We have a steady stream of visitors who make the pilgrimage to Adipur because they are concerned with craft. Concern is vital. Yet I can’t help asking a nagging question: Why Craft? What is the concern?

I recently participated in two very different but equally compelling conferences, The Values of Craft, at Erasmus University in Rotterdam; and Beyond Change: Questioning the Role of Design in Times of Global Transformations, at FHNW Academy of Art and Design, Basel.

I came away stimulated with more questions than Why Craft?

What is craft today? What is design today? What is knowledge, and what is skill?

The initial keynote at Beyond Change was “Are We Human?” The final keynote was ”Landscape-Scale AI and the Question of Agency.” At the conclusion of the latter presentation, the professor, discussing intelligence beyond life as we know it, said that the green tree toad does not know- or care- that he is the totem of a tribe. Instantly, came a protest: “How do you know that?”

And I felt like I had surfaced to gasp a breath of air.

The questions of the values of craft and the role of design converged: In a world of increasing de-personalization, craft is all about soul, and meaning. Design can guide craft to realize an identity as an emerging luxury by virtue of its personal, human character. Craft can re-personalize.

Soul has to be the reason to care about craft.

And this is why artisans need to be able to create, and not simply produce.

I have long thought that the two keys to the success of our program of design education for artisans are sustained input and local orientation. I now add a third: a clear goal for the program– developed with the participants’ perspective.

Therein is a catch 22, the dilemma of education: students must find the education they receive relevant. But they can only imagine from their experience- pre-education. So how to create mutually concurred goals?

We have worked out the program so far with the guidance of master artisan Advisors, and graduates. But last month we met with design graduates to check back and learn from them how artisans, as creators and not just producers- Artisan Designers define success.

“Success is achieving goals,” Dayabhai said. “You need a goal. You need to know your capacity, what is good for you.

“Success is decision making power.” Purshottambhai agreed. “You have to be clear, capable, and target your market.”

“Success is using your creativity,” Prakashbhai said.

“We confidently know good design,” Rajeshbhai added.

Dayabhai elaborated on this. “We now have own concepts and identity,” he explained. “We know how to take feedback.”

To this Pachanbhai added, “Everyone’s work is unique. Besides knowing your USP, you have to be able to articulate it. We can talk to our customers now. Success is having a voice.”

“If you don’t value your work, your customer won’t,” Puroshottambhai echoed. “And success is being able to take responsibility.”

Strikingly, not one artisan spoke of success in terms of money.

“My early goal was money,” Dayabhai explained. “My goal was to educate my children. Now, it is to be my own person. My son told me not to weave. Now people from all over the world come to my house, so I have value. It’s not just money.”

Namoribhai shared his experience. “You need design and business to get full value. New design at home has no value. You need to know when and where to sell. And business without design is no use. If you have both design and business you can answer the question: ‘Why is it expensive?’”

I asked if their goals had changed because of design and business education?

Prakashbhai laughed. “Before the course, we had no goals!” he said.

“At least I was interested in weaving. If a weaver is not interested in weaving, how could you interest him?”

“Previously there were no choices,” Dayabhai concluded. “Now, weavers who continue their tradition do it by choice. What we can do is share our experience with the next generation. Now we can think of the benefit to our community.”

Our clear goal is to make a discussion like this possible. We re-imagine traditional systems, where master artisan advisors teach students about traditions, weavers and dyers work together, and artisan designers connect directly to markets.

We provide a space to make goals, to create and develop a unique expression- so that artisans infuse craft with its invaluable soul.



What does the Cyber World have to do with hand crafted textiles?

Good question.

These days many people can’t live without technology. I admit I have become immersed in the technological world to the extent that I spend far too much time at a computer. And when it isn’t working I feel as if I have come down with a terrible illness. In November I had my Mac updated, because the Microsoft Office program I used threatened to close down if I did not update. This initiated a domino like series of mishaps and malfunctions. Incompatibilities. I use Microsoft Office for Mac- the manifestation of two titans jockeying for biggest and best.

