The Spirit of Craft

Uzramma, a practicing goldsmith, has been instrumental in promoting Andhra crafts, particularly Kondapally painted wooden figures, Nirmal painted wood, Etikoppakka lacquered wood and Kalahasti Kalamkari (hand-painted temple cloths). She is one of the founding trustees of the Dastkar Andhra Trust, dedicated to the support of the cotton handloom industry of India, and of the Decentralized Cotton Yarn Trust, which promotes small-scale cotton yarn production for handweaving and is currently involved in a research project to develop small-scale pre-spinning processes.

Convocation Address delivered at Indian Institute of Craft and Design, Jaipur. Febuary 2014.

Shri Suresh Neotia, Chairman, Indian Institute of Craft & Design, distinguished Governing Council members, Dr Satish Bhardwaj, Director, distinguished guests, faculty members, and graduating students:

I am deeply honoured to be invited to deliver the convocation address today at this unique institution which serves the vast and vibrant craft culture of contemporary India.

It is a country’s craft that gives that country a great part of its unique identity. Craftspersons express the spirit of a people through the work of their hands: the spirit of India is evident in our craft, as is the spirit of Africa in theirs, and of all great civilizations in their own. Craft must remain true to that spirit, while retaining its relevance to contemporary life. And at the present moment in history when people are realizing how damaging the industrial mode of production is to the environment , how disruptive it is to society, there is a tremendous opportunity for craft production to regain its importance in the economic life of this country.

You, graduating students, have been fortunate enough to spend years here at this Institute learning about different aspects of artisan work. You have perhaps realized that craft communities must make difficult choices in today’s world, choices that will maintain the essential character, the core identity of the craft, while adapting its use to the changed circumstances of modern living. You have gained an education that qualifies you to be resource persons for the artisan industries of India. I hope that this learning will enable you not only to be a vital support for the crafts of this country, but also to find a deep satisfaction for yourselves in the world of Indian craft.

As I look at your bright young faces I have high hopes of this graduating class, because in the way the world is moving, as the problems of the industrial mode of production – the pollution that it creates, the high cost of the electricity that it needs – become more and more obvious, opportunities in the world of craft are opening up, and the time is now right for resource persons in the world of craft to make the artisan mode of production a major part of the economy of India.

The theme of my address to you today is this: how by doing that, by expanding the role of craft in this country, we can make the Indian samaaj itself more equitable, more democratic and more inclusive. And I want to share with you my own experience in the world of craft, and my insights into the fundamental principles of the practice of craft.

I was not born into an artisan family, but became a craftsperson from the age of 35 by learning the craft of goldsmithing, working with gold and silver. For the first time in my life I learnt how to do skilled work with my hands, using real materials, and as I learnt to do that, my way of thinking also changed. And I started to think about how the practice of craft changes the way the brain works. I realized that getting your fingers on real materials – clay, wood, metal, stone, cotton, silk, lac, grass, palm leaves, leather, and using simple tools on these materials, using the hand, the eye and the brain in co-ordination gives the artisan a connection to the real world which you cannot get through books or computers. And I want to tell you that what you have learnt here, at this institute, is what I understood only later in life, of knowing the importance of the artisan way of thinking.

The practice of craft is important in society for many reasons. There is the obvious reason that craft produces goods and provides livelihoods without disturbance to nature and without disrupting families and communities. If village based craft production were to thrive today people would not need to migrate from their villages to live in unhealthy conditions in city slums or industrial ghettos. Weavers from Kurnool district in Andhra now live in the slums of Bombay. The man in one family drinks and does no work, the wife works as a domestic servant. They have lost their weaving skills. As for the market, customers are getting tired and bored with the sameness of mass-produced goods, and are appreciating more and more the individuality and diversity of craft objects. These are the reasons that craft production is being increasingly valued today, and that it is now possible for young people like you to make careers in the world of craft. I hope that you will also showcase craft on your bodies and in your homes.

But what is perhaps less understood is the importance not only of craft production itself as a way of making things, but of the practical and problem-solving ways of thinking that the practice of craft encourages. You have all heard the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. The emperor is duped by fraudsters into thinking that he is wearing the finest clothes, when actually he is entirely naked. The emperor is paraded through the town with no clothes and no-one says anything. It is a child who says ‘but the emperor has no clothes’! I’m sure that child was an artisan’s child. I’m sure that child was able to see and express reality because her young mind had the hands-on intellect of the artisan. I’m sure her mind was conditioned to reflect reality by learning to use simple hand tools on real materials, to create real objects. This artisan way of thinking that is able to grasp and reflect reality is what is needed to solve not only the technical problems of the actual use of tools, but also social problems and social issues, and in this I feel you have a role to play.

