Heritage Matters: Celebrating India’s Crafts 

The rich legacy of India’s great arts and crafts is well known across the world, its sheer diversity being a testament to the artistic wealth that the country possesses. In fact, for around 2,000 years, Indian textiles and handicrafts were at the heart of global trade and they were coveted for their quality and excellence.

Unfortunately, many of these crafts are struggling for survival today. While some crafts have seen a revival, there are still many, in the far corners of India, which are crying out for preservation, promotion and patronage. So why are India’s crafts not celebrated enough? What can be done to bring them into the mainstream?

A part of our online talk series, Heritage Matters, the session titled Celebrating India’s Crafts explored the legacy of Indian crafts and discussed the challenges that surround them today. The panel for this discussion included: Rajiv Arora, Co-Founder, Amrapali Jewels; Kakoli Biswas, Associate Professor, Unitedworld Institute of Design; and Archna Nayar, Curator & Head Designer, Peepul Tree, an e-commerce platform for Indian arts and crafts.

All our panellists have worked towards the revival and promotion of traditional crafts and have also worked with artisans in different parts of the country. An important segment of the session focused on how the handicrafts sector has been hit badly due to the Covid pandemic and what can be done to nurture these crafts and to make them relevant in times of adversity.

Why are Indian crafts struggling to survive?

Rogan art
Rogan art|LHI

The sheer diversity of India’s crafts is mind-boggling, with every region specialising in its own kind of handicraft. Whether textiles, woodwork, paintings and murals, jewellery, metal art or even toys, each handicraft has carved its own niche. Art forms like Kharad, Rogan, Dhokra, Bidri, Pattachitra and many more were discussed by our panel, to highlight the stories and their history.

Dhokra art
Dhokra art|Peepul Tree

For several generations, communities of artisans have been practising these arts, continuing traditions that go back to thousands of years. However, not enough has been done to showcase them or to highlight just how amazing they are and what they mean.

The consensus that emerged in our panel discussion was that we lack respect for both our traditional crafts and craftsmen. “We need to stop calling them crafts, these are pieces of art. And people have to appreciate them for the art that goes into it. These are made by people who have learnt them over hundreds and hundreds of years,” said Archna Nayar, who heads the curation of arts, crafts and weaves at Peepul Tree, an e-commerce platform that brings together the finest of these handicrafts made by award-winning artisans across India. With its work with craftsmen, it is also trying to raise awareness for and bring innovation to these traditional crafts.

Jaipur-based Amrapali Museum that houses a rich collection of traditional jewellery
Jaipur-based Amrapali Museum that houses a rich collection of traditional jewellery|Amrapali Museum

Rajiv Arora, Co-Founder of the premium jewellery brand Amrapali Jewels and the jewellery museum, Amrapali Museum, agreed that Indians don’t appreciate their crafts as they should. “We never see jewellery as a piece of art. It is sold as a commodity. There was a study by the UN that I was reading the other day, (according to which) in the last four decades we have lost 30 per cent of our artisans because they go for casual labour… this is a waste of a great resource. We are a living culture and we should be proud of it, we can show the way to the world.”

Another aspect that was taken up during our panel discussion was that, in India, communities of artisans have a hard time making ends meet. It is so hard making a simple living that taking their craft to the masses or bringing innovation to their skills and designs is not a focus area for them.

Yet it is vital that these crafts are made relevant to contemporary times as this would help them survive.

This is where designers come in. “I have observed that these arts and crafts have been practised for ages, but we need to make them relevant. We need to see the market demand and accordingly, as designers or as design educators, we need to give them our inputs in designs, colours etc. It is a designer’s duty to go and give them inputs because the artisans are practising what they know,” said Kakoli Biswas. She has been working with artisans and craftsmen at the grassroots level in Gujarat and has also been teaching at various design institutes.

Arora and Nayar also pointed out that we are hugely lacking in the way we present our crafts in the international market. The marketing and promotion of our handicrafts needs a rethink. “We don’t see the premium-ness in our crafts. Our crafts are exquisite. There are no parallels to them in the world. We need to market them in the right way,” shared Nayar.

Due to the Covid19 pandemic and the country going in lockdown in phases, the crafts sector suffered a serious setback. However, initiatives like Peepul Tree worked with artisans through these tough times and have introduced them to the digital world, technology and various ways to reach out to a wider audience.

A Pattachitra painting from the Peepul Tree collection
A Pattachitra painting from the Peepul Tree collection|Peepul Tree

On how Peepul Tree is working remotely with artisans during the pandemic and are turning adversity into an opportunity, Nayar said, “We got many artisans who were disconnected from the world, except for their travels to cities for their wares. We got them online. All our design innovations took place in these circumstances. There were many constraints which aren’t there when we are working with them directly... Through this process, if they have been able to gain something, it’s the fact that they can now reach out to more people.”

Crafts documentation is another challenge for this sector, pointed out Kakoli. She said that though craft documentation now forms an integral part of the design curriculums, which includes staying with artisans and understanding their craft, a lot still needs to be done to document the techniques, the varieties and nuances of these age-old traditions.

How can we revive and promote India’s arts and crafts?
Based on the insights from our experts, here are some ways in which our arts and crafts can be preserved.

1. Recognition of crafts as well as craftsmen
“We don’t see them as master craftsmen. Their creations are ageless, timeless and priceless. They should be given that kind of an honour and prestige in society,” said Arora, highlighting the need to recognise the work of the millions of craftsmen working in this sector. Our panellists agreed that unless we recognise the true value, hard work, history, traditions and the legacy of our crafts, we cannot adequately present them to the world. We need to appreciate them, recognise them and provide them patronage.

2. Product Diversification & Crafts Innovation
As a designer, Kakoli believes that product diversification and design innovation can really drive a crafts revolution. She emphasised that while young designers are experimenting with new designs, they must maintain the essence and originality of the arts and crafts. This must not get lost in the transformation.

Product diversification using traditional Patola on a tie
Product diversification using traditional Patola on a tie|Kakoli Biswas

3. Better Government Policies
We need to have policies that are craft-friendly. For instance, the heavy taxes on craft products and import duties on gold and silver make it difficult for craftsmen to sustain their work. Our panellists agreed that crafts must be exempted from tax policies like these so that it’s easier for them to access the markets and sell their products.

4. Revised Educational Framework & Documentation
School curricula must include traditional arts and crafts so that children are introduced to them at an early age. There is also a need for proper documentation of crafts so that their legacy is preserved. This would also help create a repository of knowledge and information on the great diversity of the crafts that we have.

It’s time we recognised the value of our art forms and crafts, which not only form an important part of our cultural legacy but provide a livelihood to a large number of communities.

You can watch the complete conversation on Celebrating India’s Crafts here:

Through our online talk show, Heritage Matters, we offer a platform to anyone who wants to highlight issues surrounding our heritage as well as showcase work that addresses the many problems faced on the ground, across the length and breadth of India. If you have a story to share, an issue to highlight, or work to showcase, write to us at: contactus@livehistoryindia.com

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