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A Designer in Development - New Designs for Indian Craftspersons - Ornamental Irrelevance or a Paradigm for Development?

Tyabji, Laila, is a designer, writer and founder member and Chairperson of DASTKAR, a Society for Crafts & Craftspeople. She has worked in the craft and development sector for over 3 decades. In 2003 she was awarded the AID TO ARTISANS Preservation of Craft Award in New York – the 2nd-ever recipient.

Laila's work with artisans includes the Chikan workers of SEWA Lucknow, Kasuti embroiderers in Karnataka, Mahubani painters and sujni quilters in Bihar, regurs in Rajasthan, and Banjara and Rabari mirror work craftswomen in Kutch and Maharashtra. One of her most rewarding projects has been the creation of new employment avenues through craft for pastoral communities displaced by the Tiger Reserve in Ranthambhore. A recent intervention has been in Kashmir, working with women victims of terrorist insurgency, using embroidery as a catalyst for social and emotional recovery.

Previous to DASTKAR, Laila Tyabji studied art in India and Japan and worked as a free-lance designer in textiles, graphics and theatre. She writes and speaks regularly on craft, design and social issues.

June 2008, Craft Revival Trust
The female octopus is born, grows to maturity, gives birth to her clutch of children, and promptly dies. I often think it must be wonderful to have ones role in life, its purpose and parameters, so clearly defined. I, on the other hand, for the last fourteen years in DASTKAR have straddled, often uneasily, the twin roles of designer and development person.

Working in the field of traditional craft, the two are not always synonymous, though design can lead to development, and development should be designed. There is a conflict both of function and responsibility. Whose creativity are you to express, your own or the craftsperson's? Who is your client - the consumer, who wants an unusual and exciting product at the most competitive price; or the craftsperson - who needs a market for his product as similar to his traditional one as possible, so that it does not need constant alien design interventions, or conflict with the social, aesthetic and cultural roots from which it has sprung.

Those of us who have gone through a formal art or design education have been taught to realise our own creative imagination to the full, and given the technical expertise and tools to do so. Working with craftspeople, one has to dampen ones own creative flame in order to light the craftsperson's fire. One must push, not pull..... The purpose of ones sample design range is to inspire craftspeople to do their own further innovation, not stun them into passive replication. They must be taught to use their minds and imagination as well as their hands.

Craftspeople must be involved in every aspect of design and production and understand the usage of the product they are making. The interventionary voluntary agency or designer must also understand and study the craft, the product and the market they are trying to enter.

Often there is a perception of organisations like the Crafts Councils and DASTKAR as arty-farty ladies obsessed with design. This obsession is seen as revealing our inherent superficiality and inability to think in truly "developmental" "issue-based" terms. Just as craft itself is rejected as a viable economic activity by those marching into the 21st Century to newer, more technological tunes. But artisans still make up 23 million of our working population; and to talk about the craft sector as a means to sustainable employment, without talking of design is like talking about the issue of the Child without talking of education.

Crafts producers cannot be economically viable unless their product is marketable. The product can only be marketable if it is attractive to the consumer. i.e. if the traditional skill is adapted and "designed" to suit contemporary consumer tastes and needs. Design does not mean making pretty patterns. It is matching a technique with a function.

All over India women are being taught to sew, embroider, appliqué, crotchet, knit and tat, with the bait of becoming economically independent. Almost always the second object they are taught to make (the first is a cushion cover!) is a tea-cosy, regardless of the fact that less and less Indian homes use tea-cosies. The shape is always wrong (is it a bolster cover or a dunce-cap?) because the craftswomen do not understand the usage, and have never been shown a teapot. Similarly, table mats are always made with the decorative motif squarely in the middle of the mat, because no one has explained that is precisely the area that is covered by the plate, and therefore can (and should!) remain unadorned.

We should not be embarrassed or defensive about an emphasis on product design and marketing as the catalyst and entry point for development in the craft sector. The overwhelming demand for these services from craftspeople all over the country, and the disastrous results when supposed Income Generating Projects are left to flounder without guidance, should answer any doubts about the superficiality of this approach, or whether it is required. A recent survey of one of the craft producer groups we work with in Bihar showed the importance of an integrated approach to craft development and marketing. Sales generated through six DASTKAR exhibitions and Bazaars for which they were assisted with product design, raw material identification, production and quality control guidance were over 3 lakhs, as opposed to a total of less than 1 lakh at seven other Bazaars (including the CAPART Mela!) over the same period, selling their standard products.

