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The Crisis of Traditional Craft in India

Lodaya, Arvind product designer, thinker, communicator, educationist, has worked in areas that include corporate product design, social communication, brand building and environment education. He is currently teaching at Srishti School Art and Design, Bangalore.

The crisis of "traditional craft" in India is in many ways a crisis of value - given the processes of industrialization and modernity gradually sweeping across the country, craft is struggling to find a place - and price - for itself.

What compounds the crisis of craft is that "craft" means different things to different people, and hence connotes different crises as well. Hence, any "solution" must account for all these dimensions simultaneously, which is perhaps why no single initiative to support or revitalise craft has succeeded entirely - or satisfied all the stakeholders involved.

THE FIRST CRISIS OF CRAFT IS THAT OF LIVELIHOODS
Historically, craft used to be what "industry" today is - the production of a number of everyday utilitarian objects for regular consumption. In the pre-industrial era, this was essentially and necessarily a localized phenomenon: communities of artisans would use locally-available material and produce utilitarian products in localised designs, and these were consumed by local populations.

As industrial infrastructure came in (electricity, roads & transport, communications), craft products were instantly undermined by mass-produced goods of better "value" (in terms of price:performance), made in remote factories. Traders started to dominate the local markets, edging out the historic designer-manufacturer-trader communities, rendering their knowledge acquired over generations virtually useless.

The traditional craftsperson was not an innovator - craft products were evolutionary products, achieving near-perfection in the context of their manufacture and use. The practice of craft required sheer physical skill, concentration and stamina, and was not predicated on originality - this could have resulted in a spiritual dimension in its practice - in terms of repetitive labour, working with one's senses, and an organic relationship with the physical as well as human ecology - hence integrally sustainable.

Modern industrial design is in many ways the virtual opposite of traditional craft practice - with its obsession with originality, remote manufacturing & markets, distancing from the physical environment resulting in a total divorce from sustainability, extremely short product lifecycles, and the exclusive ownership of intellectual property.

THE SECOND CRISIS OF CRAFT IS VIABILITY
The modern industrial/market model has pushed craft to the corners, gasping for viability:

  • By and large, traditional craft has been totally marginalised by cheaper and more attractive mass-produced substitutes.

  • The very rare instances of "authentic" crafts finding an audience that's willing to pay a viable (read "very high") price for it are mostly confined to art galleries and boutiques.

  • In some cases, its formal aspect remains popular, but has either led to a severe decline in workmanship/quality in order to remain attractive for audiences to buy, or has been appropriated by non-authentic methods of creation and manufacture (we have seen Chinese replicas of traditional Indian embroidery flood the markets at a far lower price).

  • There are few instances where traditional craft has "contemporized" itself successfully and viably - whether for Indian or overseas markets.

  • Sometimes, craft does find a niche overseas market but is subject to the fluctuations and vagaries of style and fashion - hence is not a reliable livelihood option.

  • Some exquisite forms of craft are simply dying out.

Looking at these from a purely business perspective, it would appear that craft must fall into either of these three broad models:

  • The fashion model - which is always-new and always-in-demand as well. Craft could become a style-setter, and keep evolving in attractive ways.

  • The WC model - where craft appears as highly utilitarian everyday products (like the WC) that are relatively stable in terms of demand, mature in terms of design, and compete largely on the basis of efficiency rather than originality.

  • The museum model - where there is no option but for philanthropists to fund the preservation of a dying craft.


THE THIRD CRISIS OF CRAFT IS ITS VALUE AS CULTURAL ASSET
When a craft dies, it's not only the artisans and their business that dies. With it dies an entire history, a legacy, a tradition, a knowledge. This is where modern design academies have failed it - by their inability to unearth this wealth in a responsible way, and feeding it back into the mainstream as well as the community. Indian design schools, with their received models & concepts of design (rooted in the modernist/industrial paradigm) have to question their very basis and locate craft at their centre.

This is not a revivalist argument, but it does suggest that the location and practice of "design" needs to be opened to questioning and experimentation rather than being regarded as unproblematic and beholden to industry. Exposing students to both forms of practice is sure to bring about a greater degree of critical scrutiny and creative experimentation that could in turn throw up exciting new directions for the future of craft in India.



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