Speaker Event - Reviving Traditional Indian Craftsmanship

The Gold in our Hands

Our Monday speaker, Kunal Sachdev is a multifaceted social entrepreneur committed to skilling and upskilling of India’s artisans, who through Caravan Evolved Craft- his company, focus on revitalisation of their traditional, sometimes dying craft and enable these to reach international levels of quality, and tap into global premium markets.

Below are excerpts from his talk at RCB and from his chat with Rtn. Srinivas Garudachar.

It is the old experience that a rude instrument in the hand of a master craftsman will achieve more than the finest tool wielded by the uninspired journeyman.”—Karl Pearson, Mathematician

The relevance of this statement is even greater today, given the renewed romance with the skills of traditional artisans and much talk about supporting the heritage craft forms. However, the path we are treading is like an old tune being navigated with a rusty instrument.

Let us understand the situation as it is today. For one, there is a tremendous push to get the work of artisans to customers in the big cities, and market linkage has been underscored again and again. The underlying assumption being that the beautifully crafted artisan-ware is waiting to be lapped up by eager customers. The other area of focus is efficiency to compete with factory-produced goods.

While both these focus areas sound very logical and practical, and there is a possibility of short term economic impact. The sad truth is that the further we go down this path, the further away we take the artisan from the hand-skill into a more mechanised world. And, inevitably, push the real traditional hand-skills even faster into oblivion.

To sustainably resurrect the craft and restore the glory of the artisan, we need to take lessons from our own history. The Indian subcontinent, prior to British subjugation, was a glorious flourishing part of the world. It flourished because of the quality of products that it sold, not just within its geography but also to buyers around the world.

These buyers were willing to buy some of the produce in return for gold! One such example being the fine fabric from Bengal – Muslin. Official records indicate that at one time Bengal accounted for roughly half the exports of the East India Company, and textiles (mostly Muslin) accounted for almost 80% of the exports from Bengal. Such was the craze for Muslin that in order to suppress production of this fabric and promote the textile industry of Great Britain, the British mutilated hands of weavers in Bengal.

This teaches us something very important: customers around the world will pay handsomely for a product, not because of its exotic appeal, but for its promise of comfort and elegance.

Our traditional crafts were always meant for those who could appreciate finer things. The ones who sought superior product experience and were willing to pay a significantly higher price for it. This usually implied royalty and nobility, since others couldn’t afford such extravagance.

In time, the craftspeople grew in numbers through a natural process of procreation. Over centuries and a few generations, the numbers have increased significantly even with migration away from these crafts.

Once patronised by royalty, the craftsmen found that after about two centuries of suppression and a new world without kings, there was no choice but to realign their skills to cater to a local customer. In order to do so, there was a conscious effort to make the product more accessible (read affordable). Quality declined and product suffered. Craft came to be associated with cheap and often an inferior type of product.

There are a few crafts that have retained their blue-blood associations of artisanship thanks to the cultural resilience of our country. The credit goes to the women who have worn our heritage with pride and grace in the most sophisticated social environments around the world.

To better appreciate this, let’s take a look at what’s happening in the world around us.

The luxury market is booming. A new royalty has emerged: the ultra rich, who spend because they can. They constantly seek gratification and pampering to satisfy their unending thirst for material expressions. As a result, according to a study by Deloitte, the top 100 luxury brands accounted for business of USD 212 billion (for the year ending June 30, 2016) and it’s growing at close to 7% annually!

So what are the characteristics of a luxury product that makes them so desirable? Apart from the historical association of some iconic brands that lead categories, they offer customers both products and experiences that are customised and, in some cases, handcrafted. The use of materials and skills that are rare, give these products an alluring quality. Great attention to detail and precision are part of the promise.

Ironically, these brands that once stood for fine hand craftsmanship, are now mass manufactured in factories around the world. The rapid growth of these brands coupled with limited access to consistent handcraft skills have forced them to migrate away from artisanal engagement.

However, the desire to create a differentiator for the customer is still a strong need for these brands. This is possible – the romance of a traditional heritage craft and its alignment to modern day relevance is very attractive.

For us, as a society, it’s imperative we build this bridge to luxury for the artisan to reclaim his/her dignity for the skill that’s so precariously poised. This is not an easy task though. It means bringing back the association of fine quality and craftsmanship to the tradition.

The Skill India mission should and must make this a priority. This is our true wealth. If we are to be manufacturers for the world, this is one area that has the potential to elevate India to a world-class creator of products. The longer we take to realise this link, the more difficult and arduous the task will be. Not to mention, the risk of losing some skills that we’ve inherited. Skills, that the world is still keen to embrace and celebrate.

The task at hand, though, is far from easy. It requires a well thought through programme to integrate different elements to revive a craft. One of the most important pieces of this is a robust and high-quality source of raw materials.

Going back to the example of handloom weaving, the cotton fibre (or any other fibre that the cluster works with) determines the quality of the fabric as much as the type of weave and construction. A unified approach, involving the research done by institutions like the Central Institute of Cotton Research, Nagpur, could be very useful for this.

It’s fortunate that we have the core elements required for this transformation available to us. It’s about piecing the different parts together to create the base for a radical improvement for the artisan communities.

“In the early days, about 10 years ago, when I started working with traditional crafts, I had a similar view of working with artisans to create products more suited to the immediate environment. However, after having worked across 32 different craft clusters and having up-skilled about 20,000 artisans, I now find that the work we have done seems to be of immense interest to international luxury brands. These is a deeper realisation of the way ahead for a truly valuable and sustainable path for the skills we possess.

It’s time to reclaim the glory for these highly skilled craftspeople. It’s time to integrate our efforts to generate true value for our traditional skills. It’s time to create the future of history!” added Kunal.

Kunal’s talk was well attended and seemed to have struck a chord, and was much appreciated by the surprisingly large audience, many of whom stayed back to find out more about his work and how they could possibly help to add value to his endeavour.

Rtn. Srinivas. B. Garudachar.

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