Can our future be handmade?
Can Our Future be Handmade?
Professor Ashoke Chatterjee

Excerpts from Fifth Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay Memorial Lecture 2014

A year or so ago, the Government of India mooted a plan to assist handloom weavers by attaching a small electric motor to their looms. Official worthies further proposed an amendment to the definition of handloom fabric, a move that would be to the greater advantage of the dominating power-loom sector. The logic of the motor was to increase productivity and therefore the earnings of the deprived weavers-estimated by some at 13 million- competing against power looms, mills and imports. No questions seemed to have been asked as to why these millions of weavers were still deprived despite global demand for their production, decades after Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay had helped establish institutions and systems that were meant to empower artisans and to sustain their crafts. 

The handloom crisis erupted while Government and civil society were working in partnership to bridge another crisis: the absence of reliable data (outside of exports) about the scale and contribution of the hand sector to the national economy despite repeated acknowledgement of handcraft as a source of Indian livelihood second only to agriculture. Six years earlier, Gopalkrishna Gandhi had reminded us in 2008 that government’s heart is to be reached by government’s mind, and that facts would need to speak louder than sentiments. For this, economics must be summoned to the cause. He was referring to proclamations from high places in New Delhi that India’s crafts were a sunset activity, an exotic and quaint quite out of step with national ambitions of global power and modernity. An attitude of benign neglect would speed a sunset’s journey into night, allowing sunrise to greet a modern India cleaned of embarrassing reminders of the primitive handcrafted past, and ready to compete with Singapore and Silicon Valley.

While India’s global reputation for craft excellence remains unmatched, there are today dire predictions about the future despite all the opportunities of a massive market at home and overseas, as well as growing recognition of the importance of artisanal cultures and industries. These are acknowledged to not only protect and reinforce identity and opportunity within the global village but equally to help sustain the capacities of creativity and innovation that international trade now demands. 

The crisis demands understanding not merely because millions of Indian lives are at stake. More critical is the crisis of values and of mindsets that is the root cause. How and when did pride and confidence in India’s artisans transform into apathy and contempt, their skills dismissed as obsolescent and their culture as defeated? A nation that lacks basic data for its second largest industry is clearly not committed to it. If even economic potential is ignored or regarded as a threat to modernity and power, what chance is there for those other craft values that are cultural, social, environmental and spiritual? Has an India emerged that no longer values the need for different knowledge systems to coexist and enrich one another? Crafts and artisans are caught in a bind-simultaneously needed for cultural window dressing and dismissed as irrelevant relics. 

New Delhi accommodates some 30 ministries, departments and authorities that impinge on artisans. They do not consult. There is no sector overview, little synergy. Two key offices-the Offices of the Development Commissioner of Handicrafts and of the Development Commissioner of Handlooms-together representing the nation’s second largest industry-are nowhere near the high tables of decision making. If that was not enough both are currently attached to a Ministry of Textiles whose first concern is mass production of fabrics by mills and power looms. It does not seem odd to anyone other than ourselves that a textile ministry should be responsible for the brass, metal, stone, wood, cane and bamboo. What to say then that this Ministry is not even accountable for India’s wondrous khadi? 

One of Kamaladeviji’s colleagues, Jasleen Dhamija, has recalled that even in the early ‘fifties, economists from Western schools in the Planning Commission regarded cottage industries as non-productive welfare. Their Marxist colleagues opposed the hand sector as exploitative. Pupul Jayakar, the other great craft leader, was to recall that the only argument that seemed to make a lasting dent was that of export promotion. India then was in desperate need of foreign exchange to help build its basic industries. The global reputation of Indian hand skills was therefore an opportunity not to be missed. The Ministry of Commerce, which handled foreign trade, was made responsible for craft development. A list of exportable crafts was developed. To this day, that list represents the mandate of the Office of the Development Commissioner (Handicrafts). This explains why such classic handcrafted products as clay pots, jhadoos and chiks or items created from re-cycled materials are not the concern of this Office, even though thousands are involved in their manufacture and sale at every corner. The Khadi and Village Industries Commission may or may not be responsible for khadi. This confusion extends right down the line at state and local levels. There are no federations or fora that bring artisans together. No chambers of commerce or B-schools are bothered with their business. Artisans do not block highways and train tracks. Like farmers, they are voiceless. They commit suicide. 

Almost at the same time that influential Indian planners were declaring craft a sunset activity, the European Union could be heard proclaiming that the ‘future is handmade’.  The call from Europe is a reminder that creativity and innovation are the only human capacities available to any economy if it is to flourish and survive in today’s globalised economy. This creative ability to respond to change is embedded in cultures that harmonise the hand, eye and mind. Destroy these deeply-rooted capacities, and not just crafts but all national creativity is endangered. Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have long attributed their success in electronic, computer and automotive industries to craft attitudes embedded in their national psyche. One example is Kanazawa in Japan, now registered as a City of Crafts in recognition of “The spirit of artistic production that made possible Kanazawa’s own industrial revolution and made it the home of top engineering companies”. Switzerland, Scandinavia, Germany and Italy recognise their craft heritage in the success and precision of engineering industries as well as in design leadership. Thailand and China are making major investments in craft strategies, while the USA and UK are rediscovering the potential of their craft sectors. There is today a growing literature of cultural economies as a discipline which appreciates that cultural goods and services actually add much more value than what is realized in the market. We Indians have neglected this link despite the brilliant demonstrations that range from Dilli Haat and the Festivals of India to Titan watches and the machine tool industry of Surat. 