And now I want to share with you my own journey in the world of craft textiles, the world that we call ‘handloom’. I hope that my story of 23 years in this world, beginning perhaps when most of you were not even born! will be of value to you as you start your own careers. I hope you will be able to learn from all the mistakes that I and my colleagues made, so that you make new mistakes, not the same ones.. After telling you this story I will tell you what I wish someone had told me when I was starting my work.

My involvement in cotton handlooms began in middle age after I myself had become an artisan. I had my own tools and workbench and was designing and making jewellery in silver and gold with my own hands... and it was making me very very happy... But I left my beloved workbench to work in the field of handloom cotton textiles for 3 reasons:

  • The first reason was that I knew that in this sub-continent which was known as India, and which is now the 3 countries of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, cotton textile making had been the primary industry of for around 5000 years, and that this region had been the biggest exporter in the world of cotton textiles for at least 2000. China has been the world leader in ceramics, the Middle East in metal work, and India in cotton textiles. I knew that India had become a rich country by exporting cotton cloth since the 1st century after the birth of Jesus Christ, exporting the work of our hands, not our natural resources, and that the handloom industry was then, and still is, almost the largest employer in the country after agriculture. Today it is migrant labour, out of the country, or out of the village, that brings in foreign exchange or produces the country’s wealth.

  • The second reason why I wanted to be involved in the cotton handloom industry was the example of Mahatma Gandhi. He had made a social and political tool out of the spinning and weaving of simple, ordinary cotton cloth.

  • And the 3rd reason was just that I loved handloom cotton cloth. I loved the touch and feel of it, its softness and comfort. It was what I and others of my generation and all the generations before me had worn literally since we were born. It is a custom in my community that a baby coming out of its mother’s womb is wrapped in old, used, soft handloom cotton cloth.

So there I was in middle age, beginning to learn about the making and selling of cotton handloom cloth, with some fresh graduates like yourselves. These fresh graduates who were my early colleagues were not graduates in craft & design like you but in engineering. They could have taken up highly paid jobs, as some of you will do, because like you they had graduated from highly reputable institutions. But instead of that they chose to work for a pittance to support hand-made cotton textiles. They did this because they felt that their work in the world of craft would lead to a better life not only for themselves, but for the whole Indian samaaj. They felt that living a purposeful life would be more satisfying than trying to become rich and famous.

Together they and I began to work with a small group of weavers in Chinnur, in Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh. Our original idea was to link locally made cloth to the local market. We thought that this could happen in about two years. But we made two critical mistakes. The first was that we did not understand that trying to make local production for a local market in one small tiny location in a short time of two years, when the whole world was going the other way was like giving a baby a Rubik cube to solve. It meant that we were going against the world-wide trend of ‘globalization’. Don’t misunderstand, I still feel local production for a local market is the best way to market craft, our mistake was in thinking it would be easy to achieve. Why do I think local production for a local market is important? I will tell you:

You know well that marketing is a very very critical issue for craft production. The more distant the market is from the producer, the more chance there is of alienation and misunderstanding between the maker and the user. I’m reminded of the story of the tribal craft group who were asked to make ‘tea cosies’. They had no idea that English people make tea in a china tea pot, and need a cover called a tea cosy to keep it hot. They thought the tea cosies were some kind of hat and were trying them on to see how they looked worn on their heads. This was before the days of the internet. One of the great things the internet has done is to bring the craftsperson and the customer closer together, to allow them to know each other. But still there is nothing better than for local things to be made for local use, for the maker and user to know each other personally. Of course, I understand that local production for local use is a distant dream, and I am very grateful that the internet provides great marketing opportunities for craft production. But we must not lose sight of the distant dream, which is the importance of craft production in bringing people together, the maker of craft and the user, and so reducing as much as we can the alienation of person from person in modern day society. It is for this reason that I feel that local markets for locally made things are best.

The internet cannot replace that personal relation, which is built through looking at each other face to face. A face-to-face transaction is not primarily a monetary exchange, it is a communication that establishes a relationship. One of the weavers from the group that we started work with was given a whole year’s supply of chillies by a local farmer in exchange for a dhoti that he wove for the farmer. And a local Ojha craftsman in Adilabad was given a cow in exchange for a small cast brass votive lamp that he made for his Gond customer. Such exchanges are not based on a calculation of money-value of the goods that change hands. They are more than financial transactions: they are the glue that binds a society together. Just as I feel that artisan thinking is important to society because it connects one to the real world, similarly I feel that for makers and users of craft to know each other personally helps to make a well-knit, friendly society.

