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‘Craft is one of India’s gold mines’

Asha Ramachandran |

Few would imagine such a petite person to have so much grit and fire. A gentle, graceful manner hides the determination with which Laila Tyabji has gone about reviving and promoting traditional craft across the country. In 1980 a group of six people began an initiative to revive craft. Today, Dastkar is a leading Indian craft NGO, which strongly believes that craft and craftspeople have a vital place in the country’s economic mainstream. It seeks to strengthen their position in India through support services that act as a bridge between the traditional rural craftsperson and the new urban consumer.

Social worker, craft revivalist, art designer and founder of Dastkar, Laila Tyabji was honoured in 2012 with the fourth-highest Indian civilian award of Padma Shri. She has authored Threads and Voices ~ Behind the Indian Textile Tradition, published in 2007, and has written several articles in Indian journals. In 2003, Tyabji was awarded the Aid to Artisans and Preservation of Craft Award, the first Asian and the second overall recipient of the award, the investiture ceremony taking place in New York. She is also a recipient of the NIFT Lifetime Achievement Award and the Chishti Harmony Award. The Limca Book of Records named Tyabji as the Person of the Year in 2014. "One is happy to see the results of one’s work," she said in an interview with ASHA RAMACHANDRAN. Excerpts:

Q: You have worked extensively with people involved with traditional arts and craft. What, in your opinion, ails this vital segment of our culture?

A. The fact is that India is a very mysterious country. You can say something and somebody may say the direct opposite and they may both be true. That’s our saving grace, I suppose. Yes, Indian craftspeople are in decline and they are getting more and more marginalised, out of the mainstream of the consumer market. On the other hand, they are also in a curious way, beginning to thrive a little. Another paradox is that people always make the sweeping assumption that people don’t want to buy crafts.

Most of our bureaucrats, our planners, our economists, everybody seems to have this idea that crafts and craftspeople are lovely but they are dying. But this is not quite the case. It’s true that 15 per cent of our craftspeople are leaving the (trade) every decade. But it’s not because there’s no market. In fact, the demand for craft is on the increase both domestically and internationally. What Dastkar feels very strongly is that craft has actually got a lot of potential. We are at a very interesting time in the international market, where people are getting a little jaded with branded, mass-produced things.

Q: While several art forms have survived down the ages, many more have died or are on the verge of extinction. What is being done to preserve them?

A. The crisis is because of economics, because it’s difficult for craftspeople based in rural India to reach the metropolitan markets. Earlier, people made things for their own local markets. Now, that is obviously unrealistic because branded, cheaper products have come in. But there is this new demand in metropolitan cities. But how does the craftsperson reach there?

Q:What more needs to be done?

A. If craftspeople are to reach their full potential, they need, like any other economic activity, investment, not just in terms of money or government schemes, but a whole lot of information, hand-holding, R and D, design and product-development. And those are the things that Dastkar through its basket of services provides. This helps craftspeople become sustainable, successful. There are so many stories of that sort in 36 years of Dastkar.

Q: Artisans are generally a neglected or exploited lot. Often they are the last repositories of an art form. How can this be addressed?

A. It’s too facile for people to say crafts is wonderful, it’s beautiful, part of culture but today they are not relevant. They feel that the reason craftspeople are having such a tough time is that the next generation does not want to come into this sector. As I said, there is a market and it’s a growing market. The reason is because of the social status of the craftspeople. Some craftspeople are today making quite a lot of money. But even those who are successful, do not want their children to come into this line. And that is because a craftsperson, even if he is a “shilp-guru”, does not get the recognition that a very ordinary professional in other sectors get.

Q: Once educated, do the children of craftspeople turn away from their tradition?

A. This has two parts and is a decision one has to make. Craft is something that you have to learn when quite young and because the way our education system is structured, it is a decision whether you are going to have your child enter the education process and, therefore, limit his ability to learn the craft. Or, are you going to train him in the craft and leave him semi-educated? In that situation it’s quite a dilemma.

Some years ago we had recommended that in crafts pockets, children in that craft cluster should be allowed to get some grades for the craft ~ that should become one of their subjects. And also, if they could change the timing of the curriculum so that they could also work at home. There was quite an enthusiastic response to that. But it has not yet taken off.

Q: What is being done to revive the crafts?

A. A lot is being done. I must say now, in my over 45 years of working in the sector, crafts that one didn’t even hear about are coming to light again and becoming very mainstream. Like Ajrak and Kalamkari, which 40 years ago, you couldn’t buy in the Delhi market, today everybody wants them.

Except states like Punjab and Maharashtra, I don’t think one should be too gloomy about crafts because the skills are still there, potential is there and the need is there. Potter families are doing better than they ever did because they are making these larger items, decorative items ~ planters, lamp-stands ~ and they are being allowed to experiment and innovate.

We shouldn’t forget all that but we must use these modules as a way to say whatever input has gone in needs to apply to the sector at large instead of just giving a subsidy. We need to take lessons from countries like China.

Q: How much hope do you hold for India’s rich tapestry of art and craft?

A. I am strongly convinced that this is one of the gold mines of India. Sometimes one is really frustrated. But I’m optimistic ~ it doesn’t take much. The amount of money and training may be quite small but it can turn the sector around very fast.