Saving the artisans of India

The Corona epidemic has broken our back,” said a usually cheerful Aarti Patra, part of a group of sabai-grass basket-makers in an Odisha village. Rajkumari Joshi, a craftswoman from SADHANA, a women’s cooperative we work with in Rajasthan, agrees. “All the women here are feeling completely helpless and in need. We do not have work,” she says. Other artisans tell Dastkar they wonder what will finish them first – the virus or hunger.

It is an unparalleled and strange time. Not just fear of a possibly mortal disease, but a lockdown of all social, and economic activity. For craftspeople, dependent on daily production and sales, life has come to a halt — there are no melas, no sales, no raw material, no money to feed their families. We have worked with them for decades, now we share their pain.

“All our orders have been cancelled,” Vimal Kumar, a young Rajasthani potter, explains. “Even if we try our best, we will not be able to clear this stock for two years at least. This will cause not only debt, but a decrease in production. Craftspeople will be out of jobs for a long time,” he adds.
The videos of jobless migrant workers walking homewards, were incredibly moving. Craftspeople, equally affected, remain invisible and therefore ignored — by the Government, by the media, even by those who used to buy their products. Outside the safety net of regular salaries or social security, they are helpless.

The global economy is predicted to contract 3%. Even as Italian fashion house Armani makes protective overalls, and Louis Vuitton turns out face masks instead of luxury luggage, craftspeople too will need to adapt to changing times. Craft is sadly not an essential; it is the first thing to be struck off consumer wish lists when purchasing power diminishes.

Different crafts and communities need different solutions — disposing of existing stock, planning their re-entry into what will be a very changed market. Skills have to be targeted to differing markets; some making functional products of everyday use, others creating one-of-a-kind pieces for high-end buyers.
As Dastkar responds to distress calls from across India, we know our aid is a temporary sop. Craftspeople, the second largest employment sector in India, need sustained investment and assistance. Housebound, it’s easy to feel helpless. But the courage and spirit of these artisans keeps us from despair.

Government, crafts organisations and designers need to come together and work closely with the craftspeople, listen to their voices, build on their strengths, think out of the box. Anand Mahindra’s response to the plight of banana farmers — getting his factory canteens to substitute banana leaves for plates — is a brilliant example.

To end with master craftsman, Prakash Joshi, “We are artists and the artist shapes the tomorrow with his art, dissipating the negative energy because after a thick dark night there is always a golden morning.”

While we celebrate that spirit, we need also to help craftspeople rediscover that golden morning. Thinking inwards and buying local will help. Don’t go and shop at fast at fashion stores like Zara and H&M, go ahead and buy that beautiful Ikat kurta from a crafts mela.

PS- My source has been The Hindu.