This combo did not use to be a problem. But now I am shocked to see the polarization. When I decided I had to bite the bullet and purchase a new Mac, I asked the shop person, who until then had been very cheerful and attentive, if she would bundle Microsoft Office into the machine, as was done in my 2011 Mac. I received a chilly rebuff. “That is not our product,” she said. “You could go to a Microsoft store (miles away) or download the product.“

Ok, I thought. Sounds easy enough.

But trying to migrate my 2011 data to the 2017 Mac has been a nightmare. Two months after purchasing the Mac, and purchasing more than one version of Office, I am still struggling to make it work. I lost count of how many Microsoft techs I have talked to and chatted with, for hours and hours. And I’ve done the rounds with a few Apple techs as well. Neither will utter the name of the opponent- today one Apple person referred to “third party” products. By now more than weary, I had to make an effort to figure out that he meant “Microsoft Office.” But if a tech cannot solve the problem, he or she conveniently sends me to that “third party.”

I tried to check online to see if my problem is unique. I typed in “How many people use Microsoft Office for Mac?” I found ads for purchasing hardware and software. Finally, scrolling down, I found the article “Why I may never install Office for Mac again.” The world is too interconnected for polarization. We have to get over this phase fast. At some point, I wondered, if I have to choose between Apple and Microsoft, what would I decide?

At this point, I think neither.

The techs of both teams are remarkably similar. Well trained to say, “I understand…. I will solve your problem… I’m confident.” But I have talked to at least 30 people, none of whom solved the problem –nor followed through. Each one dropped the problem- hanging up in one way or another. What a terrible life! Never finishing anything, never connecting, never finding any satisfaction. Purgatory.

In the middle of all of this, I had the great privilege to have a conversation with William Bissell of Fabindia. He told me that he met with a group of women artisans and asked what they would like. They wanted four things, one of which was to finish whole products rather than do piece work. Closure, I feel, contributes a lot to satisfaction.

So these days I am way far from satisfied. But I am not giving up. A friend found an article online about an update (!) to enable updating from 2011 to 2016. Why did neither the Apple nor the Microsoft team know about this?? So that inched me toward resolution. Tomorrow I am going to take the situation in my own hands and simply wipe the new Mac clean and manually upload the files again.

Suddenly I remembered watching a National Geographic film on polar bears in Churchill, Canada with my Dad. One winter the bears were repeatedly coming too close to human civilization. The town called in expert scientists, who tried fantastically complicated solutions, trying to scare the bears with noises, recordings of other bears, and mechanical contraptions. Nothing worked. Finally a Native American resident of Churchill said quietly, “The bears are hungry.” He solved the problem by simply feeding them, far outside of town.

That story, and writing this down, have helped me feel a little better. The DE-humanization of increasingly, unnecessarily complex technology may explain why we care about human touch and cultural heritage.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” wrote Thoreau.

Once I get my damned computer up and running, I’m going back to the world of artisans and craft- human connection, the satisfaction of completion, slow and simple solutions. I can’t wait.

Today we interviewed women for the 2018 Design Course at Somaiya Kala Vidya. We have not had a women’s class since 2014, and I remembered Hariyben. It’s been three months since she is gone.

Hariyaben was one of the original trustees of Kala Raksha. I remember having a trustee meeting soon after we founded the organization. An elder man, a brother of her father-in-law, sat himself right in front of us to listen in. I was annoyed and told him that if he sat here, the women would not be free to speak as they have to cover their faces before elder men from their husbands’ families. He left. I felt triumphant. But Hariyaben refused to drink tea. It was some time later that I learned why. “You insulted my relative,” she said. From then I learned many things from her about art, artisans and culture.

