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Who wants their children to be artisans sm-5720.jpgfrom a translation by Nilanjan Mondal, SKV Programme Coordinator

On 24 October 2016, the artisan design students of Somaiya Kala Vidya in Kutch participated in the final jury of their eleven-month course. Jury members included world renowned designer Ritu Kumar, Anuradha Kumra, senior designer for Fabindia, Gita Ram, Chairperson, Crafts Council of India, and Reena Bhatia, Design Faculty at Maharaja Sayajirao University Baroda. That evening, SKV held a seminar for the artisan design community and this expert panel. Following is a translation of the discussion.

From Handicraft to Design Craft: Marketing Tradition in the Contemporary World

Judy Frater, Founder Director, SKV- We started SKV to take a program to an institute, because design education is important for artisans. We have reached an era where craft is in demand, but artisans, whose heritage is craft traditions, are becoming laborers. So in our education we aim to bring value to art and artisan. When we held our final presentation I saw hope in artisans and their families. As Aslam realized, craft is not just livelihood. It is cultural heritage. When artisans value this, so will the world.  There are many challenges to bringing tradition to the appropriate market. I hope this evening we can take full benefit of our highly experienced panel with an open discussion between artisans and jury.

 Shweta Dhariwal, Designer and Moderator-Let’s begin with fashion. How important for an artisan is an understanding of trend forecast?

Anuradha Kumra, Senior Designer, Fabindia –I personally feel that it is very important for an artisan to have a fair idea what is going in the fashion world. I am not saying that artisans should follow trends blindly. They are a guideline. if artisans can take some direction or inspiration it is useful. Fashion is entertainment. Everything is in fashion. You just need to interpret properly. Artisans are now going to foreign countries and participating in different exhibitions. Everywhere people have different taste. You have to know the particular market or customers you are targeting, and what to include and what not to. When we buy products for Fabindia for example, we keep in mind that West Bengal’s taste is different from Ahmedabad’s. Trend forecasts can help you understand these variations.

Ritu Kumar, Designer – I agree with Anuradha to some extent, but at the same time I also feel that fashion, colour etc. does not work in the craft sector. Whatever you are making or producing has to be appealing.

Reena Bhatia, Faculty Maharaja Sayajirao University- You have traditional knowledge but if you are not able to make products according to market demand, you will never succeed. Taste changes. We did a project with weavers of Paitani saris. They had not innovated and were not getting enough work. We kept the same colours and fabric but changed some layouts and the saris sold.

Shamji Vishramji Siju, weaver and SKV Advisor- Based on my experience, I feel that we should balance fashion and tradition. Previously we used to make dhabla/ blankets. Now we are making stoles, dupattas, shawls, etc. But all are based on our traditional design. Market demand changes every year. If you focus only on fashion, two or three years later you may lose the market, but if you keep a balance of fashion and tradition, it will give you decent business for a long time.

Laxmi Kalyanji Puvar, suf embroiderer and SKV Faculty- What do customers want in suf embroidery? I made butterfly motifs in suf embroidery. Customers at an exhibition in Mumbai did not like them because they looked like machine embroidery and were modern. I explained my concept and my work. But customers advised me to stick to tradition.

Gita Ram, Chairperson, Crafts Council of India- If your design is good, colours are good, the quality of the fabric is good and you are in the right market then you do not need to think so much. Your product will sell.

Laxmi Kalyanji Puvar- I understand that, but I still want to know exactly what the market wants?

Ritu Kumar- The Market does not know what it wants! You have to show it what it wants!

Dahyalal Kudecha, weaver and SKV Faculty- We always talk about customers’ demands. What about artisans’ desires? Do we ever think what artisans actually want?

Anuradha Kumra- I would like to point out that you artisans actually brought market-oriented product innovation. I joined Fabindia in 2008 and that time there was a huge demand for short kurtas. The demand for dupattas was going down. You brought us stoles with the designs and colours of dupattas and it worked out tremendously. So you innovated on the product using a balance of market demand and tradition. Fabindia is proud to give you a platform where you can showcase your designs, your traditions, and your creativity.

Juned Ismail Khatri, Ajrakh Printer- Originally only three ajrakh products were made: a lungi, a turban and a shoulder cloth. Now you will find at least twenty ajrakh products. Allah has given us brains. We just need to use them. If you know how to balance between tradition and the fashion world, you do not need to think about how to get an order.

Adil Mustak Khatri, Bandhani Artist- Should craft be mass-produced? If the same design is replicated in 2,000 pieces or 3,000 or meters is it going in the right direction?

Reena Bhatia- If you are the creator of the design and are replicating it without compromising the quality of the product, it’s fine. It is good that a large number of people will get products you have designed. That will help you create your own brand, your own identity in the market.

Shweta Dhariwal-  It is many artisans’ dream to work with Fabindia. But considering Fabindia’s large-scale production, small-scale artisans can’t even think of it. What possibilities do artisans with limited production capacity have?

Anuradha Kumra – In weaving we started with Shamjibhai and gradually ordered from other artisans who had limited production capacity. We did this with other crafts too. In Fabindia, you are all welcome. We understand that all products can’t be mass-produced. We send some products to only 30 out of 200 stores, and some products to only 5 stores. We have many inspiring stories. One woman from Chennai started working with Fabindia in 2008, with only two sewing machines. Today she has 150 machines and her annual turnover is 6 crore.

Khalid Usman Khatri, Ajrakh Printer- Someone liked one of my products and placed a huge order. But I am a small artisan with limited production capacity. Should I take the order or should I leave it?

