Much has been written about the Indian handicraft scene and continues to be written. The recent celebration of the Golden Jubilee of Handicrafts Resurgence by the Development Commissioner of Handicraft’s office focused attention on the situation of craftspersons. Now the centenary celebration of Kamaladevi Chattopadhya being celebrated by the Crafts Council of India and its regional organisation is focusing attention on the crafts once again. It was Kamaladevi who developed the programme and brought the craftspersons into the public eye.

Illustration: Farzana Even today we have to ask the question “Who are the craftspersons?” When we use the word artisan in the English context, we mean a mechanic, a skilled worker, and when we apply it to craftsmen we think of craftspersons involved in a mindless mechanical activity. That is perhaps not what we really mean. It is the confusion in using the word in the way that it is used in French. In French ‘artisana’ means crafts and we are confusing the issue by using the word `artisan’ for craftspersons. A craftsperson is one who is skilled in a craft technique and though he may produce a number of similar objects, each one however expresses the maker’s creativity. Besides, he also creates a number of other objects, which are a total expression of his or her creative self. Take the case of a potter. He may stand at his wheel and produce a thousand clay lamps or kullars, cups, but he is also able to create wondrous forms and shapes, gods and godesses, animals and birds for worship and to delight our hearts.

There are crafts made by men and women for their own use with the surplus being sold locally. This is the case in crafts which use local materials such as palm leaf, papier machie, embroidery and a host of others including the loin loom weaving. There are traditional craftsmen who supply the needs of local industry and households such as the jogis, the itinerant bamboo workers, the stone-carvers, the gaudolia lohars, the itinerant iron-smiths connected with making and repairing of agriculture implements, household utensils and many more that never get counted in the census or became a part of government programmes.

Despite the lacunae that exist, the 50 years of handicraft development after the setting up of the government organisation, the All India Handicrafts and Handloom Board (in November 1952), have been an eventful period. The change in the perception of crafts began much earlier when Gandhiji came out to defend the Indigo workers against their exploitative colonial masters. It began when he announced his Swadeshi movement. It began when he created Khadi as the livery for the freedom fighter and the Gandhi topi became the emblem of the unification of all people, irrespective of caste, creed, or status. We were not only equal in the eyes of God, but also equal in the struggle for independence. Khadi was our symbol and our creed.

His deep awareness and perception of creative expression as a way to create a balanced personality was reflected in his call for giving importance to crafts in our educational system. His vision of `Small is Beautiful’ gained ground in the 1920s and Schumacher spoke about this once again in the 70s. Unfortunately, we have only given lip-service to this concept, and the introduction of crafts in Basic Education remained a token gesture, an Indian speciality. If we are to understand the crafts today, we have to see it in the context of the development of the movement as a part of a governmental programme, a very rare occurrence. This was possible because of the dynamic leadership of Kamaladevi, who was a true disciple of Gandhiji and gave her life for the cause of the crafts, for performing arts, for nurturing the creative spirit of our country.

She launched the programme for handicrafts and handloom development in 1952 at the behest of Jawaharlal Nehru. The Cottage Industries Board was transformed into the All India Handicrafts & Handloom Board. The bifurcation occurred later. This was a challenging task for there was no previous experience on which to build the work. This meant the creation of a new economic order for a newly independent country, which would nurture and support the existing structures and skills and develop the industrial sector. The economic planners of the Planning Commission who had been trained in the economic policies applicable to industrial societies looked at the cottage industry sector from the point of view of European economists: as a non-productive welfare activity, while the Marxists saw it as exploitation of labour. To build an economic policy, which saw the craft sector as an important part of Development Economics, and to convince the Planning Commission to give it the importance it needed was an uphill task.

Kamaladevi was able to get the advice of well-known economists, Prof P N Dhar and Dr Raj Krishna to develop the approach needed to evolve a Development Programme for Handicrafts. She had the able assistance of a dynamic young Gandhian, L C Jain, whom she appointed as Member Secretary of the All India Handicrafts Board. Kitty Shiva Rao was the Vice-President and Pupul Jayakar an active member of the board. She was later appointed by Shri Morarji Desai to head the Handloom Board.

The All India Handicrafts Board was a statutory board with a government department to execute the decisions. A handful of people began the task of mapping out the craft centres and trying to reach out to them. Kamaladeviji was a woman of foresight, of action and she created a multi-pronged programme. A team of economists, marketing experts and researchers carried out a rapid market survey of crafts in well-known urban centres in the different regions and developed a plan of work based on the findings of the survey. The Central Cottage Industries Association was an outcome of this survey and was the first voluntary organisation in handicrafts being run by the Indian Cooperative Union.

The economic advisors proposed a prioritisation of the most important issues: to survey the handicrafts industry to assess employment levels and get a detailed picture of the status of the craft, which required a planning and research division. Assess the technological and design inputs needed to upgrade the products and bring them into the market; for this purpose Regional Design Centres were set up along with Technological Centres and training centres. The Central Cottage Industries Association was set up to create not only a market outlet, but show-case the finest products of handicrafts and introduce new products from all over India.