The first time we went to an exhibition, Hariyaben was one of two artisans who represented Kala Raksha. The exhibition was in Chandigadh. Hariyben’s husband worked with a Sikh living in Kutch. Chandigadh is very dangerous, she informed me. She went nonetheless. We made it through the exhibition safely, and then went to visit the Rock Garden made by Nek Chand. It was a marvelous fantasy of figures made of mosaics of recycled ceramics. Hariyaben was quiet. At the end of the tour, she exhaled and said, “See, I told you it was dangerous!”

What do you mean? I asked.

“Didn’t you see all of those paliyas?!” she exclaimed. (Paliyas are figures commemorating the death of a person.)

Hariyaben was willful. We tussled over tailoring. She was a great, perfecting teacher. She taught many young women to make uncompromisingly beautiful suf embroidery and patchwork. I asked her to assist me in making an interpretation center for traditional embroidery. There, she taught me to understand tradition. We were dressing a mannequin with an embroidered kanchali-kurti. But there was no skirt from the collection to complement the outfit. “What shall we use for the lower garment?” she asked.

Traditional, I answered.

“But which tradition?” she wanted to know. Tradition, she understood, was not static but ongoing.

After working on the exhibition for some time, she told me, “This idea of yours, this exhibition, is not new. We already have it. Every time a women is married she displays her dowry collection for her village– and then her husband’s- to see.

We added a library for inspiration. Hariyaben got that before we even installed all of the books. One morning I spied her with a very unusual suf embroidered shawl that she had just finished. It had a huge, complex medallion in the center.

Where did you get that Idea? I asked her.

“From those books you had piled in the office,” she informed me.

When we began the narrative applique project, Hariyaben found a wonderful medium for her imagination. She did an elaborate piece on the first Sharad Utsav festival held in Kutch. She depicted Prakashbhai, me, the Collector and herself in sharply observed detail. And there near the center was the unmistakable then Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. She depicted the Mandvi palace Vijay Vilas, a political meeting, scenes of nature. She illustrated Kutchi proverbs with tongue in cheek humor.

Hariyaben invented wonderfully made toys and dolls, born of her concern over fabric remnants being wasted. She gathered them from the workshop and took them home to fashion camels, elephants and culturally correct figures.

She wanted to start her own individual business, and when we began the Business and Management for Artisans course, she quickly signed up. She knew she was not well. She detected a lump behind her breast bone. I went with her to hospitals in Bhuj and then Ahmedabad, trying unsuccessfully to get a clear diagnosis. It was hard to get a biopsy, and painful. She got fed up and decided to trust in God and take herbal medicine. But she was determined to take the course.

In spite of not being literate, she did well in the course. She made a masterpiece quilt collection. And when she wanted to produce it for an exhibition, she did not give samples for women to copy, but gave them the concept to work out on their own. I wrote about this in an earlier blog, When Women Design.

Hariyaben worked within restrictions. I used to think, if she had been born in another place, another time, what could she have achieved?

I met her a few days before she passed away. She knew she did not have much time left. She was always beautiful, always dignified. Her nails were painted and she was dressed in pink. She asked her daughter Varsha to bring her the dolls they had made. Carefully, she selected the right one, and gave it to me.

I imagine an after life, reincarnation. Maybe, just maybe we will meet again in another time, another place.

For now, I want to remember her by establishing a scholarship for women artisans.  She would like that.

Somaiya Kala Vidya was invited to begin a new Outreach project with a group of weavers in Varanasi. Like all collaborations, it involved negotiation. At first, the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA) wanted us to hold some workshops in Varanasi, followed by some workshops in Kutch. We said we would like to do the project as an Outreach project, as we have done in Bagalkot and Lucknow. Finally we settled on a jointly run project.

Jentibhai, a Weaver Designer from Bhujodi and member of the Bhujodi to Bagalkot team, traveled with me to Varanasi to find out what is feasible.

Jentibhai is quiet and thoughtful. He was the one who thought of bringing the weavers from Bagalkot to Bhujodi. During a long layover in Mumbai, we look at a book on Varanasi weaving to get an understanding of the tradition, which is different from the weaving of Bhujodi in almost every way you could think. Jentibhai says he will have to understand the jacquard mechanism that the Varanasi weavers use. Once he sees it, he will understand what can be done.

