Kala Raksha Vidyalaya: A New Approach for Revival of Craft

Frater, Judy, Ashoka Fellow, conceived and founded the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the first design school for traditional artisans of crafts and textiles.

Since1993 when she set up the Kala Raksha Trust in Bhuj, Kutch she has coordinated comprehensive development projects, including the establishment of the local museum.

Judy Frater has designed and curated numerous exhibitions, and traveling shows at venues including The Textile Museum, Washington, D.C, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, Glasgow School of Art, among others. She has collected and documented textiles and other artifacts for the museum collections in the USA and India.

She is a prolific and highly regarded researcher, writer and photographer and has to her credit numerous publications.

She has been the recipient of awards and fellowships including the Ashoka Foundation Fellowship, The Costume Society of America's Millia Davenport award, the Ford Foundation Fellowship and the Fulbright Fellowship

Traditional crafts are endangered. The attention focused on craft today attests that we recognize this fact. Artisans struggle to earn wages that may not even equal those of manual labour. The social status of the artisan is still sadly low. Moreover, the social mobility of artisans is limited by chronically low levels of education; and the perceived irrelevance of the education available perpetuates the status quo.

A spectrum of Government offices, programmes and schemes, as well as non-government organizations are trying many ways to save traditional crafts. There are various forms of subsidy, bazaars and melas organized for marketing, Master Craftsman and Shilp Guru awards, and seminars to raise awareness and respect.

But the fact is the Shilp Gurus, those craftspersons most highly honored, are still asking for the most shockingly basic facilities- a place to work, a railway pass, free admission into museums- to see their own heritage! And they protest that in the committee to select Master Crafts persons, there is not a single artisan.

Something is not working. To foster genuine sustainability, to restore the vitality of traditional craft, these issues must be addressed by artisans themselves. To enable this, we must address the most pressing need in India today: relevant education for rural people.

Traditional crafts existed integrated into local social systems. Some crafts, typically those done by men, such as block printing, hand weaving and pottery, were professional. Others, typically those done by women, such as folk embroidery, were personal and never thought of in commercial terms. Regardless of commercial orientation, the user of the craft was intimately known.

Design was an integral part of craft. The artisan was designer, producer and marketer simultaneously. S/he knew which design would be used by which person, because there was a direct connection between aesthetic style and culture. Designs evolved; innovation is critical to living art. But the changes were slow, subtle innovations within a tradition... a pattern within a pati, a new fiber or colour for the border of the traditional dhablo (blanket). If interaction was required, the user interacted directly with the artisan.

In the last few decades, these traditional crafts have undergone tremendous change. As local villagers seek cheaper mass produced functional wares, artisans are compelled to find new markets. Fortunately, at the same time sophisticated urban markets have welcomed the concept of traditional crafts. However, traditional work is often not saleable because the object itself, its colour, style or price are not appropriate to the current market. These crafts must adapt to their new clientele.

Since the new market is no longer local, nor are crafts necessarily produced for utilitarian purpose, the functional basis that drove innovation is altered. In addition, since the market has expanded, innovations must now be faster and less subtle. Instead of varying the pattern within a pati, the pati itself must be changed. A different consciousness is essential for craft to succeed in this market.

With these major changes in the market for handmade products, it has been recognized that new design is needed to make craft sustainable. Conventionally, this has been perceived as a need for design intervention. It is assumed that intervention takes place in the form of trained designers giving new designs to artisans, the implication being that designers have knowledge that enables them to conceive of aesthetically appropriate products, while artisans have the skills to produce such designs. Artisans are asked to make what someone else tells them to make, rather than work from their own sense of aesthetics. This can result in disempowering artisans if it is done without explanation or means of access. I recall vividly an incident in which patchwork cushion covers were being sorted by staff and designer into good and bad piles. One senior artisan, observing, became increasingly agitated. When her own piece went into the reject pile, she visibly resigned, exclaiming, "Then just tell me what to do; I don't know what you want." In another instance, a group of Jat women who do cross stitch embroidery and had been working commercially on block printed patterns for some time refused to take on new work without a pattern printed on the cloth. They had given up their confidence in their traditional art, which of course is worked out by counting. A third, telling incident comes from Rabari embroiderers. When presented with a set of four alien coloured threads, Rabari women balked. "If we use these, it won't be Rabari," they said.

