Design Education for Recognition

I was honored and humbled to receive the Design Guru award from the Association of Designers of India and JK Lakshmipat University Institute of Design.  I was especially honored to be associated with MP Ranjan.  Ranjan was a mentor, a friend, and an exemplary design educator.  He was a pillar in the development of design education in India.

I am not trained as a designer.  And I hope that MP Ranjan, being a challenger of conventional norms, would appreciate this anomaly.  Certainly, Ranjan enthusiastically encouraged me when I set out to begin a program of design education for artisans in Kutch.  Ranjan’s biography says that his father was an entrepreneur.  I recall that he thought of him as an artisan.  In any case, Ranjan had great affinity to and respect for artisans.

So, here is my “MP Ranjan Memorial Lecture 2021,” which concerns the evolution of the design education program that today operates as Somaiya Kala Vidya, and how I feel it illustrates Design Education for Recognition.

The idea of design thinking as a particular approach to creatively solving problems- of which I believe MP Ranjan was a proponent- evolved in the late 1950s- early 1960s.  It evolved in an academic context, through studies on creativity by highly respected scholars.  As such, design was established as a respected discipline.

When design as a distinct discipline was introduced to India at the time of a great focus on industrialization as a key to nation building, designers were encouraged to work with craft traditions, both as a source of distinctly Indian inspiration, and also as a way to “help” traditional artisans adapt to quickly changing markets.  Design for craft is often called “Design Intervention.” This approach, unfortunately, resulted in developing a mutually perceived hierarchy, in which design and designers are more valued than craft and artisans.

However, in the words of Professor Ranjan, “Design is a very old human capability that has been forgotten by the mainstream educational systems and the traditionalists alike.”- MP Ranjan 2003

Having studied traditional artisans from an anthropologist’s perspective, I had approached craft traditions with appreciative inquiry.

I could experience the creativity of traditional artisans- and I am distinguishing traditional artisans as those who have learned a hereditary tradition, comprising knowledge and aesthetics as well as skills, from workers who are executing craft techniques. I had studied how traditional artisans appropriately innovated in their traditions in response to changes in their eco-system.  Essentially, they successfully followed design briefs.

So I was disturbed by what I felt was devaluing of craft traditions, traditional knowledge, and artisans themselves.  I was concerned that this could eventually result in loss of invaluable cultural heritage.

I began Kala Raksha with a traditional artisan family, Prakashbhai and Dayaben Bhanani, and I established the Kala Raksha Museum as an initial experiment in encouraging artisans to innovate within their own traditions for new markets.  My objective was to return agency to artisans and enable them to earn more equitably.

I saw recognition of the value of cultural heritage and activating the design capacity inherent in a tradition as key to achieving these goals. So I created the museum as a resource base, and held workshops in which I asked artisans to develop new work inspired by the collections. It took me a long time to realize that was too broad a brief.  Years later, Lachhuben, a Rabari embroiderer, confided that when I asked her to create in that context it made her so nervous that she couldn’t eat or sleep!

I learned a lot about design working with traditional artisans.

At Kala Raksha we invited designers and design students to work with artisans. I had the opportunity to observe that the interactions were often not optimum.  And, because I knew the artisans, I could observe what didn’t work for them, and how their creative capacity was often not being used. I also had the opportunity to observe how artisans innovated from our museum collections.  I started to ponder, what do designers know that artisans do not?  And to wonder, what if artisans could learn what designers learn?  I thought this might begin to mitigate the power and value differential.

A massive earthquake in Kutch in 2001 was the catalyst that enabled me to consider acting on these ideas. I received an Ashoka Fellowship to develop a curriculum to teach design to traditional artisans in Kutch.

Again, I am not trained in design, though I do have a background, long ago in fine art.  So I enlisted experts.  I don’t believe anyone can know everything- nor should they.  I believe that the approach is to have an idea and be able to find the experts who can help you realize it.  So I talked to MP Ranjan and others at NID, and I visited design institutes in the USA.  I also enlisted the input of master artisans in Kutch in order to ensure that whatever we taught would support existing traditions. I studied, and through Ashoka I held a curriculum planning workshop at the Rhode Island School of Design.  Krishna Patel, NID graduate and faculty, the late Jan Baker, faculty at RISD who had been visiting faculty at NID, the late Chip Morris, and Ashoka Fellow Aleta Margolis were the participants. I would also like to acknowledge the many professional design educators who helped build the program.  It is a living, ongoing project.

I launched the program as Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya in 2005.  In 2014, I shifted it to the KJ Somaiya Gujarat Trust and we founded Somaiya Kala Vidya, which is the current avatar of the program.

The program has been very successful.  One key reason is that I ensured that it was accessible to artisans. Accessible meant thinking in terms of artisans’ situations in terms of time, language, funds and experience.  Working traditional artisans must work in order to survive.  Their time is precious and limited. Yet, they have very well-developed control of a medium.  So the course is one year long, and focused on taking existing knowledge and skills forward.  It is structured in intensive 2-week modules. Most artisans can manage two weeks away from work.  The link between modules is maintained by homework assignments- those which can be incorporated to support ongoing work.  Courses are taught in Gujarati or Hindi.  And fees are what is considered “normal” within artisan communities. The program also teaches design through the lens of appreciating tradition, and with hands-on application.

Success of the program further rested on being able to address artisan needs, both as they perceived them and as I did.  Here I would like to touch on a basic dilemma of education, and something that I feel the world is grappling with today. The reality is that we often don’t know what we don’t know. So, to me, education is a process requiring mutual recognition and respect. And it requires a delicate balance.  Educators need to know what students feel they need, where they are coming from.  They need to respect, understand and encourage them. This gives students the license to explore their potential, and to be creative.  At the same time, educators need to guide.  They provide constraints that encourage development of creativity. Otherwise, we may have a situation such as that to which Lachhuben reacted.

But for guidance to work, students must also recognize and respect their teachers. And, the onus is on educators to earn that respect. I recall one very bright student relating that at first he felt the assignments given were useless. But he did them, and then realized how they benefited him.  After that, he said, he decided to try what his teachers asked him to do.  Being a student is an act of trust and a leap of faith.