We arrive at night, to a wall of sticky heat, and drive through a long corridor of rough rubble roads running on either side of a massive elevated road under construction. Homes and shops have been ruthlessly chopped to make way for this super highway. Old sacrificed for new.

The next morning we meet the weavers and the AIACA team in their office. It is a boon to have a group of people on the same page, who understand the vision of artisan design and enterprise. That is the AIACA team.

The weavers, about thirty-five termed “small and medium,” meaning the degree to which they weave themselves or supervise other artisans, listen intently as I present an illustrated journey through our education programs. I zoom in on the Outreach project, intending to show how the concept of design education is transferrable, while the concept of innovation within tradition insures that each community will work out its own design solutions with integrity.

They have practical questions: how does the funding work? Do the students have to do homework? And who checks it? How do you know what the Market wants? How do you prevent copying?

They are quite vocal. And the most vocal find reasons why design education is not possible here. You are talking about Kutch, they say. That is a different kind of weaving. They see their situation literally. They explain why they can not change their designs. The main obstacle is the straitjacket of the jacquard. Making a new design is time consuming and expensive. The designs are given to a graph maker, and then to card punchers. Once the patterns are ready, you have to make a lot of saris to recover the cost. After all, the jacquard is a production machine. It was invented to make weaving faster, cheaper and more standard.

I tell them that hand loom is no longer for need; it is for desire, love, joy. But right now the weavers can’t understand other goals. Besides that, the colours and raw materials that they use are given by designers.

They are so used to working for someone- a “master weaver” middle-man, a designer, a shop, an organization- that they can’t imagine another way.

So they neatly define their challenges: the restrictions of the jacquard loom, and the huge number of weavers and products in the market. The weavers say there are over 300,000 weavers! AIACA says only 60,000 are handloom weavers. But Bhujodi has barely 200!

Still, I believe in the power of design. There are other things you can change.

I say, on one warp you can still make each sari unique.

Salim, one of the most vocal weavers, agrees. Yes! And I do it!

Surely they are creative. They just need direction in how to use creativity. They need to see. They have been taught that they are workers. So they forget their creativity. Khalidbhai, a current SKV design student said, “Artisans don’t know their capacity. SKV opens their minds.” They need to push or break their restrictions- as Avanish, the AIACA consultant, tells them.

Where do designers get their ideas? I ask. I hold up the Varanasi book. Who has seen this?

Not one person!

This is your heritage, I say.

They eagerly flip through the pages, and suddenly one young man stops. There is a picture of him at a loom! The caption says, ‘The weavers’ condition does not match the richness of the saris.’

There it is.

After lunch, Jentibhai has his session. He shows his work, explaining what he kept of tradition, what he changed. The Varanasi weavers hold the samples with keen interest. What yarn did you use? What reed? What loom? They ask…. Then, “Oh, we can do this!”

Here Madhura, AIACA Director, intervenes. “We’re going on a diversion,” she says. “It’s not about making Bhujodi stoles in Varanasi. It’s about innovating on your own tradition!”

Then she asks who wants to learn design, to try. A dozen hands go up– including the young weaver in the book.

Those not interested file out. And those interested breathe a little sigh, and eagerly sit and talk with Jentibhai, weaver to weaver.

I ask Jentibhai how he thinks the workshop went?

We’ll know more tomorrow, when we visit their homes, he answers.

We visit only one home. The looms are crowded close to each other, silk and golden threads stretched over crudely dug earth pits, simple bamboo poles for treadles. Many of the weavers are elderly. One young man, one of the interested ones, tells us that he has learned computer skills; they have experimented with engineered skirt and blouse pieces.

So, can this group of weavers make Varanasi weaves that we haven’t imagined? I will love to see.

Ahead I see hope, excitement, and hard work.

