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.

Lately I have been writing about Craft as Sustainable Luxury. I love writing, and especially when it involves grappling with concepts, pushing the boundaries, provoking, and coming up with a great new idea.

How often do I do this?

Well……the truth is, rarely. And these days, it is pretty much when I am asked to. Or, rather, to see it from another perspective, when there is an opportunity.

Raise your hand if this is true for you, too.

Opportunity is a key factor for using one’s potential. You can of course create your own opportunities. But opportunity is a catalyst.

So a new role I find us developing in our work with artisans is insuring opportunities. Finishing a course in Design, or Business and Management, is not the end. As Mukhtar said, “We thought we were at the end. Now, we realize we are at the beginning!”

A glance at the artisan designer What’s App groups indicates Somaiya Kala Vidya’s institutional development. As we grow, the opportunities for graduates to create new designs come to us, and we pass them on.

Two groups are designing and producing décor for hotels.

A number of artisans this year created new work to apply for the World Craft Council Award of Excellence, and the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

Many will be creating for the official opening of Design Craft.

One group is enthusiastically developing a collection for a fashion show.

A team is teaching Craft traditions to international students.

Most exciting, thirteen artisan designers are busily Co-Designing collections via What’s App with students of the University of Wisconsin.

It feels like a blessing and a bright new world for artisan designers.

Mukhtar stopped by the office the other day. He had just come back from an exhibition in Mumbai and was flushed with exhilaration. “I wanted you to know that I still remember you; I’m still here,” he laughed. He was heading for another show in Ahmedabad, and then finally to the class’s final exhibition- also in Ahmedabad, in just a few days!

“Of course the products will be different! ” he laughed again.

But now he is thinking of being more selective. As opportunities come, he wants to weigh them and decide which to take. It’s a great position in which to be.


The Design Course 2016 is over.
After six intense courses and nine months of hard work, last month we completed the two-day jury, in which our artisan designer students present their work to professionals in the design and craft world.

Every year it seems to become more complex. The artisan students strive to understand and translate themes and concepts, to innovate and carry forward their deep, ancient traditions.

They yearn to succeed.
“But they can’t all succeed,” one jury member said.

I’m not sure if I agree.

“Tell me what, what, I don’t know….what is success?” croons Bonnie Rait. “Is it doing your own thing? Or to join the rest?”

Indeed. Does it mean becoming a super star? Or is it selling well in the market one chooses? Chooses is a key here. Because choice is essential to empowerment.

“But, do they want new or traditional?” asked Izaz after his jury. He was deeply puzzled because in the same hour, the same jury members had told him two different things.

The truth is, people who know and love craft- the ones we call as the jury and the ones we want as the market, want something new, and they don’t want something new. Both are true.

Disconcerting, however, is that even while jurying students of a design course, the jury could not help but focus on technique.

This is reality too. People associate artisans with technique. Surely, technique is an important part of design. But what about the rest that comprises design– and a tradition? Weavers in Mexico, Morocco, Kutch or Assam use basically the same techniques. Of course there are differences that are deeply important to weavers. And technique itself is nuanced. In traditional work there was variety in technique, and that changed slowly and subtly over time, telling the story of where its practitioners had been and who they had met.

But to the consumer the techniques are more similar than not. What distinguishes one tradition from another is use of the technique, the combination of fibers, yarns, colours, motifs, layouts, and the final product. Any of those elements can be varied in unlimited ways to make an innovation. But only the artisan knows in his or her heart whether the essential character of a tradition is preserved. That is why artisans designing is critical to the preservation of traditions.

So what is the answer? As the jury told the students, there is no answer, no formula to design. Design is a way of seeing and thinking. It is seeing the bigger picture, the context. So in the end, the real responses were visceral, aesthetic responses.

So how does an artisan designer move forward toward success in this murky complex world?

At lunch the second day, escaping the heat, we watched The Eye Has to Travel, a documentary on Diana Vreeland. Inspiring, it was also apt. As Diana told a colleague at Vogue,

“You don’t give them what they want! You give them what they don’t yet know they want.”

Next stop, Ahmedabad– where these soon to graduate Artisan Designers will test their collections in a real market experience…..

