Consumers and Craft Connoisseurs

Akib Ibrahim Khatri teaches Ajrakh hand print and natural dye in a Craft Traditions course, Ajrakhpur 2015.

For craft to flourish, we must move from a subsidy mindset to a professional one, and consider consumers. Traditionally, artisans and clients were intimately connected and shared understanding and criteria for evaluation of craft aesthetics and quality. Today, there is often a social or cultural disconnect. Artisans are innovating for less known markets, and clients have little knowledge of craft. Mutual respect is the casualty. Artisans who once aimed to make the best, most long-lasting work now create the most flashy, easiest to produce, and cheapest work. Consumers expect cheap craft.

We educate artisans to know markets better. But, how to also educate consumers? Connoisseurship developed in the 18th century out of a desire to cultivate and promote knowledge of arts. Today the concept is found elitist, exclusive. Can we create a more inclusive version? I would like to engage makers, explore partnerships in which artisans generate a new connoisseurship based on their criteria. I want artisans to teach us to see craft as they see it, to reconnect artisans and consumers.

The average age of craft consumers has been 65 or so. Happily, a 2020 report from the Crafts Council of England shows younger, less educated, more cautious and cost-conscious buyers gaining interest in craft. They seek authenticity, experiences, ethical and sustainable consumption. Connoisseurship takes time. We need to invest in future consumers as we invest in future artisan designers.

To foster understanding and appreciation of craft traditions, I initiated 21-day Craft Traditions courses. In just 3 weeks, students gained significant understanding of cultural history and techniques. More important, their taste changed. They learned to love the distinguishing colors and patterns of traditional textiles.

We must continue to support relevant education for artisans. At the same time, we can engage young people, give them mutually respectful experiences- real or digital exchanges that sensitize them to making, mastery, discernment, design, and sustainability. We can expose them to differences in the work of individual makers. Meeting artisans and learning from them can alter a person’s vision and engender a love of craft.

The “3rd wave” of connoisseurship emphasizes the artisanal- valuing small, personal production. As intermediaries we must catch that wave and invest in creating craft connoisseurs.

CSR & Craft

In 2012, the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya Convocation was sponsored by Tata Power, Adani group and the K.J.Somaiya Trust. Today, Tata and Adani have their own craft CSR projects. The K.J. Somaiya Gujarat Trust now operates the design education program as Somaiya Kala Vidya. What happened between 2012 and now?

I have outlined key issues of craft from the ground level perspective: the essence of craft is handmade; pervasive devaluing of hand work challenges maker communities; to sustain a living tradition, artisans must directly access better markets. My solution was design education for artisans, promoting independence. The challenge was that quality education costs more than artisans can afford. The program needed funding.

Because craft has been positioned as inferior manufacturing in need of intervention to survive it was an easy focus for CSR projects, and initially Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya received much needed CSR support.

But as CSR craft projects proliferated, corporates found it more beneficial to keep CSR projects inhouse than to support existing projects. They opted for quick fix intervention: “helping” connect artisans to markets, and set up new companies to market craft.

Today in Kutch, CSR projects vie for weavers and dyers to produce for their brands. The net result is regressive. Rarely are CSR products designed by the artisans who make them; even more rarely are artisans named. The power differential between artisans and companies is even greater than that between artisans and money lender master artisans. Artisans become daily wage workers like those in the industry that produced the excess capital that must be invested in CSR.

Independent artisan designers now compete with corporate brands to employ artisans to grow their enterprises, and to sell small-scale creation at prices competitive with production craft. The CSR message is size = power, and individual artisans are irrelevant.

Gandhi’s concept of companies responsible to the society from which they derive resources and income had merit. But As Annapurna pointed out, the concept of CSR has been manipulated to benefit companies rather than address inequalities of ownership.

Corporates inevitably think from an industrial/business perspective. Sustainability of hand craft traditions rests on understanding craft as cultural heritage, not merely livelihood. Preservation rests on value. Artisans don’t need help. They need veneration.

Photo Credit: Ketan Pomal, LM Studio, Bhuj