Ecology, Environment and What We Can Learn From Craft

The late Hariyaben Bhanani explains the toys she designed and created to an American student. Hariyaben couldn’t bear to see scraps of painstakingly embroidered fabric thrown away, so she rescued them, took them home, and painstakingly patched them together to form elephants, camels and dolls that she stuffed with other fabric remnants. She lived the spirit of sustainability.

In her novel Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver brilliantly illuminates the climate crisis through a discussion between her Appalachian protagonist and an environmental activist. ‘Bring your own containers to restaurants for leftovers,’ the activist says, ‘and minimize air travel.’  Dellarobia hasn’t eaten in a restaurant for 2 years and has never been on a plane.  Nor does she drink bottled water, or have disposable income to invest in social responsibility.

The 99% have contributed minimally to the environmental crisis. Artisans of Kutch in fact live astonishingly eco-friendly lives. Designers of au courant sustainable fashion who come to Kutch villages seeking textile waste to up-cycle are routinely turned away empty handed. Original scale traditional textiles of Kutch were rooted in sustainability. Weavers used any residual yarn in finishing, or in the next textile. Ajrakh and batik printers recycled resist substances, and exhausted natural dyes. Village women stitched garments with no-waste patterns. None of these textiles used fossil fuel energy. Scaled up production today trades some of these principles for speed and income. Still, environmentally sound grounding is a good reason to use hand crafted products.

But even more valuable in becoming environmentally responsible is understanding the ethos of hand craft. If we slow down to hand craft speed, we can observe why artisans work as they do.  Vasant Rao meticulously collects the gold dust from a gold pendant he filed to perfection. Shakilbhai salvages the wax from today’s batik to use tomorrow. Hariyaben collects the textile cuttings from the tailoring room and fashions delightful animal toys. In the local craft ecosystem described earlier, value was the basis of traditional design and creation.  Artisans did not waste because they valued materials, their own skills and efforts, and their consumers.

The most basic tenet of conservation is that you preserve what you value. We can learn more than craft skills from traditional artisans.  Can we engage them as teachers in early education and invite them to share world views as well as technology?

Private sector Intermediaries-NGOs, Partnership, Trusteeship

August 12, 2023

Distributing payments in Sumrasar Jatwali, 2001.

After working with Kala Raksha, the trust I co-founded in 1993, I became acutely aware of the limitations of development for artisans in the NGO sector.

As Dr. Ismailbhai Khatri said (last post), the government should provide basic amenities to all.  He was not asking for anything specific to artisans. But what should private entities provide? A plethora of NGOs have emerged to offer assistance to artisans beyond the scope of government.

Intermediaries fill a need. Arjo Klamer imagines an ideal Creative Craft Culture, in which there are 3 components: creative artisans, an appreciative market, and intermediaries to connect the two.

The issue is how do private intermediaries understand the need and attempt to fill it? When artisans are imagined as pre-industrial manufacturers, the goal is understood as making hand work fit into an industrial model: artisans need to scale up to make in quantity and make cheaply. Further, many NGOs need their artisan constituency in order to endure.  So there is a vested interest in keeping artisans dependent, “helping” in order to maintain a status quo.

From the artisan perspective, a more respectful model could be developed on the concept of partnership, in which parties agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests and there is some mutuality of rights and obligations. Could artisans and intermediaries join their respective strengths and abilities to form balanced partnerships?

Another intriguing model is Gandhi’s specific concept of trusteeship as a way to address inequalities of ownership and income. Gandhi believed that

everything belongs to God and is for His people. No one could accumulate wealth without the labour and cooperation of poorer sections of society. So when an individual had more than their fair share, they became a trustee of that portion, and were logically and morally bound to share it. Gandhi’s goal was progress that promotes human dignity, rather than mere charity. Today’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is rooted in this concept of trusteeship; the concept is that companies have a responsibility to the society from which they derive resources. 

As always, the question is, how to authentically interpret and implement this ideal?

Government (and other) Intervention in Craft

August 5, 2023

Dr. Ismailbhai Khatri and other Advisors teach artisan students about traditional textiles at Somaiya Kala Vidya in 2018

In “Crafting the Nation in Colonial India” McGowan describes how craft was swept into the industrialization of post-independence India as a complementary means of production. Most early 20th C. reformers, she writes, agreed that crafts were a distinct sector of the economy characterized by traditional styles, technologies, labor, and organization… which provided outsiders the excuse to intervene. They felt that artisans were too tradition-bound to handle requisite changes on their own.

