Well intended but half done Marketability of Crafts from the North East

Nanda, Gulshan , has worked for over five decades in marketing Indian handicrafts and textiles. She retired as the (Hon) Chairperson of Central Cottage Industries Emporium. Since 2000 she has worked on the research and advocacy activities of CRT. She was a Member of the Planning Commission Steering Committee for Handloom and Handicrafts for the 12th Five Year plan, and Chairperson of the working group on Handicrafts. She has been awarded the Padma Shree by the Government of India for her services to the craft Sector.

May 2009, Craft Revival Trust

Through analysis, observation and discussion we need to reach an understanding, and if possible consensus, on what can be done to improve the marketability of the crafts and the status of crafts persons in the eight North-Eastern states and provide them opportunities and options.

During my few visits – not too many in number but spanning over a period of twenty five years, some impressions have stayed.

On my first visit to Sikkim I was fascinated by their weaves, though I was left with the impression of the prices being too high. When I did the costing, I realized that the weaver, for almost eight hours of non-stop work on the back strap loom was earning a pitiful Rs.10 only. She was not even getting 30% of the cost as 60% was going towards raw-material with 10% on incidentals. It should actually have been the other way round.

Two years ago, I visited a village in Nagaland where there were two National Awardees in basket making. The price of the basket quoted to me was Rs.3000/-. It was artistic, authentic and extremely well finished. The problem was how many can he sell at that price.

Going into details, I was told that the master basket maker himself goes to the forest to select the bamboo, cuts it, dries it, keeps it on top of a special open oven to destroy the fungus and then dries it for several days before it is ready to be cut into fine splits. It takes two weeks to process the bamboo. He uses only one implement the dao. One wonders why a group of people do not get together to do the various mundane jobs and leave the master to just weave the basket. One also wonders why tools made especially for the various processes are not accepted by the craftsmen. One also wonders why the various Bamboo Missions cannot make splits and why they cannot encourage basket weavers to use them where they are being made.

There are many such stories but I would like to start with a statement that whatever one makes, the final test is the market place. If it sells, it’s a success because it brings money to the maker.

As one goes around the fifty stalls at the Uttara Poorav Utsav North-East craft festival in Dilli Haat (28 Jan-8 Feb, 2009) one realizes that there are two distinct characteristics of the displayed merchandise – the revival of traditional designs – like in Assam and the attempt at contemporizing the existing items without deviating from traditional skills.

I would like to take up here the case of the second category which can find a market for the bulk of consumers – creation of contemporary life style items inspired by and with the use of traditional skills. This includes garments, cushion covers, mats, basket trays and file folders, jewellery, wooden bowls and cutlery among others.

We are therefore trying to focus on items that can compete in the market – have a good finish and an aesthetic design. They have to be a good quality, have a utility value and yet be able to fetch a price that makes them worth the while for a craftsperson.

The market has three important components, design, quality and price – each enhances the other. The fact that sales are not good enough to provide continuous year round orders, points towards the problems.

Difficulty in procurement of raw material specially yarn which is particularly unique to the North East. By and large, weavers buy yarn from the ‘Marwari’ and beads from the ‘Bhutia’. Cost is reduced by using acrylic and synthetic yarns. The weaver is not concerned where the yarn comes from. At the North-East Festival a start has been made by setting up stalls of yarn providers and the subsequent interaction on quality and price has led to the opening of new avenues.

Price is a very important factor in finding a market. In an effort to reduce prices, the quality of raw-material is being compromised and the wages of weavers being reduced which eventually is reflected in the quality and finish going down.

Situation on the ground points towards non-contextualized assistance, indifferent Govt. schemes, badly conceptualized with no follow up and monitoring of implementation, middlemen exploitation at acquisition of raw material level, poor design assistance, not cognizant of changing market dynamics.

Schemes well intended but jobs half done, require just one little step forward to make them more efficient. Here are some suggestions:

Hundreds of design schemes every year have not created even a stir, leave alone a revolution because they are not linked to the market.

  • Hold the designer accountable and responsible to the market place by creating a design which has an acceptable quality and a reasonable price. Involve state and Govt. emporia and crafts councils and NGO shops in retailing assistance.

  • Raw material banks, CFCs should neither be commercial nor merely Govt. departments. They are intended to be service providers and that’s what they should be. Quantities should not be limited to bales, bundles or quintals but to smallest individual requirement of a craftsperson or weaver.

  • In the North-East where distances and transportation are an impediment, self help groups can play an important role in accessing schemes available to craftsperson’s and weavers. They can form mini depots for raw material and send out combined cargos to common destinations, thus reducing the cost per item.

  • Encourage NGOs to tackle problems like raw material banks, loans, freight, marketing and design assistance. This may be a center or state subject but most importantly, it’s a subject that concerns every day life and existence of the craftspersons.

  • Monitor all schemes. They may be wonderful on paper but most difficult to implement. All schemes should be such that impact can be measured in terms of markets, life styles and status of craftspersons.

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