In traditional work, there is no distinct separation of colour, stitch, pattern and motif; these work together in units. Design intervention separates these elements and juxtaposes them in new and, for the artisan, cryptic ways. Simultaneously with design intervention, design, or art, is separated from craft, or labour. When design is reserved for a professional designer and craft is relegated to the artisan, the artisan is essentially reduced to a labourer. The separation of designer and artisan thus elevates the status of the former and lowers that of the latter, reinforcing the low social status of craft.

One further concern about the separation of design and execution of craft is that it supports the factory model. This seems to emanate from an assumption of an industrialized society. If craft tries to compete with industry, it will surely fall short, in terms of manufacture and in terms of price. The personal character, the intimacy, the hand made quality itself is what will enable craft to survive in an industrial world. The strength of hand craft is that it expresses a whole world.

This concern invokes the long-standing discussion on the distinctions between craft, art, and design. Craft implies skill, doing, a hobby or practical profession. Art implies creativity, imagination, expression. Design implies mediation. Craft has always been design based because it relies on a consumer. Craft, like design is fundamentally based on satisfying the user's aesthetic needs, rather than purely expressing feelings. But in a sense, traditional craft was really traditional art, in that the maker managed concept as well as execution. Depending on the level of professionalization, laborers would then be employed. "All craftspersons are designers. But all designers are not craftspersons," a Shilp Guru says, and his audience responds with spontaneous applause.

Few would dispute the aesthetic value of traditional work. We can perceive in it a sort of living quality, though we might not easily define what that is. New work, while appropriate to the new market, does not have that elusive living quality. It lacks the integrity of cultural expression, or the spirit of the artisan. Those honored artisans, Master Craftsmen and Shilp Gurus, express frustration at current trends. A shilp Guru holds up a golden box he made. "Look at this," he says. "This is beautiful." And it is. "They tell us to make it cheaper, faster..."

"That's not what we do!" echo the Salvis, the last artisans of patolu weaving.
It is when the art of tradition-based work is lost that the tradition is endangered.

Surely, design input is needed for new markets. Neither the concern for this problem nor the schemes are wrong. But the approach to the problem needs to be altered. Designers must learn to think like artisans, someone suggested. But the real problem is that no one wants to be a laborer. If we want craft to flourish, we first have to attend the artisan. Craft must be re-integrated and the artisan must be significantly involved in both design and craft aspects.

When artisans are engaged in finding their own solutions to problems, they find the satisfaction of creativity. If we examine an example of a living tradition, that of textile arts of the Kachhi Rabaris of Kutch, we find that artisans have not only ability but great interest in the creative aspect of their craft. The women of this nomadic community in the process of settling have had to enter the world of cash economy as income from traditional sources ceased to be adequate for survival. Whether earning by manual labour or through their traditional embroidery skills, Rabari women now face the dilemma of multiple demands on limited time. At the same time, requirements for traditional embroidery for dowry have increased.

Unmarried girls, put into conflict, have responded by learning to balance and prioritize. For their traditional work, they have begun to use time savers such as machine embroidery, ready-made rick rack and ribbons.

The minimization of labour in traditional art has allowed entry of new elements. With exposure to new markets through settling and embroidering commercially, Rabari women have gained access to a vast array of new materials, colours and patterns. Remarkably, Rabaris choose new elements according to their own, still vital sense of aesthetics-- essentially following the design brief. The labor savers expressly enable more rapid execution. As a result, artisans have become eager for ever rapid changes in style which are no longer subtle variations of pattern within a pati, but entire revamping of the concept of a piece. Thus, fashion has emerged as a concept.

In new Rabari traditions, while innovation and fashion do not draw on the commercial work from which women may be earning, the pace and extent of innovation have followed the development of wider markets. In embracing fashion, artisans have not only demonstrated their ability to innovate but- more important- their capacity to do so quickly and more radically.

Another aspect of new traditions worth noting is that bad habits of commercial craftsmanship have not crept in. Women welcome time saving devices, but not compromises in craftsmanship. Within the community, fine skill and sensibility are still a matter of personal worth.

