The License to Learn

A few days ago, Faculty members from the Manchester School of Art came to Kala Raksha to initiate a collaboration.  They showed our staff the technique of cyanotype— so old that it seems new.  I watched the curiosity with which everyone observed and could not help but notice the difference between those who had graduated from or taught at Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya and those who had not.  The graduates were open about their interest, and voiced their observations with excitement, while the others hesitated shyly.  I realized that one gift of the course is the license to learn!

The good news was that Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya entered a competition for Social Innovation, and we made it to the short list.  We entered under the category of education.  In order to get to the finalists, we had to have an on site review, so two professors from a well known institute came to visit.  They were present when the men from this year’s class were on a field trip to the Kala Raksha Museum and we were happy that they could see the excitement and concentration with which the weavers, printers and bandhani artists examined the objects in our collections, and hear the incisive questions and comments they made.  They were learning about their own traditions, and their visions were already changing rapidly.  Afterwards, over dinner, one professor told me that he had wondered why we wanted to enter the competition under the category “education,” but now he understood why.

However, when we did reach the stage of finalist and presented our project in the very tightly prescribed format, the jury conveyed to us (without opportunity for discussion) that our category should be changed to “livelihood.”  One jury member commented, “Why do you have to teach design to artisans?  Fabindia has designers who come and give designs, and that way everybody earns.”

And so we return to the point from which we began: people see artisans in their little box of being able to do and not think, the hands severed from the head.  We use the term “artisans,” because it is gender neutral and seems somehow more respectful than “craftsmen” (or women.)  An artisan is somewhere between an artist and a worker.  Kala Raksha understands artisans as artists who work with materials such as yarn, fabric and dye.  Most people understand them as workers.

But the extension of that is what amazes me. Thus, if you offer design courses to those workers, it is not education but livelihood. Would the courses at the National Institute of Design or Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology (some taught by individuals who also teach at KRV) be livelihood? Insofar that people attend these institutes expecting to get jobs, perhaps…. But somehow it seems that the identity of the activity has to do with the participants more than the activity itself.

Suddenly I think back to the ancient system of Varna and Jati.  According to the Laws of Manu, education of shudras was a sacrilege. Shudras were created to serve the other two varnas without being critical. Education would encourage questioning, thinking in new ways, so it would interfere with the program. In the Shambuka Vadh of the Ramayana, Ram is directed by his rishi advisors to stop Shambuka, a shudra, from illegal education.  This, Ram is told, will insure the progress of religion and culture.  Ram executes poor Shambuka, and the gods are happy because this unworthy shudra is now prevented from entering heaven… Does that attitude still persist at a deep, even unconscious level?

Dr. Ambedkar recalled this story and vowed that had been present, he would have taken Ram to court.  It makes me deeply sorry to think that little has changed since then.

I have heard an objection murmured that Kala Raksha is trying to make a mini National Institute of Design….  We would of course not be so presumptuous, and quite in contrast, the Vidhyalaya’s success is in its local quality.  But we are approaching education in an innovative way.  We aim to deliver quality professional education directly to people with little formal education, but for whom the material is important and useful.  It is an example of how the under educated can be empowered to extend and utilize their traditional knowledge and participate more equally in the contemporary world.

We understand this as education, and the reason why we offer this education can be stated in two questions I would pose in response to, why not to just let Fabindia designers give design to the artisans?

1. Inventory carefully the skills and knowledge that the designer and the artisan each bring to the interaction

2. How much do each of these individuals earn through the interaction?

We got the award for runner up for social innovation in livelihood.  The fact that the jury did not appreciate our work as education defines our challenge.

EMPOWERMENT in 5 Minutes

I recently received an award from Ojaswini for work in women’s empowerment.  Simultaneously, I was interviewed on the same topic for Hand Eye.  It got me thinking… we have come a long way for sure.  But I guess we still have some way to travel.

As I was thinking of what to say in a five minute talk, two men in safari suits came into my office.  They were from the power plant that is slowly but surely surrounding our little rural institute.  As we talked, they proudly told me that the people of the village next door were so much better off now.  They were all driving trucks (for the Company) and had cement homes and fans.

