SAI’s Livelihood Creation project is underway on the ground in India. The research project, supported by the Tata Trusts, aims to build knowledge and capacity around three key areas: rural livelihood creation (emphasis on the handicrafts and handloom sectors); educational, social and economic empowerment of women; and science and technology-based interventions for poverty alleviation.
By Gayatri Divecha, Project Consultant and Shashank Shah, Project Director
From East India, our team’s field visits took us to the western state of Rajasthan. Rich in history and heritage, Rajasthan evokes a rich imagery – one that is characterized in vibrant colors, bright Leheriya and Shibori fabrics, intricate carvings, a mosaic of block-printed patterns, dazzling mirror work, exquisite carpets and miles of blue pottery as far as the eye can see. It is one of India’s most diverse states in terms of the thousands of different craft forms typical of and unique to each of its regions and districts. Centuries of royal patronage starting with Rajput kingdoms from the 10th century onwards have created a favorable environment for the arts, particularly handmade crafts to flourish. As a result, every part of the state not only has boasted one or more unique handmade tradition, but also nurtured livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of artisans who from one generation to another have passed on an invaluable legacy.
One of history’s gifts to India is the wealth of craftspeople, traditions and skills represented in Rajasthan alone. Ironically, it is these very artisans, custodians of our cultural heritage that are today struggling to earn a livelihood and keep their craft alive.
While Jaipur’s bazaars are teeming with endless options of tie and dye saris, Bagru and Ajrakh block prints, and silver jewelry, a conversation with any of the shop owners there will reveal a worrying trend that traditional crafts are losing their relevance in modern markets. Tourists from all over the country and abroad are the primary market for handicraft products, which are essentially reduced to memorabilia. Local markets, once the mainstay of Rajasthani artisans’ incomes, are shrinking rapidly. Economies of scale and resulting lower price points achieved by mass production (power loom, screen printing, etc.) mean that handicraft items are no longer as competitive. Retailers resist sourcing and selling handicraft items, with many customers preferring machine-made options. Moreover, many of them lament a time when exquisite quality and workmanship was the norm for handmade products, something they all echoed was hard to find today.
In spite of these challenges, a handful of organizations (both non-profit and for-profit) in Jaipur remain focused on handmade crafts. Interacting with the management teams of Sakshi Foundation and Jaipur Rugs, it was clear that these challenges are significant but with the right investment, not insurmountable.
Sakshi Foundation, a family business working with block prints and blue pottery in the Sanganer District of Rajasthan, is confident that the newfound global appeal for handcrafted items is a positive development that will stand to benefit Rajasthani artisans. Investing a sizeable portion of their profits in innovation and constant development of new patterns and blocks, they believe that their business is much more than an inherited source of income. It is a means to support sustainable livelihoods, create wealth at the base of the pyramid and contribute to India’s competitive edge in the global economy. Every year, they welcome dozens of global designers to their production facilities, giving them the time and space to create new designs in partnership with their artisans. Once successfully prototyped, the resulting finished products are then supplied worldwide. Their biggest barrier to further expansion and growth remains the dwindling number of artisans and the lack of an enabling environment with documented directories of artisans and infrastructure such as common facility centers. If these are addressed, businesses like theirs can bring in greater number of artisans to their fold.
Jaipur Rugs, a world-renowned manufacturer of handmade carpets, has succeeded in scaling their operations and production to previously unforeseen heights. Exporting to several businesses globally, their carpets are made in far-flung villages of Rajasthan and adorn homes across the planet from Europe to the United States. Each carpet is conceptualized in a state of the art design studio. True to size paper print out of the finished product are bundled together with color swatches for reference and raw materials, and then transported to one of the many villages where weavers create the finished products in their homes. A decentralized management structure tracks which weavers receive the different raw material packages and collects finished products. Quality control takes place at the central manufacturing facility after which carpets are exported worldwide.