While respecting students and understanding the needs that they perceive, educators must sensitively utilize experience that extends beyond that of students, and provide access to what they feel students also need.  So I view education as a kind of co-creation.   It is granting permission, while gently exercising guidance based on experience.

Recognition is inherent in the methodology of the course.

It also underpins the objectives. And here is where we zero in on design education for recognition.

In my research on craft traditions, I focused on the roles of craft and the relationships between makers and users.  Craft was traditionally personal- artisans and clients knew each other intimately.  This connection was what enabled them to successfully innovate.  Further, craft was traditionally bartered rather than sold, and personal recognition was a key element in both valuation and satisfaction.

Commercialization- and especially industrialization of craft turned artisans into workers and eliminated any element of personal recognition.

Two aspects comprise recognition: recognition as self-reflection, and external recognition. I founded the program on self-reflection- recognizing tradition as cultural heritage, and a key resource. At the beginning of each year, master artisan advisors begin this process by conducting sessions to present and discuss in depth a range of textiles from their shared traditions.

External recognition is a fruit of the year of hard work. By acknowledging and valuing design thinking as an inherent aspect of craft traditions, and enhancing design thinking with education, the program has equipped graduate artisans to situate themselves in a new ecosystem. Participating successfully in arenas beyond their own society, they have been recognized as creative individuals. This in turn enables artisan designers to value themselves from a broader perspective.

These two aspects of recognition together have worked to build communities.

The ability to apply design thinking created artisan designer leaders, who understand their debts and responsibilities to their traditions, and the value of membership in their communities.  They have consciously contributed to the growing success of artisan communities in Kutch.  Here I would like to quote a few excerpts from a recently conducted impact assessment of the program.

“In the course we sat with our elders and asked them the history and meaning of motifs. We realized the value of our own work.”~Prakash Naran Siju

“Now we are recognized, and our art is recognized. We may inspire others to not leave our tradition. I tell them to follow my example. If they learn they can grow.” ~Tulsi Puroshottam Puvar

“We show our work to each other, ask feedback. Today we each do different designs. If a customer brings a photo of someone else’s work, we tell them that is his collection and give his address. We are clear. That is the benefit of education.” ~Puroshottam Premji Siju

When artisans first took the course, their goal was primarily to increase income.  But after several years, graduates were able to articulate that once basic livelihood was assured, recognition was as important- if not more so- than increased income.

Recognition is an essential human need.

I believe that in learning to successfully apply design thinking, design graduates everywhere gain recognition, along with an appropriate livelihood.

The net result for artisan design graduates is that craft traditions have become a respectable and satisfying profession, building true cultural sustainability.

This is the power of design education.

The Emergence of Artisan Designers in Kutch, India

Indian artisans are reeling from COVID-19 and its economic repercussions, and people are concerned that they face an existential crisis.

Once again, we face the fundamental question: who are artisans?

In India, artisans are most often perceived as skilled workers. In Kutch, however, traditional artisans conceptualized textiles, procured raw materials and created them. Moreover, artisans delivered their work to clientele, with whom they often had personal relationships.

Khalid Usman Khatri created an Ajrakh hand-print and natural dyed stole for their Unity in Diversity collection.

The 1960s marked a drastic change for these artisans. India had focused on rapid industrialization as key to nation building.  With inflation and the influx of cheaper industrial products, traditional clients began to prefer synthetics and mill-made fabrics to hand craft. Seeking alternatives, artisans looked to more distant, unknown markets. Additionally, industrialization introduced the concept of design as an entity, and in the process of separating concept and execution, artisans became “workers.”

Relegating artisans to worker status results in minimizing the value of their work, yields little opportunity for creativity or recognition, and in general lessens interest in craft, particularly among the next generation. Today, artisans leave craft because, from their perspective, it does not generate enough income nor enough respect for the effort that it requires.

Detail of stole handwoven by Pachan Premji Siju depicting problems and solutions of global climate change.

After many years of studying craft traditions of Kutch and then many years working with hand embroiderers, I began a design education program for artisans. The concept was to value traditional craft as cultural heritage and provide what is understood as higher or specialized education directly to artisans. I believed that by learning to innovate within traditions and connecting with contemporary markets, artisans could utilize their strength and creativity to increase their capacity. Simultaneously, when artisans determine the evolution of their cultural heritage, traditions are genuinely sustained.

I received an Ashoka Fellowship to develop the program and launched it in 2005 as Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya. Eight years later, to build it into an institute, I joined forces with the K.J. Somaiya Gujarat Trust to begin Somaiya Kala Vidya.

Tulsi Puroshottam Puvar created a hand embroidered stole using traditional drawn and bound detailing inspired by teaching chikan embroiderers in Lucknow.

The year-long course, modular and taught in local languages, enables artisans to participate. It re-imagines traditional systems in an appropriate contemporary form. It teaches artisans to appreciate their traditions and to recognize aspects that make them unique. Then it teaches them to innovate. They learn to look beyond technique to using technique in visual language and to find their own unique interpretations drawn from common traditions. Among 197 design graduates, there has been virtually no duplication in their work.

Almost fifteen years of design education have clearly demonstrated success. Graduates have reached new markets and increased their incomes. With individual expressions, traditions have diversified, and the market has expanded. As one small-scale artisan noted, “My income has increased ten times, while the long-time major producer’s income has not suffered. It is a win-win situation!” Graduates have won the Indian President’s and World Crafts Council awards. The works of three graduates were exhibited in the contemporary design section of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s major exhibition, “The Fabric of India.” In 2017, seven graduates were the first artisans to be recognized as designers on the national Lakme Fashion Week ramp. Thirteen design graduates and two advisors have participated in the International Folk Art Market| Santa Fe. Perhaps the most significant success is children of artisans in Kutch returning to craft as an excellent option rather than a last resort.

Bandhani and shibori resist dyed stoles created by Abdulaziz Alimamad Khatri inspired by a plant called “cobra hood,” a local grass, and lattice windows. Photo Credit: Ketan Harshad Pomal, L.M. Studio

Because commercialization of craft has followed an industrial model, the assumption is that craft must scale up to succeed. A key goal of our educational programs is to encourage individuality as an alternative path to success. And as the number of artisan design graduates in the circumscribed Kutch region grew, a new genre of artisan emerged: the Artisan Designer. These graduates differ from artisans and urban designers in that they both design and produce. Today, there is a community of Artisan Designers with new outlooks.