Why do craftspeople with centuries of a skilled tradition need these outside interventions at all is a question frequently raised. Looking at the distortions and deterioration caused by so many interventions, however well intentioned, does give one pause. But tradition must be a springboard not a cage. Craft, if it is to be utility-based and economically viable, cannot be static. It must respond to changes of markets, consumer needs, fashion and usage. It is the role of the designer and product developer to sensitively interpret these changes to craftspeople who are physically removed from their new marketplaces.

In Ancient India, every individual had an implicitly defined role in society, ordained by birth. Craftsmanship was a heritage, tempered by years of arduous apprenticeship in chhandomaya (the rules of rhythm, balance, proportion, harmony and skill), controlled and protected by the structure and laws of the guild. In the guild the master craftsman, the raw apprentice and the skilled but uninspired jobsman all had a place and purpose. (Today’s craftsperson has to be all things in one, including his own entrepreneur.)

The craftsman had the status of an artist. As a member of a society with strict rules and hierarchies, both within his guild and the outside world, he and his products were protected, and their quality and traditional continuity controlled. Customers were close at hand, their lifestyles not too markedly different from his. Whether his skills provided simple village wares or jewelled artifacts for the temple, it was a supportive interdependence based on a mutual need, understanding and appreciation.

The craftsperson was his own designer, and the embellishments came only after the shape was perfected to the function. The aesthetic and the practical blended in a natural rather than artificially imposed harmony.

Today most craftspeople, practicing traditional skills but vying with machines, speeded up deadlines and 'craze for forrun' fashions, no longer protected by guilds or the enlightened, hands- on patronage of court or temple, are increasingly faced with the problems of diminishing orders and the debasement of their craft. They are making products for lifestyles remote from their own, and selling them in alien and highly competitive markets. Their own lives and tastes have suffered major transformations - alienating them further from their skills and products. A traditional juthi-maker may still embroider gold peacocks onto a pair of shoes whose turned up toes echo the ends of his moustache, but he himself will probably be wearing pink plastic sandals! An alabaster Buddha will have a red bulb and electric flex spawning out of its belly in a mad attempt to contemporise it into a bedside lamp. Consequently, craft has degenerated today from a stunning ritual object of worship to bric-a-brac that sells on the pavement for Rs. 10.00.

Though many Government and non-Government agencies have discovered traditional craft as a vehicle for income generation, its usage has not always been accompanied by a sensitivity to the needs of the craftsman and the consumer, or an analysis of the market. And, as the tourist and export demand for instant "ethnic" has grown, middlemen and traders, many of them ignorant and exploitative, have also jumped onto the bandwagon of craft production and sale. This has resulted in many of the more intricate and unusual forms and skills being abandoned, with the quick production of a cheap product being the priority. Motifs, techniques, stitches and usages distinctive to particular communities and areas have been merged and muddled together. The everyday utilitarian crafts have suffered too; bypassed in favour of more eye-catching, ornamental ones.

The cheap, tacky looking yoke pieces, skirts and patches sold on the Janpath sidewalks and at the Surajkund mela under the generic brand name of "mirrorwork" and "Kutchi bharat" bear little relation to the extraordinary embroideries various Kutchi communities make for themselves, or their potential for further development. This is not just aesthetic disaster, but bad economics as well. Thousands of women with high-level skills and earning power are reduced to breaking stones for a living, while the antique pieces their grandmothers made sell in the Sunder Nagar boutiques for a fortune. At a CCI Seminar on crafts in 1991, Reema Nanavaty recalled the inception of SEWA's project in drought-ridden Banaskantha, "But even before water, the major problem of the women was work. Whenever you talk to the women, the first thing they ask about is work. Everything else is secondary." Today the old embroideries they were selling off their backs are the design inspiration for contemporary garments that earn the craftswomen incomes of Rs. 1000 to 1200 a month.

People often say, why don't Indian craftspeople simply make the same beautiful things they used to? The reason for this is so obvious we have literally been blinded by it. Craftspeople cannot afford to keep samples and so have never seen what their forefathers used to make. Craftspeople's data banks are in their minds and fingertips but, if you paint Mickey Mouse to order often enough on a papier-mache box instead of a Mughal rose, eventually the memory of the rose will fade away.

