Exploring the Mela model with Laila Tyabji of Dastkar

In the face of industrialization, mall culture and aggressive international brand advertising; despite the lack of professional marketing infrastructure, macro investment in both financial and human resource and the social marginalization of craftspeople, Craft continues to hold its niche place in the Indian market.

Despite rapid urban industrial development, in most rural areas Craft remains a powerful catalyst for social and economic empowerment and often the only employment opportunity for women. Dastkar is a private not-for-profit NGO established in 1981, working to support traditional Indian craftspeople, many of them women and village based, with the objective of helping craftspeople regain their place in the economic mainstream, in a country where the craft sector is second only to agriculture in providing employment. We spoke to Laila Tyabji, Chairperson of the organisation to understand her views on crafts today.

Start of a Dastkari Journey

I grew up with crafts. Our home, and my grandparents homes, were full of handmade handwoven Indian art and craft, even when many Indian interiors were still full of European velvet, lace and chandeliers!

As a freelance designer in the 60s and 70s, I much preferred using Indian skills, techniques, motifs, and materials, than plexiglass, steel and other polyester, whether I was doing an interior design project, or stage sets and costumes. I worked with craftspeople long before Dastkar and it was my 6 month assignment in Kutch in the mid 1970s as visiting designer for the Gujarat State Handicrafts Corporation that confirmed for me that it was craftspeople themselves as well as crafts that were my passion and would be my lifelong pursuit. In the late 70s, a group of us began talking about this hidden wealth of hand skills and traditions India had, and how the makers needed to be helped to reach the new urban markets. Those conversations were the genesis of DASTKAR, which formally came into existence in 1981.

Space for crafts and technology

Dastkar is exploring the various ways craftspeople and consumers can connect. Digital is one obvious way , although craft is quite a touchy-feely thing!  We are ideating on how we can replicate the Bazaar experience online.

As someone who loves gizmos and technology, I don't think the two worlds need be separate. Smart phones have revolutionised how craftspeople communicate with buyers and designers, and access designs and ideas.

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Craft in the conversation of consumerism

Craft in many ways is the ideal 21st century product as the ethical, environmentally conscious customer is on the increase, especially abroad. It also has a much slower rate of obsolescence, as most designs are classic and timeless. Indians too are fast picking up these messages from abroad. But many Indian techniques are not genuinely eco-friendly - dye effluents flow into our rivers, the open furnaces over which metal casting or glass blowing is done is a health hazard, most looms are not ergonomically designed, and so on. We must be prepared to invest in the technology to correct this. So far no Indian Govt has taken this further. It's a project our IITs should undertake.

A piece of craft is both a work of art and design

Ideally yes, as making something by hand is all about matching function with design.  Using creative imagination and ornamentation to make something that has function and purpose. But, given the huge gamut of hand crafted products, a broom, a terracotta mug or a jute drugget cannot have the same artistic weightage as a bronze statue, a Banarasi brocade, or a Kashmiri carpet. But all have more intrinsic value than something produced in an assembly line and replicated in thousands of identical machine made pieces!

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Balance of modern and traditional

Well, I hope the design and product development Dastkar does is “a balance of modern and traditional”! Craft must respond to consumer tastes and lifestyles. It needs to constantly evolve. It is  often static today because craftspeople are no longer in touch with their buyers, and so are unaware of market trends and fashions. This knowhow and awareness has to be inculcated. That is one of the primary purposes of our Bazaars - to bring the consumer and the craftsperson together, and create understanding of the potential of each.

Indian crafts representation in the west

It is depressing to see the tacky rubbish that passes for Indian craft in international markets. And the quality stuff is seldom labeled “Made in India” even if it is. The occasional spectacular one-of-a-kind Museum exhibition seldom generates orders that reach small artisans.

Unlike Japan or Thailand, India is not yet considered a quality brand. This is mainly the fault of exporters who look for ‘low cost high volume” orders instead of using the strength of Indian craft, which is its uniqueness and handmade quality. Each piece can be different and value-added and that is what we need to promote - not hundreds of little knickknacks, all identical and costing a couple of dollars. The Japanese, Thais and Indonesians use the full potential of their craft skills much more imaginatively.

Conversation of sustainability, fair trade and organic

Frankly in India, neither the consumer nor the producer thought much about these issues till very recently. Now that buyers from abroad are demanding these benchmarks, everyone is waking up. But it's still a very niche market that is willing to pay the extra price for ‘green’ products, and that can actually tell the difference. But it is growing slowly. Obviously we are masters of Jugaad so not everything labelled organic or natural is really so!

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