They define success as confidently knowing good design, having their own concepts and identity, knowing how to take feedback, and being able to talk to customers. “Success is having a voice,” they say. “It is using your creativity, decision-making power, achieving goals, and taking responsibility.”[i]

Education has enabled many Artisan Designers to creatively utilize the pause of the pandemic. Many weaver designers had limited raw materials, so they produced masterpieces using workmanship that would earn more value when markets reopened. Shakilbhai, a batik artist, used lockdown time to develop a line of natural dyed batiks, of which he had long dreamed.   And many Artisan Designers took the opportunity to enhance online presentation skills.

Once travel is safe, I will be taking visitors to Kutch to meet many of these creative Artisan Designers and to introduce artisans to international taste. Until then, enjoy some examples of their innovations.

[i] Quoted from a meeting held with Bhujodi weaver design graduates. 20 February 2018.

Artisan Designers in the Time of Covid-19

Artisans, among many people in India, are experiencing extreme stress on their professions due to the prolonged lock down imposed to control the spread of COVID-19.  Many people are concerned that Indian craft and handmade face an existential crisis.  Baaya Design initiated a group of over 250 designers, members of NGOs and businesses all wanting to help artisans.  Suggestions have been made for making new products- with a focus in face masks, for marketing through online platforms and for initiating education in schools. The discussion has been overwhelming.  Yet, it is based in certain assumptions that once again bring up questions:  who are artisans?  and who are craft consumers?

And how do artisans perceive their situation?  Craft is their cultural heritage and they certainly have concerns about its future. They must be involved in the discussion, as equal partners.  On 14 May 2020, Baaya Design organized a webinar in which four artisan designers from Kutch- working traditional artisans who have taken a year-long design course, discussed their goals, the impact of lockdown on artisan communities, their challenges, needs and creative solutions.  Finally, they shared their visions of the future of hand craft and changes they would like to see.

Irfan Anwar Khatri, Mukhtar Jakariya Soneji, Prakash Naran Siju and Adil Mustak Khatri represent over 200 artisan designers who have graduated from a year-long program in design education.  Each artisan introduced himself and described his unique enterprise.

Irfanbhai, an Ajrakh artisan, makes saris, dupattas, stoles and fabric for a range of domestic and international clients.  Mukhtarbhai, a bandhani artisan and Design Faculty member of Somaiya Kala Vidya, makes saris, dupattas and abhas for the higher-level domestic market, selling through pop-up exhibitions and buyers.  Prakashbhai, a weaver from Bhujodi, is one of a few carpet makers.  His family worked for a Finnish buyer for over a decade before starting their own business.  Adilbhai, a bandhani artisan, makes accessories, selling primarily in better pop-up exhibitions.  This year he was juried into the International Folk Art Market, Santa Fe.

All four artisan designers clearly defined their goals as artisan designers.

“I want people to use hand work and buy directly from artisans,” Mukhtarbhai states.

“I want to have my own studio and be known by my name in the world of fashion,” Adilbhai says.

“My goal is to have people recognize carpets of Kutch,” Prakashbhai agrees.  “I want to have my own business and be known from my work.”

“We make products, and customers know the brands to whom we sell,” Irfanbhai echoes.  “We want to sell directly so that we and the customers can know each other, and we can gain recognition.”

The lock down imposed on 24 March 2020 has severely impacted artisans in Kutch.  “After the earthquake of 2001, Kutch was devastated,” Irfanbhai notes.  “Now it is the whole world.  Everyone’s income is stopped, while expenses are continuing.  Everyone has the same problem. Our production and sales are both blocked. Some of our orders, which would have been finished in 4 or 5 days have been cancelled.  Other customers want our stock, but we can’t send it because transport is shut down. The artisans who work for us are in a bad situation.  They are daily wage earners who live in nearby villages.  It is Ramzan and we want to distribute alms.  We made ration kits and distributed them.”

“The selling season for weavers is winter and was it was over,” Prakashbhai says.  “This is our time to get raw materials.   But we can’t go out or order due to the shutdown of transport.  Many of our weavers also work for Master Artisans.  So these people, also daily wage earners, are out of work.”

“Our bandhani artisans are women in various villages,” Mukhtarbhai shares.  “Now we can’t get to them. Our communication is broken and we can’t finish pending work.  Once the monsoon season begins, the women will go to work in their fields.”  In addition, Adilbhai worries that when the market opens he won’t have appropriate products.  The Folk Art Market for which he was preparing has been cancelled.  The products he has ready are for that market, not the domestic one.

Furthermore, he reveals, some customers are now trying to exploit them.  They approach artisans saying, ‘you need money now; sell your stock at a discount.’

Asked if their design education has been useful during these difficult times, Mukhtarbhai says, “One hundred percent!  During lock down we sit at home and make new designs.  We plan where to sell after lock down opens; we think about the market we want to target and do experiments.

Adilbhai adds that because of his education, he is efficient in using his time.  He can apply design to existing traditional techniques.

Prakashbhai shares that many designer weavers have limited raw materials, so they strategized and are producing masterpieces using more workmanship.  These will earn more value when lock down opens.

Ifranbhai demonstrates that education need not be aimed only to make money.  “We also used our waste fabrics to make masks,” he says.  “These are needed and too expensive for many people now.  So we gave them to people in neighboring villages for free.”

The needs that artisan designers express are not for handouts but for opening services and stimulating cash flow. All of them emphasize that the first need is to open transport.  “Buyers are ready to buy, but we can’t send them products,” Adilbhai says.  “We also need capital.  If we could get interest-free, long term loans we would not have extra burdens.  Craft takes time.”

“Everyone wants to be able to sell their stock,” Prakashbhai says.  If agencies like Gurjari can purchase from real artisans it would help.  And we need loans that are easy to access.  I tried to get a loan and it took 8 months.  Intermediaries asking commissions are also a problem.  We need fast, direct loans.”

Mukhtarbhai has a similar experience.  He has tried 8 times to access loans but has never succeeded.

“Once transport opens,” Irfanbhai says, “we can move stock, get income, restart our cycle.  We have artisans who need work.  Local factories have received permission to start.  If we can’t pay our artisans, they will go and work in the factories.”

