DESIGN MATTERS

India’s ancient handicrafts industry is in dire need of some 21st century entrepreneurship

Quartz india
Quartz india

Living in New York City, I’m used to seeing bedsheets, quilts, curtains, and even clothing made with beautiful Indian block-prints. But in India itself, this kind of quality and variety is hard to find.

The Indian textile crafts industry hasn’t been able to reap the value of the inherent beauty of these intricate patterns, even as brands and designers outside the country, such as US-based Lisa Fine and John Robshaw, have done so with great success, charging a premium for their products.

This is not a tirade about cultural appropriation or intellectual property, though. Rather, I want to ask why Indian firms working with these crafts haven’t cracked the high end of the international market. It’s not for lack of trying: Indian brands Fabindia and Anokhi were pioneers in the field, and Fabindia continues to be the largest-scale retailer of products that draw upon Indian handicraft traditions. More recently, several online retailers, such as Jaypore.com and Gaatha, have further expanded the market, and Good Earth is a niche player in the higher end. There are also not-for-profit organisations like SEWA and government entities, such as the Khadi Commission and Dastakaar, that operate in the same space.

But none of these have the name recognition or cachet that John Robshaw or even Terrence Conran (ironically, an early wholesale customer of Fabindia for years) have, particularly outside India. These US- and UK-based firms have recognised the economic and aesthetic value of traditional Indian crafts, and their success highlights the importance of design, market knowledge, and branding.

Appealing to the modern customer

To help Indian practitioners reap the full value of their exquisite crafts, it’s possible to learn from the market for fine art.

This market is shaped and governed by a well-oiled system that comprises institutions, firms, and entrepreneurs. The art world generates and reinforces quality criteria that are used to evaluate and explain artists and artworks, as well as endorse the best of them. These narratives of evaluation, explanation, and endorsement elevate paint on canvas to the status of art, and establish its value. A similar systematic structure for Indian crafts could change the way they are perceived, and project their practitioners as artistes rather than artisans.

In practical terms, this requires a trifecta: the injection of individuality and intentionality, i.e. design, into crafts; institutional recognition of craftsmen and -women as individuals with varying levels of skill and creativity; and entrepreneurial ingenuity that embraces marketing and branding techniques to convey the value of these fine, handcrafted objects.

If this sounds preposterous—“humble, rural tradition as art?!”—consider the ancient Japanese craft of basket-weaving. Similar systematisation of that craft not only saved it from extinction, but also elevated it to an art form. Today, examples of modern Japanese baskets are part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Slightly closer to home, but not exactly the same, is the case of the Indian fashion industry. High-end fashion in India differentiated itself from tailoring, which was ubiquitous and cheap, by educating individuals and fostering their creativity at the National Institute of Fashion Technology and other institutions, holding events where the best designers were recognized and honoured, and through the entrepreneurial efforts of early designers.

Of the trifecta of factors listed above, the first is relatively challenging, the second is fortunately turning into a reality in India, and the third will co-evolve with the first two.

The first need is a seamless integration of design into traditional crafts.

Given the inherent beauty of, say, block-prints, it seems contradictory to claim there is no design in crafts. However, design, like art, is the materialisation of an individual’s unique and original idea. Crafts, on the other hand, are repeated, non-singular motifs and patterns passed down over generations of skilled workers, who create by performing almost rote actions. But marrying the two so that the outcome is a modern, original piece that reflects the ideas and thoughts of an individual, not tradition, has turned out to be difficult in India. For instance, several designers and brands have chosen to create modern block-prints, using rickshaws, bicycles, cats, or even simpler or more abstract versions of floral motifs. In these cases, too, however, the designer is usually distinct from the craftsman, the person who actually executes the design.

The recently-established Indian Institute of Craft and Design is a laudable effort to redress this situation. Students there are trained not only in aesthetic theory but also in the specific skills and techniques of craft production so they will be able to credibly and authentically own specific patterns, designs, and works. Like fine art, such works can then be considered particular to an individual, rather than replicable, and the product of a creative and intentional process, therefore making them unique and valuable.

Various governmental and quasi-governmental entities in India have been actively creating institutions that recognize high-quality work and endorse their creators with awards. In sectors such as art and design, high-profile, credible awards play a crucial role in legitimising the value of objects that are otherwise difficult for consumers to understand, evaluate, and appreciate.

The government has, for many years now, been felicitating exceptionally-skilled artisans with National Awards for master craftspersons. Recently, Craftmark—a certification of authenticity—has established craft-specific metrics, standards of quality, and ways of evaluation. This conveys a sense of professionalism to consumers, and also enhances the value of crafts by weeding out ersatz practitioners who compromise on creativity, quality, and technique

Finally, the impact of these two institutional actions can and must be amplified by entrepreneurial initiative. The market mechanism, which rewards differentiation, scarcity, and an authentic aesthetic and story, must be embraced and emphasized. It is not sufficient to merely attach tags that name the artisan who created the object for sale, or to describe the historical, social, or cultural significance of the handicraft. Both are great first steps but could well be perceived as mere packaging or presentation. A more authentic market narrative would convey the meaning, importance, and value of the work, and the credentials and record of the individual artist, similar to the way art is described and positioned.

Moreover, the craft equivalent of an “art world” would be so embedded in the general discourse and the minds of consumers that they would interpret these narratives as markers of aesthetic and therefore economic value. The process, I found in my research on the Indian fashion industry, is co-evolutionary: Entrepreneurial action goes hand-in-hand with consumer education and enlightenment to generate a clear understanding of the value of objects based in craft traditions. As evidence that such an approach works, one need only look at established foreign designers such as John Robshaw and Lisa Fine.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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