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Transforming the 'Guru-Sishya' Parampara: Changing the Way Training is Planned for the craft sector

Kasturi, Poonam Bir, an industrial designer by training, is founder faculty of the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology, Banglore. She founded Industree Crafts Pvt Ltd along with two other partners. She is also the founder-director of PlaynSpeak, a company that designs and manufactures new paradigm products. Poonam has a number of papers on design and craft issues to her credit. During her career she has designed and conducted numerous interactive workshops on issues of design, creativity and craftsmanship.

Take a "halwai" (a sweetmeat cook) a master at his job of making samosas, jaleebi's and pakodas, send him to Alaska and ask him to make food for the populace there. In addition to not being equipped for the weather, he will have a real problem figuring out what that culture, palate and table require.

This is what we expect craftspeople today in India to do. One stone craftsperson stated the problem clearly - "We know how to cut, polish, engrave, but we no longer know what to make, we hesitate, we just don't know". There are many reasons why the craftsperson feels like this today, the result is that he no longer feels in control of the process of creation and production. His relationship with resources, design, production, market has changed from interdependency to dependency. Is this acceptable? Some say it is inevitable and necessary. They argue that crafts is just "industry" and urge crafts to follow the way of industrialization - increased volume of production, mechanization, making to order, piecework, vendorisation. This is the only way the quality of life of craftspeople will improve is their conclusion.

By that logic the quality of life and work of the Moradabad brass workers, the Sahranpur wood carvers, the Dhangadhra stone carvers, the Jodhpur carpenters must be at par with the owners of the export houses they work for. The craftsperson's children should also have the freedom to choose a career, and not have to follow the trade because of no alternatives.

Lets be honest, most craftspersons are now workers - industrialization of craft has not helped migration across class and caste, neither has it helped the person who works with her hands to value the job she does. In society her role and sense of identity is devalued from what it was 70 years ago.

What industrialization has done is increase the sales in the short term of various products and in the long term rob the worker of the ability to respond to change and innovate.

This is the key area that training needs to address for the next 15 years. Whenever I come away from craft training programmes the question that remains with me is - Are we caught in a vicious cycle of "fire-fighting" instead of "fire-prevention"? Are we training craftspeople to catch up with what they do not know instead of preparing them for the future by developing their capacity to cope with the pressures of ambiguity and skills associated with resilience and creativity? Needless to say we need to do a fair bit of both.

Over the 50 years of Independence the efforts of the Government and other institutions have raised the skill and technology levels of the craft sector. Now we need to build capacity of entrepreneurship and innovation. This seems a reasonable objective, but should we adopt capitalist and hierarchical structures or can we learn from the mistakes of the sweatshops and hope to have alternative methods of production, marketing and resource and energy management.

Is craft in India going to be the future space where green economics, fair trade, ecology, well-being and local re-generation come together in new ways? Is it possible to find new ways to re-generate our tradition of sustainability and of working with materials to produce beautiful objects? Our processes for many years used sustainability principles, before industrialization appeared. A grass mat weaver used to get the grass from a member of a local community whose job it was to wander on the river banks and pick good quality stalks which in turn grew in "common" ground and was looked after by communities who tended that crop. Interdependence was a norm. But those ways do not hold good anymore.

Too often in India craft refers to the past. In a rapidly changing age, the idea of Indian craft provides a security blanket of familiarity and tradition, which does not allow us to ask what craft is capable of contributing to our culture and to our future. How many Indians really can state why craft is important for this country? (Ask them about software and you very often get an uncritical but emphatic response) There is not enough conviction, knowledge, understanding or pride when it comes to craft. This ambiguity is manifested as a policy to "make" craft more and more like "industry". What works for an "industrialized way of production" is seen as the only alternative for craft to emulate. It's this assumption that guides most policies in training and development activity in this sector.

While there is a need to make craft production more efficient and organized, we cannot forget that craft is different from a machine shop or factory of industrial or consumer goods. Articulation of this difference is what we need to do rigorously through greater discussion and reflection.

We need to periodically ask the question "what craft is or has the potential to be in the future" to be able to arrive at a better understanding of the right kind of training for craftspeople. Therefore questions like - How should craftspeople learn? & What should they learn? can really be answered imaginatively only when the question of "What does craft want to be known as and what does it hope to achieve" is addressed.

It is important for a debate and discussion of this core idea if directions are sought in training.

To illustrate why we need to do this let me site the example of Medical Training: The training of medical people in a society that regarded Health as "well-being" would be different in emphasis, method and content from that of a society whose concept of Health is "no-disease". In fact, there is an old story in China, village doctors were paid according to the number of healthy people in the village, not the number of sick people they treated.