“Online sales are the best option for now,” Adilbhai foresees. “People won’t want to go to crowded venues such as exhibitions.”

Irfanbhai agrees.  “Online sales are hard to manage at first, but once we learn it is a good platform for us because we can directly connect to customers and become known.”

Prakashbhai suggests a need for further education.  “Most online sales are on large famous sites,” he notes.  “Small artisans don’t get a good response to direct sales by Instagram and Facebook because they don’t have the ability to create good visuals.  If they can learn this type of marketing, they can get better value and a better response.  This way they can become known in the market.”

So, what future do they foresee, and what, as Artisan Designers, do they wish for the future of hand craft?

“We want our traditions to continue,” Irfanbhai says.  “We want to do good work, higher value, less quantity.  After lock down we know people will have trouble.  Three are three types of customer 1. Those who buy our products because they need them, 2. Those who don’t need our products but buy them because they want to support us, 3. Those who want to exploit us due to the situation.  In this situation, we need to make less work but good work.  And we need to take our time, not be in a hurry to sell.

Prakashbhai agrees. “We do not just make products. Our work has thought, a story, feelings, creativity. Customers need to feel, understand and appreciate hand work.”

“Hand craft needs more respect,” Adilbhai echoes.  “No one bargains with brands, only with artisans.  We also need the support of buyers.  They should make an effort to use handmade work for special occasions.”

Mukhtarbhai agrees. “The future for hand craft is good if people prefer hand made.  And I wish for people to buy directly from artisans.”

“People think craft is expensive,” Irfanbhai adds.  “It is not that expensive.   Others get the advantage.  If you buy directly from artisans, craft won’t be expensive.”

When the webinar opens for questions, the need for mutual understanding is clear.  The audience speaks in terms of “helping” and “encouraging” and the need for artisans to “cooperate.”  This language is rarely used for others out of work: construction crews, shopkeepers, office workers or airlines personnel.

One person wants to know how to get craft into the fast fashion market.

“Buyers need to be interested in learning about craft,” Adilbhai states.  “Until they understand it can’t go forward.  We make an effort to show customers how bandhani is done, what is real.”

“We work in natural dyes and there are variations in colours,” Irfanbhai explains.  “Not big differences, but variations.  We can work to customer requirements.  But it is expensive to make new blocks for new designs, to develop colours, and we need to have those expenses covered.  The meaning of Ajrakh is ‘Leave it for Today.’  It is a long process, at least 14 days, the slower the better, the more beautiful.  If we try to do it fast it won’t be good.”

“And please remember that we are Artisan Designers,” Adilbhai adds. “We can do our own designs.  It’s better if instead you promote our own designs.”

There is some discussion on how to introduce craft to schools, so that children can learn to appreciate hand work.

Mukhtarbhai, himself a teacher, advocates collaboration.  “People have to know our traditions first,” he says.  “And from the urban population we want to know about the future.  We need to share our strengths.”

One of the last questions is how, as Artisan Designers, the panelists have taken their traditions and their individual identities forward?

“Just like any designer, we look at trends and make new designs each year,” Adilbhai answers.

“And we target specific markets in addition to studying forecasts,” Mukhtarbhai adds.

“We used to have to think how to make new designs,” Prakashbhai says.  After education our vison has changed.  We know how to use traditional techniques in new ways.  We make new products.  For example, my brother took the course and in class got ideas to make containers, floor cushions– without using machines to finish them.  We aren’t afraid to experiment.  Now we are even using new techniques- such as pile weaving.   We aren’t afraid and we know how to not leave our traditions- to retain them.”

“We used to do what designers gave us,” Irfanbhai relates. “It was difficult and not respectful of our traditions.  Now we make new designs that take tradition forward and keep our identity.  We don’t want to lose our identity.  It should be both Ajrakh and new.”

The final discussion focuses on the expected market after lock down is over.  The questioner suggests that artisan designers not offer discounts because it will set a precedent.  “Don’t let anyone take advantage of you,” he says.  But he questions the strategy to make higher end products.  People will not have the means to buy, so you should make cheaper things that people can afford, he advises.

“I don’t agree,” Adilbhai firmly answers.  “I don’t think lock down will affect better buyers much.  So we should make higher end products.”

In 2010, the Crafts Council of England did a study of craft consumers.  What they found is that Craft consumers tend to be women, educated, older, culturally active, open and independent thinking

More important, the study correlates craft buying choices to consumer trends influenced by the current market environment. It shows that craft consumption is clearly not essential; yet it is a market that was relatively unaffected by the market recession. Consumers value craft in terms of authenticity, quality, workmanship, and wide personal appeal. Consumer demand has shifted towards value-centered products which meet emotional as well as functional needs. People buy craft as a more personal, genuine, unique and ethical route for consuming objects.

There is an assumption of desperation among artisans.  While some artisans may indeed be in dire straits, all are not.  And if desperation is the premise on which we base our actions, it is an opening for exploitation and will in the long run be harmful to artisans.

“We need not be in a hurry,” Irfanbhai said.  “We can avoid the third type of customer, the one who wants to exploit us.”

“How can artisan designers sell directly to us?” one young woman asked.

Can we use this unprecedented time to take time, to look back and reinvent aspects of the traditional craft “Marketplace” in appropriate contemporary terms?  Can we think of not being in a hurry, of customers and artisans sharing the same criteria for evaluation?  Can we think of exchange with a strong social element, where it is not purely economic, and Artisan Designers and customers know each other as people?

Artisan Designers have Facebook and Instagram accounts.  They want to connect directly.

Mary Jaeger, an artisan designer from New York writes of her experience of life in the time of COVID-19, The luxury of time and togetherness with my family is part of our newly evolving normal.

I wanted my one-of-a-kind accessories and garments to resonate a changing consciousness for a more simple and responsible use of materials honoring handmade work.

I chose seven words of hope to embellish my clothing to communicate a deeper need for humanity: LOVE, JOY, PEACE, HAPPINESS, COURAGE, COMPASSION, EMPATHY.”

Together we can work to maintain and increase the value of hand craft.

