March 2007 Update
Being part of the first graduation of the Kalaraksha Vidhyalaya crafts design students in November was an extraordinarily moving experience – fun, awe, pride, introspection, …Those four days, and the Vidyalaya itself, answered and raised so many questions – about the nature of craft and design, urban and rural, tradition and modernity, market-led and individual creativity….
Kutch and its craftspeople have been part of my life since 1978 – almost 30 years. I went to Kutch as a young, very urban designer, with no experience at all of working with craftspeople in rural situations, or how to interface my own sensibility with design traditions going back hundreds of years. In my 6 months in Kutch working for GURJARI, I struggled initially to integrate my own professional design vocabulary and working style with craftspeople totally unfamiliar with scale drawings, cross sections. Ways of measurement, words for colour, were all different. I blush to remember asking in one remote village whether they had tracing paper! They didn’t even have ordinary newsprint, and certainly NEVER felt the need to draw their designs before making them. The lives, needs and tastes of the consumers for whom I was developing products were so alien to those of the crafts producers themselves – how to bridge the differences and create something that was relevant to both sets of cultures and lifestyles?
Working today with young student designers going out to tackle crafts projects for the first time, their dilemmas and dissonances are no different. And yet when this partnership of dual skill sets DOES work - as a real partnership, rather than patronage on one side and passivity on the other, it results in something amazing. The Urmul, Jawaja and SEWA Lucknow experiences, Brigette Singh and Faith Singh working with block printers in Jaipur, the Kolkota zardozi craftspeople’s interaction with Varsha Mehta of Ritu’s, Madhvi and Manu Parekh and Orissa ikat, Lakshmi Narayan and Lambani craftswomen, Sarika Malik with tussar weavers in Bhagalpur….
In the ensuing 3 decades since my first Kutch sojourn, and the 25 years of Dastkar’s interaction with craftspeople, these issues have resonated over and over again. Every time I work with craftspeople – in Lucknow, in Ranthambhore, in Bihar, Banaskantha, Kashmir, Karnataka or Ladakh - with bidri, chikan, basketry, leather, patachitra, dhokra - they express in different ways their need for design know-how, but also their discomfort with the way it is usually applied. Artisans talk of doing “mazdoori kaam” mainly because the urban designers treat them as “mazdoors” – passive and in some way inferior. One has longed for some institution where craftspeople could get the basics of a design education, without it cramping their own individuality and tradition. Despite hundreds of student diploma projects and documentations, NID and NIFT or even the Crafts Institute Jaipur, have not really addressed this need, and only a bare handful of students from crafts backgrounds have made that conceptual and cultural leap to being “professional” designers themselves.
20 years ago, a Mithila craftswoman, Shiva Kashyap, bewailed that
“We may be wage earners but we are still walking on someone else’s feet. Because we lack the tools of education and language we are still dependent.” It is a cry that many otherwise skilled traditional craftspeople have echoed.
So Kalaraksha Vidyalaya is truly an answer to a dream; not just mine, but of hundreds of craftspeople. Hopefully it will be a module for many other similar local design schools in craft pockets all over the country. I think it important that it is local rather than national, serving students who come from a specific region and linked craft traditions, so that the vocabulary and vernacular remains one.
I also liked the fact that the academic calendar is broken up into short two-week segments that allow the students to go back in between to their homes and working environment and test and apply their learning to the practical knock-about of work and marketplace. And of course this means that even women students, running homes and families, can also attend.
I really enjoyed the confidence their year that Kalaraksha had given all the craftspeople. For several of them it had resulted in a real leap forward, creatively and conceptually. As Chaman Vankar, the prizewinning shawl weaving student, said, “Before, people came and told me things: you told me to make one thing, another designer said another, another buyer had a third idea, I tried to please everyone, and ended up with a khichdi, confusing and pleasing nobody. Now, I understand that these are suggestions for new directions, not specific orders. I can listen to everyone and work out my own ideas and designs. I understand how important it is to have my own unique style”. Phrases like “coordinated ranges”, “collection” “colour story”, “theme board”, “proportion”, “marketability” “contrast”, etc suddenly have begun to make sense; used with aplomb by the Rabari women as they explained their work.
There were some question marks and some sign posts for future structuring of the course – the theme board “themes” for instance seemed chosen to be as unrelated to the craftspeople’s real experience as possible - did this lead to creativity and challenge or was it just bafflingly irrelevant? Rather than impose similar bags and garment shapes on all the embroiderers, couldn’t they be taught to adapt their own traditional garments and accessories to contemporary use – as Kalaraksha itself does so well? The bandini craftspeople did not seem to have utilised their learning as effectively as the other 3 groups. Each craft obviously responds differently to contemporisation, draughtsmanship, and how to work out concepts on paper, or read others designers' drawings, seem an area that needed to be strengthened, despite the craft people’s initial distaste. As they realized later, it liberates them and allows them to plan.
Costing remains a problem area - how to realistically price your own skill and costs, while keeping your products competitive. How to source raw materials from the market and develop things with a distinctive “look” is an important part of design development and the embroidery students should be exposed to a wider choice than the Kalaraksha storeroom!
It was lovely to see the students designing their own visiting cards and catalogues, and sending emails, but they should be taught about Spell Check and proof reading to avoid errors that spoilt the look and professionalism of the end result.
I cannot end without complimenting Judy Frater on this extraordinary venture, and the love, attention to detail, sensitivity, passion and commitment, with which she has engaged on it. I am sure she has been rewarded for her hard work by the results.
The sight of those Rabari women striding down the ramp to receive their diplomas moved me to tears.