Perhaps a first need is a respectful acceptance of the marketplace as a space familiar to Indian artisans throughout history, and the only space that can deliver meaningful livelihoods. Today’s challenge is to empower the artisan to negotiate effectively with market forces, rather than to fear them. Gandhi’s respect for the customer, the ultimate user of the handmade, was legendary. Cottage Industries, Contemporary Arts & Crafts, Sohan, Handloom House, Sasha, landmark Khadi Bhawans and the Fabindia of John Bissell were among the craft experiences that moulded us while also delivering to artisans the possibility of dignity and hope. The challenge therefore is not one of market threat but rather fostering the capacity of artisans to negotiate effectively with the market, and effectively protect their own interest within a situation of constant change and unrelenting competition.

To do this requires building consumer awareness of craft quality and thus generating a demand for the quality that only the can deliver to markets at home and around the world. Demand requires awareness and awareness begins with education- education that can sensitise the Indian child and tomorrow’s consumer to her craft heritage and its relevance to her own well being. An important opportunity is now available through the craft curriculum offered to Indian schools through the NCERT. India’s artisans themselves represent a great educational advantage. They are unmatched in their ability to communicate through their hands an understanding of materials, technology, function and aesthetics. Yet our master artisans are excluded as educators as they lack the formal degrees and certificates of the so-called qualified. Education and awareness cannot be restricted to formal and informal channels of education. The father-to-son and mother-to-daughter channels to which crafts have been passed through generations represent not just vocational education and training but lessons in aesthetics and human spirits that no school can match. Today these traditional channels can be challenged by the need to distinguish between craft paramparas on the one hand and the issue of caste barriers and of child labour on the other. What education must offer to the children of artisans is the option of a hereditary profession by choice and not by compulsion. For other children, it should be the option to join and to participate in a shared legacy of heritage. This is not an impractical dream. It is happening in Maheshwar, Kutch and elsewhere. 

Many of us who have been trying to manage the challenges of traditions in transition tend to ascribe failures to our own incapabilities, or to the poor framing and execution of national policies, to bureaucratic insensitivities, or to the absence of any clear strategy to raise demand for handmade quality. Perhaps we need to go beyond these symptoms of crisis to an even deeper understanding of tectonic shifts taking place on our ground. These shifts include those of attitude and perception. 

Perhaps the most obvious shift has been that of a transformed market. The struggle for livelihoods is bereft of pre-Independence barter systems and the patronage of temple, mosque and palace. In this so-called free market of liberalised globalisation, past schemes have become increasingly irrelevant. The need now is for building greater management capacities and services at the grassroots, for entrepreneurship capacities that can negotiate unlimited market opportunities at home and overseas, as well as the range of market threats. 

The shift is not just cultural. The natural environment is degrading at a pace that threatens not just the craft inspiration but its materials as well. Crafts have depended on nature for so many resources, elements and benchmarks of excellence: woods, grasses, fibres, stone, natural colours, earth and water, not to speak of design inspiration. How can motifs drawn from nature retain their freshness if new generations are denied the inspiration of having lived with nature and having absorbed the inspiration of changing seasons? 

Another shift is political and social, recalling the million mutinies of our land. A map of Indian tensions would include the Naxal corridor, Kashmir and north eastern states. These locations are also our richest craft resources. Does this fact tell us something about those attitudes of sunset and neglect, and of the potential of Indian crafts as a huge social and political safety net? Can craft culture flourish amidst violence and injustice? Consider the reality that the vast majority of Indian artisan comprise of those marginalized by society: scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, minorities, women and citizens of some of the most disturbed areas of the land. Does this mean that the struggle for human dignity and for human rights is an inescapable aspect of our movement towards sustainable crafts?

In his report on the UN’s development agenda, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon laid emphasis on inclusive growth, decent employment and social protection and on the need to ensure that “sustainable growth, social justice and environmental stewardship”  as global guiding principle. Craft industries do exactly that. The first Sustainable Development Goal is to end poverty in all its forms everywhere. This is followed by the goal to end hunger and to achieve food security, nutrition and the promotion of sustainable agriculture. Half of India’s artisanal population are women and another goal is to attain gender equality and to empower all women and girls. There is the goal to “promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”. Goal 12 is aims to “ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” that can reflect a middle path of well being in which the progress o the human and natural ecologies is established as a single trajectory. Perhaps, no other industry addresses these goals as crafts. 

The coming years will see the heightened discussions and debates on the meaning of sustainable development and on how the Sustainable Development Goals will be interpreted for action at national and global levels. This is our new opportunity. We can now take the legacy of India’s craft advantage to another level of understanding by linking our heritage as well as our current concerns to the most contemporary developmental challenge of our times. At the end of the day, there are only two tasks that truly matter: caring for each other and caring for the earth. That is indeed a future that Indian hands can make- handmade in India for the world.