SARAH AHMAD | 26 NOVEMBER, 2020
How the Pandemic is Reshaping the Traditional Crafts Industry
A move toward sustainability
In a dusty by-lane of West Delhi, close to a small kirana shop, and adjacent to a flight of narrow steps, leading one to a wooden blue door, there is a potter’s studio, terracotta pots of every size and form were scattered on a gravel-muddy dry floor, somewhat creating short stories about the coming together of a rustic landscape, within a metropolitan cosmos of semi-tall buildings, neon sign boards and plastic relics.
Some kilometres away, in a South Delhi home, a group of bamboo shaped terracotta urns are placed at the entryway, flanking a tall carved mirror. The urns are from that quaint West Delhi potter’s studio, and the mirror from a small family run-shop in Jaipur. The urns and the mirror, create a unique décor story, transforming into family memorabilia, and creating a narrative, of how handmade is one of a kind, always telling a tale about its creation, creator and owner, and often being a constant reminder of people, places and moments.
At the height of the COVID-19 crisis, in a Boston bedroom, Priya Krishnamoorthy, a storyteller, a creative impact strategist and a Fulbright Fellow, envisioned a platform to support India’s crafts people and artisan-producers. It was here that the idea of a community called 200 Million Artisans was born, as a volunteer run COVID-19 response platform. Creating a bridge of understanding between the artisan and the buyer of the artisan’s work 200 Million Artisans assists verified craft-based organisations by featuring initiatives and fundraisers one can support, and drives collaborations to help India’s artisan producers and craft communities.
“When the COVID-19 crisis hit India, many of my friends working with artisan communities in India reached out to me for help, for instance a group of friends in a Saree Group in Boston asked me to direct them to verified craft organisations looking for help. It started out with helping them with fundraisers and communication,” says Priya. “We chose to call the community 200 Million Artisans based on a 2013 Dasra Report, Crafting a Livelihood, which says that 200 million people depend on craft for livelihood. 200 Million artisans is India’s potential, our strategic advantage. It suggests the urgent need of data and the lack thereof which is currently inhibiting the growth of the artisan-producer ecosystem from a policy perspective.”
200 Million Artisans is a movement born out of the concern and doubts among the craft communities created because of the pandemic. Along with movements like #creativedignity, #ahandforhandmade, #vocalforlocal, this is a movement educating the masses about the rich cultural heritage and crafts in India and the urgent need to support the craft sector.
The Pandemic has impacted the crafts communities in an undesirable way, but it has also made people from the craft sector come together and have conversations, create forums for dialogues, and collaborations. “NGOs, crafts cooperatives, designers, merchandisers, entrepreneurs and artisan families, normally working in their own silos are brainstorming together in new collaborations and discussions,” states Priya. “We need to work for the Gen-Next in the crafts sector, come together, listen, study and bring the use of technology into the crafts, so that the next generation of artisans do not quit the crafts to choose other career pathways that offer more financial security and dignity.”
“We also need to ensure immediate sustainability, a good example of which is of organisations shifting to making handmade masks, a necessity in the times we live in. By doing this we are creating value for the consumer and our artisan communities. The Culture Masks Project is one such example, which continues to build on the cultural heritage of craft communities while creating a product of everyday value,” says Priya.
Over the past few months, the online platform is evolving into a purpose-led, ecosystem builder with a goal to reimagine the potential of artisan-led sustainable production. “As an online platform and community we want to support people from all walks of life to build successful impact businesses focused on artisan-led sustainable production by lowering the barriers of access to entrepreneurial education, global-local networks, and other resources.” elaborates Priya. Along with partnerships with sustainability start-ups like Queen of Raw and others, very recently 200 Million Artisans has collaborated with The Spaceship Academy, a UK based impact enterprise to bring greater access to entrepreneurial education for enterprises in India’s artisan sector.
As the pandemic has affected multiple areas, and the various sectors are competing for resources, it is time that sectors start to build partnerships and collaborate with each other. Collaboration, education, sustainable practices, vital connections and constant support for the arts and crafts through conversations, fundraisers, and visibility for the many design entrepreneurs, small craft collectives and artisans, is significant in creating a positive and hopeful future for the craft sector in India.
“Our education and mentorship models need to create safe spaces where imagination can run riot. We need to take stock of the skills of our artisan producers and every skill can find a new pathway or application, for example a folk artist can move into animation, the video game industry and the children’s book market have seen a steady growth and can potentially offer sustainable livelihoods,” says Priya.
That West Delhi lane looks figuratively empty, with traces of terracotta half buried in the gravel, cycle rickshaws and scooters ploughing over the once artistically fertile patch of land. The pandemic has made things worse with many festivals and public celebrations getting cancelled, events being shut down and marketplaces under long periods of lockdown. This has directly affected the work and livelihoods of many artisans and craft entrepreneurs.
200 Million Artisans discloses that in 30 years, the number of Indian artisans has decreased by 30%, and the COVID 19 pandemic will accelerate this decrease further, most artisan producers tend to be small and remain unmapped and under-recognized. The artisans also lack the right support in terms of access to relevant technologies, innovation, networks, consumer insights and markets. It is time that we invest in our creative and cultural capital. The online crafts community elaborates on how after agriculture the artisan sector is the largest source of employment in India, 50% of people employed are women, global supply chains are shifting gears to source the unique as consumers demand more sustainable, locally-made products.
To educate and create awareness, 200 Million has initiated a successful intervention, a crowdsourced Insta-live series – Sundays with 200M, which brings together conversations around art and craft. The series strengthens voices, issues and innovations from within the artisan economy to help reimagine the potential for the handcrafted. “We have partnered with a Boston-based saree blogger, Iyswarya Abayamani; the team at Design Pataki, Jaipur Kala Chaupal and #UnpluggedTalks led by Mrinalini Ghadiok & Matra Architects,” reveals Priya.
To facilitate conversations, create awareness and spaces of interest in the crafts; involving, educating and supporting the larger artisanal ecosystem by bringing together the creator, the consumer, the marketeer, art-craft communities/persons and those interested in sharing their skills and time to build a strong, fair and vibrant craft network, 200 Million Artisans as a community is a significant step in bringing an attitudinal change towards the ‘handmade’ in India.
We as a community need to understand the importance of local made crafts and how we have been surrounded by it all our life – every so often found on pavements as woven baskets, terracotta urns, sometimes in tiny shops with glass flutes and goblets, artisans carving small tables and wooden mirror frames, handmade is more than a thing, it is a narrative passed down to a new generation, a skill, a history – shaped, sewn, chiselled, moulded into unique pieces with each bearing its own identity, soul and body.
The West Delhi potter no longer sits in his workshop, he has now moved to a smaller one and is barely making ends meet, the beautiful art of pottery slowly vanishing in the plastic air, but then there is hope, perhaps the enigma of the pandemic being that step towards collective consciousness, conversation and action.
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