61. Poonam FS sm-3904Poonambhai, a weaver from Varnora, graduated from the Somaiya Kala Vidya design course last year. He had actually begun the course in 2013, but at the time of the second session he had an opportunity to go to Delhi for a sale, so he went, saying he would be back in a few days. He missed the whole course and we said he could not continue. He realized he wanted to complete the course, so two years later, at age 40, he came again, starting over from course one.

Poonambhai lost his father, also a weaver, when he was only twelve years old. The family had no income, so he went to Bhujodi to learn weaving, and wove as a job worker there until he got married at nineteen. Returning to Varnora, with no savings and no business experience, he managed to make some products. Then he learned about the DCH (a government agency that deals with craft) from fellow weavers. He immediately contacted the office and was invited to an exhibition in Guwahati, Assam.

Without knowing where Guwahati was, Poonambhai went. And he earned RS 70,000– plus the subsidy the government offers. From then he has largely depended on government exhibitions for his livelihood.

In his admission interview at SKV, Poonambhai said he considers his art a means of livelihood and achieving social respect. A good design, he said, is one that no one, not even the artisan who made it, can copy exactly.

A year ago, in the Concept Development course, Poonambhai chose a subtle cool pastel colour palette from the trend forecast. He was intrigued because he had never used such colours before, he said, and he named his theme “Air.”

This week, as the Concept Development course was in session, Poonambhai breezed into our office, bright, confident, happy. He was supposed to come on Sunday, but he said he had been in a two-day meeting for a huge government program. Though Poonambhai has run after government programs for much of his life, I saw a difference. Of course he will take advantage of their opportunities. But he’s not desperate or dependent now. He knows he has better markets and good products.

He happily relates how well his collection sold and lists the people who bought pieces and ordered– high level clients, several international. He says the design course changed his life, so he sent his nephew to take it this year.

Poonambhai intently studied the theme boards that his nephew and the other students had made, and examined the experiments they were doing in weaving, printing and bandhani. He was excited to look at the 2016-17 trend forecast.

Then he asked if he could use one for his own work?

Of course.

He sat with Lokesh, the faculty member, and looked at each story. He chose one, another palette of subtle tones. And then he volunteered to go out and get print outs.

I was struck by his willingness to make this effort. No hesitation and no thought of subsidy.

I remembered Poonambhai in course one, buffering himself with an armory of excuses. He can’t hear, he can’t remember, he is too old to do these exercises… And as soon as he had he developed the theme “Air,” he wanted to change it. It needed a bright pink– something more familiar. He was upset that he could not change the colours; he was sure no one would like them. Even after Ritu Kumar chose his work for a fashion show she was presenting, he wanted to bring the old products for his final show in Mumbai.

But his collection sold- every last piece. And now he has orders on it to fill.

Poonambhai has long forgotten about his excuses, and his age.

This is the real gift in the work I do: priceless.

In our Outreach program we are teaching our core Design for Artisans course in abbreviated form, tailoring it to the groups and interspersing it with exhibitions to insure income and enthusiasm generation as well as direct implementation of the material. The Bagalkot weavers have taken the colour course and the basic design course, after which they did their second exhibition in Mumbai. Next comes Market Orientation. We had done a field trip to Fabindia and two homes immediately after the Mumbai show. Looking back, the weavers said one home they thought was a museum. The other quickly convinced them that saris could not only be RS 5,000: they could even be RS 50,000!

Last week we conducted a local Market Orientation course in Bangalore. As the weavers make saris, we focused on the sari market. They saw a range of shops from the famous sari supermarkets, Vijaylaxmi and Nallis, to the boutiques House of Tamara and Ants. They saw saris priced at RS 100,000, and purchased dhotis almost triple the cost of they ones they get at home, because they were worth it. They met Poonam Bir Kasturi, and were keenly interested in her home composting Daily Dump. And they held a trunk show at Jaya and Mohan’s yoga studio, the Practice Room, where they sold RS 33,000 of saris in two hours.

The weavers are really smart. They are on the job and understand quickly.  When they came back, they gleaned important feedback for their saris, and efficiently analyzed the segments of Bangalore plus a recent experience in Chennai, and picked out the one for themselves: the boutique, of course. Shwetha Shettar taught them in Kannada, assisted by Dayabhai in Hindi. They designed saris for different consumers in half a day, and asked confident prices.

