press articles written about us ( especially in the vernacular media ) and good word of mouth we have been able to partner with more artisans across the country. We currently work with about 30 Indigenous craft & art forms directly.
It’s been an interesting journey with them and making their acquaintance itself in the first place was driven by stupendous amounts of serendipity and good fortune. In our constant interactions there are several bonds that have formed as well including meals enjoyed in their homes and stories exchanged.
Most of our rural craftspeople are farmers, hence the art & craft they practise is a supplementary income to them or probably the only income given that they end up bartering the food they grow for other essentials. They look at the city life and all of us as a privileged lot and aspire that their children also grow into english speaking corporate employees with homes & cars and a great life. Very few of them are determined enough to educate their next generation and to bring them back into their craft to make improvements or to grow their business. In fact out of the 150 we know only 7 have their next generation working with/for them. The rest are growing up to by clones of city boys & girls ( engg + mba etc ) . The thing is since their english communication skills are poor, they do not land great jobs hence they don’t live up to their aspirations and at the same time cannot go back and join their traditional craft work as they seem to have grown out of the same and in most cases they also do not know their traditional craft since they have spent all their childhood in conventional schools.
As urban consumers we must look at what we buy and where we buy from, especially since buying a original craft/art forms from a part of our country, even if it is just our home town is not just preserving the art by giving finance & more importantly hope to the creators but is also creating a promoter in the buyer whose home will now become the marketing point for other customers to seek the same creation.
It is this hope that i see glimmering in the eyes of these 7 artisans who have their sons & daughters working with them that needs to grow into a significant tribe of artisans practising their highest form of mastery and allowing the great heritage of art & craft in our country to start thriving.
Till next time.