The perception that artisans need help in order to survive continues to drive the range of government policies and schemes for the craft sector. “Helping” is a vertical dynamic: the powerful help the less powerful, and the notion of helping serves to reinforce existing power differentials.

Further, welfare is a quick fix that can only the maintain status quo. Government schemes are often focused on skill upgradation, assuming that skill is the artisan’s capacity.  Real change is slow; it comes through analysis of shortcomings and education. Artisans have skills.  What they lack is the ability to directly reach markets that value craft.

Middlemen- who must include designers, NGOs and even the government as well as traders- are often blamed for artisan adversity. Intermediaries fill a need, providing a gamut of methods to access markets.  With education about market segments, appropriate design innovation, pricing and promotion, effective communication with clients, and businesses management in today’s world, artisans can begin to access appropriate markets themselves.

Dr. Ismailbhai Khatri, Ajrakh master artisan and community leader, said it all when in 2003 he was asked what the government can do for artisans. “Provide good roads, clean water, reliable phone and mail service, and relevant education within a reasonable proximity to villages,” he said.  “In addition to that, socialized medicine and effluent treatment would benefit us a lot. If the government just provides these basic facilities, we can take care of craft.  If we can devote our energies fully to our work, there is no need for subsidy!”

Art or Merchandise; Manufacturing or Creation?

July 29, 2023

Laxmiben and her partners Taraben and Tulsiben discuss their upcoming suf embroidery exhibition with chikan embroidery artisans who they had mentored with Manjari Nirula and other members of Delhi Crafts Council, 2015.

In a previous post, I argued that Industrialization changed the character of craft. Handmade objects that had been culturally valued had to be re-valued as commodities.

Commodities- an industrial concept- are production line; each unit is interchangeable.  The price of each unit, on any day at any location is the same for all makers. Individual producers must take what the market offers, and buyers don’t have a preference over whose product they buy. Commodities tend to be raw materials- corn or yardage.

The alternative is differentiated products –different than those of their competitors (and these tend to be finished products).  Makers can argue that their work is better, and thus more valuable, if the perceived value of their work is high. Today, this is done by creating a brand and promoting it. Traditionally, craft was always differentiated. Clients in Kutch perceived the unique qualities of artisans’ work. They were in fact connoisseurs!

Our world is filled with commodities- mass produced textiles and garments that have superseded their hand made predecessors, appropriate for everyday needs- bedsheets, school uniforms, fashion that is destined to become obsolete in a season or two.

My question is, why is hand craft today seen as commodity? With the potential to epitomize individual, differentiated work, why is craft emulating industrial production? Instead, could it fill needs for special acquisitions? Could artisans aim to create more value rather than greater quantity?

Artisan designers understand this concept.  When questioned how she could possibly prepare for an exhibition in a short time, Laxmiben quickly responded, “I’ll make fewer higher value embroideries.”

Industrialization changed the world’s perceptions and values. We can all re-think and alter expectations. Mid-talk on craft, I was questioned.  “Production?” the man asked. It seemed an industrial term. “No,” I corrected myself. “Not production; creation.”  And I thanked him.

Technology or Creativity

July 22, 2023

What’s wrong with these pictures? The last handloom weaver in a small Karnataka village weaves plain white yardage for school uniforms; a poly-cotton railway sheet proudly displays the handloom label.

Technology is a basic element of making craft.  But there is a debate about how much technology is ok.  In some Khadi centers, yarn is spun on ambar charkhas and woven (mostly by women) on what are in reality human-powered power looms. The logic seems that as long as electricity is not used, weaving and spinning are hand work.  This is pushing a technical point –and missing the essence.

The essence of hand craft is that it is made by an individual.  So the first question is, how do we value that person?  There is no inherent merit in pretending we don’t have access to advances in technology.  (Who hand writes or calculates in their heads?)  Today, as craft is livelihood in a market economy, artisans must calculate speed and time as well as quality. Advanced technology can enhance these facets.  But if we value the essence of hand craft, the real question is, how much creative agency do artisans use, whether with hand tools or electrically powered tools?  How are we investing in the artisan?

In Kutch -and elsewhere- there is a troubling trend of de-skilling and under-valuing traditional artisans.  Individuals who can create intricate patterns with nearly unlimited possibilities in extra weft technique are instead weaving plain-weave undyed hand loom yardage. I question whether there is more value in this hand loom fabric than the same fabric woven on a power loom.