The second mistake we made in working with the handloom weavers of Chinnur was technological. We were new to handloom weaving and did not know the difference between frame looms and pit looms. Actually we didn’t have an option: The project we took up was a government funded project, and so the looms that we used had to be the frame looms supplied by the government, unlike the local looms which were pit looms. Frame looms make a large quantity of one kind of cloth at a time, because each warp is 200 metres long, while pit looms can change frequently from dhoties to turbans to sarees, making a few of each. So on the frame looms we got 100 lungis but no towels and no turban cloths. The village people would come to the weavers’ doors and ask for these things, but the weavers would have to say sorry, it can only be after 6 weeks, after this warp is finished, so the person would go off to the market and buy a mill made cloth. We realized that frame looms, which were supposed to be a technical advance over pit looms because of higher productivity, did not suit the needs of the local market, which wants a variety of products in smaller quantities.

And another thing: all the accessories of the pit loom were made by local craftspersons out of local, easily available natural materials. The hand weaver needs many other craftspeople. He or she needs the services of carpenters to make the loom, then other specialists to make the sizing brush, reed-makers to make the reed, people to dye and wash the yarn and cloth, and so on. So a web of relationships among different communities is created through craft. The reeds for the traditional pitlooms of the Chinnur weavers used to be made out of bamboo by Muslim reed-makers in a nearby town. But our frame looms broke this connection: they used steel reeds made in distant factories. Sizing brushes for pit looms in Chinnur were made by a tribal community from the roots of the grass that is used for jharoos; only they can make this important tool to spread starch evenly on the cotton threads to stiffen them for mounting on the loom. For frame looms the yarn is sized in a mechanical sizing machine, so we did not need the services of the Kunche Erukula, the tribal sizing-brush makers.

Because we were new to handweaving we did not realize these things when we began work in Chinnur. Our weaver friends began weaving and the cloth started coming off the frame looms in great quantities at great speed. We realized then that trying to sell in the local market, as it is today, would not work. We began to look at urban markets for the cloth, while keeping alive the dream that some day the weavers of Chinnur would again clothe the people of Chinnur, and make bedcoverings and towels and dhotis for them. So we wanted to keep the weaving simple, so that at a later time it could still serve the local market, we did not want to introduce complicated weaving designs which would make the cloth too expensive; we decided that the plain cloth woven here would remain plain. But sophisticated urban markets did not want the plain cloth of Chinnur. We decided to make a unique product by introducing natural dyeing of yarn. But you cannot just start natural dyeing and expect it to become perfect immediately. Now, almost 25 years later, when our dyehouse is well known for its natural dyeing,, and has taught it to artisans in 5 Central Asian countries besides over a thousand artisans in India, now we can laugh as we look back at the difficulties we had in the early days, but at that time the difficulties seemed very serious. Our first yarn dyeing was red, using the plant called manjistha. Those first days it was very exciting to see the yarn turn a lovely light red as it was boiled with the manjistha in the pot on the fire. The dyed yarn was then woven on the loom, turning into lovely light red cloth. It was sent to the tailor, who stitched it into a lovely light red kurta, using a matching colour thread for stitching & matching light red buttons. The kurta was worn and then sent to the dhobi to be washed. you It came back white with light red stitching and buttons! Our colours were not fast and our natural dyeing seemed to be a failure. But we and the weavers of Chinnur persisted, and gradually the colours became fast and Chinnur got a name in the urban markets of the country for its natural dyed cloth. It was the persistence and patience of the weavers of Chinnur working together that made this happen. And we learnt an important lesson. The knowledge of natural dyeing, like all artisan knowledge, has to belong to the samaaj, not to an individual, and in Chinnur we learnt how to build the knowledge base of the community, rather than of the individual. This is a fundamental principle of a well-integrated samaaj that you should keep in mind: that knowledge must belong to the samaaj and not to the individual.

Our dyehouse has now taught - and continues to teach - natural dyeing to so many artisan groups, that this knowledge is now firmly rooted among the artisans of this country, and can no longer become the property of single individuals who want to keep it for themselves.

Today the culture of the individual has become very strong, so that individuals forget that they are a part of society, and what is good for society is good for them. This individualism destroys samaajiktha, the togetherness of society. You can live for 20 years in a flat in Mumbai without knowing the people who live in the next flat. Individualism does not make for a well-integrated, healthy society. A well-integrated society doesn’t mean that you lose your identity, no it means that individuals from different and diverse backgrounds and communities live in mutual respect and interdependence. Craft production can integrate societies because in the practice of craft the special skills of people from different communities are needed. A craftsperson cannot work as an independent individual. The weaver needs the carpenter to make the loom, the brush maker to make the sizing brush and the reed maker to make the reed. These are the interdependencies that make a harmonious society. So craft production has a large role to play in building a well-integrated samaaj. People like you and me, who are resource persons for craft production, must have a vision for the role of craft in building that well-integrated samaaj. We should have this larger picture at the back of our minds when we are involved in the small details and everyday problems of our work. We must keep in mind our own roles in making our own village or town a well-integrated community.

From our small beginning with 6 weaver families in Chinnur, the organization now works with 22 weaving co-operatives in Andhra, with over 500 looms, undertaking marketing, policy research, market surveys, training in management to handloom co-operatives, research into supply chain systems & technology of dyeing in both chemical and natural.