The irony is that it is we who are fortunate enough to acquire the beautiful objects that are their heritage; we who have access to museum collections and reference books. It is we, therefore, who must be aware of and sensitively interpret a craftsperson's tradition to him. This is our responsibility. A craftsperson does not have the confidence to say "no". He needs the order too much.

As a result we have all turned into instant "designers" - often, alas, without introspection or homework. A bored housewife clips a cross stitch motif of be-ribboned kittens out of WOMAN & HOME and turns it into a kantha sari pallav; an exporter (too dependent on air-conditioning to trek out to Saurashtra) gives a patchwork toran to be replicated in Trans-Jumna - and adds a dash of Punjabi phulkari embroidery just for fun. Instead of re-interpreting the legendary skills of Kerala wood carvers to make new furniture, a glass sheet is perched on the top of antique boat prows or a truncated pillar to awkwardly transform them into a table.

Nor are good ideas and good intentions alone enough to guarantee the desired results. Some years ago a funding agency commissioned a talented young designer to do a design project for an NGO working with tussar weavers. She developed a stunning range of high fashion Western garments which were show-cased at a high-profile exhibition in Delhi. But the producer group - tribal women who were part of a Gandhian Ashram in the depths of rural Bihar - were unable to fulfill the orders as they didn't have the requisite tailoring skills (the original sample range had been made by a friendly exporter in Noida) and the whole exercise, (and an investment of over 4 lakhs) was a disaster. The Ashram women trailed around for years to Melas and Bazaars trying to discount-sale the stock piles of unsold samples, all now out of date, crumpled and shop-soiled, and finally the IGP programme folded up altogether. The means and the ends, the design and the beneficiary, must meld and match together. Only then can long-term objectives be met.

The motifs and usage’s of a craft tradition cannot and should not remain static. But changing them requires knowledge, sensitivity and care. NID designers, often slanged by the development world as being too rarefied and impractical, have achieved some significant successes in projects for Jawaja, Gurjari and Urmul, and in the North East, where their input has been long-term and sustained; and the NID student craft documentations are a invaluable reference source. An essential tool in craft development is that motifs, designs and techniques be documented and accessible.

DASTKAR's project with Madhubani painters in North Bihar - one of the poorest, most backward parts of India - was an example of changing the function, changing the design and finding an appropriate though radically different usage for a traditional craft through the process of documenting its motif tradition.

Discovered in the 60's, the votive paintings of Mithila, transferred from village walls to handmade paper, were an instant artistic craze. The paintings rapidly became something of an interior decoration cliché in contemporary urban Indian homes looking for an "ethnic" identity. Village women of all levels of skill and artistry were persuaded by eager traders and exporters to abandon their sickles for the brush.

Inevitably there was a surfeit, and then a hiatus in the market. By the 80's, Madhubani painting as a marketable commodity was dead. You cannot, however, tell women who have tasted economic independence to go back to painting their walls. New ways of tapping this creative source needed to be found. DASTKAR felt the decorative motifs, the floral borders, the peacocks and parrots, the interlocking stars and circles, that embellished the Kohbar, encircling the Gods and knitting them into their cosmic patterns, were in themselves a rich directory of design motifs and decorative elements that could be used on products of daily usage and wear. Sarees, dupattas, soft furnishings, are by their function, less subject to the vagaries and shifts of consumer fad.

The transition from iconographic art to functional craft need not be crass or commercial, if sensitively done. Not by gods and goddesses being transferred blindly by the hundred to cushion covers, but by women being taught to use their own artistic instincts in new ways. More dramatic, more spontaneous, more personally creative, I think, in many ways than an invocatory Kohbar being painted for money and hung mindlessly on a restaurant wall. In the devastation that followed the 1989 earthquake it was those women in North Bihar who were wage earners through craft who were able to sustain and succour not only their own families, but those of other less fortunate villages. That same strength today, gives them the power to say no to social practices or religious taboos that aim to victimize them.