By focusing on the labour aspect of embroidery, and eliminating some of the tedium of hand work, Rabari women have not only enabled their traditions to remain economically viable. They have also shifted the focus of creativity. Different skills have become important in new fashion-traditions: choosing from the array of available materials, conceptualizing patterns. Witness the innovation of Monghiben on the traditional ludi, the identifying woolen veil. Monghi wanted to excel in displaying her creative skills on her wedding ludi. Yet she knew that she would wear it only for a few hours. In any case, if she wore it more often, her efforts would be lost in wear and tear. Defining the problem, she devised an ingenious solution: showcase bands elaborately worked with machine and hand embroidery, which she attached to the borders of her veil. The bands could then be reused by her younger sister or, if no longer in fashion, double as a toran. The new styles in fact allow women to focus on design rather than execution. Most noteworthy, Rabari women enjoy the designing aspect of the new traditional work. Monghi has become a celebrity and an inspiration to her peers.

The question then is can artisans apply their ability to innovate toward making art appropriate for the current market? If they gain the same skills and knowledge as professional designers, and learn to access their market, can they solve their own design problems? Could they find appropriate solutions for the persistent problem of cost vs. fair wages, and nurture the critical element of cultural expression?

What if artisans learn to think like designers! If one recognizes the creative capability of artisans, in terms of cost efficiency and feasibility it is more practical to think of training traditional artisans in design principles than to train designers in craft traditions. Further, in terms of the survival of craft traditions, it is far more sustainable.

Encouraged by working collaboratively with artisans in design, Kala Raksha is planning an institution to address the issue of craft design in a new way. Kala Raksha Vidyalaya is envisioned as an educational institution specifically for artisans of Kutch. Traditional artisans rarely gain access to contemporary formal design training due to social and financial barriers. The institution envisioned will differ from others primarily in that its environment, curriculum and methodology will be designed to be appropriate for adult artisans with a vast existing body of traditional knowledge, who are currently working in their field. Master artisans will participate in developing the institution, to insure that these goals are met. Personalization is a critical and powerful element in effective education. The Vidyalaya will thus address the issues of relevant education and self confidence while building the capacity to design for new markets.

To facilitate the shift of market, and relationship to the new market, Kala Raksha Vidyalaya will address and interlink three broad areas: thorough understanding of traditional crafts, contemporary design input, and access to markets.

Traditional artisans have an incomparable fortune in the deep knowledge and hereditary skills of their craft. Imbibed from childhood as an inextricable part of a way of life, both knowledge and skills are almost involuntary. Yet, like breathing, craft knowledge and skills may not be consciously attended. The Vidyalaya will guide artisans to examine their own traditions, and others. Study and reflection will enable them to most effectively access their body of existing knowledge. Drawing on experiences with the Kala Raksha Folk Art Museum and Resource Center, the course will include documentation, presentation, and study of traditions. Artisans will learn to observe, record, use, and above all appreciate their known traditions in a conscious way.

Traditional artisans have an incomparable fortune in the deep knowledge and hereditary skills of their craft. Imbibed from childhood as an inextricable part of a way of life, both knowledge and skills are almost involuntary. Yet, like breathing, craft knowledge and skills may not be consciously attended. The Vidyalaya will guide artisans to examine their own traditions, and others. Study and reflection will enable them to most effectively access their body of existing knowledge. Drawing on experiences with the Kala Raksha Folk Art Museum and Resource Center, the course will include documentation, presentation, and study of traditions. Artisans will learn to observe, record, use, and above all appreciate their known traditions in a conscious way.

Self confidence in the ability to solve problems is the most important and enduring benefit of education. Contemporary design, the major course of Kala Raksha Vidyalaya, will focus on a conscious approach to design principles and problem solving. Artisans will gain conscious knowledge and learn skills relating to design, which they will apply in authentic situations in their respective media. Technical assistance will be provided as needed, but with focus on understanding the limitations and possibilities of technology. Artisans will learn to use technology to expand their scope, rather than feel circumscribed within its limitations. As artisans of Kala Raksha noted, "We need to learn what is new, what we don't already know." "Embroidery is what we do," one woman explained. "Education is different; education is essential."