Market Forces

As I edit images from this year’s juries, I can’t help but notice that several of our artisan design students who gained remarkable confidence over the year hardly met the eyes of the jury members.  It sobers me and makes me sad, and I wish we could have held the jury seminar that we had planned.  This year’s topic was “Market Forces.”  The essential discussion with the artisan design community is postponed, but for now, here are my thoughts and questions on the matter.

Today’s craft is created for urban markets.  Somaiya Kala Vidya’s design education program teaches artisans to make theme-based, market-oriented collections.  Students work very hard to create unique, new looks.  Yet, when it’s time to go to an exhibition in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, the collection is left behind and artisans bring “regular” work (what is already in the market, sometimes for many years).  Even for the final show, organized by the institute specifically to launch the new collections, students hesitate and want to bring along “regular” designs.

What is it about “The Market” that makes artisans hesitate? What is it that makes them want to lower their gaze?  Once again, we come face to face with the demon of power differential.

The demon is the mutually perceived hierarchy between rural and urban, poor and rich, less educated/ provincial and more educated/ worldly. The demon is the unknown.  For students who have had little exposure to the market it is understandable that they hesitate to present work that is new.  What if people don’t like it?

Traditionally, artisans in Kutch created for families that were hereditarily linked to them, for communities that they intimately knew.  There was no guess work.  As those communities slowly evolved, artisans effortlessly, organically created what they wanted.

I have taken artisans to the USA for events and again and again seen them completely balk at food they have never seen.  They want the roti-vegetable-rice-dal that they already know.  This is their world.  They have experienced no margin of variation from which to want to experiment.  So they would imagine their customers to behave in the same way.

I too once thought that “The Market” was the contemporary counterpart to traditional clients.  But the dynamic is very different- even diametrically opposed.  The traditional client and artisan shared standards of evaluation, and in the best scenarios mutual recognition and respect.  The artisan made the best possible, as he knew it would be appreciated. The market wants something trendy, at the lowest common denominator- cheap, fast, standard.  The industrial model.

Urban customers are abstract.  How can one imagine what one has not experienced?  In our education program we try to close the gap with an exposure to the Ahmedabad market in our Market Orientation course.  But exposure and experience are different.

So what about artisan design graduates who have experience?  I asked a team who has sold their work in exhibitions why they thought that artisan designers hesitated to sell their new designs?  “In our experience,” they answered, “The Market wants traditional work.  No matter what we bring, they ask for red and black.”

Which market?

“Mumbai, Delhi.”

But which market in these cities?   Is there really one “Market?”  Have we restricted ourselves to places where craft is usually sold, and in which expectations are limited?

When we began Kala Raksha in 1993, my colleague Prakashbhai observed that bazaars held outdoors in tents were for cheaper goods than those held inside buildings.  When Dilli Haat held its first exhibition in tents on its planned site, I talked with a weaver of heavy gold brocade Paithani saris.  His saris were not selling.  “This is not the right market for me,” he laughed.  He packed up his work, took it into town, and sold it at appropriate shops.

It is important to calculate where to sell what.

And do we consider “The Market” as dynamic?  As we observe sales (per artisan) slipping in the International Folk Art Market| Santa Fe, my friend notes that as the product mix shifts to more contemporary casual work, the people who come to buy at this market will also change.

When will our soon-to-graduate artisan students feel more worthy?  When will they think beyond offering what is already in the market?

Ownership as well as experience is central to growth and sustainability.  Artisans need to ask these questions and experiment. The method is try, analyze feedback, try again.  It requires capital as well as ownership.

I once asked very well-established senior artisans to what they attributed their success?  Alimamad Isha responded that his success developed from direct contact with customers- and listening, watching what they like.  He gathered their sensibilities and translated them into his work.  He innovated, was sought out, and the cycle gained its own momentum.

Our graduates with a lot of experience and success can tell you what is likely to sell in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore- and in which venues and which seasons.  This builds their confidence to experiment and innovate.  It enables calculated risks.

So does the market force artisans?  Or do they limit themselves by imagining it to?   Who can force the market?  Who can introduce trends?

We have a few examples of long successful innovations: The bandhani and Ajrakh print sari introduced by a graduate in 2008 and still selling well.  New Ajrakh patterns inspired by Taj Mahel jalis, also introduced by a graduate and now adopted by the entire community as a “new tradition.”

Living traditions always evolve, but this can only happen when artisans have direct contact with consumers.  It has to be a dynamic situation.  One thing is for sure, as long as people and organizations wanting to “help” intervene, they prevent artisans from coming to terms with “The Market.”  The status quo of artisans cowed by market forces does not justify giving them designs and selling their work for one’s own benefit.  Confidence comes with experiencing success far more than with filling someone’s order as a worker.  Our job as intermediaries is to facilitate the connection to good markets and then let artisans make decisions and take responsibility for what to make and where to sell it.

Only then will craft traditions and cultural heritage be sustained

Notes from the ground: Values in the Eyes of the Artisan


When I hear about helping artisans, reviving craft, and intervention, questions that come to mind are who is defining the “problem?” For what reason do interventionists want to work with craft, and for what goal?  If the answer is ‘because I like it,’ that is not enough. Because craft is made by artisans, and the quality of their lives will determine the sustainability of craft traditions.

My real question is, have you asked artisans what they want?  And then we get to the question of HOW to ask (If you ask, ‘you want more money, right?’  You will get the answer you expect). And then we get to the dilemma of education: you don’t know what you don’t know.

Some time ago, I heard that someone assessing our design education program wrote,  “If income after completion of the course is assumed to be a key measure of the impact of the course’s effectiveness (without considering aspects like confidence level, opportunity for young of the families to re-connect with craft etc.)…”

So here, I must intervene.

Assumption is usually risky.  Would the National Institute of Design or the Rhode Island School of Design- or any educational program measure impact primarily by increased income of its graduates?  Just asking.

Our institute’s stated goals, at least, are not in fact primarily quantitative.  So our task then is to develop a meaningful means of assessing the success of education for artisans, in terms of our stated goals and, more important, in terms of goals for artisans and craft traditions defined by artisans who have graduated from the program.

In February 2018, we held a meeting of weaver design graduates to initiate this inquiry.  I began by asking who felt they were successful.  Almost everyone quickly raised his hand.

So, I asked, what is success?  And what do you think contributes to success?