Anuradha Kumra – We have a very good example, Jabbarbhai, who gets orders for 30,000/ meters of running fabric. He takes the entire order and splits it between 5 or 6 people. Everyone is happy.

 Soyab Abdulkarim Khatri, Ajrakh Printer- You mentioned brand. All design and BMA graduates have created their individual brands. But how can we promote our brands in the market? We do not get invitations from some exhibition organizers, as they do not know us. What do you suggest?

Reena Bhatia- Have patience. Ritu Kumar is now a brand but she had to struggle forty-five years. Forty-five years ago the road was not as smooth as it is now. You can use e-commerce, Facebook and other social network sites, create a blog, a website.

Soyab Abdulkarim Khatri- I have been working with e-commerce sites and I have a personal website. But I still feel that I have not been able to promote my brand.

Reena Bhatia- Don’t try to rush. Keep doing good work. If your products are good they will automatically promote your brand.

Gita Ram- And I will invite you to exhibitions in Chennai, Hyderabad and Karnataka!

Abdulaziz Alimamad Khatri, Bandhani Artist- How can we solve the problem of design copying or stealing? For example, screen printers are printing block print designs in huge quantities. What kind of designs should we make so that they can’t be copied?

Ritu Kumar- I know this is a common problem in every craft. But keep in mind that people who are copying your design will not be able to make products with the same quality as you make. People copy because your work is good and there is a demand in the market. If you have nothing in your hand, nobody will copy you. But copying is actually diluting. If your craft is diluted, what is its future? Don’t be de-motivated. You have design education and lots of creativity. This is your intellectual property. Someone can steal your design but no one can steal your intellectual property. Keep going forward, make new designs.

Gulam Husain Umar Khatri, Bandhani Artist and SKV Advisor- As a traditional artisan, I feel that whatever happens, we should not lose our confidence. We have to be strong. As a real artisan we should make only quality products. Never compromise quality.

Khalid Usman Khatri- What should I do if, for example, I am asking Rs 500 for a particular product and the customer says Rs 450? If I do not sell it in that price he will go to another artisan.

Anuradha Kumra; – There is no right answer. You need to take decisions individually. I would say customers need to be more sensitive, and artisans should avoid competition among themselves. Otherwise it will be dirty.

Khalil Usman Khatri, Ajrakh Printer- We all know that Khadi Bhandar is a central government organization. A few months ago I bought some khadi from Khadi Bhandar, Bhuj. I had some doubts about the quality. Judyben confirmed that was not khadi. How can we find quality materials when we can’t trust a government agency?

Gita Ram – This is really unfortunate. There is a lot of corruption. The only recourse is for you to be knowledgeable and careful when you buy materials.

Shweta Dhariwal- Besides quality materials, what else do artisans need to consider to become successful in business?

Reena Bhatia- I feel that they should think of environmental sustainability. If artisans can focus on water use, how to store the rainwater and recycle dye baths, and even set up solar panels in workshops it will help to promote businesses and brands. Sustainability can be a selling point for products.

Shweta Dhariwal- How can the government provide for craft development?

Ritu Kumar- The government has a handicrafts development board, money, power, and facilities, and can assist craft development. But its role should be restricted to dispensing money and providing facilities to artisans. It should not interfere in design and marketing. I really object that the government calls for tenders in hiring designers. They select the designer who gives the lowest budget! Tell me how many good designers would apply in that situation? This has an adverse effect.

Sandeep Issrani, English Teacher, SKV- I feel that there is a lack of awareness about craft. We could increase awareness by launching a campaign about SKV’s work in schools, colleges and other institutes. Our design and business graduates can help us spread awareness.

Gita Ram- That would be a good direction, and I would like to tell you that in the South- in Hyderabad, Karnataka and Chennai- there are already craft teachers in every school.

Reena Bhatia – If I had never tasted jalebi I could never choose jalebi as my favorite sweet. The same is true with craft. If people do not know craft, how could we expect them to buy it? We have to increase customer awareness of craft.

Shamji Vishramji Siju- For the last few years we have already been bringing students from schools and colleges in Bhuj and Madhapur to Bhujodi. They spend the whole day observing the process of weaving and go back and share with their parents.

Shweta Dhariwal- SKV is doing artisan-to-artisan outreach, with artisan designers of Kutch guiding weavers from Bagalkot and embroiderers from Lucknow. Maybe SKV could do a project where artisan designers and faculty work with students of schools and colleges in Kutch.

Lokesh Ghai, Designer and SKV Governing Council Member – How can artisan designers and urban designers work together?

Ritu Kumar- This is a very important question for the next century. When an artisan becomes an artisan designer, s/he can develop designs and provide them to the world. I understand that many of the young generation feel that craft has a limited future. But you are the future of traditional craft. You have a tremendous resource. Do not dilute it.

Shweta Dhariwal- Let’s hear from this year’s soon-to-graduate artisan designers. What was your experience this year?

Mustafa Khalid Khatri, Ajrakh Printer- I had been block printing for two years. I did not want to be a job worker. I wanted to move ahead. The design course at SKV really brought changes in my attitude and thinking level. I gained the knowledge to describe my work and sell my products in the high-end market. SKV helped me open my mind.

Razak Anvarali Khatri, Bandhani Artist- SKV provided me confidence to make different kinds of designs and target the high-end market. I can play with design principles and hope people will like my work.

Poonam Arjan Vankar, Weaver- I have been weaving for the last 20 years. I have participated in various exhibitions. SKV helped me become more confident. Now I can see a bigger dream. If we do our craft well, there is great scope. We can be more successful than if we do a job.

