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This is part of a special series on the SAI/Tata Trusts Workshop on ‘Creating Livelihoods for the Indian Craft Sector’ held in January in Gandhinagar

Ashoke Chatterjee addressing the workshop

Ashoke Chatterjee addressing the workshop

By Gayatri Divecha, Project Consultant and Dr. Shashank Shah, Project Director 

In his keynote address, Ashoke Chatterjee, former Director of the National Institute of Design (NID) and Hon. President of the Crafts Council of India, provided a comprehensive overview to the Indian Crafts Sector. The story of India’s crafts is unique. They enabled us to fight for our freedom; they were included in the first five-year plan; and have played an important role in economic renaissance between 1947 and 2000.

Documenting the Indian Crafts Sector

However, six years ago the Crafts Council of India (CCI) discovered that data on crafts was so woefully incomplete that they approached the Government to remedy the situation. To their surprise, they were told that crafts were a ‘sunset sector’, an embarrassment having no place in a modern society, with no importance for the future. Convinced that there cannot be an India without crafts, CCI embarked upon a journey with the Tata Trusts and the Planning Commission to improve data which would represent the bedrock for understanding the need and urgency of investing time and resources into crafts. Moreover, it would play an important role in guiding policy and decision making especially considering that the latest census only counts economic establishments and overlooks those who make products for themselves, barter and produce part-time. CCI and the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Govt. of India are working towards a survey design that will demystify artisans’ and crafts people’s contribution to the national economy.

Workshop participants

Workshop participants

The Experience of the Artisan Alliance Jawaja

One of the biggest challenges in the Indian crafts sector is that despite being the second largest employer, management schools have largely kept away from it. The journey of the Artisan Alliance Jawaja (AAJ) has demonstrated that if management, design and crafts are brought together, there is immense potential for the crafts sector to become a ‘sunrise’ industry. AAJ was conceived in 1976 to bring together design and management education to serve the poorest of the poor. At the time, NID was in crisis and had little idea on design education. Simultaneously, Professor Ravi Matthai stepped down as Director of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) and questioned if there was a role for management in the Garibi Hatao Movement.

The early days of the project started with students growing tomatoes with farm-based rural communities. However, Ravi Matthai insisted that the AAJ agenda should not be set by NID or IIM but rather by the communities who would benefit. So different state governments were approached to identify a suitable location and community. The Rajasthan Government’s education department was open to such an experiment. They showed Ravi the map of potential districts in Rajasthan where this could be started. One district in particular was written of completely at the very outset – Beawar. Primarily because there was no hope to achieve any development outcomes there because there was nothing there. But for this very reason Ravi selected this place, and thus began the Rural University at Jawaja, Beawar. The founding principles of this university were that there would be no classrooms, buildings, teachers and students. Learning and teaching could happen at a chai shop, tanning pit or loom. Its aim was to establish whether management and design education could be of any service in helping an oppressed community attain self-reliance.

Lessons for Start-ups from the Jawaja Experiment

The early years demonstrated lessons that are still relevant especially for start-ups:

  1. The role of design came to the forefront, such that all products would use only locally available materials that moneylenders knew nothing about so that the artisans would not face pressures from them. Through this, designers learnt the importance of resourcefulness with money.
  2. Design can be a force only if one understands the other complex elements of a particular content.
  3. The lack of respect is driving younger generations away.

ALL PARTICIPANTSFrom its inception in 1976 to 2010 when the erstwhile marginalized Jawaja artisans finally gained access to the village well, the Jawaja experiment has proved that self-reliance is like a mountain top covered in mist, appearing in glimpses in the distance, but with time very much attainable.

The year 2016 marked the beginning of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Many positive outcomes of crafts are integral to the SDGs. In fact, there is no industry better positioned than crafts to contribute to the development through livelihoods creation, curbing migration, empowering women and marginal communities, reducing India’s carbon footprint, promoting peace and security and articulating cultural identity in the age of globalisation.

Towards the Sunrise

Thus, the crafts industry is best suited towards the future imperatives that countries across the globe have identified. In such a situation, to consider and call the crafts industry as a sunset industry is supremely myopic. The need of the hour is to optimise on the inherent strengths available within the local communities across the length and breadth of India, and use the power of information and communication technologies to empower – socially and economically, these crafts communities, so that they can be mainstreamed and contribute substantially to the India of the 21st century. The Indian crafts sector has the power to connect Bharat with India, albeit with the right kind of inputs, insights and infrastructure.