“Success is achieving goals; you need a goal.  You need to know your capacity, what is good for you,” said Dayabhai.

“Success is decision making power,” Purshottambhai agreed. “You have to be clear and capable of decision making- and targeting your market,” he said.

“Success is using your creativity,” Prakashbbhai said.

“We now confidently know good design,” Rajeshbbhai added.

Dayabhai elaborated on this. “We now have our own concepts and identity,” he explained.  “We know how to take feedback.”

To this Pachanbhai added, “Everyone’s work is unique.  Besides knowing your USP, you have to be able to articulate it.  Success is having a voice.”

Puroshottambhai echoed, “And success is being able to take responsibility.”

Strikingly, not one artisan spoke of success in terms of money.

“My early goal was money,” Dayabhai explained.  “My goal was to educate my children.  Now, it is to be my own person.  My son told me not to weave. Now people come from all over the world to my house, so I have value.  It’s not about just money.”

Namoribhai shared his experience.  “You need design and business to get full value.  New design at home has no value. You need to know when and where to sell. And business without design is no use.  If you have both design and business you can answer the question: ‘Why is it expensive?’”

I asked if their goals had changed because of design and business education?

Prakashbhai laughed.  “Before the course, we had no goals!” he said.

“At least I was interested in weaving.  If a weaver is not interested in weaving, how could you interest him?”

“Previously there were no choices,” Dayabhai concluded. “Now, weavers who continue their tradition do it by choice. “What we can do is share our experience with the next generation.  Now we can think of the benefit to our community.”

I asked them to define key problems in craft.

Dayabhai related participating in a meeting in Varanasi to launch the Indian government USTTAD (Upgrading the Skills and Training in Traditional Arts/ Crafts for Development) program.  Weavers there said that 70% of the fault of falling markets for craft is customers asking for cheaper goods- and artisans complying.  Short cuts and undercuts lead to the death of traditions, he said.

Namoribhai recounted that previously in trade fairs the sale of acrylic shawls was measured in tons.  Nine tons of shawls used to sell, he said.  And then the shawls were copied in power loom, and sales plummeted.  So weavers were forced to make new products.

Next, I asked why they had decided to take the course?

Pavanbhai related that everyone seemed to be making the same thing, and sales were average.  He didn’t get a job after doing a BA., and his father encouraged him to take up their traditional profession.

Prakashbhai shared that job work has limited scope in terms of money and creativity. Risks are necessary, he said. But when you don’t know the market, you are afraid.  You have to face your own struggle.

Shantilalbhai said the he was interested by graduates’ success.

Niteshbhai narrated that he wanted to be known.  I was not educated, he said, and here was an opportunity for me to get ahead (because formal education is not required).

I asked about their experience of design education.

“We didn’t know how much our lives would change,” Puroshottambhai said.  “We learned the value of our work, learned to think of the market.  We got courage.  Now we are independent.” 

“Now we can do our own business,” Dilipbhbai agreed.Ravjibhai shared that when he saw new materials it changed his work.  He hadn’t seen anything but acrylic before.  And after the course, he began to do his own work.

Ramjibhai had also just worked in acrylic.  “The course was a turning point for me,” he said, “to become independent. We got a platform from the design course, and the Business and Management for Artisans (BMA) course taught us planning.”

Murjibhai agreed that the course gave him opportunities.

Pachanbbhai appreciated learning how to use inspiration- especially from traditional work.  Prakashbhai appreciated practical learning.  Dayabhai thought field trips were important, and felt he had learned a lot by participating in the Bhudodi to Bagalkot outreach program because it required application of learning in a real experience.

Prakashbhai felt that the value of the course was in teaching them to innovate within traditions. “Designers try to take us beyond tradition,” he said.  “We refuse.  We can change materials but not lose our identity.” He also felt that if you do simple work you will be copied and then will be priced out of the market.

Purshottambhai added, “We are artisans.  We don’t weave yardage production.”

And about business and management education?

Dayabhai said that he realized that the key mistake artisans make is risk aversion.  Artisans need to make investments.  But taking risks is less risky when you have experience.  He learned to think of the customer’s view, to understand clients’ needs.  And he learned the importance of brand.  Finally, he felt the class learned to take responsibility when they planned and produced their own exhibition.

Puroshottambhai said his key takeaway was that if you don’t value your work, neither will your customers.

What else would they like in the course?

Namoribhai felt that artisans need to learn to bridge the communication gap, which leads to slow response.

Niteshbhai pinpointed the eternal problem of costing and pricing.  He would like to establish or correct wholesale/retail margins.

And finally, what would they like in their future?

Value for their products, everyone agreed, and good for the maximum number of people. 

Purshottambhai hoped that artisans would share information with each other rather than compete.  And he would like to encourage the less established artisans to take the course and get experience.

Those who had participated in Outreach programs felt that the artisan-to-artisan approach was most effective.  

“First we have to understand our own tradition’s value,” Puroshottambhai concluded.  “It is our responsibility to preserve our tradition.  It was given to us and we have to value it.”

Sustainability, Style and Fashion

Dr. Ismail Khatri, a 9th generation Ajrakh printer who has an honorary PhD from De Montfort University, UK, is retired to research and development these days.  His two sons are busy printing vast quantities of fabric for clients all over the world.  So Ismailbhai is going slow. He recently carved a whole set of blocks for a traditional Malir, a fabric originally from the town of Malir in Sindh, which Maldhari pastoralists wore as a sarong.  He had always thought that one of the border motifs, a spade, was odd.  Who played cards back then?  While slowly carving, he had a vision: the motif was originally a mud pot similarly shaped.  So he carved the block from his vision.  And he printed and dyed the Malir himself.  The textile is luminous with life- a world away from the wonderful array of printed textiles in his shop.

What do we have to do to get THIS quality? I asked him.

He laughed.  “You have to make it with love,” he said.