A craft designer, (whose ultimate objective is the coordinated development and self sufficiency of the craftsperson rather than herself) must keep in mind the existing skill levels of her target group. The designer must not just work with one or two master craftspersons. The sample range will be wonderful but production a disaster. She must project her initial designs to available skill levels, and use successive sampling workshops to gradually upgrade skills and design sensibilities. In the DASTKAR Ranthambhore project, working with almost unskilled women - their hands more used to wielding the scythe than the needle - the first patchwork range was made up of 6 inch squares and strips in very basic permutations. Vivid and unusual combinations of colours and prints disguised the crudity of stitchery and simplicity of design. They sold well, as do the much more complex designs of tiny triangles, hexagonals and stars in subtle colourways the women have gradually been trained to do in the intervening five years.

Creating a simple but effective design, using a small budget and limited resources, is an exciting test of a designers skill. Seeing the growth and confidence of a newly emerging crafts community successfully selling products they have made themselves for the first time, using skills they never knew they had, is even more exciting.

There are two cardinal principles:-
one, the customer does not buy out of compassion. The product must be competitive in price, in aesthetic, in function,
and two:
The ultimate skill of the craft designer lies in making herself redundant.

SEWA Lucknow is often cited as the NGO success story in using a traditional, almost moribund, skill (chikan embroidery) as a means to a 2 crore turnover and social and economic empowerment for thousands of women. But "design" in that intervention went far beyond the cut of a kurta or the application of a new embroidery buta. It included skill upgradation, the documentation and revival of traditional stitches, embroidery motifs and tailoring techniques, the introduction of new kinds of raw material (ranging from kota to tussar), sizing, costing, quality control and production planning - and an alternative marketing and promotional strategy that would enable a small, broke NGO to compete effectively with the entrenched dalals in the Chowk. The approach and philosophy was always:
  • to provide ideas and stimuli for creativity and innovative product design in the craftswomen themselves.

  • to explain the rationale behind items developed and guidelines laid down by us.

  • to develop a product range that incorporated the different skill levels of all members of the group.

  • to keep the product usage and price applicable to widest possible market and consumer.

  • to harmoniously incorporate the motifs, techniques and shapes of traditional chikan-kari into completely new products.


To our delight, we discovered that it was not the art of chikan-kari that was dead, nor the consumer demand for it, but the aesthetic sensibilities of those who had previously designed and sold the market product. Ten years later, SEWA Lucknow lives on, grown from 12 women to over 4,000; their designs no longer mine or static, but part of an on-going stream that mingles tradition and innovation, constantly evolving.

Crafted and hand-woven products still permeate every strata and usage in Indian society - even the most dedicated terecot shirt and steel katori man will wear a cotton handloom lungi to sleep in, sit on a cane moda chair on his verandah, grow his money plant in a terra-cotta gumla, and buy his daughter a Banarsi sari for her wedding. Craftspeople though, are increasingly the marginalised and forgotten people - trapped between their past and their future. Is it arrogance or insensitivity that makes us deny them the professional and technical expertise that would bridge this gap? The investment in R and D, raw material, credit and infrastructural development that is automatically given to any other sector of the economy, bypasses them.

Crafts, especially those made by rural or tribal people, are dismissed out of hand as out-dated mechanisms of production, with only a ornamental, short-term use. "Aajkal nahi chalega." But, all too often, it is not really the look of the product that causes the customer to reject it in favour of the assembly-line, industrial alternative, but the quality of the materials used - a factor beyond the craftsperson's control. Colourfast threads, rust-proof hinges and buckles, seasoned leather, fabric that does not shrink, are not available in rural markets.

One day we may have no crafts; not because we no longer want them, but because all craftspeople will have gone the way of those starving weavers in Andhra who briefly hit our headlines and were then forgotten - their lifeline, the cotton yarn to weave with, exported out of their grasp.

But, as Rabindranath Tagore reminded us, "The mind is no less valuable than cotton thread". Design and product development are an equally essential adjunct to the survival and economic empowerment of craftspeople. Craftsmanship is a form of communication - one man's way of interpreting the needs of another and transmuting his creative impulse and skill into fulfilling that need. This communication cannot succeed if rural Indian craftspeople are not taught the language of today's contemporary urban consumer. Once learnt, however, the lingua franca of good design can help them to re-design the development, not just of their craft, but of their lives as well.

Laila Tyabji for those Moving Technology, Capart – Oct-Dec 1995.
(re-printed in Economic Times 12th Nov,95 & UK Crafts Council Catalogue of HANDMADE IN INDIA exhibition, London 1998)



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