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Training for artisans - blending the market-led approach with tradition, sustainability and environmental issues - John Ballyn's response to Poonam Bir Kasturi's "Transforming the 'Guru-Sishya' Parampara"

Ballyn, John studied Industrial Design at the Central School of Art and Design in London. In the 1960s and early 1970s he worked as an industrial designer for major consumer electronic brands and public transport vehicles in the UK. Since 1973 he has worked providing product design, production technology, packaging and management processes to crafts producers and SMEs in more than 40 countries around the world. He has contributed to training manuals about product design and market development for cultural enterprises. His clients include agencies EU, UN (UNIDO, ILO, ITC), UK and Swiss governments.

Poonam Bir Kasturi's article, "Transforming the 'guru-shishya' parampara" - changing the way training is planned for the craft sector", is both timely as well as a responsible consideration of the challenges faced by artisans, not just in India, but in developed and developing countries alike. Speak with craftsmen and women in UK, you will find them speaking about the same problems of survival in their chosen skill. The essential difference is that an artisan in a G8 country has more possibilities of diversifying out of poverty through taking up a different career. If that also fails, then G8 social service provisions enable people to survive while they pick themselves up and start over again. Her description of the confusion facing artisans confronted by the demands of export markets they have never seen is the same as the confusion felt by producer groups working in Assam, when asked to develop products for a Keralan market. But in UK too we have artisans who have no idea how the market functions; who produce designs that nobody wants, and wonder why they do not survive. There are artisans in Europe making craft as art form, without relevant purpose, or more obtusely, deliberately making products that fail to function - craft as ironic statement. There is a saying in Zambia which has relevance. "If no one wants it, why make it?" It is about process by which one arrives at product, not product as gimmick.

But it is not just a one sided process. The imbalances of globalisation have subverted the real needs of G8 market customers for products of great beauty, functionality and durability into desires for fashionable decorabilia - products with short life cycle and questionable functionality and / or true elegance. Design has been reduced to style. There is a huge task to influence the mindset of millions of consumers in G8 countries, which slows the pace of change towards a fairer and sustainable trading environment. The intensity of these pressures poses a major threat to artisans in both developed and developing economies: pricing policies; the shopping habits of consumers; fashion trends and product conformity; volume production and consumers lack of knowledge. Somehow these same pressures are growing, even in countries like India, but there is still a stronger understanding of the social value of crafts than there is in many of the G8 countries.

Pricing policies

By encouraging consumers in G8 market countries to expect lower and lower retail prices, globalisation forces artisans to reduce prices to unreasonable, almost unsustainable levels. A visit to any western store will show many products made by hand, but not necessarily defined as crafts, being sold at prices which are frankly unbelievably low - a medium sized backpack made in the People's Republic of China, retailing in UK for US$6.6 - indicating a rough workshop cost price of about $1.32, inclusive of raw materials and labour. Examine the amount of complex stitching, closures, cutting and assembly, which is part mechanised, part hand labour using powered sewing machines. Try to calculate the time required making one backpack, and from that what proportion of the $1.32 is wages for a sewing machinist. This forcing down of prices further devalues craft as a skill. Furthermore, it dehumanises any pride in skill that a hand maker may have.

Shopping habits

Most G8 consumers are not encouraged to shop in a critical or analytical manner, considering Fair Trade issues, the sustainable use of global resources, or potential exploitation of producers. They are encouraged to see qualities of the "value" or "bargain" in any product. Most consumers have difficulty identifying handmade over machine made production. At a San Francisco International Gift Fair in the 1990s, British artisans exhibited their products on a stand operated by the British Crafts Council. Several of the exhibitors said that buyers refused to accept that the products were hand made, because the consistent high quality and dimensional accuracy of the products made potential customers believe that they were machine produced.

Fashion trends and product conformity

G8 consumers are seriously encouraged to follow brand leaders, their buying habits dictated by magazines and advertising telling them which products are the ones "to die for" - this week, month, year. Consumers are not expected to be purchasers of lifelong products of great beauty. They must regularly change products to be fashionable and to impress their competitors - neighbours, friends, other consumers - about their ability to being completely up-to-the-minute. Customer conformity leads to product conformity, diminishing diversity and creativity.