In order to utilize this long distance trip to begin planning for next September’s exhibition in Mumbai, we then reviewed colour and basic design. We will omit the Concept course for this group, and instead introduced a sustainable way to insure future collection development by asking them to find inspiration for colour palettes from their environment.

By now, all of them have smart phones- a direct impact of the program! Tukaram has already learned some designing techniques on his. So off they went down the streets of Kamatgi, delightedly photographing walls, gardens, and cooking in process. Very fortunately, it was the weekly market day, so they got images of the dense colours of vegetables, spices and black pottery. They quickly chose favorite images and extracted colours. We had thought about how to get these colours to the dyer. Taking them to a fabric “matching center” in Bagalkot seemed a good possibility. Then we found a shade card for silk yarns in Hotiji’s office. We were planning to sneak out just a few tiny threads. But the weavers had a much better idea. They knew the local tailor supplier and ran down, bringing back a stack of boxes filled with sewing thread of every colour. They chose colours from the many spools, cut a length and put them back — free! He won’t charge us for a few meters, they said.

The best part was how much they enjoyed it all. Grown men playing. When Shwetha introduced USP, they each gave an analysis of each other, with so much love and affection. They are cooperative. I asked if it was working in the Cooperative Society or by from nature? 90% nature, they said.

They are not doing this for money. That is clear. It is about joy, creativity and recognition.

But when we got to production planning, it did become about money. They are not getting advances from their regular work these days. So there is no cushion. They have mostly paid off their loans for the project and there is now nothing to invest. Plus, they are afraid after the scant footfall in the last show. But Shwetha skillfully pointed out that over all they have sold almost everything, and the feedback of shops and individuals has been excellent and very enthusiastic. There is a constant need to bolster confidence. It will happen. Hotiji, the Society secretary, is ready to set up four looms just for the project.

Look for the colours of Kamatgi in September!

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a talk given at the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, for
“Crafting Luxury and Lifestyle Businesses.” February 2016

Two important marks of luxury are customization and hand-work.

Paradoxically, craft is often valued as inexpensive. How do we bridge this gap so that the artisan benefits, so that we can insure that quality hand work will continue?

What is the most ethical way to engage artisans in luxury work?

When I originally made this presentation, it was as a keynote address for the International Textile and Apparel Association. At that time, I was asked to consider the role of textile artisan work in the fast emerging “creative economy.” I had to think on that. Traditional craft in the contemporary world is an evolving relationship. Society evolves, the market evolves– at an ever faster pace. Artisans try to keep up their own evolution, with integrity. There is an inherent challenge, however, because craft is NOT fast. The stage at which we have arrived, which is just that: considering traditional craft in the context of the creative economy, is the most challenging yet. I do not yet have solutions, but I am working on defining the points we have to address…

To me, the key point is Value. While we celebrate the unique, how do we insure that we also value it?

There is a range of craft practiced today, from traditional to professional/ commercial. I am focusing on traditional crafts, those that are an integral part of culture, and express identity and cultural heritage, and those that are designed as well as made by the artisan.  I believe that we need to address traditional craft to keep genuinely valuable hand work not only alive but evolving.

We know there is a market for good, tradition-based craft, (which is also called “folk art.”)

In India, we are blessed with a robust urban domestic market. In addition, a growing number of artisans from India, and all over the world, have had the opportunity to attend The International Folk Art Market| Santa Fe, now considered the apex of the traditional craft market.

The IFAM |SF has been growing since 2004. Here are some statistics for 2015:

173 folk artists from 57 countries

19,000 visitors

$2.9 million of folk art sold in 21 hours

Average booth sales over $20,000

This is some good evidence that there is a market- and value- for craft with excellent design, production and market readiness.

But the Santa Fe Folk Art Market’s reach is limited. What percentage of world artisans would 173 be? And a number of these artisans are returnees who have come to depend on the market for a comfortable livelihood.

If we want to celebrate the unique, how can the other thousands of artisans all over the world find a market to value their work so that they can increase their income to an equitable and sustainable level? Because in many places, when artisans cannot earn equitably, they simply leave craft.

How are artisans going to market?

We can we learn a lot from the International Folk Art Market.

It celebrates- and values the unique. The event has been voted #1 art festival in the USA and a top 20 must-see event globally! Buyers fly in from all over the country and the world to experience this event, when surely they could buy craft closer to home.

One key to its success is the personal, joyful connection between maker and user– the original essence of traditional craft.