With the wealth and depth of traditional knowledge, artisans will be able to quickly absorb and utilize design related information. Artisans' experiences confirm the profound utility of design education. Ismail Mohammed Khatri, a block print and dye master of Dhamadka and Advisory Board member of Kala Raksha Vidyalaya, relates how as a young boy he was skilled in making wooden blocks. With indigenous tools and methods he could innovate within existing patterns. Then a young designer from NID gave him a compass and showed him how to make a perfect square. From that simple, appropriate technology, he says, he knew he could create infinite new patterns for the rest of his life.

In a recent project for the Manly Art Gallery and Museum in Australia, artisans were asked simply to express their experiences of the massive earthquake that devastated Kutch in January 2001. The same senior artisan who had given up confidence when her patchwork cushion cover went into the reject pile created an incredibly complex and vibrant work, including innovative three dimensional techniques. In this case, she was able to extend beyond her capacity simply with encouragement and protected space to explore --rarely found in the work-driven daily life. And after completing the piece, she was eager for the opportunity to do further expressive work.

In a concerted effort to bridge the digital divide, new technology will be an important component of the artisan design school. Using new technology as an extension of existing knowledge will enable quick acceptance of the medium itself, encourage artisans to think in new ways, and help them to access new markets. After a first encounter with computer aided design at an education workshop at Jiva School, a young Rabari artisan enthusiastically exclaimed, "A week ago we didn't know what a computer was, and today we can use it to make designs!"

Access to new markets is the critical issue, and will prove the ultimate success of the Vidyalaya's education. Artisans want results, Ismail Khatri emphasizes. The only motivator for working artisans is improved income. Understanding the market must drive design innovation. Exposure to target markets will be essential. Why is Ismail more successful than most of his traditional community? The design training he has enjoyed, aptitude to learn, but also exposure. Ismail has been able to establish direct links to his customers. "We learn to understand what they want; we get the courage to experiment," he explains. "After that, it has its own perpetual motion."

In this component of education, exposure to markets will be insured in two way interaction: artisans will go out and clients will come in. Professionalism will be encouraged to facilitate the interaction. And to bridge the existing cultural gap, artisans will also learn to access resources, so that they can solve future problems.

For this, information technology offers great potential to artisans as a means of overcoming social and physical barriers to markets which can appreciate and afford their work at fair prices.

Not every graduate of Kala Raksha Vidyalaya will become a local designer, just as not every college graduate becomes a professor. Nor will the institute obviate the need for professional designers from outside the artisan community. But the education of the Vidyalaya will change the working relationship between graduates and other designers to be more egalitarian. The education experienced will be relevant to the artisan's life. It will enable him or her to be more capable and confident in work, and in operating in a world beyond the familiar village setting. And hopefully it will enable artisans to value education and encourage it in their families. By engaging the contemporary world through relevant design education, artisans can re-integrate their art, and revitalize its spirit so that it expresses a whole, new world.


  • Frater, Judy "Traditional Art in the Eye of the Artisan: Changing Concepts of Art, Craft and Self in Kutch," Seminar 523, March 2003. New Delhi.

  • "Contemporary Embroideries of Rabaris of Kutch: Economic and Cultural Viability," Textile Society of America Proceedings, 2002.

  • "This is Ours:' Rabari Tradition and Identity in a Changing World," forthcoming in Nomadic Peoples

  • "Rabari Embroidery: Chronicle of Tradition and Identity in a Changing World," forthcoming in a Crafts Council of India publication

  • 1999 "When Parrots Transform to Bikes: Social Change Reflected in Rabari Embroidery Motifs," Nomadic Peoples (NS) Vol. 3, issue 1.

  • 1995 Threads of Identity: Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris. Ahmedabad: Mapin.

  • Kak, Krishen, "Integrating Crafts and the Educational System," paper presented at the Crafts Council of India/ Development Commissioner for Handicrafts/ Export Promotion Couoncil for Handicrafts International Seminar on "Crafts, Craftspersons and Sustainable Development," New Delhi, November 16-18, 2002

  • Rudolph, Steven- personal communication. See also www.Jiva.org

  • Tyabji, Lalia, ed. "Celebrating Craft," Seminar 523, March 2003. New Delhi.

* to be published in Handmade in India, a National Institute of Desgin Publication

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