Reena Bhatia- Can we all make a promise? How many of you will promise that you will teach your craft to your children?

(Here, the entire audience enthusiastically raises their hands.)

Abdulaziz Alimamad Khatri- I have the answer to your question. Today I came here with my daughter. I am a design graduate, but I never told my daughter to learn craft. Rather, I always respect her individual preferences. But now she is interested in craft, and she is learning bandhani from me. So it is a live example. We have already started the process.




Pachan sari lt sm-4491
Years ago when I was researching Rabari textile traditions, I noticed that when Rabari women made applique quilts they always used new fabric. It seemed odd in a culture in which every resource, everything material, was consciously considered and carefully conserved. Then I realized the perfect economy of their garment construction. There was absolutely no fabric waste to conserve. So for ceremonial quilts, reserved to honour guests, they purchased cloth. But for everyday, Rabari families used quilts that were in fact practically patched from old garments and amazing aesthetic sensibilities.

All of these practices of Rabari women were governed by awareness and value. They knew the value of the fabrics of their lives. They cut the wool from their sheep, spun it by hand, walked the yarns over to the neighboring weaver, and when the shawls were woven and hand dyed, they collected them, stitched them together and decorated them with hand embroidery. Therefore they conserved them. And when the fabrics wore beyond several re-purposings and any possible further use, the Rabaris respectfully gave them to the sea.

Dorothy Burnham in her classic book, Cut My Cote, writes of the relationship between the cut of traditional garments and looms. “With today’s ease of manufacture we take textiles for granted and the wasting of cloth does not worry us. But for those closer to the processes of production the attitude changes, and an extreme economy of material was practiced in the cutting of traditional garments. …Full benefit was obtained from it and nothing was left over.”

Contemporary India views tradition through the lens of the industrial model.

Although machines have taken over the work of essential, hand made traditions continue to be considered in terms of productivity, and fixation on productivity has led society to perceive artisans as under-productive, poor guys needing a hand. Government policies view craft as languishing, and subsidize handloom artisans to produce plain white cotton-polyester sheets for the Indian Railways, and yardage for children’s school uniforms, while higher value products such as saris and dupattas are woven in volume by power looms.

Clearly, the sustainable practices and creative capacity of craft are grossly under-valued.

But elsewhere, a hopeful change in psychological climate is happening. People are speaking of a creative economy and cultural consumption. Damage to the environment, and financial recession have forced people to re-think their values. Consumer demand has shifted towards value-centered products that meet emotional as well as functional needs. People are buying hand made as a unique and also ethical route for consuming objects. They consider buying the unique as an experience, and a new way of signaling connoisseurship.

On Black Friday, November 25, 2011 Patagonia, a popular outdoor clothing and gear company, launched an astonishing campaign, “Don’t Buy this Jacket.” “It’s time for us as a company to address the issue of consumerism and do it head on,” the spokesperson said. “The most challenging, and important, element of the Common Threads Initiative is this: to lighten our environmental footprint. Everyone needs to consume less.”

Less product, more value: Cultural consumption.

This is the original model of the Rabari women. Vishramji Valji, a master weaver in a Rabari village in Kutch describes it eloquently, “Rabaris were our fixed clients and we had a personal connection. The feeling of the weaver, in the time of our ancestors, was that he would weave for the one who would wear his work, wanting to make it good, strong, so that as the weaving was used and until it wore away the owner would remember the artisan’s name.”

This is the essence of traditional craft.

Cloth was woven as a part-time occupation, in lulls of the agricultural cycle. Production was close to customized, and fabric lasted, was valued, and up-cycled before the term was coined. Artisans did not need to produce so much.

Traditional production was not faster, cheaper and more standard; it was slow, valuable and infinitely rich with character.

In the current issue of Selvedge magazine, Lucy Siegle writes on “The True Cost of Fashion.”

Traditions can demonstrate an alternative. Value will genuinely guide us from rampant consumerism to sustainable, cultural consumption.

The education for artisans program with which I have been working for a decade seeks to change the perception of the value of the artisan and the hand made, to increase value rather than volume, and improve the quality of life for people and planet.

Today, young artisans about to graduate reflected on their year of design education.

Aslam Abdul Karim Khatri, “As a production printer, I saw my craft as “roji-roti.” But in learning design, I realized that the tradition is far more important. It is our heritage and we need to value and maintain it.”

Pachan Premji Siju, “I already wove for a living. What I have now done with my weaving is what is important. I realized the value of one good piece compared to yards of production.”

Sohel internal jury sm-0300
A few days ago I was invited to A Consultative Workshop on Policy Challenges in the Handicrafts Sector in Gujarat.
Since I have pretty much avoided government after several frustrating experiences, I had to take a deep breath and alter my perspective. In the end, it was a worthwhile exercise, and I am sharing here what I came up with.

So here is what I recommended that the Government can do for craft, in three parts:

First, reimagine craft and artisans– if that is possible. There is an internationally shared perception about artisans in developing countries that is deeply embedded. I come across it constantly. Here are a few recent examples:

*A designer for a high end western company was annoyed that an Indian artisan should sell his work in a western country at western prices. She thought that it should be valued at his daily income in his country.

*An agency to which I submitted images of artisans studying in our Business and Management course wanted images of our process. Education is our process.
*Our website designer similarly felt we needed to include images of artisans. I had to explain that the men and women in the classes ARE artisans.
They both expected to see women wearing veils bent over their work- no faces necessary; workers.

*Talking of co-design, one company said they loved co-design, and then sent me the standard spec sheet with nary a hair’s breadth for variation. They wanted a technician, a worker.