The fundamental first step

So how can we position "craft" in this country?

Is it a celebration of the Handmade or is it a celebration of Tradition or Culture or Indigenous Wisdom or The making of meaning or The expression of unity in diversity or A dance of the cosmos. Who decides?

Is the craftsperson of the future really an entrepreneur or an exporter or a designer or a storyteller or ecological producer or a skilled worker or a vendor or an artisan? Again who decides?

There is an urgent need to provide opportunities where stakeholders can gather to discuss such questions and through facilitation and engagement find ways forward. Different stakeholders discussed questions like these at a recent workshop on craft called "Aagaman - listening to craft" (a workshop designed by me and sponsored by the Media Labs Asia and Srishti School of Art, Design & Technology) and one of the responses from Prem Chandavarkar an architect based in Bangalore was -

"Craft in India was and still is a rooted tradition - it is a process by which a community reflects on its condition - this sort of reflection is actually a search for identity. The more we move craft towards 'market' and 'customers' the more we move it away from its greatest source of renewal. That is not to say customer requirements are not important; rather there is a need to dialogue with craftsmen about ways of dealing with these concerns."

Craft is about humanity's creative relationship with materials - how we think, feel, look at and use all the diverse natural and synthetic materials available to us. That relationship has long been out of balance, and needs urgently to be reconsidered. Craft, as a professional practice, provides us with the knowledge we need to address some key problems. Craft, as part of our leisure and learning, helps us appreciate the quality in materials and objects. Craft, as a social process, links together makers, users and manufacturers. Craft, as part of our industry, provides innovation driven more by a balanced materialism and less by unfettered desire. Craft, as the workshop demonstrated, has far more value for the world of tomorrow than the world of yesterday.

Only when we approach craft with an emphasis on negotiation of ideas, which arise from asking pertinent questions, and testing provisional answers, rather than seeking predetermined ones - will there be a shift in the way training for crafts is planned. If we are able to achieve this first step - of creating new possible scenarios for crafts -through a dialogue that is dynamic, inclusive, supportive, then we can ask -

How should craftspeople learn?

Many researchers say that each individual constructs knowledge rather than receiving it from others. This concept is called constructivism. Although people disagree about how to achieve constructive learning, constructive teaching is based on the belief that students learn best when they gain knowledge through exploration and active learning. Education in this model is centered on themes and concepts and the connections between them, rather than isolated information.

Dewey's idea underlined the learning of important life skills through active engagement in meaningful activity. Young people he said learnt about themselves and about their communities by working with practicing professionals. Traditionally in India crafts was learnt like this - through an apprenticeship model. This apprenticeship model also was a space where collaborative learning took place.

In educational jargon Collaborative Learning is defined as - An instructional approach in which students of varying abilities and interests work together in small groups to solve a problem, complete a project or achieve a common goal.

"Another strength of apprenticeships is that each one is unique - there are no formulas or guidelines. Every apprenticeship can be fashioned to suit the people involved, therefore providing a more interesting and useful learning situation. To me, one of the greatest advantages of apprenticeships is that they are about people working together, without the exchange of money, and without the need for degrees or curriculum. They allow people of all different ages and backgrounds to work together"

Craft in India has survived and thrived because of this mode of learning and training - called the "Guru-Sishya parampara" where the uninitiated learns at the feet of a master. The 'guru- sishya' tradition of passing on craft skills, attitudes, values and myths meshed with the prevalent social structure of that time. This system worked for many centuries in India without much variation and through this space of teacher student relationship, a shared understanding of what was acceptable, what was interesting and what was valuable was disseminated. This method bred a sense of community and in the craft sector a method of working that was by and large egalitarian.

I was speaking to Eswaracharya (a wood carver) about learning in this way and he showed me another side of this process. Eswaracharya said emphaticcally - "We would get a rap on our knuckles if we attempted to contradict our teacher. If he said a motif was supposed to be carved in a certain way, and we gently suggested an alteration, or argued about the philosophy of what we were doing, it was seen as a mark of disrespect and the price to pay was disgrace and a reputation of being rebellious."

There is valid criticism for this form of learning - this model is over dependent on the wisdom and generosity of the teacher. If for any reason the teacher did not believe in teaching the student to inquire, understand, experiment and explore, the student would just learn to be passive and would not learn the strategies of adapting to change. This model in India also assumes that 'to know' requires years of docile training at the feet of someone 'who knows'. Knowledge and learning is not seen as a collaborative on-going process. The relationship of a learner to 'knowledge' is framed in regimented constructs.

