SKV Open Studio Tours: A Cultural Exchange

Last year, Somaiya Kala Vidya began Open Studio Tours. The idea is borrowed from the western world, where artist/craftspeople live in a niche and invite people to visit their studios on designated days. It is a mutually beneficial idea: people have the chance to interact with artists, see their work and take home more than a product- an experience. For the artists it means not being annoyed by interruptions to their work, but being ready for visitors and in a mood to welcome them. Win-win.

We had an additional goal. We wanted some of the talented artisan design graduates to be known, and to have the opportunity to learn from interacting with clients. In Kutch, as in most tourist places, a few people become well known, and all of the tourists go to them. The artisans benefit in many ways. But after a while tourists also feel that they are going to well-traveled destinations, and seek fresh experiences. So we hoped on this front to be win-win too.

After the first season, Kuldip Gadhvi, a local tour professional working with us on this project, and I met with thirteen Artisan Designers to see what their experiences were. Sitting in an orchard, shaded by huge mango trees, we asked how they thought the pilot year had gone.

No one volunteered.

Uh oh, I thought. After some silence, I asked if they could begin with the goals we originally had?

Finally, they began to talk.

The goal was grand, Ifranbhai recalled. We wanted to begin working toward what would eventually lead to a major event- an exhibition that would draw people to Kutch like the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. It should become a go-to event.

So, how did we do this first year?

Khalidbhai Usman offered that if we want to attract good visitors, artisan designers need to bring only their exclusive work to the exhibition at the end of the tour. They should bring their own new designs, work visitors don’t otherwise get to see- not the work available everywhere. If the work is new and interesting, people will come, he said.

I asked if they were they concerned that if they show their new work, it will be copied? They all agreed that copying was a universal issue. Designs will be copied, by artisans who are not graduates- and anyone using the internet. But copying within the group was not an issue, they assured.

Soyabbhai said that bringing ordinary work also makes a difference in pricing. Ordinary work is cheap- making new work seem expensive.

Khalidbhai shared that in Ajrakhpur, the group has decided to meet the day before the Open Studio Tour, jury the work, and then only display new work. They will also keep a record of who participated, and what the results were. And they will have all of the sales go through a central billing person so that it’s easy to tally.

Soyabbhai suggested that if there is a small group, they should select just a few artisans. I reminded them that they had decided that for each tour there would be only a few demonstrators, but the exhibition and sale at the end would be open to all who are interested. Junedbhai and Prakashbhai have thought of selecting the hosts for each tour based on proximity, so the visitors don’t have to walk a lot. Khalidbhai added that in Ajrakhpur they also make sure to clean up the area that will be highlighted in a tour.

But how much work should we bring for the exhibition? Niteshbhai wanted to know. When someone brings a huge pile, it eclipses those with less work. They discussed this at length, and agreed to keep a limited number of pieces per person, but no one could bring himself to determine that number.

Product segued into display. The Ajrakh artisans thought it was a good idea to display by product rather than person. But Aslambhai disagreed. Display by person is better, he said, because each artisan’s collection would be clearly understood. His experience at his BMA exhibition was that when there was a crowd it sometimes became hard to get through it in time to reach an interested customer and explain his work. Other artisans felt that they all know each others’ work and anyone nearby can explain someone else’s collection. When we were in class, they said, we heard each other’s presentations so often we could repeat them by heart. Niteshbhai summed up: they should display as a group, and agree to help each other. Junedbhai concluded with the thought that the method of display could relate to the size of the group.

Juned also pointed out that the tours aren’t only about sales; there is explanation and interaction with guests, which generates increased visibility.

“–Especially for those artisans who don’t have a shop,” Pavanbhai added. Plus the tours offer artisans a chance to share information within the group. “We don’t go to each other’s homes without any reason,” he explained. The Open Studios provide an opportunity to meet and see what’s going on.

Prakashbhai agreed, this is an opportunity for our work to get into visitors’ sights and hearts.

Pachanbhai said he thought the tours were an opportunity for planning. “Even if it’s short notice, it gives us a chance to plan,” he said. “Plus, people begin to understand that each of us has a unique style. Sometimes the visitors keep in touch with us afterwards.”

Kuldipbhai agreed, “The Open Studios can be an opportunity to explain your design work, your USP. Live discussion is important for visitors. And let’s understand them as visitors rather than clients. If they want to just buy a product, they can do it online.”

True, echoed Pavanbhai. When buyers come to my shop, they bargain. In these tours, no one has bargained.

Khalilbhai had been quietly listening for the whole meeting. Finally he gathered the courage to speak. “What if you know what to say, but don’t have the ability to communicate?” he asked

This struck a chord. A major concern is how to market oneself?

