All About Value

In the time of the plague in India, 1994, Kala Raksha exhibited a small collection in the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, and also held a pop-up a few blocks away. A customer contacted me, angry. ‘You are cheating,’ she said. ‘The shawl in the Museum is triple the cost of the one in the pop-up.’ I explained to her that the Museum shawl was yarn dyed in natural dyes and had a lot of fine embroidery, while the pop-up shawl was piece dyed in synthetic dye and had less embroidery of lower quality. Then I added, “If you don’t know the difference, you should buy the cheaper one.”

By then I was already frustrated by customers not understanding craft. It has changed very little. People compare tourist embroidery peddled on Janpath with work lovingly stitched by traditional artisans, one-of-a-kind textiles designed and created by one artisan to production work cranked out by laborers in workshops, power loom to hand loom.

Excellent hand craft requires both effort and appreciation. Artisans create amazing work to compete for prestigious awards, but never make it for sale. It’s not worth it, they say.

Somaiya Kala Vidya conducted its first Outreach project with Ilkal sari weavers of Kamatgi, Bagalkot District of Karnataka. A key characteristic of Ilkal saris is the Kondi technique, in which cotton and silk yarns are painstakingly joined to ingeniously enable a weaver to create a sari with a cotton body and silk pallav (end). The join is a soft irregular blending. The sari is comfortable to wear, economical to produce, and looks fabulous. When the Kamatgi weavers refused to continue traditional kondi because it was too expensive, artisan designer mentor Puroshottambhai asked, “How expensive?” RS 50 more, they answered. “There’s your problem,” he rejoined. “With a RS 50 difference, people will bargain you; if it’s RS 1000, you will have the chance to explain.”

Exquisite hand craft is for people who care. How do we ensure the chance to explain? The customers who want to listen, who can consider scaling the walls of their own preconceptions? Perceived value is an art, not a science. It depends on the presentation of fine craft. And the artisan must be in the center, because the value of craft is the value of the individual -of human connection.

My advice to the customer in 1994 was clearly a bad approach. As advocates and sensitive intermediaries, our challenge is to explain craft so that customers know and value differences in hand work, and to do that, we must truly value hand craft ourselves.

Photo: The Kamatgi Ilkal and Bhujodi weaver designer mentors Puroshottambhai, far right back row and Niteshbhai, second from left back row, proudly show their 2017 sari collection, some of which- the golden pallav in front for example, use the traditional kondi technique.

Market Forces

Today’s craft is created for urban markets. In many regions of India, artisans don’t have direct access to those markets. They are beholden to “Master Artisans” for whom they do job work and who lend them money they won’t repay in their lifetimes, preventing them from leaving their workshops.

Enabling direct market access is a key focus of the design curriculum at SKV. In Market Orientation, the third module of the year-long course, artisan students explore market segments. Pictured, Amarbhai, a bandhani artisan student, and Shakilbhai, an Ajrakh print student and Kisanbhai, a weaver student study the presentation and pricing of hand-crafted products similar to those that they create, to gain an understanding of market segments and to conjecture about how their work can be valued. Students also visit homes in Ahmedabad to learn more about people who might purchase their work- contemporary end users. Through the year, they learn to make theme-based, market-oriented collections and work very hard to create unique new looks, which they launch in a show in Ahmedabad.

Yet, after the course when it’s time to go to an exhibition in Delhi, Mumbai, etc., the collection is left behind and “regular” work is brought. “This is what the market wants,” they say. The markets to which they have direct access are pop-up exhibitions and medium level businesses. This segment- like the original local clients- wants what it already knows.

For artisans, the urban market remains distant. In the local ecosystem men deemed even the little unknown of hereditary clients risky. Add the perceived practicalities of business and the push to scale up, and the risks pre-empt innovation.

Degrees of unknown can be managed by experience. As artisan designers gain experience and make the market more familiar, they can begin to utilize creativity to gain recognition as well as increased income.

But the process is slow. And we live in a fast world governed by marketing. Hard sell marketing leaves little space for exploration and can make us buy what we don’t really want before we realize it. Marketing can become a runaway train when it eclipses what is marketed. And marketers of craft often omit names and faces of artisans, reinforcing the idea of hands without heads –or curiosities needing help, like the example from the G20 bazaar.

So, the question is how to leverage creative capacity honestly to negotiate value in higher levels of the market?

Photos by LOkesh Ghai, who taught the course in 2020

Research and Pedagogy

Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya women’s class, 2013.

Research underpins pedagogy. By the time I developed a curriculum for design for artisans through an Ashoka Fellowship in 2003, I had been researching artisans 3 decades, through college courses, books and field work, then working hands-on. The practical research was invaluable.

The foundation of a curriculum is a goal. Here we confront a basic dilemma: student engagement is critical, but students do not know what they don’t know. I set my goal as increasing income, social status, and independence- one the artisan community articulated.

Researching, I questioned further.
“Don’t teach us embroidery,” artisans answered. “That’s what we do. Teach us something useful.”
So I also observed and hypothesized. I refined the goal with research on historical relationships between artisans and their clients and changes in the craft ecosystem. To re-build lost connections, artisan students needed to know about current markets, and value.

