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It's Complicated

Sethi, Ritu, Chairperson, Craft Revival Trust

April - May 2012, Craft Revival Trust

In the India of today there seems to be a self congratulatory mood of confidence. Yet, on the other side of the same coin, we have the constant disquieting reminder, that doesn’t quite make headline news, of the 92%, who struggle every single day for their livelihood, this has been highlighted in Dr Arjun Senguptas seminal report on the “unorganized” sector.

Given the hugh transformational changes in the country, why is the craft sector, that forms part of the 92%, assigned to this slip stream.

This paper presents for discussion some thoughts, though which very nascent in formulation, I would like to posit, for which I would request the reader in advance for their patience and lenience.

I will be highlighting 5 issues, out of the many confronting the sector; and at the end present a tentative road map for discussion.

The first issue concerns government policy and reform
In the past few decades, policy initiatives for the craft sector have mainly tinkered with existing schemes and programs, and minor percentage increases in budgets. Within government, with a few exceptions, the commonly held bureaucratic and political view, holds sway, wherein the handloom, handicrafts, khadi and village industries sector are viewed as an anachronism, a recipient for sops and subsidies and a drain on the exchequer - a ‘sunset industry’.

The risks of this tinkering and adjusting is already apparent with the declining numbers of those engaged in the sector. Skilled craftsperson’s mainly from rural areas, in the productive age of 18 to 32, migrating in large numbers to unskilled jobs in cities. The 2011 NCAER handloom Census highlights the steep decline in employment from the previous census by over 20%. For the handicrafts, complete figures are unfortunately, not available, though preliminary information obtained reflect this trend.

This migratory escalation, swelling an already burdened urban infrastructure unable to provide jobs and opportunities are only some of the apocalyptic visions of continuing policy neglect.

Additionally, another vital obstruct to growth and regeneration, is the trifurcation of the hand-skills that have fissured this Sector into Handlooms, the Khadi and Village industries and Handicrafts. Created in the 1950’s these administrative structures, have remained unchanged to date, and are inappropriate and counterproductive in this post-liberalization period. This fractured approach has been a deterrent to effective policy formulation and service delivery, resulting in duplication of activities, and frittering away of opportunities.

The second issue, which I am going to put in short hand is regarding the two sides of the coin, Bangalore for example, and what it has come to stand for in emerging India, versus the 92%. The growing inequalities, between the two sides, the real deep-set, increasing differences between their realities, which if not tackled will only multiply and proliferate in the years to come, widening and spawning further divides.

The third issue is regarding the traditional knowledge systems of the technologies of craft, the ritual and folklore, handed down through oral instruction and rigorous on-the job training, within and across generations. The continuing juxtaposition of oral knowledge transmission with the demands of a changing mode of life have led to erosion and loss.

With an educational system de-linked from traditional knowledge systems this sector has experienced a systematic dwindling of its skills and accomplishments and a devaluation of the learning, that constituted the repositories of the craft knowledge systems.

Compounding the crisis is the lack of interest in the younger generation of craft families in continuing in craft practice due to perceived prejudices and inequalities of status. The underlying belief that information garnered from text books is superior to received oral knowledge has added to the problem.

These post-liberalisation years have made alternative career options more attractive. With new influences and technologies, and increasingly rapid social transformations, the familial system of apprenticeship faces cracks and fissures without a suitable replacement in place.

The forth issue is the additional challenge faced by crafts people in the ubiquitous availability of replicated and fake craft products that are marketed in India and across the globe under the name of the craft or weaving cluster. From factory printed Bandhini, to the rubber reproductions of the Kolahpuri chappals, the textiles and T-shirts printed with Madhubani and Warli motifs, the iconic block prints of Bagh, Bagru, Sanganer, and other centers available in cheap screen printed copies to the hand woven brocades of Banaras now replicated on the power loom, are only a few such examples. This easy availability of fakes and ‘borrowings’ has hit craftspeople hard by depriving them of the economic benefits of their traditional community knowledge and by also increasing their helplessness in their ability to hit back.

In the marketing world, practitioners and students are well aware of the moral issues and laws governing copying and infringements, using all means to protect their ideas, alert to their moral rights, economic benefits and future business potential. However, the same level of rigor does not seem to apply to traditional craft communities. Charges of cheating and infringement are not infrequent, amidst all this babble of newsprint and televised footage, there is a marked absence of any mention of copying associated with the many hundreds of indigenous crafts and textiles that exist in this country.

Is this deafening silence because there is no copying of these hallowed traditions? Or is it because there is a widely accepted view that copying from traditional craftsperson’s and weavers is acceptable, and, in fact, even given tacit approval?