This is true, no doubt.  But what he did not know is that the women of the village say that they can’t sleep at night because they are worrying about their future.  (And, I might add, that the traditional village homes were so ecologically engineered that they did not need fans!)

Questions have driven my work over the past two decades, so I decided to begin with a question: Is money empowerment?

To me, empowerment is about realizing potential, about self esteem, being able to make choices, and about using creativity.  What has kept me in Kutch for all this time was not only the amazing creativity of traditional artisans, but also the sense that the potential was not fully realized. And, maybe the will to be a catalyst.  I believe in Gandhi’s deceptively simple concept: Recognize and capitalize on strengths.

Kutch traditional arts are world renowned.  But, all of the artisans with whom we work are marginalized.  They are dalits, minorities and women.  Think about that– what does it say about how society perceives craft?

.Women’s arts in particular were never commercial.  In the last three or so decades, due to economic duress, women started to work for wages.  Simultaneously, embroidered embellishment came into fashion. This presented a good option: women could earn through embroidery while attending their homes. But most commercial ventures capitalized on the fact that women had few socially acceptable options to earn.  Women earned, but usually at substandard wages.

Was earning empowering?

Earning builds confidence and expands capacity. Women do become stronger when they are earning.  They become more able to think of themselves, to dream and fulfill those dreams… But all too often they continue to think of themselves as laborers.  They feel small, powerless and always beholden. 

In 1993, one such artisan asked me:  Why are you studying us?  Why don’t you help us?  She wanted better wages and more say in what she did.  Thus, together, we established Kala Raksha to address these issues.

We began by simply paying fair wages- determined by the artisans themselves- and providing women with steady work.  We began with 25 artisans and RS 43,000. By 1996, we held our first solo exhibition in Delhi, where we received an unprecedented response: RS 5 lakhs in 4 days! Last year, with 1,000 artisan members, we turned over more than 1 crore.

So, here comes that question: Is money empowering? 

Surely. But, we soon realized that empowerment REQUIRES MORE THAN MONEY.  Kala Raksha began to look at deeper issues:  What about cultural empowerment?

We saw that the conventional practice of “design intervention”- professional designers giving artisans their own designs to fill up, can easily dis-empower artisans.  Artisans were confident in making their own traditional work, but when someone perceived as powerful came and told them to do it their way, they begin to feel that their own work was “not good.” And that they needed someone to tell them what to do.  They give up their active creativity– their most valuable asset.  (Who designed those traditional pieces that draw people to work with them, anyway?)

So, in 1996 we established a museum in Sumrasar village, and actively used it to engage artisans to design by innovating on their traditions.

Kala Raksha built a name that is internationally known. Women participated in all aspects of their income generation, from design to pricing to marketing.

YET, we still wondered, are women artisans empowered?  Is their potential realized?

Then we realized that the economic and cultural issues were connected:

In most craft projects, the model used for production is the industrial model.  The goal is faster, cheaper and more standardized–what machines do.  This industrial model is good for the customer but disastrous for the artisan.  When the hand tries to compete with a machine, it will fail.

So we have to create an alternative model that capitalizes on the human quality of the hand.  The real challenge is to change the perceived value of traditional art.


And so in 2005, we began KALA RAKSHA VIDHYALAYA

In the Vidhyalaya’s year-long  design education program, artisans learn to utilize design to innovate on their traditions for contemporary markets.  They learn to make decisions creatively, and to be responsible.  They experience success.  To emphasize the value of creative input, last year we founded the brand Artisan Design, and women finally began earning at better (though still modest) rates.

After the second class graduated, we went to Delhi to participate in a seminar at UNDP.  We sat around a table with top international water experts.  When we introduced ourselves, one graduate, aged 21, said, “My name is Bhagvatiben, I am from Sumrasar village, and I am a designer.”

That’s when I knew we were on the way to empowerment.

Tofurky and Contemporary Crafts

Two phrases we hear all too often are: “We want something that is not so ethnic” and “We want to take the skills and make the work Contemporary.”