I founded the structure and methodology of the course on the strengths, interests, and limitations I perceived in artisans- ready to adjust the experiment based on results. To ensure that learning took place I created an environment that was safe and nurturing. And to ensure that learning would continue after the course, I included analysis and discussion as part of every activity. Listening, mutual reasoning, respecting differences would help students grow as people. I rooted the course in respect for traditions. I wanted artisans to value what they already know.

There is no substitute for being on the ground. I researched throughout the courses. Education and research intertwine when everyone feels comfortable, and everyone is engaged in analysis and discussion. Teachers, students, staff, and I all learned together, and we adapted courses as we went.

Several years into the program, when graduates began to know what they knew and became successful, I engaged them to further refine goals and methods to what they deemed most relevant. And each year I invited the alumni to seminars on topics I thought needed discussion. I wanted to learn from them- more research!

Education- like craft- must be organic and living. Only when it is relevant is it effective.

Presenting & Positioning Craft


Tausifbhai presents his work to family and professional juries during the “Merchandising, Presentation” module of the Somaiya Kala Vidya design course, 2019.  Presentation includes an explanation of the collection theme, concept development, and specific innovations the student did, in order to illuminate the thought embedded in the work as well as technical innovations- and create value for the whole of the work: concept and creation. 


I have spent the last week toiling over Folk Art Market (IFAM) applications. The applicants worked harder, creating beautiful new collections. My role is to enhance their work through presentation. Craft is presented in many ways.  Fabindia proclaims that imperfections are inherent. Bandhej glosses over handmade to focus on appeal. Good Earth presents products as beautiful and hand crafted.


Yet, in all cases, while designers are celebrated, artisans remain nameless.  “How can we promote them?” I am told.  “No one knows their names.”


How to position craft holistically, as the concept and creation of an individual?

In India, artisans presenting their work in exhibitions is seen as an opportunity to bargain. Artisan Designer Khalidbhai Usman Khatri is so fed up that he stopped going to exhibitions. 


IFAM, in Santa Fe, offers a different model, in which artists presenting their own work adds value. Yet, there is the lingering tone of: Buy this folk art to help /support the artisans and, increasingly, high value craft is difficult to sell.  “How many collectors are there?” I am asked. I try to present Tausifbhai, who studied date palms and celebrated them in his handprints, in the IFAM electronic straitjacket, squeezing the soul of his work into the title. The rest is just material, size and price.


But at the Santa Fe Indian Market, Native American artists earn name recognition and respectable prices.  And there seem to be plenty of collectors.

In 2016, when Hasambhai, a potter from Kutch, met Robert Tenorio in Kewa Pueblo, he was astounded at the prices his ceramics commanded.  But, Robert laughed, he didn’t start there; he started at $5.


How can an artisan gain value?  The final module of SKV’s year-long design course is “Merchandising, Presentation.”  The rationale is that artisans can gain full value for their designs only if they present them effectively. Graduates have learned to use photography and the power of social media to bypass prejudice. “I can sell unique work online, and no one bargains for cheaper prices,” Khalidbhai says.


Artisans build their names– and in turn collectors, by consciously presenting collectible work.


Tradition and Innovation

The photo is of the first iteration of the interpretation center of the Kala Raksha Museum. The idea was to portray the traditional context of embroidery for visitors. I engaged artisans to create replicas of pieces in the collection, a prelude to learning to innovate on traditions. I also engaged the late Hariyaben Bhanani, suf embroidery artist, in creating the display to ensure authenticity. A photo of a wedding in her community adds context.


When we were dressing mannequins for the display, Hariyaben asked me what to put for the bride’s skirt?


“Traditional,” I said.  

“Which tradition?” she asked.


A profound question. She understood living tradition.


As Santhosh Sakhinala has said, concepts inherent in creating traditional craft did not need to be distinguished.  ‘Upcycling’ and ‘design’ were embedded in making. Similarly, innovation was essential to a living tradition.  Artisans adapted their work organically, ensuring its relevance for the evolving lives of intimately known users, using known materials and processes.  For male textile artisans of Kutch, who created as livelihood exchange, innovation played a relatively minor role. The textiles that they traditionally made were identity markers; clients did not want to differ significantly from community members. For women who traditionally embroidered for themselves, creative innovation was an intrinsic value. They strived to innovate while retaining an essential identity that they as a community defined.


When craft is one’s life, innovation is play, the joy in creating. Tagore, in his critique ‘The Cult of the Charkha,’ emphasized that it is the minds of individuals that prevent them from becoming bullocks going round a narrow range of habit; thus man has looked down on mechanically repetitive work.

Innovation distinguishes hand craft from industry. It is also a key means of maintaining relevance. Variation is driven by the consumer; thus artisans must directly access markets.


Tradition and innovation are relative and perhaps irrelevant terms, as Hariyaben wisely implied. When today we name and segregate these terms, it creates occasions for judgement and raises an uneasy question: Who gets to arbitrate?

As Sarah Sockbeson, a Penobscot artist from Maine said, “It should be up to the artist to determine our art.  It’s up to the market to support it.”