Aslam related, “In an exhibition I can speak to anyone. But somehow among my friends I feel shy.”

“Your work is excellent and exceptional,” Kuldipbhai told them. “Now if you can bring it to life, it adds value.”

“Speak in Gujarati or Kutchi!” I said. “But speak. People want to communicate with you. And there is a difference between having Kuldipbhai speak for you, and you speaking and with his translation: the difference is contact.”

“Craft is the language of the heart,” Jentibhai said.

Finally, Prakashbhai requested that they find a way to determine who will participate in each tour. “Those who are genuinely interested should volunteer,” he said, “and also help organize, so that there is no scrambling at the last minute.”

It’s a matter of prioritizing, I noted.

“We need to be into it,” Junedbhai said.

Khalidbhai concurred. “We need to make a commitment, make this event as important as the Santa Fe Folk Art Market, so that our goal will come true.”

Listening to the discussion, I realized that it was about more than our Open Studio Tours; it was about Artisan Designers and their market.

The tours provide learning for visitors. (“It is totally jaw dropping to be educated on the complexity of Ajrakh printing and weaving techniques of Bhujodi- and all of the innovations!”) As we had hoped, the tours also provide learning for artisans. In one season, Artisan Designers have learned about being responsible, working together, and managing this project. They are taking ownership. They are thinking of the visitor’s experience. They are learning to overcome barriers of inhibitions and communicate.

Building local respect builds self-respect. Exposure has provided an opportunity to move toward the ability to reach appropriate markets effectively- in a low-stress situation that allows open exploration, exchange.

Open Studio Tours are not just about purchase, as Kuldipbhai and Pavanbhai said. They are a human exchange, rather than a commercial one. So when someone purchases, it is an experience rather than a product. This is why the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market works. So perhaps we are beginning a microscopic version of that phenomenal event.

What the Artisan Designers learned will surely make our Open Studio Tours even better this year… and it will develop their enterprises.


Barefoot Education

In April, Somaiya Kala Vidya began an Outreach project with Avani Kumaon. Avani, a nearly self-sufficient voluntary organization, is situated deep in the Kumaon Hills. The nearest village is Tripura Devi. A 7-hour arduously winding road journey is inevitable, whether you take the train to Kathgodham or the flight to Pantnagar.

The region, 150 km from the Nepal border, is cool and scenic, with forests and views of the Himalayas. But its isolation makes it difficult to earn a livelihood. Typical villages are small. Hamlets have 30-50 families. Revenue villages have up to 200 families. Traditionally, small plots of subsistence farming were enough for families. But as families grew, the land was further divided. Availability of facilities such as phones, cars and computers has increased people’s demand for a cash economy. So nearly all of the young men of Kumaon migrate to cities to earn for their families. Those who remain in the hills work in tourism or small businesses. The villages are managed by women, who do the farm work, housework and child rearing. Despite heavy demands on their time, they would also like to earn money.

Rashmi and Rajnish, the founders of Avani, are from Delhi. They decided to work in Kumaon, to make a contribution to help stabilize the communities. They work on environmental/ ecological issues, community management, and income generation. They promote solar energy, and Rajnish has invented a pine needle gassifier, to generate energy and lessen the danger of forest fires caused by combustion of the pine needles. Rashmi began a craft project that is now largely EarthCraft, a producer company.

EarthCraft’s weaving is primarily an income generation project. The local weaving traditions are very basic and not valued. Avani did initially try to work with two traditions, a semi felted blanket, Thulma, and a looped and cut pile rug, Chutka– with little success. Procuring good quality local materials is also a challenge.

So Avani bypassed the craft market, and turned to the design market. EarthCraft weaves stoles, shawls and fabrics in local and Merino wool, wild silks and now some linen and cotton, with a focus on natural dyes. They try to procure locally. They have encouraged 250 local farmers to grow indigo, and are trying to grow a linen that will survive in the hills. They have invested in professional equipment for processing natural dyes, which they sell. Rashmi feels that the potential for natural dyes is good. So Avani has focused on producing good quality, easy to use dyestuffs.

Avani and EarthCraft’s work is professional, despite contending with great distances that must be covered by foot. The organization has collected an impressive number of awards. Despite its daunting isolation, Avani regularly attracts interns from Indian design and management schools and from institutes all over the world.

However, even with their focus on self-sufficiency, Avani routinely engages design students, rather than artisans, to develop new fabrics and products.

One major challenge that EarthCraft faces is the constant attrition of weavers. Rashmi attributes this to the winds of change. With exposure, she says, aspirations change. When artisans get access to information, they leave craft. She sees this as part of the skill upgradation process. Construction workers become weavers, and weavers become supervisors or office employees. “Where skill has been upgraded it has value,” she says. There is also attrition when young women marry and move away or become busy with new households.