The value of human creativity is in the little details that bring a textile alive, in a glimpse of how the individual met a challenge and created something new.

One can use ancient technology without imagination- such as plain-weave hand loom yardage.  One can also use new technology creatively by pushing its limits.  The question for hand craft is who is master?  Artisan, machine, or marketer?

Imagining the Maker

July 8, 2023

How do we imagine makers? As generic hands without heads? Years ago, a college graduate bandhani artist who wore a button-down shirt and pants told me no one ever believed he dyed, let alone tied his own work. Historically, because artisans work with their hands they were usually lower status Hindu and/or Muslim. Beyond that, artisan identity is localized. In Kutch, traditionally Hindu men weave, Muslim men dye; in Varanasi Muslim men weave, in Rajasthan Hindu men dye. In Kutch, women make folk embroidery, for themselves rather than for income.  In Kashmir, men embroider. The factor here is livelihood; traditionally, craft as income is the realm of men.

But in most livelihood crafts, women are essential assistants.  No women, no weaving, weavers say. The value of women’s work was not calculated monetarily. The omission of ‘indirect costs’ had entrenched the notion that making craft was financially unsustainable. Ironically, one solution to retaining craft as livelihood at values believed to be fixed, exemplified by mashru weavers in Patan, was to teach women to weave for lower value supplementary income, while men could become educated and earn better in white collar jobs.

In 2005 when design education began in Kutch, artisan students began to reimagine themselves as makers. They learned to cost craft and value women’s contributions. By 2013, 56% of the graduates were women, mostly embroiderers. In 2014, when the program came under the K.J. Somaiya group, 7 women determined to start businesses took the Business and Management for Artisans post graduate course and began independent enterprises.  Today, 22 women from traditionally male-controlled textile traditions: bandhani, weaving, and even block printing have taken the year-long design course. Kutch artisans are re-imagining the maker to enhance both livelihood and recognition.

How much do consumer assumptions about identities, capabilities and value limit the diversity of makers? Can we allow makers to expand how we imagine them?

Hierarchy: Craft and Maker

July 1, 2023

In India, social status doesn’t always relate to economic status. In the Hindu caste system, working with hands is inversely proportional to social status. Among makers, material and product further determined social status.  Because shoemakers tanned leather and made footwear, their social status was low.  In the 1960s when local markets were lost to industrially produced alternatives, connection to distant markets elevated economic status. Government awards mitigated social status in those markets. But in provincial Kutch, it remained unchanged.  By the end of the century, many Kutch leather artisans gave up their tradition without a lucrative alternative to disengage with social stigma.  Others turned to products other than footwear to improve economic and social status.

The traditional social status of Kutch wool weavers is similar. Responding to loss of local markets in the ‘60s, weavers who could connect to urban markets gained economic status, usually employing community members who could not directly reach markets. From 2005, design education enabled more artisans direct access to urban markets.  These connections led to material and product diversification. Kutch weavers with direct market access have dramatically increased economic status and, in urban settings, their social status.  However, local caste status has changed far less.

In Karnataka, weavers produce Ilkal saris in factory-like workshops and until recently had no direct access to markets. Handloom became so devalued that powerloom may cost more than hand woven saris.  The social status of weavers is so low that a loom in the house can be a deal breaker for a marriage proposal.

Goldsmith communities work with precious metals, but are traditionally segregated into makers, of lower social status, and sellers, leading to aspirations to trade rather than make. Today, Kutch goldsmiths have hired Bengali artisans to make. Further, customers often prefer the perfection of industrially produced ornaments. The next generation aspires to leave their tradition.

The pervasive devaluing of hand work continues to pose the greatest challenge to maker communities.

Skill vs Craft Tradition

June 24 2023

A variety of crafts through the world and over time complicate discussion. Craft surely involves a patron, but relationships vary widely. My work focuses on textile artisans in Kutch, and I distinguish between craft as skilled labor and craft traditions, which are created by hereditary artisans. “Craft tradition” refers to a comprehensive understanding of craft as cultural heritage, in which, as Pollock said, skill is “a means of arriving as a statement.”