Bhujodi to Bagalkkot 17 sm-0049“We want to weave!” They avowed, one after another, all nine of the Kamatgi Jeevadaara group. Remarkable for weavers in Karnataka today, when their community members refuse to give a daughter in marriage to a home with a loom. But in three and a half years, working artisan-to-artisan with Somaiya Kala Vidya graduates in our Bhujodi to Bagalkot Outreach project, these weavers have learned to love their tradition.

Kamatgi is the name of the village where these weavers live. We called the project “Bhujodi to Bagalkot,” because Bagalkot is the name of the District. Ten years ago, Kamatgi had ten thousand handlooms, mostly dedicated to Ilkal saris. Today there are only one thousand two hundred.

There is a lot working against the Ilkal sari. Ingenious as well as beautiful, it is the only sari made with a cotton body and a silk pallav. The cost effective and comfortable design is possible through an intricate, labor intensive “kondi system,” in which women loop each cotton warp thread with a silk one for the pallav. Today, as Ilkal saris are copied in power loom, the government is urging Ilkal sari weavers to switch to Jacquard replicas of Varanasi saris (though Varanasi weavers struggle to survive). Alternatives are simpler technologies- ikat or silk weft only- that avoid the kondi and lose the beautiful undulating pallav edge.

In 2014, when Somaiya Kala Vidya began the Bhujodi to Bagalkot Project, Kamatgi hand weavers were doing job work for master weavers or cooperative societies, earning startlingly meager wages. P.L. Hoti, secretary of Chamundeshwari Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society, saw potential in the project, and convinced five weavers to meet the weaver designers in Kutch. The idea was quick start to good markets, so that hand weavers could understand their potential. Working in teams, the Bhujodi and Kamatgi weavers created innovative collection in six months and held an exhibition in Mumbai. The fresh cotton Ilkal saris sold and the group was enthused to learn design- a key goal of the project.

Over two years, SKV brought a compressed, tailored version of the core design course to Kamatgi. The group doubled to nine members and the sari collections each year were stunning. The group named themselves “Jeevadaara“- Threads of Life. They have held two exhibitions in Mumbai and one in Delhi. Well-reputed agencies including Red Earth and Fabindia have sought them out. As of now, 90% of production has been sold.

The road has been a series of challenges- synthetic to cotton yarns, sourcing raw materials, technological changes, new colours, layouts, language and business limitations- and not least, keeping the traditional kondi.

The staunch resistance to the kondi –the wonderful distinguishing feature of the Ilkal sari- – had to be approached with creativity. The weavers have been brainwashed that the kondi is the source of their downfall! This year, our new Bhujodi team came with fresh ideas and enthusiasm. They decided to counter the resistance with marketing. Puroshottam wisely said if you charge RS 50 more for kondi saris, people will bargain. If you charge RS 1,000 more, they will ask what the difference is, and give you a chance to market! Customers have to value this very labor-intensive technique.

Danesh, Tukaram and to some extent Vithal are ready to venture. They have grown so much in three years. Tukaram says he watched how Chaman’s masterpieces sold right off at very high prices. “I think a few special, high value pieces rather than a lot of simple cheap ones is the way to go,” he says.

The weavers met all of their challenges with good humor and great solidarity.  As they graduated from the SKV course in June, the nine weavers shared their dreams for the future. They all spoke with confidence and earnestness, not a hint of shyness or hesitation. All were happy and hopeful.

One by one, they said clearly, “We want to weave!”

When we began the project, weaving was a fate, a burden. Now it is a source of pride. Learning to love their tradition was the greatest achievement we could wish. Tukaram said he wants Kamatgi weaving to reach all over the world, like SKV faculty member Dayabhai taking Bhujodi weaving to the International Folk Art Market in the USA. Whether he himself goes or not isn’t important, Tukaram said. Their work should go. Dasrath agreed: Kamatgi should be a brand. No one expressed great personal ambition. Nor did anyone speak of wealth. Dasrath wants a language course. They all would love two exhibitions a year. But at least one is a must. They want their tradition to be revered. They want to travel, see the world.

