Should India's traditional handcrafters occupy an elevated space in people's minds or should they remain on the pavements, bazaars, haats, and perhaps marginally in malls, to be looked at as poor street cousins of India's other cultural practitioners? Sixty years after three important Akademis were set up to promote cultural arts that come under the heading of dance, music, drama, literature and the fine arts, it may be time to take note of the huge reservoir of cultural heritage passing from generation to generation through the hands of craftspeople towards establishing a body that nurtures this heritage and builds respect beyond 'marketing products' or subsidizing 'welfare'. A Hast Kala Akademi could be created as a more compact, private-public autonomous institution promoting all non-commercial aspects of the craft sector while indirectly benefiting its economic prospects as well
At a time when 'inclusiveness' is a strong component of public policy, crafts practitioners ought to be counted as repositories and propagators of India's folk and classical wisdoms, creativity, techniques, skills, and mythologies. Almost 94% of artisans and crafts people belong to the backward classes, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, minorities and women. They are not among those upwardly mobile classes who take to Western culture more easily through television and social network sites. They remember their cultural histories and imbibe them in their daily lives.
Craftspeople belong overwhelmingly to those social categories for which reservation is sought as a tool for empowerment in legislatures, educational institutions, and public and private work places. Alongside, there are additional ways to offer them dignity and respect across the world apart from quotas and reservations. We can raise the stature and self- worth of these very people by providing institutions and platforms that go beyond a noblesse oblige style of patronage and a handful of departmental schemes that merely assist them in producing and selling better products in India and abroad. When the window through which we look at them is small, they will remain diminished when compared to other sections of society within the creative community. When they look helpless and unworthy of respect within our social and cultural parameters, they have to suffer customers who are happy to buy a foreign branded lipstick worth Rs 900 in a mall without a murmur but who bargain with them to reduce the price of a Rs 200 hand woven or hand-embroidered stole at Dilli Haat. Money is important, but money without dignity and respect leaves the soul impoverished.
In the past two months, working groups and sub-groups on handicrafts and handlooms have spent many hours examining existing schemes in the Ministry of Textiles, and proposing new ones for the development of crafts towards the 12th Five Year Plan. The focus has been on exports in the 11th Plan, with the Planning Commission having cut down a number of schemes to make corporate style assessment procedures easier for bureaucracy. Unfortunately, exports have been hit by recession abroad. New policies have now to be devised to include the burgeoning domestic market that has many foreign products on offer in competition. The decentralized, unorganized sector, in which a single family or a few dozen people may be carrying on a fascinating and rare tradition of crafts work, do not fit into a catch-all approach of cluster development and large and rigid outlays for administrative convenience. This time, a wider consultative approach brought in many experienced activists, state organizations and thinking heads to contribute ideas for this sector: advocacy, marketing, design, promotion, entrepreneurship, brand building, education, health, and so on were all examined from the prism of existing schemes and suggestions invited for their improvement. However a cursory glance of all the subjects shows that they actually come under two overall heads - marketing and welfare. The end result of the exercise, while useful and positive, was still an exercise in tinkering with the existing situation rather than thinking bold and big.
Since Independence, government agencies handling craftspeople and their work have been divided between the Khadi/Gramodyog department and various ministries such as Industry, Rural Development and the Ministry of Textiles. Sometimes programmes are duplicated, some slip between the floorboards altogether or, crafts interests are crushed under the weight of bigger interests within the same ministry. These divisions have left crafts floundering in the cultural field since no ministry deals with cultural aspects other than the Ministry of Culture. A composite appreciation of the cultural world from which crafts emerge and a forum for their sustenance and propagation cannot come if crafts are considered merely a cottage industry, manufacturing merchandise that need subsidies. They may need them in the short run, but unless they have a far greater worth, they will always remain the poor cousin asking for handouts. The Development Commissioners of Handicrafts and Handlooms within the Ministry of Textiles are responsible as department heads to manage schemes that hardly touch upon issues of culture even while they perform important development-related functions.
Although marketing is crucial for craftspeople, since their interests are mainly economic, a large number of them are proud and conscious of their cultural heritage. They demonstrate a fine knowledge of the cultural ethos of the region to which they belong. This involves history, ethnography, myth, legend, identities and meanings, which are in many cases on the fingertips of senior craftspeople as they have been inspired for generations from these wellsprings. Women and tribal groups among the more marginalized, still live with strong cultural moorings even if they cannot express it articulately in 'educated' ways. For instance, they will explain rituals and practices of their community at weddings and festivals, and link them to objects they make by hand for relevance and meaning. These important areas of cultural knowledge within the creative sector would be lost if we address only their economic concerns. Even buyers of handicrafts abroad these days ask for a 'story' to add value to the product they buy here and wish to sell in their highly industrialized societies where cultural identities are issues largely concerning immigrant communities.
When Incredible India is largely the selling of India's landscape and culture, crafts cultures should not be relegated to mere crafts demonstrations or small bazaars where artisans are asked to wear their traditional dress. Most officials organizing these programmes do not have an intimate knowledge of their cultural background. What if we lose the stories that crafts cultures bring, particularly when the process of adding value can be precisely a cultural story apart from better design, packaging or branding? 'Packaging' a product can be in the form of storytelling but it is rare to find a wholesaler or retailer bothering when he has tight deadlines and profits on which to focus.
