The year 1992 and a quiet corner of India - Kaziranga National Park, Assam, home to the few rhinoceros left in the country. A young post-graduate straight out of university, yours truly, working in the villages around the park, trying to gauge local people's views about animal conservation. All around me, in people's homes, lay beautiful hand-woven textiles, resplendent with imagery drawn from the world around - handsome rhinos, agile deer, beautiful flowers and trees. Shawls, traditional towels called gamuchas and sarongs known locally as mekhelas were being produced by the women, expert weavers as customarily women fulfilled all clothing needs for the family. I was surprised to know that none of these were being sold, even though the women could easily produce for the market. This was my first introduction to the world of marketing (or rather lack of marketing) of crafts, a fascinating sphere that I have been exploring for the last decade.
To say that marketing crafts in India is a complex process is a definite understatement, given the great diversity in our country, the numerous chasms between ignorance and knowledge, practice and theory, maker and marketplace. Add to this cocktail, language and geographical barriers, cultural differences, social systems and the fact that India lives on different time scales - the rat race of hi-tech metros vs. the languid pace in remote villages where lives are dominated by seasons and not the clock. These are both realities of modern day India. Globalization, WTO, rapid socio-cultural changes, introduction of "disposable" mind-set wherein products are consumed and discarded quickly, in the face of all this, marketing crafts in India in a sustainable equitable manner is indeed a challenge.
If we take a closer look at the crafts marketing scenario, there are certain aspects one can assume as absolutes. One of them, in my mind, is the fact that India has a great deal of crafts that can be marketed as they are, without any design interventions. Equally there are many crafts that can be successfully marketed once they are modified for customer usage in different contexts. Another given is the fact that even today plenty of crafts are being marketed, not always to the benefit of the maker who may get a paltry amount, but definitely at a good profit for the retailer. This brings in the immensely debated issue of the "middle-man", their role and the merits and demerits of the system. While it is heartening to note that the persistence of certain social customs contributes to the perpetuation of some crafts (such as traditional terracotta sculptures and textiles), it is also a matter of concern that the forces of globalization, changing tastes and trends, are threatening many folk arts and crafts.
In a decade of marketing crafts, one has had several interesting interactions with both the maker and the marketplace. Given the fact, that one was marketing bamboo products and tribal textiles from Northeast India, both articles not commonly known or seen in other parts of India, marketing the products also became an exercise in generating awareness about the region. This was brought home clearly once again recently while unpacking baskets from Manipur for an exhibition - people thronged the stall, exclaiming "baskets from Bangkok and Bali". They were pleasantly surprised to know they were from Imphal in India. On the other hand, the distance from urban markets for the craft producers in the Northeast is not just geographical - it is also a question of mind-set and social practices. At one of our product development workshops in Meghalaya, the notion of requiring coasters was questioned by the women bamboo weavers. As they succinctly put it, "You city people need so much - something to put under your glass. Here, if we wish we can make a glass out of bamboo, use it and throw it away". A telling comment, no doubt, on to the excess that characterizes market-driven lives. However, much to their surprise and delight, the woven coasters have become quite popular in the metros, bringing a little of nature into urban homes.
Interesting experiences apart, marketing of crafts in India brings into focus several sensitive issues. Where do we draw the line between conserving a craft and commercializing it? Clearly there are many craft and art forms in India, which have suffered in the process of being marketed. Madhubani art from Bihar is one clear instance where commercial activity has harmed the creative purity present in the art form. When does the process of making the craft object a commodity compromise the socio-cultural significance of the tradition and the maker? Does too successful a marketing intervention contribute to the decline of the craft? How does one achieve a balance between what the market requires and what the craftsperson/community needs?
These are issues I grappled with when I began working on Naga textiles in 1996 with my associate Samuel Madeliang. We decided to move away from the traditional bold colour palette of black, red, white, yellow and green and introduced pastels and tonal shades. We also worked on non-traditional products such as cushion covers, tablemats and runners. Our goal at that point of time was to keep the skill of back-strap loom weaving, one of the most ancient forms of weaving known to mankind alive. Our research showed that there were few takers for the traditional products and if we could play with colours and forms, we might get new markets. Today, there are many more women working on the looms than ever before, producing some wonderful textiles. We are aware of the danger that too much of the product in the market will reduce the value for the textile.
Another issue that always engages anyone marketing crafts in India is ensuring long-term sustainable marketing. This brings into the picture the issue of development of an entrepreneurial spirit in the craftsperson/community. It is easy to assume that this spirit can be easily found/fostered in the craftsperson but experience has shown otherwise - there are many wonderful artisans who are great at making things but are very bad when it comes to engaging with the market. One can design and implement a whole host of capacity building programmes but at one level, one has to accord the craftspeople with a status of being artistic geniuses and perhaps design marketing structures, which do not impinge on their creative abilities. The numerous state and national awards for craftspeople may have been designed to accord the status of "living treasures" but what they really bring with them in terms of benefits is open to debate.
Stop for a moment to consider where these crafts are sold - they may be sold at local weekly markets, through organized traders who have distribution networks across the country, government emporias, private boutiques, export houses or government/private exhibitions in towns and cities. How much and at what rate crafts are marketed depends on the reach of the craftsperson, the distance from the market the extent to which the craft sector is organized/disorganized and on whether it is a direct sale or the number of players between the maker and the final consumer. It also depends on the infrastructure available for marketing - what mode of transportation is available to ferry the goods and how cost-effective? If it is for an overseas market, are there container-shipping facilities? Are there good packing and shipping agents? What are the communication facilities (phone lines, faxes, email connectivity) available? All of this plays an important role in ensuring goods reaching the marketplace at competitive prices. The lack of these infrastructural facilities has been a major issue for our organization in marketing crafts from Northeast India.
Paradoxically, the widespread practice of having permanent exhibition grounds, especially in the major metros has contributed both to increased sales for some crafts and in some cases, to a lessening of sales - the consumers often defer their purchase till the next visit. The ease of availability has reduced the sense of urgency to buy - there is no fear of the object not being available as there will be more of the same sooner or later at the venue. In the case of marketing through traders, the maker gets very little with many of these systems being quite exploitative of the artisans. When supplying to private boutiques, there are often two major hindrances - in a bid to keep exclusivity, they may order in very small quantities that makes both production and transportation unviable, especially from Northeast India. The other issue is of payment - with many stand-alone stores preferring goods to be placed on consignment and not outright purchase.
My journey in marketing crafts continues, an extremely interesting learning process with no day being the same. I am educating myself equally in the process of trying to create awareness about the products. Every day brings with it fresh challenges which my team of artisans and co-workers hope to overcome.