To this, I say, TOFURKEY.  What does Tofurkey have to do with craft?  Tofurkey is the food of guilty carnivores.  It is tofu made to taste like turkey, because some people really want to eat turkey but they think they should not.  Tofu masquerading as turkey is a perfect solution- guilt free post Thanksgiving sandwiches.

Similarly there are people who want to like craft, but then again want to eliminate its character.  Craft IS ethnic!  It is hand art, the expression of an ethnic culture. Ethnic is precisely its character and its beauty.  This is not to say that craft should not change.  Traditions always evolve.  The challenge that Kala Raksha has taken is to update traditional objects to fit contemporary life, without eradicating their essential identity.

As for contemporary, I somehow hear a pejorative touch to the word, as if contemporary is good and tradition is not.  Contemporary is by nature transient (how long can something remain contemporary?) Tradition lasts; it has to have lasted to be called “tradition!”  Do we want craft to speed beyond its identity to fit into a fashion- only to be discarded when the next wave of contemporary appears?

The good news is that in Kala Raksha’s experience the products with cultural integrity- that draw their strength from their ethnic traditions- are the ones that have lasted in the market!  Of course they have to be updated to fit the needs of contemporary life, but not to the eradication of their essential identity.  This is a challenge to be sure, but when it succeeds, it lasts.  Those products that tried too hard to be contemporary- that looked like an au courant bag with tradition based hand work stuck on the front, appealed to neither the contemporary nor the classical market.

And so we are looking back to our rich resource of traditional textiles to develop this year’s collection.  No Tofurkey for us this Thanksgiving…..

The Unbearable Cuteness of Commercialization

Some time ago, I sent my friend the film, The Laya Project, which is about music of the seaside cultures affected by the Tsunami of 2004.  The film, with tracks mostly remixed by one of India’s best known composers, is beautiful and as my friend is a musician, I thought he would enjoy the music of these varied lands.

Here is what he wrote when he received the film:

hi Judy,
Thanks so much for the lovely Laya Project package.  I watched the DVD today, and I scanned through some parts, so I may have missed something, but I have to tell you, as lovely and award winning and everything as it is, nonetheless, to my taste  or sense of the rightness of things,  the music is like playing beethoven with an electric bass, a backbeat, and maybe jazz scatt singing or something or fusing beethoven with lawrence welk.  So, even while I find myself moving to the beat and some of the playing and singing is beautiful, I simply am horrified by the destruction of culture…..

It brings to mind what you are working on….the preserving of traditions in the face of the onslaught of western culture.   I will think about this awhile, and watch the movie again.   My main ‘question’ at the moment, is what is essential in traditional culture, that one in fact even wants to preserve and transmit?  I think if you turn the music into second rate (if beautiful) western pop music…..that can’t be preserving what is essential,
Maybe what is essential is the actual preservation and continuation of  playing and singing, and not the seemingly essential if to some degree intangible quality of the content?
At first I was surprised, but quickly I realized that Paul has an ear for music because he is a musician, and since I am not I had just listened to the catchy cute tunes.  Music is Paul’s subject, as the artisans we work with say, and traditional textile art of Kutch is mine.

We began Kala Raksha thinking on the issue of preserving the essential—our organization was to be an alternative to cutified and industrialized craft.  When we observed people “Giving Designs” to artisans, it seemed a travesty.  The “re-mixing” of traditional forms, printing them on a cloth and giving them back to the people whose cultural property they are is like the high school photographer who airbrushed my Afro hairdo into a bouffant for the 1969 year book.

Making artisans work on printed, perfected versions of their own art is like giving Picasso a colouring book, or like tying cows instead of letting them roam.  One artisan recently depicted her feelings about the two 4,000 MW coal fed thermal power plants that now surround Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, our rural design school.  She showed a cow in scene one, and a tied up cow in the last scene.  That said it all

Where is the art?  And where is the artisan?