We need to change the bechara perception of artisans, to think of them as artisans, not workers. We need to find a new language for discussion, not “languishing,” “helping” or “saving.”

We need to think of artisans as professionals, and encourage entrepreneurship, self-reliance, self-respect, responsibility.

This means thinking in terms of opportunity rather than subsidy.

Do not even think of craft and industry in the same discussion. Encourage two separate markets. Rahul Jain recently wrote a very thought provoking article in Mint about this.

Do not think of craft wherein the goal is big production, faster, cheaper, more standard. This will, hopefully! eliminate ideas such as hand loom for railway sheets, polyester school uniform yardage, and towels. Craft should aim for a high end, luxury market.

Access to quality raw materials. This means
*Easy loans
*Information on suppliers- a sample bank with contact information

Accessible Education in design- in terms of language, culture, timing and cost
Accessible Education in Business, Management and Entrepreneurship

Information on markets, perhaps an annotated dynamic data base- a Wikipedia of domestic and international craft markets

Marketing opportunities that are good- carefully selected venues, good advertising campaigns, good mailing lists- and good sales
Artisans can be called to apply to events and selected on a juried basis- transparent and fair, with feedback on making more saleable products next time

Effective, easy to access Health care/ insurance policies
Provident funds or the equivalent

Market craft. The Gujarat Government has proved very capable in marketing- note how they have marketed tourism! Get a high profile brand ambassador
Craft can be marketed as a great and wonderful resource, not a good deed

Provide an exclusive market for replicas of the excellent National or State Awards – one of a kind or limited editions

Encourage higher end shops

Make schemes easy to access and easy to implement
Work transparently and honestly as partners, to facilitate

When thinking this through, I remembered an interview I did in 2003 with Dr. Ismail Khatri, Ajrakh master and recipient of an honorary doctorate from DeMontfort University in UK. Asked what the Government could do for artisans, he replied:

“Provide good roads, clean water, reliable phone and mail service, and relevant education within a reasonable proximity of villages. In addition to that, socialized medicine and effluent treatment would benefit us a lot. If the Government just provides these basic facilities, we can take care of crafts. If we can devote our energies fully to our work, there is no need of subsidy.”

lilies sm-0022Gratitude is the key to happiness. I heard that on a TED talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast, a monk and interfaith scholar. I was on a long flight and had exhausted all of the movies I thought worth seeing. So I listened to the TED talk. At first I thought it was hokey. But when I listened, I realized he had an important point. Simple, but true. Gratitude makes you happy. In addition, a friend of mine was doing gratitudes every day, so I started to think about things for which I am grateful.

One is the lilies in the courtyard of our office. They are sort of shaggy, not the most beautiful flower. But their fragrance is intoxicating. Every evening when I leave, I make sure to stop and inhale that heavenly fragrance.

It occurred to me that there is even more that these lilies offer, a secret. When I inhale their scent, it does not diminish it. I could inhale all day, and they would still offer that delicious fragrance. The whole neighborhood could line up and inhale. That would not make their offering less. This is a lesson on giving. Many times what we fear is finite is not. If I give credit to someone, for example, it does not diminish me. Counter intuitive, maybe, but in fact it can increase value. The return factor, win-win.

Today, the gardener came, and he chopped down all of the lilies. Robust stems with fully opened flowers and bunches of buds about to open lay on the cement courtyard. I shouted at him, but he was on a task. Have shears, will cut.
What was he thinking? How can a person whose job is to care for plants chop off the flowers for which we grow the plants?

So here was one more lesson these poor lilies, cut down in their prime, could offer: don’t lose sight (or scent) of what your work really is.

This is the folly of getting handloom weavers to crank out yards of white cotton-polyester for school uniforms or bed sheets for the Indian Railways.
What are they thinking?

Be grateful for whatever beauty you can find in life, and eternally grateful if you have sense. It is not as common as we wish.

Printing Dhamadka 2-2015 sm-0208
When I reached the office yesterday, our staff, IRMA intern and guest were passionately discussing the viability of craft as business. Eventually, we got to, ‘who are the workers?’, a blog topic I tabled some time ago because I could not come up with a good answer for this question. But it is a critical question, so here goes.

First, I ask, why scale? Who says craft has to scale up? Is this simply an assumption based on an industrial-oriented society? Traditionally, craft was never done in big scale. In fact, it was a part-time occupation, in lulls of the agricultural cycle. The consumers, traditionally, were well known and production was close to customized.

The problem I have with scaling up is that it extinguishes the essence of hand made craft. If craft is mass produced, what is the meaning of hand work?

So, who are these customers today who want craft on a large scale? Young people who buy jeans and T-shirts in mall department stores? I think we need to profile the craft customer and probe deeply, and see where these customers are, what they want, and how many of them are out there.

My guess is that the customer for craft is not very interested in mass production; that is why he/she is buying craft. In Bagalkot, I asked the weavers, who is buying the hand woven Ilkal sari, when there is a power loom copy? Why does the hand loom Ilkal sari still exist? Do the customers prefer handloom quality? The kondi system? Is it sentimentality or loyalty?

Would this craft consumer not value limited editions or customization?

But we can no longer guess. We need to have data.

Eventually, the issue of scale also brings us to workers. For a long time, artisan designers have been struggling with a shortage of workers. I have fought for artisans to be recognized as more than workers. But, in order to produce craft on a larger scale, workers are needed. I sincerely hope that our design and business education programs are not simply producing more “Master Artisans.” As businesses grow, artisan designers seem to get farther from being artisans.