Weeks later, Dr. Ismail and the other master artisan advisors for our design education for artisans program came to discuss tradition with the current students.  Ismailbhai related how, while he was carving the blocks for the Malir, he realized that the fabric told the story of the Maldharis who wore it. One motif shows the wind, another shows a stepwell.  The herders must always keep wind and water for their herds in mind.  Then there is the water pot- not just for storing water, but it was also used as a flotation device when crossing a river.  The herder put his Malir or Ajrakh in it to keep dry, and floated easily to the other side.  One motif is called “ladu,” the name of a sweet.  But when Ismailbhai was deciphering the theme of pastoralism he realized it has another meaning- the rolled up reed mats.  The mats are stretched around a simple frame to make a home, and when it is time to move on, they are rolled up.  The motif is a cross section of the roll! Reading the motifs, Ismailbhai related the rich nuanced life of his original clients, never seen by the students of 2019.

One weaver, fascinated, said that this amazed him- and that he felt dispossessed: he had never had his traditional weavings “read” to him this way. He automatically treasured the Malir, and realized the importance of stories in bringing work alive.

Today, hand block printed fabric is produced in thousands of meters, racing to keep pace with the industrial production that forced it to seek markets beyond the traditional consumers.

Many traditional textiles, such as the Malir, are all but forgotten.  We hold our “Masters” program every year so that the next generation of artisans can draw from their rich traditions.

In a world now concerned with sustainability, what is equally important to learn from the Masters is a model for genuine sustainability.  Sustainable Fashion is an oxymoron: it cannot exist. Fashion by nature changes, and the fashion industry by nature wants us to keep consuming so that it is sustained.

Striking in the traditional system of hand printed, natural dyed textiles of Kutch, is that highly sophisticated, technically complex, and exquisitely beautiful textiles were created for simple, poor pastoralists and agriculturists.  They had only one or two of each textile- one to wear while the other was being washed.  But they were of what today would be understood as museum quality– and should be considered as luxury items.  The quality was always as good as possible because the maker and consumer knew each other intimately, and both equally understood and appreciated the quality of fabric, printing and dyeing.  There was satisfaction in making and consuming and no thought to cut corners in quality.

Village people knew precisely how to buy less and buy better.  Their textiles were made to last a long time and were never thought of as expensive.  They were worth the price, and that was exchanged in barter.  When I asked Irfanbhai Khatri how they insured that the exchange of textiles and milk, goats or grains was equal, he answered simply, “We didn’t.”  Everyone got what he needed.

We probably can’t go back to a barter system now.  But can we learn from the system in which maker and consumer share an understanding of quality?  Can we think of buying less and buying better?  Can we consider personal expression of style rather than commercially dictated fashion? And can we imagine cherishing, purchasing from an artisan so that, in the words of weaver Vishramji Valji, “As it slowly wears away you remember the person who made it.”

All this requires a focus on the human connection that was the basis of the traditional system- making and using textiles with love.

Who Are the Workers? the Artisans’ View

Some time ago I wrote a blog post about my concern over where craft was going. My concern arises from the low status given to those who work with their hands.  Craft seems to be perceived as an antiquated, inferior form of manufacturing that could only survive if “helped,” and artisans are perceived as skilled laborers.

Traditional craft in India was not made in in large scale factories or production lines. In Kutch, an individual or family conceived the object to be made, produced or procured the raw materials needed, and created it; it was holistic creation. The artisan knew the user, and delivered his work to him directly. Each artisan family had its own clientele, and there were often hereditary, personal relationships between makers and users. As I have understood it, traditionally craft was made in a community-based horizontal social structure, in which artisans all held more or less equal economic and social status.

Craft was traditionally exchanged in a barter system. Weavers, printers and dyers gave fabrics to herders and farmers, and in turn received milk, goats and grain. When asked how they insured that goods exchanged were equal in value, Irfanbhai said simply, “We didn’t.” People received what they needed when they needed it. The shift in conception between this traditional valuation system and the commercial market is enormous.

My concern is that when craft is pushed into the world of not only cash economy but also industrialized scaled-up production, the structure of artisan societies changes from horizontal to vertical. Economically stronger individuals become “Master Artisans,” employ previously equal status artisans as workers, and gain higher social as well as economic status.

Not only that; they stop making.

Many of the artisan students at Somaiya Kala Vidya have been job workers for bigger players in the craft world, and want to learn design as a way to begin to become independent.  As they grow, they will no longer be able to fulfill their own orders.  So who will work for them?

I sincerely hope- I wrote- that our design and business education programs are not simply producing more “Master Artisans.”  As businesses grow, artisan designers seem to get farther from being artisans.

I offered a suggestion for an alternative.

But I am not an artisan.  My friend Albert, who has worked many years in the craft world, says, “The artisans have all the answers.”  And after all, it is their life.

So we gathered together a group of design graduates, and a facilitator, a dramatist Sanjaybhai to explore….

After I introduce the issue, there is the usual silence.

Finally, Juned I says, “Actually there is not such a big problem as you imagine.”

Khalidbhai gives his view.  “Actually, there is an easy solution,” he says.  “We have to teach people.  We teach them, and they grow.  When they want to have their own business, we teach new people.  There are so many people in nearby villages who want work.”

Sanjaybhai asks, do you do this out of necessity?  Or do it as a policy?

Slowly, more comes out. There are two situations:  one where a worker wants to set up his own workshop, and one where he moves to another workshop.  Juned H. says that it’s only the Khatris- traditional dyers- who want to start their own businesses.  For one thing, they don’t teach the other workers everything.

For other workers, the group agrees, it’s good to keep them with you.  But there are employers with less than ethical practice.  Suppose Junedbhai has a well-trained worker, Khalidbhai says.  I can offer him more money and he will come to me. That IS a problem.

What happens then?

Nothing, they say.  It happens.  Workers have to fill their stomachs, after all.  And some come back.  It’s a floating population.

But what does that do to relationships?  I ask.

Juned H says, “Look, this is the law of nature.  It’s like a food chain.”

Sanjaybhai says this is the situation with domestic workers too.  So many people have offered his maid more money.  But she has stayed with him for many years.  Why?  He supports her in other ways, educating her children, offering medical assistance, loans when she needs them, etc.

They all respond to this.  Yes, of course, it is important to treat workers well.  Family-like relations with your workers brings loyalty. They all have some good examples.

After more discussion they conclude that there are people who will always be lured by money.  And there are people who will always try to lure them.  That is the way of the world.

I say familial relations was more like the traditional model, wasn’t it?

Traditionally we taught by the stick, they say– for family members as well as workers.  If you did not work well, you got hit.