The Bhujodi to Bagalkot+ exhibition will be at the Folly Gallery, Amethyst, in Chennai 7-9 September, followed by a workshop/ demonstration at Dakshinachitra in Muttukadu, Chengalpattu 10-11 September. Kondi Ilkal saris will be featured!

After that, the world is the limit.

Aziz w Donna Karan sm-0195Over twelve years of design education for artisans, the issue of copying has emerged among artisan designers. They discuss it furtively, angrily.

Copying is a perennial issue in the world of design- and especially the world of fashion. It is an issue of intellectual property- name, but more of fame and ultimately income. So I thought of having an open discussion on coping with copying, between the artisan designer community and our 2017 jury members, who know the world of design and fashion.

Hearing about this idea, some people questioned why it was necessary for artisans? If artisans are copied, more people get work and it benefits the community, they said.

I wondered if Sabyasachi or Donna Karan would look at it that way?

Other people liked the seminar idea so much they told me they would copy it!

Copying in the world of traditional artisans is surely a tricky issue. Traditional art was made within a community for a particular community. Traditional designs were community property. Individual artisans were known by distinctions in technical skill, but not usually by design. Copying was not a concept.

But that world has changed some time ago. Traditional markets have dwindled. For decades artisans have been creating for contemporary markets. Our education program teaches traditional artisans to make unique designs- by innovating within tradition- with the goal that they will be known by their individual styles. By encouraging individual styles, I hope this will mean there is no need to copy.

But as artisans enter the design world, copying does happen.

Does it matter to artisans as much as it matters to Sabyasachi or Donna Karan?

Here are excerpts of the discussion…

Coping with Copying began by asking, who owns designs?

Azizbhai, bandhani artist, replied, Traditional work is community property. The new work you do is your own intellectual property.

Anjali Karolia, Professor at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda noted that in teaching, as in the world, the onus is on you to know what is happening- so that you can recognize copying or plagiarism.

But real designers don’t even want to copy, she said.

Meher Castelino, fashion pandit: But it happens. Rohit Bal has copyrighted many of his designs. Tarun Tahiliani exasperatedly said he wishes at least the copies would be decent so that his name isn’t tarnished. Sabyasachi is so fed up with copies that he said he feels like copying his designs himself! And Meher also faces copying of her fashion commentary.

There are professional copiers, she recounts. They make money but they don’t get known. Consumers of copies know the difference between replicas and the real thing.

Karishma Shahani-Khan, fashion designer of the label Ka-Sha: You do need to speak up when you know you are being copied. But get your work out into the world nonetheless. Believe in your work. No one can do it just like you do.

At this point, Moderator Lokesh Ghai asks the audience filled with artisan designers, who feels this discussion is relevant to them?

The entire audience quickly raises their hands.

Azizbhai, bandhani artist: When I was creating new work for participating in Lakme Fashion Week, one of my designs was out in the market before the show.

And I have another, opposite experience: one well-known company asked me to copy another artisan’s designs cheaply.

I stopped working with the one who leaked my design, and with the company.

Aakibbhai, Ajrakh artist: You need to work in two markets: one for a bread and butter line, and one for your extraordinary work. Have occasional special shows to show your real capacity.

Irfanbhai, Ajrakh artist- When developing new work, you have to try to keep it secret.

Gulambhai, bandhani artist: Copying is inevitable; big fish eat smaller fish. Copiers will make your extraordinary work into ordinary. Be practical.

But don’t let it stop you. Keep true to quality and to yourself.

Aakibbhai insists that no one can copy his work.

Lokeshbhai, Moderator: Small fish can outnumber big fish!

Poonambhai, weaver: You have to make designs that even you yourself can’t copy!

Khalidbhai, Ajrakh artist and current student: I was afraid of being copied until I took this design course. Now I know that I can make unlimited designs. I have confidence.

Lokeshbhai: How do you distinguish inspiration and copying?