Volume production

Globalisation has resulted in the movement of very large quantities of products around the globe. To satisfy consumer demand, merchandisers order large consignments of identical products made to exacting standards. This is mass production using hand processes and labour. It cannot truly be identified as craft; being a production method that treats human beings as a form of low-cost computer controlled production device. In fact artisans engaged in volume production actually cost less than computer controlled production, and for the buyer, they can be discarded once their specialised skill is no longer necessary for business. As an example of this the double ikat weavers of Java were decimated by the decision of entrepreneurs to support the industrial roller printing of ikat fabrics, reducing the price of "ikat" fabrics to $2.5 a meter from $35. Batik producers were subjected to the same technological impact. Such was the industrial accuracy of replication, that unsuspecting customers accepted printed ikat and batik as hand made.

Consumers' lack of knowledge

So many consumers have no idea how products are manufactured industrially. Their knowledge of craft production processes is less. If products on display are seen as identical, this fosters the concept of industrial production. Hand manufacture is not highly respected in this age of precision industrial merchandise. Artisans worldwide complain that customers do not understand how products are made, the creative process behind them, artisans in less developed nations are not highly respected members of communities. Kenyan soapstone carvers describe themselves as sculptors. Their European customers see their products as crafts, not art; their producers as craftsmen and women, not artists.

Difficult days

So globalisation pressures and G8 market demands for low pricing, rapidly changing fashions, product conformity to almost industrial standards, industrial volume product replication and consumers' inability to understand or value hand made production skills weigh heavily against artisans even maintaining their position, let alone improving it.

There is, sadly, a certain inevitability about these very great pressures exerted by current globalisation trading practices on artisan communities, not only in countries like India, but also for artisans in the G8 countries. This inevitability is not necessarily permanent, but the slower the growth of Fair Trade methods, environmentally sensitive manufacturing and purchasing, the longer the artisan community has to endure very hostile and exploitative conditions. There is also a risk that globalisation will further homogenise market demands, swamping local cultural diversity in a veneer of superficial fashionable demand for the "new" and "stunning". The fact that youth globally favours baseball caps, American football shirts, mid-calf shorts, and suitably branded trainers is an indicator how far individual national tradition and culture is being eroded.

Difficult days

Holding their own - knowing your enemy Poonam's thoughts about the future of artisans and how to describe potential futures are rich with potential. It may perhaps be an amalgam of all the qualities in her definitions - Craft is or may become the production of handmade utilitarian and decorative products closely intertwined with national cultural and spiritual traditional origins, as well as emerging needs of modern society, thus ensuring that tradition also has an evolutionary aspect, where change is accepted as part of tradition.

Artisan is or may become a skilled hand maker and seller who tells a story using both ancient and modern techniques, blending them into utilitarian and decorative products that reflect the philosophy of the maker and fulfil the desires of the society of the time in which he or she works. The evolution of society's needs affects how artisans themselves evolve in terms of technology, design and materials.


Debates occur about whether artisans are artists or makers of utilitarian products. Artists were always free to make exactly what they wished. Artisans were the makers of every artefact used in daily life - until the industrial revolution. What they made was determined by need in society - furniture, soft furnishings, clothing, tableware, cutlery, crockery, bed linen, floor coverings, kitchen tools, all were made by craft methods. The majority were always customer dependent, being only made to order. Customers provided their requirements. Artisans made to suit these needs. When artisans found increasing need, they used batch production in any spare time to replicate common items, thus developing stock control systems and standardisation of certain basic utensils. But they never made in such quantities to destroy local culture.

Is it not inconceivable that crafts have the potential to replace industry as the provider of nearly all products used in the average home anywhere in the world. All domestic items could be made by craft methods, providing a massive diversity of beautifully designed products, made by hand production methods to be sold at fair prices both domestically and for export.

Business management skill training

To do this requires many changes to occur. Artisans must become more proactive. Given the current pace of change, it is unlikely that a fairer market will emerge for some time, so it might be beneficial to encourage artisans to study the processes by which manufacturing enterprises operate;

  • research their market environment;

  • look for product ideas or customers,

  • design and develop new products,

  • test them out,

  • launch them,

  • assess sales,

  • research the market again,

  • prepare new designs.

This basic knowledge can be provided during any collaborative process. It can be done in producers' workshops, informally, or in institutional training courses. It can be offered to those who are interested and have the time to study the subjects. Many of its principal ideas can be expressed in simple terms using allegory based upon local cultural narratives. The understanding of such methodologies would provide the artisans with tools for assessing their own local situation very easily. Export marketing contains so many risks and hurdles that most producers might be better off keeping well away from it. But foreign currency earnings and associated government inducements are hard to resist. Business management skills could provide basic understanding of the environment in which crafts enterprises have to survive - its rules, the predators and upon whom they prey. It might help artisans be better prepared to meet entrepreneurs, whether local or foreign, half-way, to negotiate better terms and conditions. The ability to understand and practise design processes means that artisans can collaborate more effectively with customers in developing new products. In certain cases an artisan might find that he is better at being an entrepreneur than an artisan, and make a career change. Having stated a need exists for entrepreneurial and manufacturing enterprise management skills, this does not imply that they have to be applied in order to change crafts enterprises into miniaturised versions of mainstream industry. Crafts producers can be encouraged make their own informed decisions about what they study when, gradually assimilating and implementing skills and processes as and when they wish.

