Whose Work is it, Anyway?

A long time ago, there was a chappal maker. His work was good, so I asked him to make some boxes, purses, and bags for Kala Raksha. I sat with him to develop the specifics. They sold. Then he started to sell them through other organizations. I told him he could sell other things elsewhere, but not to sell the designs I had given him.

“You didn’t give me designs,” he retorted. “You only gave me ideas.”

At the time I thought there was a misunderstanding. He discounted the value of concept and initiative. He thought that design = prototype.

Recently, I heard a rumor about an artisan who put his work in an online shop. An organization objected, so the rumor goes, saying they had put design development into the product. And finally the artisan was forced to withdraw it from the site. The work was his, I thought, but who had the right to sell it? And who had the right to the profit? So I realized that the issue is more complex and, by now, my perspective has changed.

When I began the journey of design education for artisans, it was largely because I felt that artisans were having their own traditions lifted from them, shaken up, and returned in kits for them to produce. I thought artisans could get more credit for their capability and more pay. In one of the first classes, the men teased an artisan who pinned a concept up on the board. “Did you do that, or did you copy it?” they asked.

“Copying is what a designer does!” he rejoined. He had seen it for years as designers came to his house and went.

I also hoped that design education would diminish the phenomenon of artisans copying one another. In the traditional context of men’s work, design and ownership were not concepts. (women’s work was a very different story, one for a later discussion) Art existed, and the artisan produced it as best he could. So it is probably not surprising that the same understanding was simply overlayed onto the early innovations. Someone introduced the now ubiquitous “Bhujodi shawl,” and everyone just produced it.

Shyamjibhai, a weaver with the wisdom of experience and an SKV advisor, fully understands how artisans think. “Every year, we do a ‘Donation Design,’” he says. “These are designs based on tradition that are salable, can be done in quantity and are easy to produce. These are designs that we know artisans are going to copy. We do them for a year, and by then so does everyone else.”

But his nomenclature reveals the amazingly sophisticated strategy his family has developed in response to the issue in the context of changing times.

“But there are other designs that all weavers can’t do,” he continues, “due to the skill and cost involved. These we keep for our own edge in the market.”

I believed that if artisans develop their design capacity and find their unique voices, diversity will grow, and the need to copy will wane. If each artisan can find his or her own niche, everyone can enjoy good sales. This has, in fact, happened to a great extent, to graduates of the design program.

However, with the advent of individuality, competition of a different sort is born, and the concept of intellectual property emerges. Perhaps copying is not any more or less than it ever was but now it is easier to identify. And as the stakes become higher, the issues of ownership and copying are becoming more frequent and more thorny.

At the Santa Fe Folk Art Market, a designer happily showed Dayabhai a design he was doing in Kutch, recorded on his mobile phone. Dayabhai was shocked. “It’s my design!” he exclaimed. “I made it for the Co-Creation Squared show in Mumbai, 2013.” Fortunately, the designer recognized the situation, and gave future production to Dayabhai.

For me, the thrust of design education for artisans has been to enable artisans to be independent designers and entrepreneurs. In the Bhujodi to Bagalkot project a question of ownership came up. The Bhujodi weavers had mentored the designs, and in many cases had given detailed drawings. We had made cloth labels “Bhujodi to Bagalkot” for all of the work to give the show an identity. But each Bagalkot weaver had, on his own, made a paper tag with his name. The tags were identical, except for the name. The weavers felt a tremendous sense of ownership for their work, probably for the first time, as they usually are laborers for a cooperative, and it showed in their engagement as much as in the work.

I had a chance to ask the question during a joint session of the men and women of Somaiya Kala Vidya’s first Business and Management course. The artisans are all earnestly working toward the first exhibition of real Artisan Design- a collective of themed collections- to be held in Mumbai December 3-6. In the session, they were planning the production of the show. They became mired in how to organize the display- by individual? (but there are 12, in a small space!) By craft? Or by product? Before that could be comfortably decided, they moved on to the name of the show. They brainstormed wonderfully, coming up with the name “CRAFT RE-DEFINED” in a way so organic that no one really knows who coined the phrase. But they all knew immediately that that was IT.

Now I got my chance: But what about Somiaya Kala Vidya? I asked. Should the name not be on the show? “Whose products are they, anyway?” I asked.

I saw the group collectively, defensively frown. (Each one had worked so hard to create a logo and a brand identity. Was I going to try to take this away from them?) Finally, one artisan voiced their answer, “They are OURS!”

Good! I answered. But what then is the Somaiya Kala Vidya product?

Without hesitation, Zakiya laughed and pointed to herself. “WE ARE!” she cried.

Ah, yes. So we added the subtitle CRAFT RE-DEFINED: Artisan Designer BMAs from Somaiya Kala Vidya

Everyone wants the opportunity and the satisfaction of creativity… Ownership is critical to enthusiasm and motivation. But it is important to be clear about just what one’s work is.

Thank you, Zakiyaben!

Bhujodi to Bagalkot, The First Milestone

When we last left our brave weavers of Bagalkot, the second round of samples were in process, and we were combing the universe for funding for loans. God is Great, and we managed just what we needed in the time we had. But there were communication challenges and a few doubts, so within days of Dayabhai returning from his highly successful USA tour, he and Nilanjanbhai set out once again for Bagalkot. The mission was to insure that the Bagalkot team was weaving the samples approved, and to make any adjustments necessary to insure that they had the stock they would need for the October exhibition, now just over a month away. Face to face support has no substitute. The weavers were bolstered to finish their collections.

