Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

CRAFT: March 21, 1999

A way of life

Sabita Radhakrishna

"The craftsman seeks rhythm in his life, colour in his composition and harmony in his form in order to protect an object which has a function and at the same time provides visual pleasure."

- Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Craftspersons form the second largest employment sector, second only to agriculture. According to statistics from craft NGOs, there are about 23 million craftspersons in India today. In the old days, craft was the only industry known to mankind. Products were made based on the market requirements, harnessing the skills of communities, utilising traditions handed over from father to son. Craft bore utilitarian features which melded with aesthetics. With foreign dominance Indian craft and the handloom industry were severely exploited; and the attitude of submission and acceptance added to the downslide. Some of the urban sophisticates dictated by western trends dismissed craft as being part of the impractical aesthetics milieu and recoiled at being labelled "arty" - desi style. It was only after independence that the need to redefine and rediscover a status for craft was keenly felt, and an awareness for protecting skills was accentuated by craft activists, and slowly agencies for craft development were established by the Indian Government.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay who established the Crafts Council in 1965, recognised the seriousness of the situation and worked hard to help the floundering craftspersons find his/her own niche in a growing industrial environment. The market was highly competitive and the craftsperson had to compete with modern products produced by semi-automation which was cheaper and sturdier and cater to a less discerning public. A hopeless situation led to dire poverty, disintegration of skills, consequently languishing craft resulting in younger craftspersons exploring new pastures for a livelihood. Craft NGOs as well as the Government helped lift this abysmal scene, bearing in mind that protecting craft alone was not enough, but that the communities of craftspersons as creators of beautiful craft had to be taken care of, first and foremost. By laying emphasis on craft alone, one tended to ignore the sensitivity of the craftsperson, his own genius and his feel for expression.

Prem Kapoor/Fotomedia

Today, the craftsperson enjoys a much higher status than 10-15 years ago, when the scene was pretty bleak. Take Bhairaram Juiyan of Jodhpur district, Rajasthan. He wears a cardigan, trousers, and a full sleeve shirt, speaks articulately in Hindi, produces a handmade visiting card which says: "Production Manager of the Urmul Marushthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti". He tells his story, haltingly and with passion.

"Agriculture was our mainstay, and we had a family tradition of weaving plain coarse shawls, which would supplement our income. Rajasthan is subject to the ravages of weather, extreme dryness, extremes in temperature, and uncertain rainfall. It is impossible to continue with work in the fields consistently. We sold our shawls cheap, but nobody had the money to purchase them. We had scarcely any food to eat, and could hardly find one square meal a day. We were eighteen, part of a joint family... we were starving.

"It was in the mid Eighties, probably in 1987, that Sanjay Ghose of Urmul Trust came into our lives. Even today, we worship him, for he showed us a new path. Initially we resisted, but he pushed us in the right direction. He brought in designers from N.I.D. for new concepts in shawl weaving. We used 20s x 40s yarn... initially the market failed miserably as the buyers found our shawls too coarse, we were left with unsold stock. Then the designers led us to cotton, with designs to meet contemporary tastes and as this yarn was totally alien to us, we were reluctant to handle it. From then on our lives changed dramatically. We were gradually initiated into the basics of production, dyeing, marketing, accounts and stock keeping."

Confident of self-sufficiency, and with support from the parent organisation Urmul Trust, the weavers branched out on their own to form Urmul Marusthali Bunkar Vikas Samiti (UMBVS) registering it as a society. Today their product range covers soft furnishings, bags, kurtas, shawls, stoles, jackets, table-mats and pattus in both cotton and wool. Bheraram with four other men formed the executive committee. The UMBVS helped the women who were hitherto in ghunghat find their own platform and space. Shishi Karmi and Angan Pathshala schemes were implemented and the Samithi co-ordinated the running of 27 schools having a total strength of 2366 children today. Welfare projects which cover health, immunisation schemes, education and agricultural activities and community projects have been implemented today, thanks to the timely intervention of a craft activist like Sanjay Ghose. All weavers compulsorily undergo a three-month training programme, 30 per cent of the weaver's earnings accrue in his wife's name, as she is vital to the pre-weaving process. The weavers benefit from a yearly bonus, interest free loans, compulsory savings and individual life insurance.

Siddharth Mitra

In 12 years the change has been dramatic and rewarding. But for Mohammed Yamin from Paharanpur District who is a craftsperson working with tilu grass, the story is different. He is unshaven with a grey stubble of a beard, his clothes bespeak of existing hardships. Though he is exposed to a large marketing experience by Dastakar for one of their sales, he spreads his hands in despair. He holds up his products... trays, wall plaques, racks, pencil holders and the like... yellow grass woven together with coloured yarn, the colours singularly bright against the mellow cream of the natural grass. "We need designs, colour combinations, marketing support, and a working capital to be able to emerge..." he says.