The fifth issue is regarding the seemingly simple matter of semantics, reflected in the nomenclature used for the sector. This has resulted in two observable facts.

The first is regarding the all encompassing term Craft. This term includes utility products and sacred objects, articles for ritual use to the ephemeral festive crafts. From the simplest technologies to the technically sophisticated to those based on the iconography and iconometry as laid out in the shilpshastras. The immense diversity of form, treatments, materials, processes, forms and patterns, their complexities and contrasts, social and cultural underpinnings, the geographies and histories all jumbled into one. This staggering variety with its numerous dimensions, hugh numbers and vast canvas treated as a homogenized whole, whether it be for policy setting or reform.

There just has to be a better way to do it!

The second matter of semantics, is that the craft sector has been dogged by a terminology, which presents it through terms such as unorganized, informal, traditional implying out of synch, ‘sunset’. These catch phrases present a defeatist view of the sector, as backward, requiring of sops and subsidies, unable to hold its own, a failure of perhaps of its recognition. This jargon boxes the sector, leads to implicit biases, unrecognized as an equal in the imaging and shaping of modern India. A perception of backwardness that dodges it at every corner

To meet the challenges ahead any developmental initiative while seeking meaningful formats to work in will have to grapple with these baseline issues. It is hardly surprising that there are any number of debates around the appropriate path to inclusiveness, development, equity and sustainability. The need of the hour is a paradigm shift in thinking to ensure that the Sector is drawn into the mainstream of growth, positioned for renewal and rejuvenation.

I would like to present here very briefly a few ideas, Which are up for discussion -

The first one, has already been mooted by several eminent persons and I only reiterate it here is the need for the formation of a dedicated, unified administrative set-up that converges Handlooms, Handicrafts, Khadi and Village Industries. A recognition that the cross-connected dimensions of the hand skill sector need an integrated, holistic approach, with focused attention to address their potential for sustainable development and inclusive mainstream growth. A coming together that harnessing the huge potential of this integrated sector, sustaining employment in rural India within the cultural continuum.

BRIDGING THE GAP between the two sides of the coin.

Complicated as it is, it needs to be tackled, as both sides are representative of our current realities.

Economic growth and development is important, but it cannot alone provide the rationale, we also need to decide what we stand for, culturally, socially and in terms of inclusiveness.

We need to make the effort to develop customized systems based on the architecture that has sustained rural India and the crafts.

Systems that are suitable and reflective of our distinct identity and the systems that have govern it., A mainstreaming, that provides contexts to this complexity, keeping the diversity alive, yet creating economic, social and cultural, transformation. –this then will have direct impact on how we will develop our 92%. This is our test.

Education
Regarding the issue the quickening loss of traditional oral knowledge, its seeping away, I present for discussion the need to introduce a system whereby oral traditional knowledge systems of craft practice be streamed into mainstream education, where it can be taught in educational institutes for the betterment of students and the furtherance of indigenous knowledge. Urgent thought needs to be given to alternative formats for learning and training as we face the future.

Currently located outside the ambit of conventional notions of what constitutes mainstream education – this disassociation has been inimical to all. The question arises as to where does one go from this point to a future where this knowledge domain be brought equitably into the mainstream, creating an even handedness between the repositories of Knowledge and the mainstream

Regarding Faking and copying.
The enactment of Geographical Indication Act is aimed at identifying good as originating from a particular place, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristics of the good become essentially attributable to its geographical origin.

However it is still a new system, yet untested as to in what manner it will benefit the craftspeople and protects their economic and cultural rights as the system is meant to certify the ‘place’ of origin of a product and not necessarily to recognize the specific group of ‘people’ who make it. However, we are fortunate that it is available and we therefore need to develop a strong post-registration follow-up mechanism to effectively link GI recognition and the well-being of craft communities.

We need A CHANGE of TERMINOLOGY. Fortunately, as we are all aware, terminologies are not fixed or unchallengeable, they are variable and changeable, and in this case Its time to substitute the loaded words, - perhaps, to make it more contemporary, inclusive, not be ensnared or clichéd any more. To be instead recoginised as a contributor to national income, rural employment and for its great cultural significance.

And last, but most important. We have a hugh constituency perhaps it is time for us in civil society to work towards forming a CII, like the Confederation of Indian Industry, a CII for the crafts. An inclusive force that works as a advocacy forum; a swift response mechanism, a standard setter that pushes through policy reforms.

Summary of presentation delivered at the India International Seminar titled ‘Unorganised’ held on 14th April, 2012 to commemorate Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay



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