Craft skill training courses

Apprenticeships in the traditional Indian sense exist in crafts in G8 countries as well, but are not as common as before. Some German woodworking crafts still have a Guild tradition, with apprentice uniforms and strict training courses and examinations. In most G8 countries crafts are taught as degree courses in colleges, with some aspect of traditional values within the course structure. Some UK crafts producers miss the apprenticeship system, because it provided a one-to-one training in skills, imparted philosophical and traditional aspects of the skill and provided a clear route to employment as a guild member. The Guild provided strength and support to member artisans, again something which is lacking to any great degree for artisans today.

Where can artisans study enterprise development and management? There are plenty of technical skill training courses in most countries. But it is surprising that there are so few training courses for management and business skills for the artisan community worldwide. Few of the UK colleges providing degree level courses in crafts skills offer any significant training in enterprise development and management, even as an option. It has yet to be recognised in many countries that there are many systems and practices within conventional manufacturing production and marketing which can be applied to crafts enterprises.

Over the past decade, several International NGOs have been working in the field to introduce artisans in less developed countries to the market-led process of enterprise management. Traidcraft, CHF International, Aid to Artisans (USA), and others, all have material and courses which help producers develop an understanding of the mechanisms and pressures in the marketplace. Local NGOs similar to Indian NGOs like Dastakar, SASHA, SIPA, have developed and deliver their own successful training packages. Among the major international agencies, increasing attention is being paid to enterprise development in the cultural sector, which includes crafts. International Trade Centre has issued publications developed to raise awareness of market-led management issues. International Labour Organisation is developing a range of enterprise management training courses and manuals for cultural sector businesses.

Crafts and spiritual development

This is a complex and sensitive area. Many G8 artisans have deep philosophical motivation for doing the work they do. Others do not. Much of this is a matter of personal choice, not necessarily following any traditional or ethical system. Poonam continues her article with an exploration of the more spiritual values associated with crafts, and is supportive of the considerable belief in an integral holistic aspect of the relationship between the earth on which we live, and how artisans relate to the essence of that relationship. This will resonate with some artisans, but not all. In the Guild and guru-led training for artisans, the ethos and tradition of the particular craft can be an integral part of the training. In college-based courses, the history is part of the study. But are sustainability, ecological and environmental subjects, and other modern issues part of Guild or guru-led apprenticeships? Are these subjects only raised by aware students in college environments?

A large number of workers in the global craft sector have insufficient time in their working life to consider unproductive aspects of their work. They may have the interest, but basic survival forces them to accept and fulfil orders for customers, even when they are seriously damaging the environment. When asked to identify the most important aspect of their work, the answer is always - orders - not designs, not spiritual aspects, but orders, meaning income, and indicates dependency upon third parties, who for the main part have no interest in the ethos or spiritual values of crafts.

These harsh realities for many thousands of artisans means that while craft history, tradition and environmental/sustainable aspects should be part of a training programme, the amount of investigation by students may rely heavily on the interest of the trainee for such detailed learning. If any individual asks, then much material and assistance as requested should be available. This would require a source of historical data to be available for access. It is part of the origins of crafts and should be preserved. Who is doing this and is it readily available to anyone who asks? Crafts Revival Trust is one agency developing documentation and recording of traditional crafts processes in India. There are many others. Does this include the spiritual aspects of particular crafts? This would certainly assist those who wish to explore and follow their spiritual vision as they develop.

In the end there has to be a training which develops business processes for artisans: market research, product development and design, costing and pricing, negotiating, production enterprise management techniques etc; so that they can interact on a more knowledgeable basis with their customers.

Secondly, craft training must include historical, traditional, cultural and spiritual values of the particular craft skill and their countries of origin.

Thirdly, there must be emphasis in creating considerable understanding of the increasing importance of sustainability and environmental considerations, and how these affect enterprise management.

Finally, there is a great need for craftsmen and women to be proud of their skills and creative abilities. But this cannot come about unless the customer develops respect for the artisans' skills, placing both higher economic, as well as great social and cultural value in products predominately made by human hands. Therefore much needs to be done to increase the promotion of crafts globally, in a manner that firstly generates interest and then respect for culture and tradition.



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