So the traditional guru-sishya space was a space that originally encouraged learning. It was a space of dialogue - it was the space where discussions on "value" and "integrity" and "meaning" enlivened the discussions on materials, function, form and market. What is required today is such a space for craftspeople where they can voice their concerns about ideas and come to their own decisions in informed, collaborative, interdisciplinary environments. As the "guru-sishya" space served a need in its time, this new space could incorporate facets that worked then, with added ways to meet the challenges of today and the future. It would be a space where constructive learning can take place.

The crafts inherently have all the attributes that constructivism demands. In spite of that learning programmes are designed in ways that do not create real understanding and therefore do not enable people to design, innovate and re-generate.

Having been invited to numerous training programmes for craftspeople by both the Government agencies and the NGO's I have analyzed the problems that do not allow constructive learning to happen.

  • There is a real dearth of the true "guru"; trainers are not articulate, passionate or competent. They have no idea of how to design a truly evolved programme or even know what the objectives should be. They have not learnt to teach. The old colonial model of the classroom dictates the current approach - and is the antithesis of all we know about real learning. A good apprenticeship programme needs a good teacher - not a mediocre one.

  • There is a dearth of really good material to aid teaching for crafts. (For example, I was conducting a workshop for potters and none of them had been inside an urban flat. How then could they understand ways of living that were different from theirs? And then again it's difficult to squeeze a visit to two or three flats and urban houses during a training session. We need films and text book materials and exercise sheets)

  • There is a lack of resources, the budgets for training are meager and this says a lot of how training is perceived.

  • Most training programmes assume that the craftsperson "does not know the markets well enough" so they deliver designs and thus are not "constructivist" in the truest sense. We need to believe that craftspeople can learn how to design, manage, market and become custodians of resources and processes. It is this belief that we need at policy level which will allow us to invest in this transformation that is a long-term process.

What should they learn?

I was talking to a Government employee in charge of design and development and was asking him what he thinks crafts people should learn? And he said with genuine concern - "They, should learn how to make products for the export market". It was an implied belief that if this was achieved then it meant that we had truly "developed" and were at par with the world we were so hard trying to emulate.

It is strange that we hope to emulate industrialized communities through our ethnic knick-knacks. We want crafts to use means and processes of industrial production to manufacture "tradition"! "Industrialised nations have not become so through the mass production of ethnic knick-knacks, but through the continued development of technology and products which utilize these technologies. Even where industrialization has not been the goal, innovation and design have been evident historically in the survival of the human race from agriculture to architecture, communication to travel. Products have not remained static, so why should they apparently come to a standstill in developing countries in the name of development?" This shows us that craftspeople need not necessarily only see themselves as manufacturers of "tradition" but as innovators, local re-generators, entrepreneurs, thinkers, activists and makers of meaning.

Craft provides this opportunity. Hence must be encouraged to be robust and plural in its interpretation for the stakeholders. Only when we realize how important it is to encourage all kinds of learning for craft will we shed the one-dimensional approach of today. What would happen if embroidery artisans learnt about wood-working and ecology? The educators in craft feel that if something is not connected directly to a skill set it need not be taught. They don't see the need - multidisciplinary approaches are not even conceived. Training programmes are conducted only for "wood craftsmen" or "stone" or "textile".

Design can address this specific need to design and create new kinds of material and modules for training in craft.

I think that the following are the key points that answer the question "what should craftspeople learn"

  • If the future of crafts needs to be redefined - then new subjects need to be learnt and explored. In addition to learning to be skilled in the use of material and tools additional inputs in marketing, positioning, ecology, philosophy, semantics, cultural studies, history, politics, tourism, computers, leadership and communication need to be covered.

  • Agencies need to understand that since the world is changing at such a rapid pace, it becomes imperative to incorporate adaptability as a set of skills in addition to the traditional areas of technical, human and conceptual skills.

  • Design pedagogy needs to be harnessed to provide interesting exercises and methods that can be used to teach and also used by craftspeople to problem solve or innovate. Design pedagogy itself is a potent way to creating new insights that empowers craftspeople to explore and question.

The industrialized garment export house is not going to teach garment workers philosophy or history or politics of globalization. The politics of inaccessibility keep the marginalized in their positions and do not allow any migration across class.

Let's make sure that does not happen in craft. Its important we chose the right kind of training that ensures the empowerment of craftspeople and of craft.

It is hard for the trainers to begin a multidisciplinary approach - especially when they are faced by the daunting task of bringing current best practices and ideas of sustainability, philosophy, economics, and product design together and in different languages. But it needs to be done if real change needs to happen. This requires a new breed of people committed to this task - they need to be trained first. (In Srishti we have just piloted a course called Designer as Facilitator - and hope to do more work to demonstrate how this is possible). It is a long-term process but will eventually empower the community in ways that will provide dignity and sustenance.



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