For now, that very well may be artisans’ goals. This is the existing model, available to them: artisans no longer working but getting work done.

To some extent, the model is a manifestation of the Peter Principle, a concept in management theory. “The selection of a candidate for a position is based on his/her performance in a current role rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.”

I am using the concept here not necessarily to indicate incompetence, but to indicate leaving excellent competence behind.

Can we envision an alternative model? A sustainable solution? Can we create a model from the original situation, in which the Artisan Designer creates his/ her own samples (at least!) and remains an artisan, using his/her best capacity?

I would like to envision small scale- designer-makers or artisan designers, doing personal-based work, deriving satisfaction from it. This is not the only model for the future of craft. It may not work for masses of artisans, and won’t work for consumers who do want huge orders. But the masses of artisans are declining, and this alternative model can be a viable option for artisans who want or need to be creative.

For men’s textile crafts: weaving, printing and dyeing, workers could be employed as artisans-in-training to fulfill orders deemed appropriate in scale, with the assumption that the workers will eventually begin their own enterprises. In this model, workers can eventually be encouraged to be creative- like Dayabhai- so that they can stand on their own feet. That is the entrepreneur model.

In the case of embroidery- and maybe bandhani- we can promote the Hariyaben model, where the Master Artisan directs but does not dictate.
This model can allow for great latitude in personal expression within parameters– of say, colour and cost. The goal could be one of a kind or limited edition.

This vision is highly diversified, relatively small in scale.
It is scaling out, rather than scaling up. The amount of work produced would be about the same- maybe more! But the diversity, de-centralization and ownership would be vastly increased.

If nothing else, at least Dilli Haat would not be so repetitive and, well, factory-outlet in nature. And craft could become more like craft.

Somaiya Kala Vidya’s imminent sister business Design Craft will be an important flagship for this model….

1. Shwetha teaching sm-2. classroom planning sm-06833. Sahasra future plan sm-0050
I had concluded through research and filming interviews with artisans in Kutch that men and women artisans have different relationships to creativity. For women, creativity is an intrinsic part of craft. They would never dream of copying. Why? When you could instead create something new and enjoy the process.

“I made 9 embroidered kanchali,” Harkubhen recalled. “And each one was different!”


Incredulous, she answered, “Because it looked good! Otherwise, people would say, ‘she only knows one thing.'”

I was pleasantly startled when we began to work with embroiderers of Lucknow. They were equally clear on the difference between inspiration and copying. And they were not interested in copying. “I don’t want to work on printed patterns,” Monisha said, unquestionably. “It is a waste of time that I could use creatively.”

“I want to work from my imagination,” Kushboo passionately stated.
Is this view of creativity embedded in the XX chromosome?
Needs further research.

To me, creativity is closely related to the concept of the Greater Good, something I have been thinking about for some time. The Greater Good is a global perspective.
If we see the world as one big whole, as shared resources and interconnected actions, our values and priorities change. It’s why I turn off the lights, even when it’s not me paying the bills. It’s why I planted trees at a rented house.

And it is why I thought of creating a design school for artisans. Because it was needed and had not been done. For years I would mutter, “They should start a design school for artisans.” It took an earthquake for me to realize there was no ‘they.’ When a reporter asked me in the freezing cold of a January morning what I would like to see come out of the earthquake, I said, “A design school for artisans.” And so I had to take it on.

I received an Ashoka Fellowship to develop the curriculum. A key goal of that design education curriculum was to increase diversity and decrease dependence. Finding and following one’s unique identity automatically results in diversity. There is no duplication in nature. What an amazing concept! It must lead to a deep respect for diversity. In the 136 artisans I have nurtured over nine years, I did not see any duplication. None. And what I learned is the wonderful secret that if there are 136 different styles, it multiplies the potential for 136 artisans to successfully survive in the equally diverse market! We educate artisans so that they can develop their individual niches in the market rather than depend on us to sustain them (or vice versa!)

I initially thought that design and entrepreneurship were for everyone. I now realize that not everyone can be an artist. No everyone wants to be. But those who have the imagination, talent and desire should have the opportunity to reach their potential.

Somaiya Kala Vidya is working with these individual artists, guiding them to scale out.

Taking a global perspective, we can avoid duplication of effort- and creating unnecessary competition. If we see the world as a whole, we can choose to work where work is needed. Respect for diversity and global perspective means understanding that there is a lot of work to be done. If one need is being met adequately, it makes better sense to support it, and think what ELSE needs to be done.

Duplication is wasteful in many ways, including wasteful of spiritual energy.

As women artisans have quietly demonstrated, repitition is the antithesis of creativity, and the limitation of diversity. We can learn the simple way of creativity from them. If Varsha ben did something nice- good. I will do something else. Monghiben is doing that? Good. I will do this. This way, a tradition grows, organically, applying creative capacity for the Greater Good.

3. meeting w chikan embroiderers sm-0269

18. Chikan in the market today sm-0399

16. thinking layout sm-0387

19. Our group on a field trip sm-0411
Mohsin was my introduction to Lucknow. Grandson of a Shilpguru in chikan embroidery, he met us in Kanpur Central to make sure we got to Lucknow comfortably. He looks like Johnny Depp in his younger years, with amber eyes. But that was not it. He just took my heavy backpack from me without a second thought. My heart melted. Chivalry lives in Lucknow!

Laxmi, Tulsi and Tara, three suf embroidery BMA graduates, Jaspal, an expert in chikan, and I boarded the train to Lucknow with Mohsin, to begin the second of our Artisan-to-Artisan outreach programs.