The founder, Mr. Nand Kishore Chaudhury, attributes Jaipur Rugs’ success to their core value and driving force of the business that they are not selling a carpet, but sharing a family’s blessings. The belief that traditional skills have a place in modern markets and require investment harness to their full potential has not only paid off for Jaipur Rugs, but also for the thousands of artisans who thanks to the company have a sustainable livelihood. Their success story in empowering over 40,000 rural artisans was captured in the well-acclaimed work of Professor C. K. Prahalad from the Ross School of Business, Michigan.
Arriving 100 miles away from Jaipur at the dusty, barren outskirts of Beawar, the need to invest time, effort and resources in handicrafts and handlooms and the impact it stands to create could not be more apparent. Here, a group of carpet weavers and a group of leather artisans have organized themselves into a collective – the Artisans Alliance Jawaja (AAJ) constituted by the Jawaja Weavers Association and the Jawaja Leather Association. Formed in 1975 by Ravi Matthai and Ashoke Chatterjee, in one of Rajasthan’s most poverty-stricken districts, AAJ harnesses the power of the collective to reap benefits to individual artisans. From a modest beginning, the Alliance now owns a common facility center with infrastructure to treat and prepare leather, enough space to stock carpets made by the weavers and a multitude of leather items made by the leather association, and a computer which enables them to receive orders. The bulk of their business comes from exporters, and all production orders and profits are split amongst members of the collective. The volume of orders processed and products sold is something that all members insist they would never achieve individually.
The success of this model is best expressed in the leather artisans’ own words: “We used to make Mojadis (traditional shoes from Rajasthan) and slippers that were sold locally, barely making ends meet. We didn’t believe it when this group of urban folk approached us and told us that they could improve our livelihoods by providing us markets for different products that would help us design and make. Once we sold our first batch of bags and wallets, we vowed that we would never make Mojadis again and we are proud that we never have.” However, underlying their faith in the strength of this Alliance is a sense of worry for its future and that of their trade. The artisans spoke of younger generations not wanting to continue in the footsteps of their forefathers, of the difficulties of producing by hand, something the younger generations associate with manual labor and a lack of dignity. In doing so, they hit at the epicenter of the crisis faced by Indian handicrafts and handlooms – that they are no longer perceived as aspirational, but rather a taken for granted relic of the past. One the weaver’s words serve as an eye-opener: “When we die, so will weaving in this area.”
Udaipur, 200 miles away from Jaipur was the last lap of our week long field visits in Rajasthan. An overnight journey from Jaipur, which is the heart of the Marwad Region of Rajasthan, takes us to Udaipur, which is the heart of the Mewad Region known for their warrior leader Maharana Pratap of Chittorgarh. Each region has a rich history and a pantheon of heroes and heroines who gave their lives for the honor and protection of their land and its people.
Dastkar Ranthambore, Sadhna and Aavaran, the three organizations that our team visited, are creating livelihoods for thousands of women by leveraging the knowledge and expertise of master craftspeople to teach their skills to more people and produce and sell hand-block printed, dyed and embroidered textile products. All three have invested heavily in creating production facilities, training programs, retail outlets, B2B sales channels and participating in exhibitions and bazaars. These organizations have reiterated that the need of the hour is to make handicraft products more relevant for contemporary consumers and markets. In the absence of this, ensuring livelihoods generation and preservation of these crafts is next to impossible. Simultaneously, the need for greater awareness amongst consumers about crafts and their specificities is critical.
The journey through Rajasthan and encounters with its custodians of culture made one thing clear – Without investment in both the supply and demand side of handicrafts and handlooms, the vivid imagery evoked by the word ‘Rajasthan’ will remain just that – an image, whose heart and soul have been lost.
Next week, we’ll cover our team’s visit to the Western State of Gujarat, a neighbor of Rajasthan, which shares with it many similarities in history, art and culture. In the days of yore, it connected India to the countries beyond due to some of the best ports on the westernmost part of the state. The most interesting part connected with our project is that the current Chief Minister of Gujarat – Anandiben Patel is herself linked with the field of handicrafts for over 3 decades. We’ll share our team’s meeting with her daughter and many more insights on the Gujarat visit in the next post. Till then – Jai Shri Krishna!