Azizbhai: Inspiration comes only from nature. All the rest is copying in different degrees.

Lokeshbhai: What about taking ideas from books and the Internet?

At this, there is dead silence in the hall. The artisan designers are pausing to reflect.

Lokeshbhai: what about copying within families? We have several cases of father and son, or two brothers who have taken the course. Could you copy each other?

So far, the families are together, they say. Designs belong to the family.

Wasim Khan, Director, Lemon Design, thinks the question is apt. When families divide, intellectual property can become a bitter issue.

Anuj Sharma, Lawyer and entrepreneur, notes that the legal system is very weak. It is easy enough to copyright. But enforcement is very difficult.

Nurture your designs like your children, he says -and then let them out into the world.

Clearly, artisan designers do not think that their creative efforts should immediately be community property. Interesting enough, the jury members in just two days could recognize individual styles- and could spot “borrowing.”

The artisan designer community accepts copying as an inevitable evil. But they have no interest in copying, and they will shun those who copy or want them to copy. Work with people you trust, they concur. They want to create, and they want recognition.

Lokeshbhai: Who feels that signing your work, with labels or crafted stamps, is important?

All hands shoot up in accord.

As Emma finished her course in Rabari embroidery, she said she felt free of the bonds of perfectionism. It doesn’t have to be perfect! she discovered. Aakib told his Ajrakh student Claire not to fret over a mistake– it will be lost in the beauty of the piece, he said.

Somaiya Kala Vidya is becoming an art oasis where you can come and appreciate and philosophize.

Alternative to perfection is one thing that drew me to craft so long ago.

Perfection is a mathematical or industrial concept. Ironically, when a block print is copied in screen print, a bandhani copied in mill fabric, or an embroidery stitched on a stenciled pattern, it irons out the beauty that was meant to be preserved. Perfection snuffs out the life of a work of art.

I don’t look for perfection in craft, I recently told a visitor.

Then what do you look for? she asked.

Difficult to define…

The human touch, the person who created the work, humor, play, but above all excellence.

So, where lies excellence? Is it just short of perfection? Or is there something else? And who decides?

A visitor at our Ahmedabad exhibition, a seeker, asked, “How do you know a screen print from a block print?” I called Juned, Mubeen and Mustak- our Ajrakh students. They laughed and said, “You know! You can see it.”

So we examined some block prints. Mubeen gave a hint: somewhere you are going to see a join.

So is hand work bad work?

At a conference on handloom last year, designer Hemang Agrawal asked the audience what is the enemy of hand loom? Most people said power loom. But he said no, the enemy of handloom is bad handloom!

So how do artisans strive for excellence without needing to be perfect?

That is what the traditional artisan knows. They know that excellence isn’t perfect. Perfect is not a goal, just as perfection rarely exists in nature (the ultimate designer.)

Traditional artisans know this in a way that they distinguish from “learning.” When I asked Jivaben how she learned embroidery, she answered, “I didn’t learn it. I knew it.” That is the best definition I have ever found for tradition.

Then how does the consumer discern excellence?Traditionally clients and artisans shared a culture and they knew excellence in the same way.

And there lies connoisseurship.

Perfection is fairly easy to identify. Discerning excellence takes experience.

Arjo Klamer and Priyatej Kotipalli speak of the importance of connoisseurship in creating value, and in building a creative craft culture.

“Creative crafts come about not just because people make creative products, but also because others are able to appreciate those products. That is why we speak of co-creation: the creative crafts are a co-creation of makers, lovers and users.

An artisan’s success is first determined by the people who know, by the experts who can judge the quality, and then by others who pay attention to such judgment and are able and willing to pay the price.”

It takes time and experience to become a connoisseur. It is a journey well worth the time it takes. But connoisseurs are not usually young.

Meanwhile, artisans have some responsibility to teach their clients, in addition to making excellent work. This is part of the journey of connoisseurship, and it is part of the luxury of the human connection. That is exactly how Emma enjoyed her insight.