The concept of the program is to share the benefits of artisan education and begin to scale the Design Craft movement.

As with Bhujodi to Bagalkot, the Artisan Designer graduates will work one on one with artisans in a less exposed area- a sort of kick start to demonstrate that innovation in traditions, and design education can be beneficial. This gives the Artisan Designers an opportunity to expand their capacity by working as designers with artisans from other regions.

Practically focused, the program culminates in an exhibition sale. So, both groups will earn through sale of the products developed. The less exposed artisans will experience the potential of contemporary design and urban markets, and learn to take risks and benefit from venturing outside their current situation.
The overall goals of the program are to demonstrate that design is an effective and efficient means of insuring the sustainability of traditions, and to motivate artisans to consider design education.

The first two days we explored, trying to understand chikan embroidery and its current scenario. We began with Mohsin’s grandfather, Ayub Khan, perhaps an ironic icon. He is blind. He won the National Award for chikan embroidery and is a Shilp Guru. Dynamic and refreshingly forthright, he supervises a group of women embroiderers, mostly family members. But for him, chikan is a memory.

Chikan is different from most Kutch embroidery in many ways. First, it seems to be a courtly professional tradition, like the Mochi aari work that was patronized by royalty and elite in Kutch, rather than a folk art. Still, I tried to discover who are the original artisans, to go back as far as possible. Chikan has been commercial for so long that people have lost interest in history and meaning. The embroidery has become like bandhani work in Kutch- wage labor for women.

Ayub Khan says the traditional artisans are from just five kandans- one his own family. He says the origin was a traveling stranger who pulled threads from a fabric and showed someone how to embroider with them- like the fakir in the bandhani origin story.

So the thread and fabric were one, and chikan is traditionally white on white. Its beauty is texture. It is like a black and white photo- it forces you to see the content. I suspect that Ayub Khan can feel the quality of work and I hand him a suf stole. Yes, he knows this work, he says quickly. He has seen it in his travels.

We venture inside, where a group of women are ardently embroidering samples for a designer. The patterns are printed in bluing and the artisans hold the fabric taut with rings. Laxmi, Tulsi and Tara immediately connect, artisan-to-artisan, and start sharing personal and technical information.

I ask one woman what she is embroidering?

A kurta, she answers.

Have you ever seen the finished pieces?

She smiles wryly, no.

For me, it is hard to discern the quality of work done on the thick, sloppy blue lines. She seems to see these as guidelines, sometimes going to one side or the other. I ask, has she ever seen her own work after the fabric is washed?

Again, no.

So there is no ownership here, no connection to the work, really. It is just work. I ask her if she ever thinks of doing her own patterns? (Later I ask in the company of men, and one quickly answers “no, how could she? She just follows the pattern.”) But this woman says, “Of course!”

I ask if she ever thought of doing her own work?

Immediately she asks, “But where would I sell it?”

Quick and eager, the suf artisans conclude from their own interviews that there is a lot of interest in women doing their own designs. They have particularly identified two women. Next day, we return to talk to them. We have explained the project to Ayub Khan, and he says it is interesting. But when we ask the two women if they want to participate, he is bluntly discouraging. One woman hesitates, obviously torn. She wants to participate. But she is getting married in a few months. “Don’t lead them on,” Ayub Khan tells her. She knows her in-laws will not allow her to work. The other artisan, very young, is discouraged as well. One more name is suggested, to which Ayub Khan’s response is, she is without responsibilities, and too free. You cannot depend on her. Unfortunately, he was right.

Meanwhile, we meet a woman who does daraz, a wonderful applique joining technique which is almost forgotten. She has an eye condition that needs immediate attention, and her daughter is pregnant and suffering from severe, debilitating back pain. Another master artisan who shows us incredible work has no time and no interest in the project. Her son, who also embroiders, shows us an exquisite piece that he has framed. He wants to sell it, he says.

“NO!” we shout in unison. What would you have for inspiration? Make another one! He says he does not have a market. Superb workmanship and no market? What is wrong with this picture?

Then we meet Khushboo. She is staying with her mother, a shrewd, self-sufficient woman, in a tiny room with a tiny shop attached. Khushboo looks after the shop while her mother hears about the project, calling out periodically, “Mom! How much is this?” They like the project and when her mother relieves her and Khushboo comes back, she quickly bonds with the three suf artisans. Not just artisan-to-artisan, but young adult-to-young adult.

Jaspal had short-listed these artisans. Lucknow has a mind-boggling work force. One point two lakhs! People tell us again and again. The first night in Lucknow, Jaspal organized a public presentation of the project at Sanatkada, an active not-for-profit organization founded and run by Madhavi. Madhavi has succeeded in bringing together a select group of people who care deeply about culture. Interesting, there is a clear sense that chikan is an important part of a shared, cherished culture. It is our “pehnava,” one woman explains. This contrasts with the distinctive community-specific embroidery styles of Kutch.

There was concern in the group- will your project somehow dilute chikan? We assured them that the intent was to encourage artisans to innovate within their own tradition. And there was that concern about what will happen to the 1.2 lakhs of artisans whose lives depend on embroidery. I explained that it is not a question of abandoning markets. Neither do we need to create a market for chikan. You can put chikan in a dark room and it will sell. But the artisans could get more out of it.

The third day, we began the project. Madhavi generously opened the doors of her organization for the workshop. We waited to see who would show up. Khushboo was there, ready to go. A male artisan came, with another, older woman who was impressively knowledgeable about chikan. And Khushboo’s aunt and cousin arrived. By then, it was late morning. I introduced the project. Jaspal showed a presentation on chikan, and I showed one on suf. By then it was lunch time. By the time we organized that, it was too late to visit the museum. So we adjourned.