A month later, I had the chance to make my second trip to Bagalkot, to present our project in a year-after follow up event organized by the Catalytic Think Tank Forum. Nilanjanbhai and Jentibhai also came for the event. The three of us went to a packed auditorium and waited for the Bagalkot team. They strode in, smiling and happily chatting. During a break, I went to their seats and asked if they had brought samples? Of course! They each eagerly showed their work, and a crowd immediately gathered, with people grabbing the cloth and asking for the prices. We were all encouraged! And right after that, gliding on our enthusiasm, we all came on stage, each artisan holding his sample up proudly. Knowing we had a very short time, I introduced the project and quickly gave the mike to Tukaram. He spoke with confidence, from the heart, and the crowd cheered and clapped. Later, Tukaram confessed, “I had never been on a stage before!”

The next day, we visited each weaver’s home in Kamatgi. The saris, dupattas and stoles were good, with soft cotton and strong, bold patterns and colours. You could feel how much fun the weavers had had creating their own work, and you could hear their pride as they showed each piece. It was like fish diving into the sea. Nilanjanbhai, Jentibhai and Srinivasji costed the products for the imminent show. The prices also seemed right, though we all realized where costs could be trimmed next time.

We selected a few traditional saris for comparison and insurance, and some traditional Guledgudd khan blouse pieces. When we were leaving, Srinivasji grinned broadly and said, “The Eiffel Tower… Everyone knows it for the engineer’s name. No one knows who the artisans were. Here, we are going to tell the artisans’ names!”

In a few short days, we reunited in Mumbai. Again, the Bagalkot team strode happily in, chatting away. I was nervous. Our show immediately followed a show of sophisticated weaving, which had sold very well. They later confessed they were nervous, too: “We saw the women on the street wearing jeans and shirts. We wondered how our saris would sell?”

They hesitated, having never displayed their work before. But with Radhiben’s guidance, they got to work. From the installation to the last sale, the group demonstrated a remarkable cooperation. They were each proud of their own work, and had created individual labels, but when a customer showed interest, any one of the Bagalkot team showed her the work. Kudos to the Chamundeshwari Cooperative Society for creating a genuine collective spirit, which I believe will facilitate their growth as weaver entrepreneurs.

The show opened with a bang beyond expectation! Crowds came, and they purchased. Sankarappa sold a whopping 80% of his saris on the first day. We broke records previously known. The weavers were thrilled, and interacted confidently with customers, bypassing any language barriers. Amrita Somaiya officially opened the show, and Samir Somaiya arrived the next day, right off a flight from Europe. Srinivasji spoke eloquently of his experience. Thereafter, each day at 4:00 a team of Bhujodi and Bagalkot weavers presented their work. Those who attended were duly impressed to hear first-hand the physical and psychological challenges faced and met, and to share the joy and self esteem of creativity so irresistible in these artisans.

At our debriefing this morning, Nilanjanbhai read the results: an average of 50% sales, with one artisan selling 75%, and one selling 90%. The saris sold! And new work far outsold the traditional. The weavers said they only wished they had taken the project more seriously and produced more. Experience is the best teacher. They were already talking about investing in new raw materials and wanted to know where the next exhibition will be?

And what did they learn? COLOUR! They all said. Colours are the main factor.

I asked if they would like to take a course in colour. Srinivasji said he would be the first to sign up.

I told them I have a dream of opening Somaiya Kala Vidya, Bagalkot.

They applauded enthusiastically.

At this first milestone, the success is intoxicating. Creativity in artisans seems like the grass that sprouts from the desert with just a short drizzle.
Surely, to be continued….

The Making of a Logo: A Study in Collaboration

The Somaiya Kala Vidya logo was officially launched with the exhibition of Bhujodi to Bagalkot. Creating this identity was a study in collaboration.

I have long been fascinated by collaboration. When there are two authors on a work, how did it actually happen? Did one write the first half and the other the second? Did one talk and the other write? There are probably as many methods as there are collaborations. Here is how our logo evolved:

I had a concept. I wanted to show tradition coming alive, a motif that one could recognize as traditional, and yet it was new- what we teach at Somaiya Kala Vidya. I thought of inviting women to embroider their examples, as a contest. So I gave book cover sized fabric and threads to many women in many villages. They made many motifs, but none quite expressed what I hoped to see. I liked Sajnuben’s parrot the best. It had character. But it was still. So I thought of my friend Nina Sabnani, animator par excellence. I knew that if anyone could breathe life into this parrot, she could. I flapped my arms, trying to convey the sense of joy in flight I was imagining.

Nina and Piyush made many renditions of Sajnuben’s parrot. Many, many. We got tired then, and took a break while Dayabhai and I went to the USA.

On return, we came straight from the airport to Nina’s house, crashed, and in the morning all looked at the logo again. Piyush revived the parrot. Nina gave it a final tickle. It was flying!

But what about colour? Dayabhai asked. We narrowed it down to parrot green…. And pink. Dayabhai was not satisfied. He turned the colour wheel a bit… until it was a darker green with maroon. Much more dignified for an institution.


Nina added the title, in Optima, one of her favorite fonts. We pushed it back and forth, up and down, til we were happy.

Nina studied it. It still needed something to complete it, something to make it sing. She tried another, tiny parrot. Too complicated. Then, inspiration struck: She took the mirror from Jivaben’s motif, and placed it above the title.

Bingo. The logo was born.