[Here I would like to take a minute to point out to the Government that it has not provided the high quality research support that handloom weaving needs. For mechanized weaving there are 8 Government supported agencies such as ATIRA, SITRA, BTRA, NITRA, carrying out important research, while there are no corresponding institutions for Handlooms].

Now I want to tell you briefly, how, after what we learnt in Chinnur, we ourselves are working on our long-term vision. After 13 years I left the first organization I had set up to be run by the next generation, and started 2 new ones, the Decentralized cotton Yarn Trust and the Malkha Marketing Trust to work on making the whole process of cotton textiles, from the cotton as it is grown by farmers, to cloth, as it is woven by handlooms, into a small-scale, village based industry, taking another step towards the long-term goal. We asked ourselves why the handloom weaver should have to depend for yarn on large and distant cotton spinning mills, when the cotton is grown in the same village or nearby. Why should that big spinning mill come between the weaver and the cotton farmer? Farmers and weavers living near each other should be dealing with each other directly. This is our dream. Any dream worth having takes small steps, it takes time, it takes patience, it needs people to learn to work together.

As a starting point of this initiative we asked ourselves how a country that had been the supplier of cotton cloth to the world for 2000 years, has now sunk to a level where it holds only around 4% of world textile trade? Is it just because mechanization displaced hand work? Has the change in the varieties of cotton grown in India got anything to do with this precipitous decline? For the answers we looked into historical records and gatecrashed meetings of the Cotton Research Institutes, and what we learnt by putting history and practice together was fascinating.

It’s too long a story to tell here but the outcome was what we call the malkha process, taking raw cotton lint, using small-scale machinery to make first the sliver and the yarn, and then weaving that yarn into cloth on handlooms, putting the entire cotton textile chain, from raw cotton to fabric, back in the village. Raw cotton need not leave the village, it can be made into yarn in the village itself, and the locally made yarn can be supplied to local handweavers. Our goal is that these centres should eventually be in the hands of the actual producers, the yarn makers and weavers who can be the owners of their textile process. We want to build models for these small village based, independent decentralized textile making centres. We have set up some of these centres in Andhra, making a fabric which we call malkha.

We have a vision for a society in which wealth is not concentrated in a few hands, but is shared among the whole of society. For this to happen people who are the actual producers of goods and services have to own and manage their own enterprise. This can happen in craft enterprises, because craft production needs small investments in tools and equipment, not big factories and heavy machinery, so they can be set up and owned by groups of craft producers themselves. And this is what I see as your role in the world of craft: to introduce democratic practices in craft production. It is through democratic ownership of production that craftspeople can live lives of dignity and this is what will keep crafts alive and vibrant throughout this century. Craft work, artisan work, can be a way for people from those parts of society that have upto now been discriminated against to lead productive and honorable lives.

India proclaims itself to be a democracy, where everyone is socially equal, and yet there are vast social and economic differences in Indian society. My vision is of craft practices as models for democracy in the economic life of this country. Democracy in the economic sphere means having a large number of small-scale enterprises, which are democratically run: owned and managed by producer groups themselves. Craft-based enterprises are the ideal way to achieve democracy in production. They don’t need huge supplies of electrical power, or huge financial investments, as mechanized industries do. They need only a small part of the finance that is available to mechanized industry. Building on our vast existing skill base, craft industries can blossom and thrive in India, and make it a truly democratic country, promoting equity in society by putting the ownership of millions of craft businesses in the hands of the actual producers.

What I have learnt on my journey in craft is what I said earlier: that to achieve a distant vision takes small steps, time and patience. I know that my dream will not be reached in my lifetime. But I have walked a small way towards it, and it is a dream that I want you to have, a dream for a society based on the principles of craft production, in which people from different communities with their different skills are needed, a society in which wealth is shared among all its members, where those who work with their hands own their own means of production and reap its benefits.
There will be lessons that you will learn every day –don’t think that at the end of your time here you have no more to learn.. Even at my age I am still learning. And this is my advice to you: don’t give up on that distant dream. Make the craftspeople you work with partners in your enterprise, decision makers, partners and owners, to take small steps towards democracy in production.

Sometimes on my journey, when things have been difficult, I have doubted the significance of craft in the modern world. And I wish someone had told me when I was starting my work what I know now: that the practice of craft, with its mutual dependence between different communities, is essential for a healthy society. I wish someone had told me then that the most deeply satisfying life people like you and me, resource persons for craft practices, the most deeply satisfying life we can lead is by disseminating the essence of craft practice throughout society, building a healthy and harmonious society through the practice of craft.

And that is what I wish for the graduating cIasses today: I wish you all deeply satisfying lives in the world of Indian craft.

Thank you very much.

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