We felt that Avani and EarthCraft have not recognized the potential of artisans doing more than skilled work, or that recognition and satisfaction in weaving might make it more valuable, curbing attrition of weavers.

Because of the shared philosophy of self-sufficiency and sustainability, and strong existing infrastructure, and because our program addresses the issue of attrition of artisans, we thought Avani would be a good partner in a program of design education for artisans, despite a weak cultural heritage connection.

Avani agreed.

From 7 to 19 April, 2018 our team of Pachanbhai and Rajeshbhai, weaver designers who have graduated from the Somiaya Kala Vidya program, and Lokeshbhai, senior Visiting Faculty, conducted the first workshop for our project, on the Avani campus.

“They have a different style of weaving than we do,” Pachanbhai observed. The patterning they weave comes from drafting. He and Rajeshbhai were also intrigued that the weavers seemed to have forgotten how to join new warps.

The first thing they did was find out about tradition. The team went with their Avani weaver partners to villages and asked questions. Pachanbhai liked this part a lot. He enjoyed talking to the women elders- especially since the weaver partners did not speak. Once the ice was broken, they learned that the women had previously had bad experiences with teachers from outside. The teachers yelled at us, they said. So when they heard the SKV team was coming, they were afraid.

“We had to find out their history,” Rajeshbhai related. They learned that the Bora community had 4 subgroups, and they actually did use to weave. They made 3 or 4 utilitarian products- carriers, rugs- things not valued. They used hemp for the warp and shreds of waste fabric for the weft. At that time, they wove on a back strap loom.

Armed with some background on the region and weaving traditions, the weaver designers began. “We had to teach,” Pachanbhai said. This was their first experience. “At first it was hard teaching principles of design,” he said. “We had to really get a grasp on what we knew.   But they women understood, because we taught in their language- not just Hindi, but the language of craft.”

It was an experience of teaching Kumaon women to be creative. And that was about building confidence. One woman said she had been affected by black magic and could not work, Pachanbhai recalled. He had to convince her that the best remedy was to just work anyway – and she overcame her block.

“They thought their natural dye colours were limited and people don’t like them,” Rajeshbhai said. So he wove them a sample with his ideas about how colours could be combined. This inspired the women to try some ideas of their own. And then the workshop gained momentum.

The women had expected to be told what to do. But they had to test their own ideas. Pachanbhai and Rajeshbhai had them make layouts, then try to weave them. They realized problems, revised layouts, and wove again.

The weaver designers recognized the biggest challenge right away.

The women weave as a job. Where is the incentive?

We don’t think, the women said. And why should we make so much effort? They indicated that they would only be interested if they got more money.

“When they come to Delhi, they will know,” Pachanbhai said. “I used to want only easy work. Now that I am independent, I like challenging designs.”

Rajeshbhai and Pachanbhai felt that if the women can be promoted as designers, if they are given a platform, they will be motivated. And Avani will benefit because their weavers will be able to work better with designers, and the quality will improve so that there will be fewer seconds.

Pachanbhai related how one of his team members cried because she felt she didn’t know anything. She felt she couldn’t do anything because she only did plain weave.

Pachanbhai walked her to the Avani shop. “What do you see here?” he asked.

Plain weave, for the high end market.

“So is it not a design?”

She said she wasn’t educated, she couldn’t read or write.

Pachanbhai said that came up again and again. The women had been convinced of their insurmountable limitations. With a huge grin, he laughed. “I cant read either!” he said. “So it’s no excuse.”

What a beautiful model.

At the end of the workshop, the SKV and Avani weaver teams presented to the Avani staff. The resoundingly positive response of not only the weavers involved but also the entire staff was very encouraging. Everyone was very happy to see that the women could use their own ideas. They voted on the samples- the first real feedback. On viewing the work, Rashmi immediately realized that each artisan has a unique take on the same traditional references.

Now the weavers will carry their samples to Delhi for a jury with professionals in weaving and design, and then with refinement they will put them into production for an Outreach exhibition planned for Chennai in September.

In the term coined by Bunker Roy, this is “barefoot” education. Artisans are teaching artisans, without either necessarily being able to read or write.   Nonetheless, it is real education. The Artisan Design graduates have imbibed a philosophy of education as well as facts and tricks. And they can share it. They question, they research. They understand the process of design. In teaching, they realize new capacities, and the deep satisfaction of releasing creative potential.

This education is owned, and it grows. On return, within just three weeks, Pachanbhai designed and wove two exquisite saris inspired by his experience.

Look for more from all of these creative weavers in Chennai in September!