Mukhtarbhai, a bandhani artisan, agrees.  With bandhani, if you were using the wrong posture, you used to get smacked. It was for their own good, so that in the future they would not suffer.  All of the group chimes in with their examples- even Sanjaybhai!  Most of them were taught this way only.  And they feel it is good.  Tough love. That’s family.

I ask what about satisfaction- other than money?  While working, don’t people think, what if I make my own design, start my own work?  Mustakbhai, for example, used to be a job worker.  What made him want to study design?

Mustakbhai agrees.  People want something more.

But then they all agree that once you are set you don’t have to do your own work.

I ask how many of the group are doing their own work now?

Prakashbhai, Mukhtarbhai, Mustakhai, Juned H.  Not Khalidvhai, not Juned I., not Mubeenbhai. Just over 50%.

I’m surprised.  Don’t you want to do your own work, sometimes? I ask. This was my objective of the design program for artisans.

The master artisan must know his craft, Khalidbhai insists.  Otherwise he won’t get good work.  But you can’t stay in one place; you have to move around, keep your eye on everything.  Juned H. relates that in a workshop in his village he saw bad work being done.  He asked the workers why they were doing bad work?  The owner doesn’t know the difference, was their answer.

You have to learn your craft well, and you have to do sampling at least, they say. We do our own dyeing, they affirm. Mukhtarbhai describes the situation in bandhani.  The women are independent contractors. They give work to the women tiers, but they always do their own dyeing. They consider dyeing the real art.

Maintaining respect for their traditions is very important, they all agree.

Prakashbhai has a different view; weaving is different, he asserts.  We do it ourselves.  We don’t train other workers because it is our tradition.  It is technically more difficult, as well.  So we work within our limits.  We don’t have bigger production.  “I had a client who said she would bring workers from UP for me so that I could do bigger volume,” he recalls.  “I refused.  We don’t want that kind of factory set up.  Ours is a family craft.  All members of the family are involved.  If we outsource it won’t be craft.  At least we keep the work in the community.”

All of these people have known only commercial craft.  I too came on the scene after commercialization. I’m starting to wonder…  Did craft always, even from traditional times, have workers?  And will it always?  But was there always hierarchy?

Mubeenbhai, Mr. Practical, wants to know when they are going to get started on the play?  What is next?

Sanjaybhai says he works backwards.  “At the end of the performance,” he asks,  “what would you like the audience (mostly artisans) to think about?”

They should see teaching as part of their work, they say; they should see craft as a cycle.  They should behave ethically and maintain respect for their craft traditions.

This is a play within a play, because it is about the artisans themselves.

At the end of our workshop, I hope the artisans who attended are all thinking about the future of their craft. Because they ultimately will create the solutions, and their future.

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!

All About Soul: What is Success? Part 2

We have a steady stream of visitors who make the pilgrimage to Adipur because they are concerned with craft. Concern is vital. Yet I can’t help asking a nagging question: Why Craft? What is the concern?

I recently participated in two very different but equally compelling conferences, The Values of Craft, at Erasmus University in Rotterdam; and Beyond Change: Questioning the Role of Design in Times of Global Transformations, at FHNW Academy of Art and Design, Basel.

I came away stimulated with more questions than Why Craft?

What is craft today? What is design today? What is knowledge, and what is skill?

The initial keynote at Beyond Change was “Are We Human?” The final keynote was ”Landscape-Scale AI and the Question of Agency.” At the conclusion of the latter presentation, the professor, discussing intelligence beyond life as we know it, said that the green tree toad does not know- or care- that he is the totem of a tribe. Instantly, came a protest: “How do you know that?”

And I felt like I had surfaced to gasp a breath of air.

The questions of the values of craft and the role of design converged: In a world of increasing de-personalization, craft is all about soul, and meaning. Design can guide craft to realize an identity as an emerging luxury by virtue of its personal, human character. Craft can re-personalize.

Soul has to be the reason to care about craft.

And this is why artisans need to be able to create, and not simply produce.

I have long thought that the two keys to the success of our program of design education for artisans are sustained input and local orientation. I now add a third: a clear goal for the program– developed with the participants’ perspective.

Therein is a catch 22, the dilemma of education: students must find the education they receive relevant. But they can only imagine from their experience- pre-education. So how to create mutually concurred goals?

We have worked out the program so far with the guidance of master artisan Advisors, and graduates. But last month we met with design graduates to check back and learn from them how artisans, as creators and not just producers- Artisan Designers define success.

“Success is achieving goals,” Dayabhai said. “You need a goal. You need to know your capacity, what is good for you.

“Success is decision making power.” Purshottambhai agreed. “You have to be clear, capable, and target your market.”

“Success is using your creativity,” Prakashbhai said.

“We confidently know good design,” Rajeshbhai added.

Dayabhai elaborated on this. “We now have own concepts and identity,” he explained. “We know how to take feedback.”

To this Pachanbhai added, “Everyone’s work is unique. Besides knowing your USP, you have to be able to articulate it. We can talk to our customers now. Success is having a voice.”

“If you don’t value your work, your customer won’t,” Puroshottambhai echoed. “And success is being able to take responsibility.”

Strikingly, not one artisan spoke of success in terms of money.

“My early goal was money,” Dayabhai explained. “My goal was to educate my children. Now, it is to be my own person. My son told me not to weave. Now people from all over the world come to my house, so I have value. It’s not just money.”

Namoribhai shared his experience. “You need design and business to get full value. New design at home has no value. You need to know when and where to sell. And business without design is no use. If you have both design and business you can answer the question: ‘Why is it expensive?’”

I asked if their goals had changed because of design and business education?

Prakashbhai laughed. “Before the course, we had no goals!” he said.

“At least I was interested in weaving. If a weaver is not interested in weaving, how could you interest him?”

“Previously there were no choices,” Dayabhai concluded. “Now, weavers who continue their tradition do it by choice. What we can do is share our experience with the next generation. Now we can think of the benefit to our community.”

Our clear goal is to make a discussion like this possible. We re-imagine traditional systems, where master artisan advisors teach students about traditions, weavers and dyers work together, and artisan designers connect directly to markets.

We provide a space to make goals, to create and develop a unique expression- so that artisans infuse craft with its invaluable soul.