The Hast Kala Akademi could support many exciting activities like a) resurrecting dying crafts, b) encouraging skills that could come under UNESCO's list of intangible heritage, c) encouraging research into processes, skills and traditional technologies, d) commissioning studies linking objects to rituals, myths, legends and ceremonies, e) commissioning academic and informative publications to include documentation of rare crafts, f) commissioning documentaries of craftspeople in their own cultural habitat and, g) organizing high quality exhibitions abroad in places like the Asia Society or the Smithsonian in the USA, or Museums of Folk Art and Ethnology around the world, bringing out the relationship between India's crafts and its performing arts and literature. There are endless creative possibilities that will energize this sector.
While the Lalit Kala Akademi has 4200 books published with its support, there would be hardly half a dozen supported by the State for the crafts sector. Dependence rests on private publishers who prefer 'coffee table' publications. Cultural projects have lost their earlier support ever since markets and exports were given priority.
While we see that it is important to compile India's major cultural heritage and creativity related to arts, there is no august body of the kind set up for crafts. This is despite the fact that this area comprises a wider range of creativity emerging from our traditional cultures than those `fine arts' promoted under the Lalit Kala Akademi. It should be possible for the Government of India to set up a body constituted on the same - or even slightly altered lines - as the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Sahitya Akademi and Lalit Kala Akademi to bring crafts onto a higher platform. If there were a Hast Kala Akademi it would add just that missing component that leaves crafts behind in national and international minds.
Before going further it may be useful to take a glance at the existing bodies.The Sahitya Akademi has a very interesting history. The thought process of the erudite Maulana Azad is worth recounting verbatim from its website:
"The proposal to establish a National Academy of Letters in India had been under the consideration of the British Government of the country long before independence. In 1944, the Government of India accepted in principle a proposal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal that a National Cultural trust should be set up to encourage cultural activities in all fields. The trust was to consist of three Academies, including the Academy of letters. After freedom, the proposal was pursued by the Government of India, which convened a series of conferences to work out the details. Consensus emerged in favour of establishing three National Academies one of Letters, another of visual arts and the third of Dance, Drama and Music. But deference of opinion persisted whether the Government should take the initiative and establish the academies or whether it should wait for the advent of individuals who had the necessary moral authority to establish the academies. Abul Kalam Azad, the Union Minister of Education, was of the opinion that "if we had waited for the Academy to grow up from below, we might have had to wait till the Greek Kalends."
The Lalit Kala Akademi or National Academy of Arts was established at New Delhi in 1954 by the Government of India to promote and propagate understanding of Indian art, both within and outside the country. It does so through providing scholarships, a fellow program, and sponsoring and organizing numerous exhibitions in India and overseas. It is funded by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, and is also an autonomous organization. The Lalit Kala Akademi Fellowship, also Lalit Kala Akademi Ratna (Sanskrit ratna, "gem") is an honour for the fine arts in India, given to eminent artists for their lifetime achievements in the field of visual arts. The first elected fellow, in 1955, was the artist Jamini Roy.
At the inauguration of the Sangeet Natak Akademi on 28 January 1953, Maulana Azad said, "India's precious heritage of music, drama and dance is one which we must cherish and develop. We must do so not only for our own sake but also as our contribution to the cultural heritage of mankind. Nowhere is it truer than in the field of art that to sustain means to create. Traditions cannot be preserved but can only be created afresh. It will be the aim of this Akademi to preserve our traditions by offering them an institutional form...". The Akademi honours all who have contributed in their fields.
The nation gives many awards that are officially listed, from international ones like the Gandhi Peace Prize to national ones like the Padma awards. There are civilian awards in the field of science, the arts and sports, apart from war and peacetime awards for the military. The official list of awards does not even mention the national crafts persons' awards perhaps because, in handicrafts and handlooms, the national award is only for a particular piece of work submitted by a craftsperson and not for lifetime achievement. Unfortunately, over the years the process of selection has been spoiled. On one occasion, two different people submitted the same piece of textile in two consecutive years and both received an award! Many who do not practice a skill have taken the product of an unknowing craftsperson and submitted it as their own. Crafts persons report lobbying and bribing (even such exercises of their own!), whereas a meticulous process of scrutiny by a prestigious Akademi would improve the present situation which scrapes away the dignity of the person and the work.
There are no awards for lifetime achievements for consistent high quality or regular innovation, or awards for dedicated individuals who worked hard to propagate processes in natural dyes like a Toofan Rafai of Gujarat or a K. Chandramouli of Karnataka, even though they were not crafts persons themselves. Scholars of crafts traditions have written excellent books but only when rare publishers have taken the initiative. Others have dedicated their lives to ensuring that crafts skills in India do not die as they have elsewhere in the world. The lack of recognition or reward for their work de-motivates the younger generation who then concentrate on monetary benefits alone.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was the de facto patron-in-chief of all creative cultural activity at the time when other Akademis were set up. It is curious that she did not press for the creation of one to serve crafts despite her being a close colleague of many leaders on the post Independence stage.
However, by now establishing a Hast Kala Akademi for India's craft traditions to raise their stature and bring them on par with other cultural fields, we could make up for lost opportunities. If the Ministry of Textiles and the Planning Commission, apart from all those concerned with the development and dignity of handwork, saw this to fruition it would be a major contribution to the 12th Five Year Plan and a fresh way of honouring crafts persons.
First published in "The Hindu" on October 1, 2011