DESIGN FOR CRAFTS: A Perspective For The 12th Plan Period

Chatterjee, Ashoke former Executive Director of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad from 1975-85 retired as a Distinguished Fellow in 2001. Ashoke Chatterjee is on the board of directors of Aid to Artisans, USA among several other organizations. His vast interests include water management and environmental issues. He has spearheaded the movement to find a solution to the crisis faced by the weavers of Varanasi.

India’s craft history and the contribution of this heritage to contemporary needs represent a unique contribution to world design. India’s design history is unique in that it is an unbroken record of creativity and innovation going back thousands of years, perhaps the only design experience of its kind. Design in India has always been integrated within a larger concept of kala, a concept which ranges from engineering and architecture to the fine arts. While other societies struggle towards this integrated understanding of quality, in India it is a natural component of the wisdom artisans bring to their craft and to their status as India’s strongest design resource.


The contemporary understanding of design as a problem-solving process linked to enhancing the quality of the human-made environment underlines the importance of design --- and the design process of problem-solving ---- in serving artisans and crafts in the transition from tradition to modernity. Design can help ensure that this passage is a continuum in which tradition is recognized not as a static concept or product but as an attitude of creativity and innovation. It is this process that was the foundation of the Swadeshi movement which Gandhiji used to lead the Freedom movement, although he may never have consciously used the term ‘design’. It is this process that was introduced into the early efforts by pioneering handicraft institutions as well as into design education when this profession entered India five decades ago through the National Institute of Design. Since that time, the interaction between designers and artisans (including those who have emerged through design institutions as well as through Government’s regional Design Centres) has been a major expression of craft development in India. The contribution this partnership has made to building export and domestic markets is self-evident. So too are the challenges in ensuring that design respects heritage and tradition while acknowledging new needs and new, distant markets and users.


In this context it is critically important to recognize that the design process is part of a larger marketing process. Not only does design need more accurate understanding as a process of problem-solving, so too does marketing require serious understanding. Far too often, the term ‘marketing’ is confined to selling and retailing. While marketing embraces these activities, it must be understood as the process of identifying needs and satisfying such needs at a profit. In the craft sector, this means identifying (and creating) user needs that hand-skills can satisfy in a way that machine production cannot, and satisfying these needs at a profit which enables a sustainable livelihood to the artisans and ensures that the marketing cycle is a continuous one. For the artisan, design must be a process of genuine empowerment through an ability to negotiate with and influence the market and acquire basic management skills that are indispensable in an environment so fiercely competitive.


In the context of the 12th Plan, the need is to ensure that design is recognized and supported in several ways. These include (1) understanding design as indispensable to the marketing process (2) building design as a professional skill and attitude imparted through training and other capacity-building opportunities for artisans (most particularly the younger generation) (3) strengthening design as professional education within current and new institutions of design learning (4) building foundations of knowledge through serious investments in craft research and documentation/publication and (5) advocating design as an essential attitude and capacity within every stakeholder group in the craft industry.  


A step in this direction during a new Plan could be for a serious review of the experience of craft design education and training in India over the past five decades, bringing together the experience of artisans and designers who have worked in the craft sector, understanding and drawing on the collective experience of craft design worldwide, and assessing as well as recommending the investments needed in design for crafts during the next decade.  




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