It was also imperative to educate the consumer and influence tastes for which a number of exhibitions of different crafts were organised. Every year one state was selected for developing their crafts and holding an exhibition of their products, and one craft was highlighted. This also created a sense of urgency to develop the products of one area and one craft, and create a sense of pride in the creative expression of their state, amongst the government officials and the craftsmen.

In the early years Kamaladevi travelled the length and breadth of the country locating the craft centres and assessing their needs. Handicrafts were spread throughout the country. They answered the needs of the local people and found a market within the region. Products were made for a known clientele and for festive occasions, and except in some urban centres there were no large retail outlets. Mostly, the objects were custom-made. People ordered their personal needs with the weavers, with the printers, with the jewellers, with the shoe-maker. Families ordered their furniture for occasions, they ordered their household needs. In the rural areas the jajmani system functioned with craft families working with the local landowners.

It was not till the 60s that the finest of handicrafts and the finest of printed silks & cottons could be purchased at the store round the corner. Because of the pioneering efforts by visionaries who pushed their way, India’s craft exports touch over 9000 crores today.
There were no large stores where people could buy whatever they required for maintaining their homes and work places. Also, products of one area were not known in the other areas, except in the case of Varanasi for brocades and silks, or Moradabad brass or the work of the Sthapathis and Sompuras, the temple-builders. Kamaladevi met the chief ministers of all the states, who had been her colleagues in the freedom struggle and got their support in evolving institutional structures and budgetary allocations to assist the craftspersons in each and every state. It was a one-person crusade and she mobilised government support, voluntary effort and a number of individuals to work selflessly for the cause of the crafts and craftspersons.

It was this pioneering work that built the base of the craft organisation.

Today we take it for granted that we can walk into a shop and buy printed silk and cotton sarees or yardage for our homes or table linen. Until the 60s this did not exist. One bought the material, went to the printer and selected the patterns from a sampler, selected the colours and these were then sent for printing. The large printing centres of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat were producing only for local peasantry. It was Kamaladevi who got the help of the Craft School at Jaipur, which was directed by a well-known designer, Surjit Sahay, to revive the refined printed textiles printed in the royal Karkhanas and introduce their printing into Sanganer. Similar work was done in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Within a short time a rich vibrant printing industry with an urban and export market emerged.

This is only one example. It can be multiplied manifold. The brass industry of Jaipur, Moradabad and Jagadiri were transformed. Bell-metal industry of Bengal, Assam, Orissa and Kerala, which catered only to local markets, were assisted. The Bronze Casting of Swamimalaya, Karnataka had deteriorated, and a Bronze Casting Centre with master Sthapathis brought back the purity of form. Wood carving of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Assam, Bihar, Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, which was copying European patterns in furniture and calendar pictures in their carvings were given help to develop new areas of production. Stone inlay of Agra was revived. The master stone-carvers of Orissa and many other centres were helped to find a market for their skillful renderings.

Today India is in a much more fortunate situation pertaining to the preservation and evolution of its craft than most countries in the world, because of the work carried out at the initial development stage.

Perhaps due to the emphasis placed on evolving a market for handicrafts and getting the “Brahmins” of the Planning Commission to accept it as an economic activity, the aspect of looking at every creative expression as a commodity was emphasised and we did not draw the fine line between creative expression and commodification. Even the Regional Design Centres of the All India Handicrafts Board began to answer to the needs of the market rather than the need of the craft community.

The Design Centres did fulfill the need of the time by evolving a design and technological development programme, which could be extended to thousands of practitioners, who were facing poverty and starvation because of a shrinking local market, while the newly opened marketing centres needed goods that would meet the consumer demands. Yet, instead of bridging the gap between the designer and the master craftsmen, which had grown during the colonial period, the gap had widened. The National Institute of Design, which has made the study of crafts an important part of their curriculum, did not correct this situation.

Kamaladevi’s inspirational qualities enthused craftspersons, private institutions, individuals and trusts. She even got the support of religious institutions to support the craft activities through their temple trusts. She involved well-known persons such as Rukmani Devi Arundale and her institution Kalakshetra, which revived the traditional weaves of Kanchipuram, and where the Vegetable Dye Research Laboratory with Shri Chandramouli as the researcher was first located. Durga Bai Deshmukh set up Craft Teachers Training Regional Institutes, while the great Rai Krishan Dasji set up a textile wing in Bharat Kala Bhawan Museum at Varanasi, to be used by the master designers. Prabha Shah and Malati Jhaveri set up the Prajapati Pottery Centre at Dharavi in Mumbai in 1954 with a grant from the All India Handicrafts Board. Later they developed a voluntary organisation, Sohan Sahakari Sangh, by collecting membership from a large number of well-wishers from all over the country. Through the devoted work of Prabha Shah, who gave her entire life to reach out to craftspersons throughout the country, a number of craft centres were assisted to develop a range of products, which would meet the changing consumer demands.