Day four, we waited again to see who would come.
And again I will call our partner artisans brave, to venture out of their comfort zones into the unknown. Women always face more challenges. We were told clearly that they have to obey their fathers, their brothers and their husbands. Not negotiable. So in the end, Khushboo and Manisha, two cousins, signed on. They are definitely courageous- as are their mothers.

We presented them with simple designing tool kits. Then we reviewed the presentations of the previous day, asking Khushboo and Manisha to identify the distinguishing characteristics of each tradition. Observation and analysis were new for them. We worked patiently. Colour was the main difference they saw. Finally they distinguished geometric and organic forms. Then Laxmi, Tulsi and Tara conducted a discussion of collections and costing, providing big picture planning for the October exhibition. They were excited, eager.

I asked Khushbhoo and Manisha to draw some chikan patterns. Manisha began immediately, finding quick, pure satisfaction in creating forms. Khushboo hesitated. I don’t know how to draw, she said. Mahendi was twining around her left arm. Who did that? I asked. She smiled. I gave her the pencil and permission, and she drew, enjoying it. The suf artisans led a discussion on garments, placement, layout and detailing. Then we all went to the bazaar to see contemporary chikan, and visited a pattern printer.

I was excited to purchase genuine chikan from the source, for friends and family. The amazing thing is that Lucknow is a sea of chikan. Everywhere you look there are chikan shops. Yet, when I asked where to find Good chikan, people all scratched their heads. They could only come up with the name of one shop! And in that sea I saw little design. The chief design concept seemed to be ‘fill it up’- all over patterning. I went back this time empty handed.

The final day of our workshop began with an inspiration trip to Bada Imambara.
Architecture, mahendi and chikan all express the same visual language. It is lyrical, floral and above all textural. On return, Khushboo and Manisha worked enthusiastically on layouts using this language. They dived in like the famed Lucknow fish into water. At the end of the day, they made embroidery sketches on hand-drawn patterns, with no hesitation at all. Laxmi commented that chikan is more time consuming than suf.

Someone at the Sanatkada program had stated that the oldest chikan was not printed but hand drawn. Printing patterns for repeat is an industrial concept, to make work faster, cheaper and more regular. Perfection was important in Nawabi architecture. But the natural forms on which the detailing is based are neither regular nor symmetrical. What if artisans could embroider like nature– or mahendi?

By the end of the day, Khushboo and Manisha had their plans for sampling clear, and were eager to start. We gave them fabric to begin. Laxmi, Tulsi and Tara were filled with their own ideas for the embroidery duets.

Finally, we all celebrated Laxmi’s birthday. I think it is one she will remember.

I am eager, too, to see what these artisans will create. And I think about the 1.2 lakhs of women whose livelihood depends on chikan. Are earning a living and getting satisfaction from your work mutually exclusive? If even some artisans can enjoy some of the excitement of Khushbhoo and Manisha would that not be good? And if unique, quality chikan could bring them better wages, would that not be even better? I dream of design education for these artisans too.
More to come.

1. choosing products sm-0032

Bishakha teaching crop sm-2

3. photo planning sm-0039Two days ago, the women artisans of Sahasra stayed overnight, after a long and intense workshop. Somaiya Kala Vidya has become a safe and nurturing place for them. And in the morning they were in no hurry to leave.

I updated everyone on their business mentorships. We might have to work to encourage the concept of co-design, I observed. I forgot that not all designers are aware of it.

And we informally slid down the tunnel of the safe haven, into a discussion on how artisans are perceived. Bishakha, who had taught the workshop, mentioned what I so often hear: When people learn that she is going to teach artisans, they say, ‘oh, so you are giving them designs.’

Zakiya related that at the BMA show in Mumbai someone had said to her,
“You are so smart- and you even know English! Why are you wasting your time on craft?”

Bishakha shared that when she was a student and decided to go into design, her parents warned her, dear, don’t become a tailor, now!

The suf artisans lamented that in their village people feel that when a girl does not go on in studies, she does embroidery. Zakiya agreed. It’s not just that way for women. Parents of boys also say, “If they can’t do well in education, they go into craft.” I remembered years ago meeting a weaver at an exhibition and telling him I was happy his son was there with him. “Well,” he answered, “He didn’t pass tenth grade. What else could he do?”

I remembered a famous essay of 1969 by Jerry Farber, “The Student as Nigger.” Harsh words, and when I tracked it down it was too strong to put in this blog for India in 2015. But there is a parallel nonetheless. The system has kept artisans in a stifling box.. How will we ever unlock this system? I wondered.

I asked the artisans why art and craft are seen differently? We talked about the role of the critic. I told them the wonderful story of how a visionary critic had made the world see the quilts of Gee’s Bend as art. We need a brand ambassador! They exclaimed.

Then we looked at Raza and Anish Kapoor on the internet. And soon everyone was absorbed… because after all, the difference between artist and artisan is a social fabrication.

1. Lakkhi co-designs2 sm

2. Lakhi co-designs sm-1
I was looking forward to speaking at a recent NIFT Alumni Meet at the Mumbai India Fashion Forum. But, it was not in the cards. The plane never took off from the Bhuj airport. The pilot tried but luckily he was careful enough not to fly a defective plane. There I was with a powerpoint I was quite pleased with, and a message for young NIFT designers. So here goes, readers, this one is for all of you now. I hope it strikes a chord…

Looking through the galaxy of fashion stars gracing the India Fashion Forum event, I wondered where does craft fit? Here is craft- the embodiment of heritage, timelessness- or at least slowly changing, and there is fashion- fast, sleek, and inherently fleeting. It feels a bit uneasy to be on the same platform.
And truthfully, many times the use of craft in fashion visually conveys this uneasy fit.

