The Urge to Revert

When I was studying conservation in Museology, we had to work on beautiful reed baskets.  The instructor explained a governing principle: the reeds meticulously bent by an artisan want to revert to their original straight form. It struck me as one of those laws of physics that can as well be applied metaphysically: the urge to revert.

This week, I observed the law in a group of women artisans with whom I have worked for over twenty years.  “We are not getting enough work,” they complained. The wonderful part was that the situation had prompted several enterprising women to begin work on their own initiative!

I was stunned and dismayed, however, to see that what they had made was what they were making before our twenty years of our meticulous hard work!

In recent soul searching, I had mused about whether our twenty years had taken artisans forward or backward. I began to work with them because they had such admirable traditions, much more than skills- personal expressions, concepts, and products.  I was inspired by them, developed contemporary products based on all of the works of art that I could collect for the museum.  I intended to work within the traditions.  But was this just another form of what I had wanted to oppose: robbing people of what they already had and making them dependent workers?

A week ago I voiced this question of forward or backward to Ismailbhai, a Voice of Reason.  Yes, he agreed, artisans already made their own products, and they still can, like the Banniwallas. The word conjured the image of men trudging with sacks of those wretched quilts and wall hangings made with cheap materials and sloppy stitches, over-dyed in black or red.  “You have to insure the quality,” Ismailbhai said.

The difference I had wanted to make when I began two decades ago was empowerment- engaging artisans in the process so that they could eventually do it themselves and avoid middle people. I took the instructional part further and established a course in design- in which each artisan had to be responsible for creating his or her own collection of contemporary products.

Yet, after twenty years of observing the choices of materials, colours, layouts, products and finishing, and after a year of honest hard work in the design course, these artisans reached back to the old familiar- strips and squares of blended fabric heavily embroidered with synthetic threads!

We all have this urge to revert. It is easy; it is maybe reflexive, a law of physics.  Whatever we learn is not necessarily absorbed.  We have to make an effort to apply it, to own it.  I had factored this challenge into the design course, including a mentor program in which faculty members visit the artisan students on a one-to-one basis to insure that they are applying what they learned in class to their work. Still, I observed, whatever marvelous innovations the artisans did in colour and basic design exercises were tossed to the wind when they confronted a product.  The product itself elicited familiar old responses.

Think!  I told the women.  Draw on your twenty years of experience and your year of design education!  Go even farther back to your traditions.  Would you ever have made the same piece twice? You have the ability to do what a machine cannot- to think, play, enjoy, express.  You have all done this.  One woman who had not taken the course said anxiously, “I can only do what someone tells me.”  I reminded her of a wonderful narrative piece she had done on the Mahabharata!

“Her son did that for her,” the others revealed.  He drew the images and her daughter cut them out.  All she did was stitch them on!”

True confessions.

Ok, I said.  Then work in teams.  You have to stand on your feet.  You have to decide how.

The challenges brushed under the carpet have come back to haunt me.  Even if the women know quality, how can they source materials? Even if they learn good finishing, how can they access good product design?  How can they reach the higher end markets they need?

These are the real, hard issues, and defining them has come in good time, as I prepare to launch a “post graduate” course in Business and Management for Artisans.

Always go forward, I told the women. Guard against the urge to revert. Tap your knowledge and experience. The advice was for myself as much as for them.

To be continued…..

Bhujodi to Bagalkot- Taking Artisan Design on the Road

The first night the weavers of Bagalkot left their village, Nilanjan got a panicked call.  They were having trouble with their train tickets and couldn’t speak Hindi to talk to the ticket taker.  Mr. Srinivasan, the cooperative trainer, had done a heroic job encouraging the weavers to take a risk– and now they had taken a leap into an unknown huge world outside.

We were taking a leap as well– as the first project of our new institute, Somaiya Kala Vidya.  We met these six men on 7 March morning at Chamanbhai’s new enterprise, Dora ni Mani.  Chamanbhai, a weaver of Bhujodi, graduated in KRV’s pilot group and has applied his creativity to establishing a center for traditional food, craft and culture.

The five weavers were smiling and Srinivasan was translating.  We started without ceremony, compelled by the passion and urgency of handloom.  Weaving is their life, and these five brave artisans want it to continue.  They showed us variations of the Ilkal sari they make- rayon-silk, all silk, colour ways in the body (but not the borders and pallav).  We talked technology and costing.  They make RS 300 a day- for a team of three.  Many weavers of Ilkal are now breaking rocks in a granite quarry where they make RS 400-600 a day.  Others have gone to power looms, which make saris that look almost identical.  There are 2,500 to 3,000 hand looms in their village, Kamatgi. We asked about the original sari- before chamka (rayon)?  Before the dobby borders?  We were a team – Nilanjan, LOkesh, our shining artisan designers and myself; we shared a love of tradition, a deep understanding of its value, and a thirst to explore creativity.

Srinivasan proudly showed the government solution to diminishing returns: Jacquard looms to make copies of Varanasi saris.  He is a sincere devotee of this solution.  But it has no connection to the beloved Ilkal sari, and it requires a change in skills that ultimately puts design in the hands of the master and irreversibly relegates the weavers to workers, not to mention endangering the identity of Ilkal saris.

Dayabhai told them the story of Bhujodi.  When the village was devastated after the earthquake, many NGOs tried to “upgrade” them to Jacquard looms.  The weavers refused.  Our team showed them the variations they have made from the traditional dhablo.  The weavers got it and were excited.  Jan Baker, a professor from the Rhode Island School of design, who was instrumental in forming the design curriculum at KRV, did an impromptu review, stressing the importance of feel in a textile, colour, and nature.

We had lunch, they toured the artisan designer studios, and when they came back they said,

“We are ready to change!”

Srinivasan was also on board.

But what about language? Chaman drew the weavers into the conversation.  He Srinivasan translate twice when he saw they weren’t tracking.  In the end, he said, “language is not an issue.  We will communicate through our work.” (He has been to Canada and he knows)

We zeroed in on materials and colour.  Srinivasan showed the burn test to tell the purity of fiber.  He smiled broadly.  “I have been working with silk for decades!” he said.  We made teams, recorded our partnership with cameras, and the weavers went off to explore the village and craft park.  I told them we’d make the name Bagalkot famous and people will come to them; the re-development plan includes tourism.  Sirnivasan was ready with a tourism brochure.

Our team was driven by the sense of greater good, and the desire to re-infuse a wonderful tradition.  Each of us had an important contribution and we all felt the power of creativity.

The next day, I took a group of visitors from the USA to see the workshop.  I asked the Bhujodi weavers to bring some products for a live demonstration.  When we got there, the Bagalkot weavers showed their saris.  The group looked politely and wowed the kundi (joined warps).  Then someone spied the shop.  And they all zoomed in.  Within half an hour, the group purchased RS 150,000  of artisan designed weaving– and all of the Bhujodi weavers benefited.  The Bagalkot weavers filmed it on their mobile phones.  At the end, they excitedly reviewed and calculated– and everyone was sold on the project.