Pre-industrialization, Kutch textiles were created as critical expressions of cultural identity in a local ecosystem. Weavers, dyers and their clients had interdependent, hereditary relationships. Artisans and clients knew each other intimately. Rabari clients spun their own wool, weavers wove fabrics, if dye was needed, dyers dyed it, and Rabaris finished the textiles to wear them. Looms were built by weavers in collaboration with local carpenters. Khatri dyers acquired fabric from local weavers, made their own blocks, printed and dyed textiles and traded them with Maldhari clients. Artisans knew culturally allowable variations in styles and tastes of individuals, and clients appreciated the subtle individual signatures of artisans. Personal recognition was intrinsic to value; textiles were created not simply to earn, but to exchange.

Industrialization and commodification changed the character of craft, the identity of the artisan and relationships with patrons. Post-industrialization, artisans had to reach distant markets; weaving, printing, bandhani and embroidery that had been culturally valued had to be re-valued as commodities. Urban clients could rarely “read” cultural elements of craft. For artisans, the incentive of shared understanding and value was superseded by calculations of materials, time and skill. Women artisans assessed that there was no difference between construction work and commercial embroidery. They used the same term for both jobs: majuri kam.

Ironically, today in the West “craft” is used in describing food and drink to signal individual qualities beyond skill, as a means to connoisseurship. Can a broader interpretation benefit artisans in India?

Artisan Designer

June 17, 2023

In 2003 when I began developing a design school for artisans, people inevitably asked:

“Oh, so you are teaching them craft?”
No, all students are traditional artisans.
“Oh, so you are giving them designs?”

The 2 questions circumscribe perceived limitations of artisans; few people can comprehend that artisans can design.

“Design” is an industrial concept. There is no Indian word for design as separate from creating. Word and concept were introduced with industrialization and established a hierarchy: concepts as more valuable than skills.

I developed design education for artisans to return agency to craft traditions, and to raise the value of artisans by emphasizing the cognitive aspect of craft. I called my approach therapeutic- encouraging students to know what they know. There was more, of course, a year of hard work and joy.

I envisioned graduates as the artisans of generations past, and the studio artisans of my western upbringing. I coined the term Artisan Designer to mean an artisan who graduated from a year-long program in design, to distinguish graduates from artisans producing professional designers’ work. It resonated perfectly and graduates ran with it.

But there was a powerful counterforce: the issue of scale. In contemporary India, craft is largely understood as manufacturing, and artisans are pressured to scale up. Years ago, I asked Artisan Design graduates about scale. Junedbhai said scale had enabled his success. Azizbhai said an artisan must choose between quality and scale. Dayabhai said when there is scale, it is no longer craft.

How does the Artisan Designer then balance creation and scale to establish a viable livelihood? Dayabhai has since hired artisans to weave for him. But, he emphasizes, he prioritizes them over product. Without artisans there is no craft, he says. The late Hariyaben Bhanani hired patchwork artisans but didn’t give them designs to copy; she gave them concepts, so each piece was artisan designed.

The term “Artisan Designer” has proliferated, and inevitably its meaning is diluted. Maintaining value for artisans conceiving and creating their own work is an ongoing challenge.


June 10, 2023

In the USA, I grew up revering Art. The distinction between art and craft was one of medium and functionality. A work on canvas hung on the wall was surely Art, but if it was cloth and useful it must be craft. Nor was art repeated. If there were many like pieces, how could it be Art? (Unless it was an etching or a lithograph!)

Working with makers in India, I came to consider other issues: identity, social status, education, and access to marketing. There could not be many unknown and illiterate artists. We needed stars, known individuals, to claim their work as Art. Was the difference between a Matisse paper cut and a Rabari appliqué shape, line, and pattern? or the artist, the gallery and the review?

The designation of makers matters because art is valued vastly more than craft. The debate also concerns cultural hierarchies. Craft connotes charming diminutive workers, while Art commands respect.

I consciously use the term “Artisan” rather than craftsperson. It is gender neutral, and it contains “art.” I asked three successful artisans of Kutch how they distinguish craft and art. Ismailbhai said, “The difference is imagination and skill.” Ali Mohamed Isha elaborated, “Art is what you do the first time; after that, it is craftsmanship.” And Lachhuben added, “Everyone can do craft, but not all can do art.”  Artisan students of design turned it upside down: “Art exists. Craftsmanship is what we artisans add to it,” they said.

There is art in craft and craft in art.  Artisans’ own nuanced criteria can guide us in evaluating hand work.  The identity of the maker, and the medium do not distinguish artist and artisan. Art requires concept, imagination, thought. It requires intention. The head and the heart are as essential as the hands.