Designers as Social Activists in the Context of Craft Clusters in India

Note: This abstract is for a paper presented by Anahita Suri at the Design Challenges conference at the Barreira Art and Design Institute, Valencia, Spain, on 10th September 2020.

Craft – an integral part of the conduit to create something beautiful – is a visual representation of the human imagination given life through the hand. The Indian craftsmen are not exempt from this craving for beauty. India has a rich cultural legacy of handlooms and handicrafts, passed down the generations.

These skilled craftsmen create simple yet sophisticated textiles, home furnishings, accessories and home décor items. The motifs, colors and designs reflect the rich cultural heritage of the community. Inspired from the local surroundings and folklore, these age-old designs have little or no market appeal today as they are far removed from the visual language and functionality desired by a modern-day consumer. The artisans lack a design education, market understanding and knowledge of promotion and branding leading to a gap between skillfully crafted, aesthetically pleasing products and its sale ability leading to poor revenue generation.

A number of crafts, like ‘Chamba Rumal’ and ‘Roghan’ paintings, are on the verge of extinction due to various factors like poor infrastructure, poor accessibility to craft clusters, no innovation in traditional designs/ products, customer ignorance leading to low demand, profit sharing by middlemen and competition from cheaper replicas that are mass produced. With livelihood opportunities through craft slowly dwindling, artisans are moving to alternative sources of income generation- like agriculture and daily wage labor.  

There is an urgent need for intervention to revive the craft, spread awareness about them in urban spaces and strengthen the artisan’s ability to innovate and create by bridging the gap between the maker and the user. Recent efforts by government bodies and local designers has given some of these handlooms and handicrafts a contemporary look without diluting its essence.  Intervention of Design Institutes like National Institute of Fashion Technology through embedding craft cluster studies in their curriculum to sensitize students to engage with artisans for design intervention and product diversification is beginning to open new vistas for some of these crafts like ‘Pattachitra’ paintings and ‘Tilla’ embroidery among many others.

Non-government and non-profit organizations like Dastkar, SEWA, Kalaraksha, etc. have also taken steps for expanding the capacity of the artisans as well as enhancing their understanding of the potential of new markets resulting in successful revival and promotion of crafts like ‘Chikankari’ embroidery and ‘Chanderi’ weaving, etc.

Revival of traditional crafts with their primitive simplicity and enchanting folk motifs is vital to preserve the cultural heritage. Most craft practices involve locally available, natural and organic materials and eco-friendly processes, thus, reducing the carbon footprint and providing an environmentally friendly product. Increasing demand of these hand-crafted products will boost local economy, thus, providing financial independence and improved lifestyle for the artisans involved. The nature of hand-crafted products is such that it will slow down the process from maker to user, thus, affecting the consumption graph as well.

This paper discusses the role that designers can play in empowering the craftsmen through collaborative, symbiotic engagement by creating innovation ecosystems that facilitate a sustainable and social enterprise. Designers are also encouraged to be activists and work creatively with society at large and, in doing so, become ‘social innovators’, using their design skills to meet social needs. This could further encourage a space for handmade and hand-crafted art, rich with stories about India, with a contemporary visual sensibility which will strengthen environmental and ethical sustainability.

Anahita Suri, Assistant Professor, School of Fashion Design, Unitedworld Institute of Design (UID)

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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