Lima is the fifth in a family of six girls and one boy. Her father Sam was a painter in Halda, and the family belongs to Thanjavur District. Sam supplemented his income by crafting papier-mâché masks. Recalling bad times, Lima says, "Our world collapsed when our father died. My sisters and I decided to do something. Having helped our father, we knew about papier-mâché products. We used moulds that he had made and left behind. That was the beginning of a craft career for us. I do the main production, my younger sisters help. Two of my older sisters who were married have come back to live with us as their marriages failed. I am educating my brother. And my sisters' children. Thanks to my father's legacy and craft NGOs which have pointed us in the right direction we are not starving." Lima's craft finds its niche in shops like VTI, Kalpa Druma, Kuralagam, Manasthala and Dakshinchitra. With guidance in design structures, and choice of colours, Lima should be on the way to better times.

Shilpi Subramaniam Achari aged 69 of Kattankolathur, Kancheepuram District near Thiruvanamalai still seems to be caught in the morass of exploitation, and poor returns for his craft. A metal craftsman specialising in bronze miniatures, his work is intricate and superbly executed. He inherited this traditional skill from his father and his grandfather, and claims it has come down from four or five generations or maybe even more. In the old days, marketing was not a problem. The icons were crafted according to the shilpa shastras and supplied to the local temples. Once the needs of the temples were fulfilled and the number of metal craftspersons increased as the family grew, the work demands became less and his family experienced the cold touch of poverty. They worked on stone as an alternative, to make some kind of living, but their specialisation being metal, they did not feel fulfilled.

Sabita Radhakrishna

Mohan Math, coconut shell craftsman, with some of his work

Sabita Radhakrishna

"Even though we are aware that our work is excellent, we do not have the contacts or the push to establish our market. Shops like Poompuhar which always took the bronzes from us, now bargain on prices and are not willing to accept our work. We live in despondency, from day to day, not knowing what the future holds for us, or for our children."

The Crafts Council of India recommended Subramaniam Achari for the Shilpashree Award by Ramsons Kala Pratishtana, Mysore. Achari was ill, and refused to take the journey and to compound the matter further there was a crisis in his family. Persuaded to show his work, a somewhat reluctant Achari and his son left their samples in Mysore. As it happened Subramaniam Achari was conferred the Shilpashree Award. He received a citation and a cheque for Rs. 10,000 plus orders from the organisers. He is grateful to the Crafts Council for its recognition of his talent, and hopes that this will mean a new dawn in his children's lives if not his own....

Mohan Math does not conform to the archetypal craftsman. He speaks English fluently, having completed his Senior Cambridge in West Bengal. He evinces a keen interest in engineering, fabricating and designing. He has worked in companies like Mc Nelly Bird Engineering Company in Bihar and Toshniwal in Calcutta. But his heart has always been in craft, and having been bypassed in the industry because he was not academically qualified he turned to the skills he always nurtured.

A tryst with destiny brought him to South India, where he married rather late in life. Mohan Math's medium was originally aluminium, and he began to craft miniature aircraft beautifully proportioned and made to scale. He also made tie pins and cuff links out of beaten aluminium till he stumbled onto a medium which he found fascinating... coconut shell. He experimented with tea cups, first scraping the shells till they were rid of fibre and then buffing them with his own hands till he got the desired smoothness. The handles are finely crafted in bamboo. Then emerged the teapot and the milk jug, followed by spoons, ladles, little baskets, goblets and serving dishes. It is like salve to his bruised psyche and he cannot stem the creative flow.

Amita P. Gupta/Fotomedia

"My wife is a nurse, and we live on her salary," explains Mohan. "I have two small children, and life is a struggle for us as we want to educate them. Since I am crafting every single item with my bare hands I am able to turn out only few pieces a month. Just look at my hands madam! I have turned to every bank for a loan to procure semi-automated machinery for buffing and polishing, whereby my production will increase, I have potential, plus orders but am not able to fulfill them due to lack of manpower. I cannot afford to hire anyone. Anyone who manually scrapes and buffs will get chest pain. The banks want someone to stand guarantee for me. Who will do this for me? It is a hopeless catch 22 situation. If I get a loan to buy the machinery, I can increase production and execute orders. This would generate income, whereby I can pay off the loan gradually and eke a living for myself...."

These are but few of the craftspersons who faced acute poverty and exploitation. Craft NGOs have identified communities of craftspersons and individuals, and promoted their work, found suitable markets providing design intervention and training to meet contemporary needs. Alongside they implement welfare activities and education programmes which makes the approach holistic. It is only this kind of approach which will ultimately give the craftspersons the status they deserve, and concerted attempts by dedicated groups whose hands have been strengthened by governmental support have proved that we are already on the right path.

And as Kamaladevi said, the growth of craft in a society is a sign of the cultivation of sensitivity and the stirring and mellowing of humanism. It stands for man's endeavour to bring grace and elegence into an otherwise harsh and drab human existence. Man's elevation from gross animal existence is marked, by his yearning for something beyond the satisfaction of mere needs and creative comforts. It is this yearning that found natural expression in crafts.

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