So, what I want to discuss is, how to bring craft gracefully into fashion….and more important, especially for artisans, the how to use this as an opportunity to improve craft’s value?

Value is the question. How do we value craft?
Recently, a faculty member of a local institution visited my office. We wanted to see how his management students could help our artisan students. He suggested branding and marketing. I told him what they really need is to increase the value of their work, because artisans struggle to earn a fair livelihood.

Suddenly, his demeanor changed. “If they are struggling, why is craft so expensive?” he asked.

There it was: “So expensive.”
The question is, compared to what?

I believe that the root of the issue of value for craft is the perception of artisans.
Most people today perceive artisans as workers. However, if we instead understand artisans as key guardians of cultural heritage, a new approach emerges.

Next is the perception of cultural heritage itself. Cultural heritage is invaluable. It is more than product. It is story, history and language. Cultural heritage is India’s identity and USP. And I believe it can be used to create an edge in the market.

So, the design challenge is to innovate on traditions for the contemporary market- without losing the essential identity. The challenge is not to make craft elements “not ethnic,” not to separate “technique” and “content,” but to embrace tradition and innovate appropriately. I believe that the individuals who can best do this are the keepers of cultural heritage: the artisans themselves.

For designers, the challenge is thus to engage artisans in co-design, as equal partners. Co-design rests on mutual respect and value. This means valuing artisans as well as the art. I believe we can do this by taking a multi faceted approach. And all of the facets require education.

One facet is our part, the approach of consumers and designers. When we speak of craft and artisans, we use words like “languishing” and “intervention”. The underlying perception seems to be patronizing- “these poor guys…” We need to find a new language, and changing the perception to do so requires education, especially practical education: contact and experience.

Simultaneously we have to educate artisans to enable co-design. For the past decade, through Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya and now Somaiya Kala Vidya, I have been involved in educating artisans in design and business. The intent is to teach artisans to define and appreciate their traditions, and then to vary them.

By now, we happily have 136 graduates. They are clearly examples of the transformative power of education. If we empower artisans, they will innovate with cultural integrity, raising their value as artisans and sustaining traditions. These artisan graduates have demonstrated their ability to meet urban designers comfortably on an equal platform.

Finally, in my own education on this amazing journey of artisan education, this year’s subject was the importance of ownership. Ownership, is a great motivator, and generator of creativity and quality. If we can insure ownership, people do their best work. (and this goes well beyond the realm of craft!) A Kashmiri woman I met at a conference on creativity related how she was baffled to see a highly regarded artisan in a workshop doing lackluster work. She asked him what the problem was. He answered simply, “I can’t relate to these designs.”

We can eliminate such problems, and mobilize the full potential of artisans.
When artisans own the results of their work, the question of quality- not only technical but also aesthetic- is organically resolved.

Despite increased capacity, traditional artisans do continue to face challenges in earning a fair livelihood. As stewards of cultural heritage, they need clients who understand and appreciate the value of their traditions. To meet these clients, they face barriers of language, culture, and experience of a range of markets. Artisans often have limited working capital and knowledge of raw material sources.

We can work together, through the world of fashion, to raise the value of craft. What I envision is a world where urban designers and artisan designers can meet on the same platform, where they can work together to use each others’ strengths in ways that allow creativity and ownership. This, true co- design offers the potential to develop fresh, exciting, mutually satisfying, and above all doubly valuable fashion!

1. Kala Vidya khazana sm-1822

2. Dhabeli at the Taj sm-0400

3. Craft Re-Defined front-
“We’ll have fun!” were the words that arrested me as I headed toward Somaiya Kala Vidya. The idea brightened my day.

I had earlier identified two factors critical for success:
The “Into it” factor, and
The “Go for it” factor

Now, I find the third one: The Fun Factor.

One recent evening Adil, a current artisan student, calls in a panic. He is in charge of photographing for the invitation to Craft Re-Defined, their final exhibition, and he knows the photo isn’t right.

I and our intern from the Institute for Rural Management just happen to be near the studio. I ask, should we come?

He says yes, and sends out for dhabeli and strong chai.

A team of students is on the job. When we get there, we all brainstorm, verbally, visually. Adil really wants an image of stoles of each artisan pouring out of a trunk. But it is static and silent (and if the truth be told, it is a bit of a cliché). Time to think out of that proverbial box. We try a close up, my idea. We try a perspective shot, Adil’s idea. We try pots- Harshad, my photographer friend, and Zakiya’s idea.

Zakiya realizes that while it is important to them to include each and every craft, if not each artisan, it isn’t working visually. She suddenly understands editing at a deep, useful level. Wow!

Santosh, the IRMA intern, says he has an idea- put the artisans in it with their faces covered- the unknown artisan.

I yelp!
That is just what we are re-defining! The faceless worker, the hands without a head…

We edit, try fewer stoles with the pots, zoom in on the details.
Then Santosh quietly says he had a flash- what if we have the row of stoles with the artisans’ faces peeking out.

Eureka! It’s brilliant- the Artisan Designers in the picture!
and in doing it everyone had FUN!

We knew it was right. The fun shows in the image, engages us- perfect for an invitation.

So that is the importance of the FUN factor. It sings in the work.
See you at Craft Re-Defined! ARTISANS’ gallery, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai… 3-6 December, 2014