But, where to go from here? One thing I hear continually is “scaling up craft production.”

Funding agencies overtly or covertly make this a prerequisite for fundable projects. Sometimes scaling up is mentioned in the same breath as lauding the personal aspects of craft!  I keenly question the fit of “large scale” and “Folk Art.”

Is this simply an assumption based on an industrial-oriented society?

Who is asking for scale in craft?


Do Artisans want scale? Traditionally, craft was never done in big scale. In fact, in Kutch it was a part-time occupation, practiced in lulls of the agricultural cycle. The consumers, traditionally, were well known and production was close to customized.

My concern is that scaling up will extinguish the essence of hand made craft. If craft is mass-produced, what is the meaning of hand work? Did we not invent machines to do just this: mass produce?

The next question is, how much do artisans need to produce to be economically viable?

I asked the three SKV artisans who participated in the IFAM| Santa Fe in July 2015 their views on scale. Interestingly, they represent three levels of scale:

Junaid, a block printer does large-scale work. He said, “There is demand for scale, and an advantage, but it requires standardization, accurate costing, and a good capital base. We have both scale and quality, but we have problems with colour variation. So we work with customers who accept this.

Abdulaziz, a bandhani artist, has increased his scale to mid-range. He said, “With increase in scale, there is a compromise in quality. We need and want to increase scale. But the question is, how to do it and keep the quality?”

Dahyalal, a small scale family production weaver, said, “I don’t believe in large scale for craft. It is then not craft.”

Scaling up is the industrial model, with the goals of faster, cheaper, and more standard production. For craft and artisans, growth must engage the vital aspects of traditional art:

  1. First, folk art is hand made. It is the creation of the human hand guided by the human spirit.
  2. Folk art is slow, labour intensive,
  3. Folk art limited in production- or one of a kind, and full of quirky character.
  4. Folk art has meaning. It is the expression of cultural heritage and identity.
  5. Traditionally, folk art is crafted of natural materials, with ecologically sound practices.
  6. Folk art is produced in rural, remote regions of the world.

If artisans are not interested in scale, is it craft consumers who want scale?

Most often, the customer for craft is not interested in mass production; that is why s/he is buying craft. An informative study of craft markets done by the Craft Council of England in 2010 elaborates on what craft consumers want.[1] First, in England craft consumption is significant. 63% of the population consumes £913m/ of craft a year.

Craft consumers tend to be women, educated, older, culturally active, open and independent thinking. More important, the study defines cultural consumption and it correlates craft buying choices to current consumer trends.

English consumers value craft in terms of authenticity, quality, workmanship, and personal touch. In a time termed the Era of Consequences, consumer demand has shifted towards value-centered products that meet emotional as well as functional needs. People buy craft as a unique and also ethical route for consuming objects. They consider craft buying as an experience, and a new way of signaling connoisseurship. In short, scaling up hand craft production will not likely meet the needs of these consumers.

The study I am citing was Euro-centric, where there is a sense of “creative economy,” and hand craft is relatively rare and perceived as valuable. In applying its findings to traditional craft in developing countries there are some significant differences. In India, for example, craft is not so rare. There are large numbers of traditional artisans (as well as others who have acquired craft skills).

Foremost in this scenario is the core issue of value, which becomes aggravated with scaling up craft. In the social hierarchy of India, working with one’s hands is equated with low social status. In order to create a greater supply of lower value craft, Master Artisans, those who are economically stronger, employ other artisans as job workers at the lowest possible wages. This further reinforces the perception that the artisan is a laborer. Thus the artisan as well as the craft is de-valued.

India is not yet conscious of a creative economy. Although- as in the West- machines have taken over the work of the essential, craft continues to be considered in terms of productivity. Government policies view craft as languishing, an inferior type of production, and subsidize handloom artisans to produce plain white cotton-polyester sheets for the Indian Railways, and yardage for children’s school uniforms. Higher value products such as saris and scarves are woven by power looms.

Clearly, the essential characteristics of craft that are valued by consumers in England are not yet well recognized!

In addition, because artisans are perceived as anonymous workers- hands without heads. many good artisans aspire to not working but supervising others- the Peter Principle.

