Education for Artisans: A Sustainable Future for Craft Traditions by Judy Frater


Education for Artisans

After many years of studying craft traditions of Kutch, and then many years working with hand embroidery artisans, I decided to begin a design education program for artisans. I felt that a new direction was needed. Crafts were appreciated enough to commercialize them, and yet the process used was to bring professional designers to "intervene." Artisans had designed the craft that attracted interventionists, and clearly demonstrated their ability to innovate appropriately within their own cultural context. I would watch embroiderers roll their eyes when designers were not looking.  I thought it would be easier to teach them design than for designers to learn a tradition.

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I received an Ashoka Fellowship to develop the program. With further support from UNESCO and the Development Commissioner Handicrafts, I launched it in 2005 as Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya (KRV), in Tunda Vandh, Kutch. After eight years of directing KRV I felt that the program had reached its limitation in that venue. To build the program to an institute, I joined forces with the K.J. Somaiya Gujarat Trust to begin Somaiya Kala Vidya. The design course is designed to be accessible to its artisan students. Its strengths are local orientation and sustained input. Conducted in local language and drawing from local traditions, it comprises six intensive two-week courses scheduled to accommodate artisan’s cultural practices, spread over a year. Courses are taught by visiting faculty - professional design educators, in tandem with local faculty who are artisan graduates of the program. Over the year, artisans learn to know and appreciate the design of their traditions, and to recognize aspects that make them unique. Then they learn to innovate. Between courses, the local faculty members visit students individually in their homes to insure that they have understood course material and can implement it in practical homework assignments. The year-long duration of the course insures that students learn, retain and use what is taught. Artisan students find their own interpretations of their traditions, looking beyond technique to using technique in visual language. Each person's vision is unique, even when they draw from the same tradition. Among 185 design graduates, there has been virtually no duplication.

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In effect, the design course re-imagines traditional systems in an appropriate contemporary form. Master artisan advisors teach students about traditions, as children once learned from elders; teaching weavers, printers and dyers together in classes revitalizes the interdependence of weavers and dyers in producing traditional textiles; and enabling direct interface between artisan designers and urban markets reinvents the system of direct contact with hereditary clients. Most important, education has shaped understanding, attitudes and values. Purshotambhai, Weaver, design and BMA graduate states: “My father did not allow us to be weavers; there is not enough income in this, he said. So, after I left studies I worked with an NGO for twelve years. Then I took the design course. I learned design. But I also got confidence. This course gives us confidence to desire progress.”

Perhaps the most significant success is children of artisans in Kutch returning to craft as an attractive livelihood. Dayabhai, Weaver, design and BMA graduate, and SKV faculty asserts: “I asked my younger son to study further, and he said, ‘What will I do after graduation? I will probably do a job where only my office staff or my boss will know me, and however much I work I will get a limited salary. It is better to use my education in the craft sector, because in the craft sector the whole world will know me, and I will get maximum return from my inputs.’”

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Changing Goals and Perspectives

Artisans understand that craft is more than earning a livelihood. When a group of weaver graduates was recently asked if they considered themselves successful, nearly all of them answered yes. Asked to define success, they related, “We confidently know good design, we now have our own concepts and identity, we know how to take feedback, we can talk to our customers.” “Success is having a voice,” they said. “It is using your creativity, decision making power, achieving goals, and taking responsibility.”

Strikingly, not one artisan spoke of success in terms of money. “My early goal was money,” Dayabhai explained. “Now, it is to be my own person. It’s not about just money.”

Continuing Challenges

The success of education for artisans is irrefutable.  Yet, graduates and the institute face challenges every day.  The deepest, most pervasive is the perception of artisans as workers.  When designers, clients or even well-wishers believe that artisans are capable only of following directives, they cannot see their creative potential, nor can artisans achieve it.  Orders for thousands of meters of yardage have resulted in erosion of traditions and endangered the rich cultural heritage that is one of India’s great resources.

