Indian handicrafts must be treated as an economic sector with enormous potential, says handicrafts activist Laila Tyabji


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Laila Tyabji, president and founding member of the Dastkar Society for Crafts & Craftspeople, New Delhi, speaks to The Telegraph in an email interview.

India is a rare country where multifaceted craftsmanship, each with its distinctive regional identity, is still alive despite the little institutional support. At a time when the Prime Minister is advocating Make in India, what role should the government play to promote crafts?

India’s handicrafts sector is a potential gold mine, especially at a time when the world realizes the value of environmentally friendly, low-carbon production of items handcrafted from natural materials.

It must therefore be treated like any other economic sector with enormous potential – supported by investment, R&D, redesign, appropriate ancillary infrastructure and skills development, and marketing networks.

But the government must also recognize that its various jurisdictions, communities and locations require different approaches, and that it cannot be viewed as a cheap generic mass production medium.

We should take a look at what other Asian countries with much less skills have been doing – the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia ….

Are prohibitive prices and high maintenance factors responsible for turning off middle-class buyers? What must be done to get the craft to come out of this mold?

Once again, we must recognize that some handicrafts ARE luxury items (folk art, sculpture, jewelry, silverware and other art objects, textiles and stitched fabrics, rugs ….) and should be promoted and sold accordingly, and others the simple and useful articles of daily use (basketry, terra-cotta and ceramic articles, folk toys, grass rugs, etc.) look incongruous.

Costs can also be reduced through easy access to suitable raw materials, produced in bulk locally.

Most importantly, the public needs to be made aware of the value of crafts. A craft product is much more than a commodity. It has aesthetic and cultural value, and a story that no machine-made object can replicate.

Nobody quibbles that a painting costs more than a photo! Good packaging and promotion is essential if people are to give crafts the respect and price they deserve.

How hard are artisans affected by the double whammy of Covid-19 and the economic depression? Could a movement be launched to bring the use of craftsmanship back into everyday life?

They were hit very hard. They have no retirement security or insurance coverage, and are not covered by government assistance programs like the MNREGA. And for six months, they had no sales, no orders, no markets … Everyone’s hearts bled when they saw the plight of the migrant labor force, but the artisans, also without work, were invisible.

And now, even when markets are slowly opening up, consumers have less purchasing power and craftsmanship is unfortunately not a priority.

An immediate step would be a ban or punitive taxes on the cheap Chinese fake artifacts and clothing that flood the market, ranging from glass
Ganesha bracelets and mirrored embroidery, making it difficult to compete with truly handcrafted Indian handicrafts. Now is the time for a national advertising campaign appealing to our patriotism!

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