But, the cultural consumption market is not primarily price conscious. So, thinking from the needs of both artisans and consumers, can we think of enhancing value rather than volume? This would mean better wages and better quality of life for more people- horizontal expansion

Genuine enhancing of value for craft begins with perceptions of artisan and craft, from the perspectives of artisan, society and consumer. Thinking on this, and beginning with self worth of the artisan, I launched design education for traditional artisans of Kutch, which I have run for a decade. Design is recognized as valuable– til now, more valuable than craft. It was in directing the program, that I realized that a key result of the education was to encourage the unique. In 135 graduates, we had clear success in individuals emerging in better markets– and no duplication.

After operating the design course for 8 years, I realized that to reap full economic benefit, a bit of business was also needed. So in 2014, I started a course in Business and Management for Artisans. The key learning from this course was the importance of ownership, which dramatically increased capacity, and the value of artisan and craft.

Both courses end in public events.   Fashion shows compel the public to value craft and artisans in other ways. Student- planned and implemented exhibitions in prestigious venues in Mumbai provide immediate confirmation of increased value.

Design and entrepreneurship tap individual creativity and unquestionably generate higher value, as well as diversity. Diversity has in turn expanded the market. Artisan designers have increased their income from 10 to 600% and enjoyed new opportunities. Significantly, when asked when they felt their craft was most valued, several artisans responded, “When we are teaching.”

Education for artisans has increased the value of the unique among artisans in one region of a developing country. From this microcosm, we zoom out to the original question: where are artisans with increased capacity going to market their work? Or, perhaps this can be re-worded: how are artisans going to tap that craft market that we have begun to define?

I would like to think of creating a model from the original situation- scaling out, rather than up. This would look like small-scale artisan designer entrepreneurs creating one of a kind or limited edition, highly valued craft. The amount of work produced would be about the same- maybe more! But diversity, de-centralization, ownership, and value would be increased, and benefit would be widely shared.

To build such artisan enterprise, we need to develop an appropriate market.

Arjo Klamer, Priyatej Kotipalli, and others at Erasmus University write of nurturing a Creative Craft Culture.[2] In such a culture, crafts would encompass what we are achieving through education for artisans:

-Young people viewing the creative crafts as a career worth striving for

-Strong traditions of apprenticeship

-A strong sense of tradition,

-Recognition of the masters; fair and effective

-A strong sense of collegiality among creative craftspeople

-A spirit of creativity and innovativeness

-A strong appreciation of entrepreneurship

– Core values and a clear sense of mission (promoting and sustaining quality, contributing to a joyful and inspiring life)

Equally critical for this culture are:

-people who know the world of creative crafts

-appreciation of creative quality

-willingness to pay

-Significant local demand as well as international interest-

So, what Artisans- and craft consumers need is a network of venues in congruence with unique work. Imagine a marketing organization that comprises small, unique venues across the country…. Or the world.

The point of developing local demand is an important one. It will insure broad sustainability. To raise the value of craft to that of design, Marketing is essential.

Consumer trends indicate directions –targeting consumers of luxury goods who are looking to signal connoisseurship in new ways, and people with ethical or ecological motivations.

Do we dare to market traditional craft as valuable for its creativity, authenticity, and uniqueness, and as luxurious for its limited edition, bespoke quality?

The final, critical third component in developing a Creative Craft Culture is:

strong intermediaries- in addition to special shops, experts, journalists, scholarship, and

intensive discussions of the works of creative crafts people.

Success is first determined by experts, then by others who pay attention and are able and willing to pay the price. As a wonderful example, three Somaiya Kala Vidya artisan designers- Dahyalal Kudecha, Abdulaziz A. Khatri, and Khalid Amin Khatri- were included in the contemporary design section of a major exhibition at the V&A Museum in UK, Fabric of India. Not only that, but it has been noticed and discussed!

We all can play a part in building a Creative Crafts Culture, insuring that unique craft traditions are not just celebrated but also valued, and insuring that artisans benefit equitably in the process.

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[1] McIntyre, Morris Haargreaves, Consuming Craft: the Contemporary Craft Market in a Changing Economy. London: Crafts Council of England, 2010.

[2] Klamer, Arjo, Priyatej Kotipalli, Lili Jiang, Dr. Anna Mignosa, Prof.

Dr. Kazuko Goto, and Thora Fjeldsted , “Crafting Culture: The importance of craftsmanship for the world of the arts and the economy at large.” Erasmus University, June, 2012.