India’s rich tradition of handicrafts forms the cultural backbone of our country with official estimates of artisans spread across the expanse of the country being about 70 lakh, unofficial numbers peg it closer to two crore. There are a number of organizations like The Asian Heritage Foundation, Dastakri Haat Samiti , Mura Collective and Falah Handicrafts, amongst others working towards preserving this heritage not only to promote the age-old embroidery and weaving techniques, but to make a difference by ensuring that artisans get regular orders and decent returns for their efforts, creativity and sheer talent.
Despite the handicraft industry being the second largest employment generator after agriculture in villages, artisans are far from being able to generate enough to sustain their livelihood. According to the United Nations, in the past 30 years, the number of Indian artisans has decreased by 30 per cent; less wages, politics in the societies and scarcity of bulk orders are to be blamed. But now things are changing as many organizations come forward to handhold handicraft clusters. “The business today is about much more than a fair price where artisans are paid a guaranteed minimum. With the sluggish global demand of handicraft, we are trying our best to find innovative ways to increase volumes in domestic as well as international markets”, avers Avanish Kumar, Designer, The Asian Heritage Foundation (AHF).
A Delhi-based charitable organization conceived by Rajeev Sethi, Designer and a well-known social worker and administered by the World Bank and JSDF, AHF associates with the industry through its retail company – Jiyo! Creative & Cultural Industries. “Jiyo! works with 12 cluster organizations grouped by skill sets in rural areas of Andhra Pradesh and Bihar. Madhubani paintings on modular tiles, Sujani and Banjara embroidery, Bawanbuti extra-weft weaving style, Pochampalli, and Venkatgari ikat are some of the techniques that ‘Jiyo’ is associated with. We try and incorporate new designs in the age-old techniques and then sell it through Jiyo! Imparting newness into an age-old craft gives interesting modification to the technique and acquires more acceptability with the customers who will subsequently lead to increase in orders,” reasons Avanish.
Three years old, Jiyo! is currently managing 1300 artisans, who are individual stakeholders. Every artisan joins as an individual without being caught in any hierarchy. “In every project we do, our artisans get their wages, the materials, 10 per cent overhead and 10 per cent stake. We also train them on new applications and designs, to showcase in fairs like Alchemy, South Bank Centre cultural event in London, UK and Dastkar nature bazaar. We sell our products through our website and also display in some retail chains like Kamala, Kirana, Ishana to name a few,” informs Avanish. The organization takes responsibility for quality of the hand worked pieces with allowance of 5-10 per cent difference compared to original piece and timely delivery while working with international buyers and exporters on bulk orders.
The problems artisans face is not only in terms of their wages, but a major concern is also about the dropping export orders in handicrafts. The clusters are fully competent for doing export orders but the amount of orders received is really less. “Artisans are not getting the amount of work they should be getting. Our organization has the calibre of delivering an order of 1000 pieces in almost a week’s time. There is abundance of labour and lack of orders,” says Umar Khan, Representative, Falah Handicrafts – an NGO incepted in 1995, producing hand embroidered, painted and printed handbags and kaftans, which are exported to the Middle East, Europe and USA.
The clusters are fully competent for doing export orders but the amount of orders received is really less.
Falah is the Arabic word for success, happiness and well-being, and Falah Handicrafts is trying its best to do just that in the field of handicrafts. “We are directly associated with artisans in the Mehrauli-Badarpur belt, especially in the Sangam Vihar area doing printing, hand embroidery and stitching. We are working with around 4-5000 artisans in and around Delhi,” adds Khan. The small orders are done in the Mehrauli area, while the bulk orders are carried out by artisans in the Delhi outskirts like Rajiv Nagar, Dadri, Sikandrabad and other small villages,” says Umar. The price of handbags ranges from Rs. 50 to Rs. 10,000 and in kaftans it starts from Rs. 1400 and goes up to Rs. 1.2 lakh.
The main marketing and promoting problems faced by the artisans are: Rapid changes in consumer preferences and taste, lack of publicity amongst the clients, un-remunerative pricing and exploitation by middlemen
While many organizations like Hansiba by SEWA, Rangsutra, Craftsvilla and others are pushing the traditional handicraft techniques up, creating awareness amongst the domestic and international clients and there are some other organizations who are working towards generating employment opportunities for marginalized groups like women. Prabha Gahtori, Head Designer, Mura Collective says, “Almost all our workforce resides in the village pocket area of Neb Sarai. When Mura started its operations, women of this area took up Hand Shibori craft with ease as they were not permitted to work in regular offices, and this is how the ritual of Mura training these women in Shibori started and is sustained even today. For most of these women, the Shibori stitching work affords an opportunity to sit in their homes and work conveniently, as well as to supplement the earnings of the family while simultaneously honing a hand skill that naturally exists in them”.
Mura Collective, an organization, with a focus on Handloom Weaving and Shibori (Tie and Dye), was initiated in 1998 by Kusum G. Tiwari and Prabha Gahtori. In the past the organization has supplied to the Fair Trade Company of Japan, Peopletree, for their stores in Japan and UK, Fabindia and also to Cottage Industries, at the moment their main supplies are to various retail stores like L’affaire (New Delhi), Kalpana (New Delhi) and Kamala (Craft Council Stores) in New Delhi and Kolkata.
The main aim of these organizations is to promote Indian heritage and culture and to give direct exposure to the artisans, so that the clients can get informed about the kind of skill a cluster specializes in. “We work with individual artisans, NGOs and self help groups and endow them with marketing exposure, design inputs, and help them develop their skills. We give the artisans the platform to directly interact with the exporters and buyers therefore, we call the best of artisans in India with distinctive skill sets to be a part of our bazaars in Dilli Haat and similar haats in Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Mumbai, which run throughout the year. The rent for each stall is Rs. 8,500, which directly goes to Delhi Government and whatever the artisans sell they pay us 10 per cent of their total sales, on which our organization runs,” informs, Charu Verma, Project Manager, Dastkari Haat Samitee, a not-for-profit organization, established in 1986 by Jaya Jaitley, an avid promoter of India’s arts and crafts, functioning according to democratic procedures and self help. As of today, it has 1,500 individual artisans and various societies like Sadhna, Urmul and Sapla. This represents more than 30,000 direct and indirect beneficiaries from artisan families. At present they are working with Maiyet, from UK, developing new weaves, embroideries and textiles. They have also recently executed an export order worth Rs. 98 lakh involving stoles from Banaras.