The Coronavirus Cloud Has a Potential Silver Lining for the Indian Crafts Sector

With the crafts sector in dire straits since the start of the lockdown, many have realised that the way we market craft has to change and are ideating about how to move ahead.

Many, including myself, have spoken and written of the crushing impact of COVID-19 on the Indian craft sector. For months, craftspeople have been without markets, sales, orders or prospects. They lack the wherewithal to buy food for their families, let alone make payments for wages and raw material. The future of traditional crafts markets and bazaars is bleak. The projected global recession will mean that fewer people will have cash in their pockets to buy handicrafts. Pessimist economists say it may take years for us to get back to our pre-pandemic rate of growth.

All this has made those of us in the craft sector come together and introspect. NGOs, crafts cooperatives, designers, merchandisers, entrepreneurs and artisan families – normally working in their own narrow silos – are brainstorming together in new collaborations and discussions. Zoom, WhatsApp groups, and webinars are pulsing with the word ‘crafts’ and ‘craftspeople’ in ways that haven’t happened for decades. Even the prime minister mentioned artisans in his Letter to the Nation.

What unites these many diverse partners is the seriousness of the situation and knowing how essential it is for us to all work with each other if craft and the makers of craft are to survive. For the first time, normally secretive retailers, designers, and entrepreneurs are sharing their artisan lists, naming their karigars and directing orders and donations directly to them. They realise that individually they cannot support them all, and that if their karigars go under, so will their own businesses.

Also read: Reimagining Crafts in Contemporary Times

The realisation has also hit home that the way we market craft has to change. And for that too, we all need each other. It’s going to be a long time before the public will flock to Dilli Haat, Paramparik and the Dastkar Bazaars, and before craftspeople themselves will travel to metro cities that are hotspots for the virus. Sourcing too will have to change. Entrepreneurs and designers will have to go to the craftspeople rather than the other way round.

The channels of communication therefore have to evolve. All of us, except a few who ask “what about the touch and feel experience that is so integral to buying craft?” have realised that going online is inevitable. Here too, we need the help of each other. If craft products have to be appealing online, they need to look good, be presented with skill and style.

A man makes a rug in Jaipur. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

I see another opportunity here. We all agree that half the charm of a craft object is the process, the maker and the tradition. The internet enables us to present this effectively and creatively, without physically having to transport the artisan and his equipment and tools to the spot. To have the maker tell the story, show the material, and the technique that transforms it… If we can only do this successfully, in a visually engaging way, it will make up for that lack of touch and feel.

Few entrepreneurs, let alone NGOs and artisans, have the skills of presentation, photography, content, digital knowhow, or the human resources to make this happen overnight. Here is an area where we should pull in other professionals and work in partnership. Is it idealistic to think of one wonderful craft portal, naming both makers and sellers, instead of us all competing for the same online space? An Amazon of craft, but so much better, more creative and also more caring?

If the market and the means to market has changed, the product too needs to change – at every segment of the consumer spectrum. It will be a long time before the demand for designer gowns and elaborate wedding lehengas costing lakhs will revive – social distancing means that partying is a thing of the past, at least in the short term. And with international travel on hold, cheap tourist souvenirs too will not be in demand. I don’t see people investing in expensive purely decorative pieces for their homes either for some time.

Also read: A Kolkata Venture is Challenging Transphobia Through Handicrafts

We need to go back to that golden age when every handcrafted object was functional as well as decorative. With many of the international players and brands that supplied the world with garments, accessories, home furnishings, furniture, tableware, toys etc in distress, and China also struggling to recover, this is an opportunity to make Make in India really happen, and to take over China’s place as the ‘Maker to the World’. We used to be that! Indians too should be tempted back to ‘Buy Local, Buy Indian’ as those international brands become less easily available.

We have millions and millions of skilled hands, and not every pair of hands needs to make traditional objects. It is exciting to see folk artists, long frozen in endless replication, painting contemporary themes of life during COVID-19. All over India, women embroiderers are making ingenious versions of masks, while Kashmiri leather artisans, normally fabricating bags and totes, have turned their hand to PPE outfits and gloves. Since synthetic, stainless steel and glass surfaces have been found to carry the virus for longer, it is an opportunity for artisans working in paper, brass, fibre, wood and resin. This includes packaging – an area of huge potential growth.

Architectural crafts too need to make a comeback. People will always need homes, and those homes should be beautifully crafted – with everything from chik blinds and cane to wall finishes and woodwork. Aldo, if the world’s tourists have to be wooed back to India, the hotel industry will need to provide an irresistible and unique experience. Again, thanks to our millions of skilled hands, this is actually cheaper than buying container-loads of pre-fab Italian or Balinese artefacts.

For this, craftspeople will need design interventions and product development, which can be another area where collaboration works. Craft interventions need to work in partnership with crafts communities to plan proper briefs, to link up with potential clients. Craftspeople need to identify appropriate end-markets for their products rather than make things at random and then try to randomly find them a market or buyer.

Also read: The GST Regime is Damaging, Not Helping, India’s Crafts Sector

The appeal of selling at a bazaar was its catch-all quality, given the diversity of its visitors – students, Bollywood stars, diplomats and foreign tourists, boutique owners, export buyers. Craftspeople therefore made and brought along a bit of everything, with differing price ranges, colours, and designs, hoping to make some sales to someone, or secure an order for something.

Now that will need to change. No artisan can afford to invest in and hold such huge varied stocks and end up with sales of only 50-60%, at one time considered quite good going. Equally they need to understand that it’s not just about surface ornamentation – form, functionality, finish, proportion are just as if not more important as making a pretty pattern.

This is an area where our design schools should also collaborate and plan ahead for, rather than predictably sending students to the usual well-trodden crafts pockets – Kutch, Raghurajpur, Jaipur. Each design school could take a region, with students working together in cohesion with local NGOs, developing coordinated ranges of products. If possible there should be a brief from a potential merchandiser – be it the Central and State Cottage Industries, a corporate institutional buyer, an IKEA or a FabIndia.

Part of the process should be a branding and advertising campaign: telling the story, projecting the magic and uniqueness of Indian craft. The ‘Incredible India’ campaign had Indians, along with the rest of the world, rediscover this country. We now need to make them discover the skills, range and power of Indian craftspeople.

The finance minister’s stimulus package left out this huge sector, the second largest in India, but here is now an opportunity for the government to join hands with all of us in the crafts sector and make it happen. A starting point must be knowing exactly how many million craftspeople we are talking about. Amazingly, that’s something we are still making guesses about.

Laila Tyabji is the founder member and chairperson of Dastkar, an NGO working for the revival of traditional crafts in India.