The state governments also took up the initiative as in the case of the Mahabalipuram School of Architecture and Stone Carving, which was headed by the great Vaidyanathan Sthapathi, Shilp Guru Ganapati Sthapathi’s father.

Few know and realise that the All India Handicrafts Board carried out supportive and protective policies for the sector as a whole with a small budget and none of the activities were subsidised. Yet they became viable economic activities. In 1953-54 the export of crafts was 23 crores, today it touches 9,276.50 crores and it is 20 per cent of the total exports of India. If we take the entire handicrafts and handloom sector, one estimation puts the employment figure to 36 million people.

The craft journey of fifty years has been enriching. It has been enriching for the country as a whole, for the craft community and for all of us who have been involved with the craft movement. India’s experience, which was the first experience of evolving such an important and far-reaching programme, provided an example to many countries who emerged from colonialism into sovereign countries to evolve their own programme. India was their resource and it shared its experience. Ministers, heads of government departments, trainees came from all over the world, Mexico, North Africa, many African countries, from Pakistan, Philippines, Iran, Syria etc, to learn from the Indian experience.

However, it is necessary to ask some soul-searching questions. Where are we headed? We need to examine the institutional structures and ask if this is the best method of functioning? What is the role of the government today and what should they be really doing? How valid are the overall structures and the divisions that had been made of the sector in 1954 in today’s context? It may have been necessary to make administrative divisions of Handloom, Handicrafts, Khadi Village Industries, Silk Board, Coir etc, when the development work was beginning, but are these enormous juggernauts, with the structures repeated in the states, effective and necessary, or are they superfluous expenditures which continue to be incurred by the government? How effective are the different marketing corporations and associations? Is their turnover less than one per cent of the total handled by the private sector? Should the government continue to handle these institutions or should there be an attempt made to hand it over either to the crafts associations or to the voluntary sector?

For that matter, what is the role of the Crafts Council of India and other voluntary organisations? Do they provide a platform for the craftspersons? Are they performing their role of being the protectors and inspiration of the sector? Are they functioning as the voice of the craftspersons? These and many such questions are agitating the minds of many of us who have been working in this area for many decades.

It is true that a great deal has been achieved, but a great deal has been lost. It is true that the craft sector has come a long way. Craftsmen, who 50 years ago were discriminated against, who lived at the edge of society, who were tied to the jajmani system, which in some cases made them virtual slaves, have today come into their own in some cases. Yet, even today we have a lack of understanding of what are the key needs of the sector. The government organisations are a law unto themselves and function as patrons. They talk of using the voluntary sector for development activity, but many in the voluntary sector have also become exploitative. How many of these organisations involve master craftsmen? How many master weavers, heads of Weaving and Craft Societies are involved in the policy-making by the government machinery? Lakhs are spent on seminars, surveys, junkets of officials, office-bearers of voluntary organisations, while the small monies needed by the craftsmen for organising themselves do not get any support.

The recent issue of Seminar (23 March 2003), “Celebrating Crafts”, is a good example of the confusion that exists in a proper understanding of the sector. Laila Tyabji, Chairperson of Dastkar Delhi, a leading voluntary organisation, which has done excellent work under her direction in her lead article says “...a failure to classify craft properly lies at the root of much confusion and failure. Focal needs get confused, inputs get diffused”. Each article examines issues very narrowly. The case of Jawaja, a durree project, which is discussed, is a case of excessive resources of two major institutions, National Institute of Design and National Institute of Management, being invested for very little result. The remark “this project continues to require emotional and physical stamina... They keep asking, tell us what we should do. And we say `no, tell us what you think you want to do’. And they get impatient with us. Basically, the whole issue is how can we help them develop their own problem-solving skills”.

This is the key issue. The craftspersons have to learn to stand on their own feet. This cannot be done by plastic surgery. This requires a complete change in the mindset of the government and the leadership of the voluntary sector. It requires that the knowledge, the skill of the masters should be a part of the formal education system. Just as music, dance, performing arts have become a part of the educational system, so should the crafts. Special efforts need to be made to educate the children of craftsmen through special programmes, reservations of seats in professional institutes. This is never done. The status of craftsmen needs to be raised not just by annual awards, but by recognising their skills in technical institutions as full-fledged faculty. They should be appointed to head Design Centres with administrative staff under their control. Seminars should be organised by them in their craft communities rather than in 5-star hotels where government officials, art historians, anthropologists sit and talk about the craftsmen who are either absent or a silent presence.

It is only when craftspersons are equal partners in the production, marketing of crafts, in deciding the government policy towards crafts can we expect crafts to develop the strength to be sustained as they were throughout history.