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The Thick End of the Wedge: Skill Building to Support Livelihoods

Ranjan, M P is the Head, NID Centre for Bamboo Initiatives as well as a Designer and Faculty member at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. At NID, he has been responsible for the creation and conduct of numerous courses dealing with Design Methodology, Product and Furniture Design and Digital Design. He has conducted research in many areas of Design Pedagogy, Industrial and Craft Design and on the role of design in various sectors of the Indian economy. Besides publishing several papers on design and craft he has edited numerous volumes of NID publications and a major book titled “Bamboo and Cane Crafts of Northeast India” (1986) and a CD-ROM titled “Bamboo Boards and Beyond” (2001) which contains papers and reports on bamboo and on design. Involved with the creation of the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design at Jaipur, he acted as its Director in the formative stages. He helped redefine the Bamboo & Cane Development Institute, Agartala and set up the programmes to establish the new format. He has recently co-edited a major publication “Handmade in India” He is an advisor to many State and Central Government Ministries in formulating strategies for the future use of bamboo and design.

April 2010, Craft Revival Trust
Crafts are a great source of employment in our villages and towns. However this potential should not get translated into mere wage labour but into value added employment that is both dignified and rewarding. The new craftsman would need to be both informed and competent to handle change and for this we would need to look at the processes and opportunities that are available for the education of the craftsman. The word education too will need to be redefined and we will return to this at an appropriate stage.

The existing traditional handicrafts sector has massive resources of fine skills and technical know-how and are still active in various parts around the country in the form of the traditional wisdom still embedded in the fabric of our culture. But not for long! The handicrafts sector is an enormous source of employment, particularly self-employment, for a vast numbers of people and it represents an opportunity that cannot be ignored. In many areas, production of handicrafts is the sole sources of income for the communities for whom it is the main source of sustenance. However with globalisation much of this is in rapid change due to internal and external pressures. We need to look at innovative means of enhancing the abilities of local producers to generate wealth by the use of their skills and their intellect which would need to be appropriately trained to achieve such ends.

In India we have invested heavily in science and technology infrastructure while ignoring design over the years and for the crafts sector too we will need to correct this imbalance if we are to move ahead. Further, the orientation of human resources through our educational institutions have been industry focused while crafts have been more or less relegated to self sustaining role with the exception of the very limited funding through the offices of the DC(Handicrafts), Government of India. This situation has continued unchanged due to the lack of a coherent plea from this decentralized sector and also based on some unsubstantiated fears of many promoters and by romantic notions that innovation in the crafts would destroy traditional values embedded therin. This is far form the truth and needs to be corrected forthwith. The crafts sector must make political demands on the access to and the use of the existing infrastructure of our national and regional institutions as well as seek to establish new initiatives that are focused exclusively on the needs of the crafts sector. The quality of these institutions and their facilities must not be in any way inferior to the standards set in the Institutions of higher learning across the country and there is a pressing need to encourage craft related and crafts mediated education at many levels in India. India is perhaps the only country in the world that has such an active craft tradition and therefore we need to develop our own models and not find ready made solutions form oversees. We will need to find the money for this transformation and the business potential of the alone is good reason for this and the other triggers are the hope for sustainable employment and decentralized development across the length and breadth of India as against the explosive development of the metros alone

Besides the hereditary craftsmen and their children, we need to look at a much broader catchments of human resources that can be mobilized to revitalize the whole crafts movement in India and in the process help build a competent and creative India of the future. This broadening of the base would help dilute the stranglehold that exists in the perceptions about crafts being a lowly activity and address the decay that is evident in the caste politics that is still in vogue today. Much of our youth and the students of the modern education systems miss the critical values of crafts that were imparted in the traditional societies in India in the past in our villages. Today the so-called modern education has reached our villages too without any re-appraisal of the relevance of the inputs and the content and capability that they impart to our young learners. This kind of education is frightening and the course must be set right to enable our current craftsmen and the potential young craftsperson’s from being decapacitated by the spread of modern education with its limited focus on language and numeracy. One effective way to offset this trend is to introduce design and crafts related activities into all educational processes in order to bring a creative reappraisal of the role of hand skills in our lives.

The crafts sector by its very nature is heterogeneous, both from the point of view of the material and technological processes used in each of the crafts as well as in the situations in which the craft communities work in different regions of each state or the country. This implies that individuals working in this sector would necessarily have to be flexible and broad-based in their approach and be able to understand the large variety of technologies and have the competence to work in a generalist capacity. A flexible regional focus could give us both variety and relevance to local context in bringing the new crafts capabilities to our young learners as an integral part of their broader learning to cope with the new age ahead. This can and must be done near their homes and these must be rooted in the local needs to be relevant.

I have been involved in the setting up of two significant new Institutions that are focused on the creation of trained human resources and strategies for the Crafts Sector in India. These are the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design, Jaipur and the Bamboo and Cane Development Institute, Agartala. Both are informed by the vast body of work carried out at the National Institute of Design over the past forty years in our attempts to understand the role of crafts in the Indian context as a major resource for both design education and for the economic and social development of India as a whole. During the various deliberations that led up to the establishment of these new initiatives a number of insights emerged on the role of the crafts in India and the need for expanding the involvement of new players in the strengthening of the sector and expanding it in many new directions through design and strategic interventions. Some of these concepts were captured and formed the basis of our strategic initiatives for new education of designers and craftsperson’s to meet the challenges ahead.

For the continuing education of our master craftsmen we need to establish channels and institutional frameworks that could give them an ability to cope with the changed circumstances. We should be able to look at a variety of models to cope with the huge variety of regional and material differences that need to be managed. The University system can be leveraged to bring design and other critical conceptual skills to the crafts community through special programmes offered to local crafts people during the summer and winter breaks that may be a slack season for the establishments themselves. Such an effort to bring innovation and creativity to the heart of the proposed educational process within the crafts sector will empower the new craftsman to take on entrepreneurial roles with limited capital and open the potential for an innovation driver economy which I would call “the thick end of the wedge”. When innovation is used in the high-tech labs and in sophisticated industrial sectors it is referred to as the “leading edge” or the “cutting edge”, and the focus is on the tip of the tool. Here we need to mobilize a large number of persons in rural and urban India and the focus on skills and innovation will help build a creative society that is able to respond to new challenges and our effort should be to push these candidates up the value chain through programmes designed to meet their educational needs.

Paper for presentation at “Education for a Sustainable Future (18-20 January 2005) Workshop on Education for Sustainable Livelihoods” at Centre for Environmental Education (CEE), Ahmedabad.



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