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The concept of the design education program was to value traditional craft as cultural heritage, to take traditional knowledge as a pre-requisite and provide what is understood as higher or specialized education directly to artisans. The goal was to enable artisans to increase their capacity by utilizing their strength- creativity- as well as labour. Simultaneously, by bringing artisans in touch with contemporary markets and teaching them to innovate within traditions, I also believed that traditions would be sustained. A tradition is an evolving expression of a people, and it can only survive if it is alive and relevant.

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After operating the design course for eight years, I realized that to reap full economic benefit, business and management were also needed. So in 2013 in partnership with an Ashoka Executive- in- Residence, I developed a post-graduate course in Business and Management for Artisans (BMA). Both courses end in public events. Student- planned and implemented exhibition/ sales in higher-end urban venues provide immediate confirmation of increased value. A fashion show held in Kutch during each graduation program compels artisan communities and other local public to value craft and artisans in other ways- and generates tremendous enthusiasm for the program.

Impact to Date

Thirteen years of design education have clearly demonstrated success in connecting graduate artisans to new markets and increasing their incomes. All graduates say they have increased their creative capacity. When individuals express their ideas, traditions diversify- and the market actually expands. As one small-scale artisan noted, "My income has increased ten times, while the long-time major producer's income has not suffered at all. It is a win-win situation!" Graduates have won the Indian President’s and World Crafts Council awards. Three graduates' work was exhibited in the contemporary design section- along with that of Sabyasachi Mukherjee and others- of the major exhibition "The Fabric of India" at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In 2017, seven graduates were the first artisans ever to be recognized as designers on the national Lakme Fashion Week ramp. Nine design graduates have participated in the International Folk Art Market| Santa Fe, and this year two more will attend.

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In 2014, when we could conclude that design education for artisans in Kutch was reaching its goals of increasing income and respect, we began outreach work to explore whether the approach would be applicable in other regions. The project was launched in Bagalkot, Karnataka. With the inspiration of a Kutch weaver graduate, we used an Artisan-to-Artisan approach: weaver design graduates mentored and co-designed with Bagalkot weavers with the goal of quickly getting partner artisans to better markets so that they would realize that design makes a difference and be motivated learn design.  As hoped, the weavers sold well in their first market experience and were eager to learn. We conducted a condensed, tailored design course in Bagalkot, in Kannada language, over two years. The participants dramatically transformed from indentured job workers to independent entrepreneurs in just three years. Subsequently we conducted a similar project with embroiderers in Lucknow. In 2018, we began a project with weavers in Kumaon.

To insure continued exercise of increased capacity, we are always looking for new opportunities.  Three years ago SKV began a co-design program with the University of Wisconsin. Artisan designers use WhatsApp to collaborate with design students in producing collections. A key point is to work as equals, as well as to make fresh designs. In 2019, we launched a co-design project with Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore.

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What’s Next- Educating the Market

Education can guide craft to realize an identity by virtue of its personal, human character. Dayabhai, Weaver, design and BMA graduate, and SKV Faculty relates: “When I joined the school in 2008 I was asked what my dreams were? I was doing job work and I dreamed of opening my own business. Once I had my personal business, I wanted to participate in an international exhibition. And I wanted to provide good education to my sons. This education gives us an opportunity to dream. My three dreams came true. And my position in society has improved. That is the power of design education. It can give you what you wish for.

Design education has clearly increased artisan capacity and the appeal of craft. As the level of craft rises and the number of artisan designers increases, the question now is, how to develop a market appropriate to artisan designed work?

Traditional systems of marketing based on the human connection of craft must be further examined and re-imagined. The next frontier is to cultivate robust, widely accessible domestic markets that value diverse, smaller scale, artisan-centered creation.

This paper is excerpted from Frater, Judy, “Education for Artisans: Beginning A sustainable Future for Craft Traditions, in Mignosa, Anna and Kotipalli, Priyatej (eds) A Cultural Economic Analysis of Craft. Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming.