Laila Tyabji Preserves Traditional Handmade Wonders in India

Laila Tyabji has the key to a gold mine and she is willing to share it with everyone. This gold mine is, in fact, India’s rich and varied crafts tradition. Says the 60-plus chairperson of crafts organisation, Dastkar, “Our crafts are a gold mine, a unique asset that very few countries in the world have. Those who did have crafts, handlooms and other local arts have lost them in the process of industrialisation and are deeply regretting that loss. We should invest our minds, spirit and energy on this asset and attract young, dynamic entrepreneurs to invest in the sector.”

Dastkar has been working towards improving the economic status of craftspeople and promoting the survival of traditional crafts. Few know the Indian crafts scene as well as Tyabji, having spent the better part of her life learning about, and then promoting, these traditional handmade wonders. As a youngster, she studied art in Baroda and, later Japan, after which she made a foray into the world of design. In the 1970s, she learnt just about every kind of embroidery that existed in India and spent time with artisan communities. She later worked with them to transform their craft into products of contemporary appeal. Dastkar, which she founded in 1981 along with five others, was only an extension of the work she was already doing.

Today, even as she continues with her endeavour to link 21st century India with its centuries old handicrafts tradition, her new mission is to make this sector financially attractive to entrepreneurs. “When I speak of investing in crafts, I am not suggesting the NGO-isation of this sector or that it should be treated as a charity or social service. I want people to invest in this sector, just as they would in any business venture,” she asserts.

Tyabji’s argument is compelling. Crafts are the second largest generator of employment in India, next only to agriculture, and the sector promises great returns on modest investment. It requires no large investments. It does not demand the import of fancy machines, technology or experts. All that is required is a group of craftspersons – and there’s a vast pool of around 23 million of them in India today – with unique skills. Creating a niche market for crafts would require a little bit of investment for basic infrastructure and to get the best designs.

There is also no dearth of crafts to choose from – whether it is different styles of handloom weaving or whether it is mirror work embroidery, metal ware, pottery, woodwork. The list is endless. And, wait, the best part is yet to come: Indian handicrafts will never face competition from the Japanese, Koreans or the Chinese in the open market!

It really seems to be a win-win suggestion, and yet there are so few people willing to put their money into this sector. In fact, according to Anubha Sood, who has been associated with the All India Artisans and Craft Workers Association and has conducted extensive training programmes with women artisans, there has been a swing away from small scale village industries in favour of macro industries and high-tech mechanised productions. Traditional rural marketing infrastructure is being edged out by multinationals which are being promoted by sophisticated marketing and advertising interventions. The change in consumer trends and the entry of various new, aggressively promoted, commodities has meant that craft producers need more support than ever before to be viable and competitive.

The bottom-line then is that the crafts sector has to become more appealing to regular people, particularly the younger generation, whether it is through better advertising or by children being introduced to handicrafts at the school level. Tyabji feels that it’s high time for a makeover. “There is an urgent need to start an effective campaign to make every citizen conscious of our extensive crafts and textile heritage. The government has been doing it but the advertisements that are put out are incredibly dull,” she observes.

What she envisions are promotions on the lines of the Incredible India campaign. She explains, “Wonderfully punchy, colourful and beautifully put together ads that will change people’s perception about the world of crafts and textiles, that’s what we need. This can also be a good way to attract young talent to this sector.”

The unfortunate reality is that craft-making is not perceived as a viable income generating option. Research has shown that village households headed by artisans have much lower net wealth and that their average monthly income is a mere Rs 2,000. Not surprisingly, the emerging generation in these communities is reluctant to continue in the family occupation. In fact, around 15-20 per cent of craftspersons switch over every decade to manual labour for their own survival. They become workers in a cement factory, or take up small time activity such as repairing bicycle punctures. For Tyabji, this is a very disturbing trend.

“Even though they are great craftspeople, they are moving out of their traditional occupation to other jobs because there is no market for their products, no demand, poor returns, no pension, no provident fund, no social or financial security,” she laments. Tyabji finds it ironical that while a fresh graduate designer in any city today can get instant social recognition, craftspersons remain overlooked even if they are officially recognised as national master craftspersons.

“Ultimately, everyone lives for two things – economic survival and social acceptance. But craftspeople are just not valued in India. The tragedy is that even if individuals get their due share in the form of national awards, their standard of living continues to remain low. If they got good financial returns along with social acceptance, why would they be leaving their original professions?” asks this vocal crafts crusader.

All this has only reinforced her belief that the way forward for artisans is to upgrade their skills by incorporating newer technologies and accessing mainstream markets, with the government playing the role of facilitator, catalyst and financier. She believes that it is time to take the crafts sector as seriously as those of tourism and information technology, “A flourishing IT sector has established India as an info-tech giant in the world and has created wide avenues for employment. Similarly, crafts have a similar potential – and not just to create employment and increase export revenue, but prevent rural-urban migration.”

From sitting cross-legged on the floor working with tribal women in a village to sharing her knowledge of traditional Indian crafts with political leaders, Tyabji has left no stone unturned in her campaign to get a better deal for craftspersons. For her, it’s all about stepping into the future, “We need to make this sector come alive, make it exciting for today’s younger generation – not just get them to wear ethnic stuff but to invest in it as well. In India, we have a gold mine. Why are we not tapping it?” The country needs to come up with an answer to this question.

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