I passed this discussion to my friend Jaya, who had introduced me to the Laya Project.  She wrote:

mohan and i often talk about the relative merits and demerits of innovating/ improvising and maintaining purity/ discipline – esp of classical arts.
i feel it is up to individual aptitudes and inclinations – and both should have their place. being a diehard purist, i am always drawn to all arts in their most basic forms and i am sure that some people always will practice and patronise them thus – but one of the most significant outcomes of maintaining the sanctity of the pure forms is that they serve as the fountainheads for the ‘other’ kind of people to take inspiration from.  and i think in both categories, there will be people who will fail – by being too hidebound in their attachment to maintaining purity and being too shallow in their efforts to improvise.

it does feel like as time is going by, the purists are around less and less, but maybe that’s how it feels in all ages. and for folk art forms that are so tightly tied to traditions of living, the challenge is so much greater.
Kala Raksha’s concept of preservation of tradition was based on the belief that if artisans are creating their own work it will retain integrity.  Over the years, I have realized that even that is too simple.  More insidious forces are at work. I think that Power changing the perception of aesthetics is the destroyer of tradition.  Traditions change or they die, but what influences the change matters.  The original folk art was made to satisfy the artisan’s aesthetic sense, and for the sheer joy of creativity.  It changed organically as lifestyles changed and people borrowed new concepts and materials that attracted them.  Commercial work is usually given ready made from an outside source, and cranked out like factory products, for money.  But since it sells, and money is power, it is seen as “better.”  When artisans’ own sense of aesthetics are weakened or warped, that is the real endangering of tradition.

In the first year of our design school for artisans, we took the students to the Calico Museum of textiles.  I asked one market savvy weaver what he thought?

“It was ok,” he said.

OK????  The premier collection of Indian textiles in the world?

“Well,” he explained, “The embroideries were not all that fine.”

He had been influenced by the perfected, commercialization of embroidery to think that the smaller the stitch the better the embroidery.  But what he had seen were the originals!

Last week we went to Ludiya village and I was horrified to see that the Meghval artisans had purchased very large piles of old Rabari embroidery. They had also hired a tailor, and he was cavalierly cutting the beautiful original pieces of art into bits and stitching them into cheap patchwork wall hangings.  I felt like I was in a slaughter house. .Many times dealers over-dye these “wall hangings” in orange or black.  In my opinion they are worse than cute.  But on two separate occasions I have been equally taken aback to see that tourists actually like them and even prefer them to the original old embroideries.  The village artisans-turned-dealers have figured this out, and it is so much easier and more lucrative to cut and paste than to embroider.

Further on, heading into the Black Hills of Kutch, we saw the roads littered with commercial signage for increasingly commercial events and places.  Designer huts with women wearing designer village clothes, beckoned us to stay in their hotel.  When we reached the top of the hill, our view of the vast Rann of Kutch was marred by huge and ugly cut outs of the Great Indian Bustard and the Desert Courser.

The grand finale was that the jackals who have come to eat prasad every sunset for countless generations just did not show up, in spite of one local tourist bellowing for them to COME!  So maybe the cardboard cutouts will be the only jackals we see at Kalo Dungar.

And maybe commercialized embroidery- remixed in one way or another- will be the only embroidery.

It seemed like the sun was setting on a lot.

It’s not that I think people should stay as they are. Traditions have to change to live. When we began our Vidhyalaya, I was once told to “leave craft alone.”  It’s already too late for that.  When most “craftspeople” are really labourers, filling in someone’s colouring book, or dealers refurbishing the original work of more isolated and poorer artisans, craft is already not left alone.

The answers we have are education and exposure– enabling those concerned to be the decision makers and giving them skills and knowledge to make intelligent solutions.

Maybe if the Laya musicians could have made the music they wanted, given some knowledge of who it was for, it might have been different.  Not so cleaned up and cute.  We hope to raise consciousness so that artisans appreciate their own traditions for what they are– the essential, intangible quality, as Paul said.  And finally to encourage artisans to be the active creators of their art.  That is what Kala Raksha stands for.

Now we also need to value integrity and creative expression.  To raise awareness, we have launched the concept Artisan Design. We need to connect with a few people who want to see the jackal rather than a cardboard cut out, to hear artisans playing music from the heart, and of course to patronize embroidery with life force.  Last night, I saw a glimmer of hope with musicians we had invited for a touristic performance.  The performance was predictably staid and the guests were nodding off—BUT when the musicians were jamming informally in a storage hut, playing for their own love of music, they drew people like pied pipers til the little hut overflowed.