Have you ever wondered how things around us, we do not pay attention to, could mean a lot to others? We go shopping, plunge a lot of money on lavish designer wear and spend a lot on appreciating the work on the cloth (for example, embroidery etc.). We do this without pondering over the work that went behind its creation or the source of inspiration for the designer.
Such variety of crafts commonly emanate from spiritual, religious, and customary communities. Take any art/craft form and be rest assured it will be a creation or outcome of sublime aspirations which can be linked with intellect and culture. This forms “merely” one of the facets of the global apprehension concerning traditional cultural expressions and forming a partnership between artisans and designers. One of the other aspect of the debate on traditional cultural expressions is the transformation and swing from traditional handicrafts to industrial handicrafts (basically, the monster of capitalism!) leaving the community with no incentive of sustaining their rich culture.
Like every coin has two sides, appreciating a craft requires you to comprehend the spirit behind the art/craft together with understanding the techno-economic side of it. Spirit refers to the importance craft/art/pattern holds for the artisan and his community from where it originated. There are numerous such traditional crafts which slowly die because the craft products do not bring enough remuneration to the craftsmen, although, lack of remuneration is not the whole and sole reason behind the gradual extinction.
Crafts/art also disappears due to absence of sense of pride and self-esteem in working with the craft. For instance, Kondapalli dolls are a famous traditional handicraft of Andhra Pradesh used in the festival of Sankriti and Navrathri and assembled in a particular method known as Bommala Koluvu. It is a handmade craft smoothly and articulately chiselled out of softwood known as Tella Poniki and painted with vegetable dyes, and vibrant colours. There is a cultural as well as spiritual/religious attachment to the craft. Any use which can offend the religious nature of the art/craft can destroy the pride associated with it. Gayatri Menon, a Design educator with NID, India fittingly expresses the apprehensions of the present: Craftsman views themselves as custodian of their culture and certain belief systems. The self-esteem which a craftsman holds for his craft arises out of that feeling. Such crafts are intrinsically linked to the artisan’s way of living: living close to nature, with age old stories and mythological figures, with customs and tradition that give meaning and richness to life. It may be more difficult and challenging to weave these factors into modern products and lifestyle through design intervention but it needs to be done. Or else, we may keep the craft technique, skills and practice alive but in the process we will lose something more precious – the spirit which keeps a craft alive!
Perceptibly, these traditionally motivated activities/crafts/arts have enormous economic benefit. It not only forms a huge proportion of employment in India but also acts as a secondary source of income for many agricultural and pastoral communities. In addition to the above, traditional cultural expressions is linked with a number of other industries including tourism, formal manufacturing and retail sectors and yet, this sector of traditional handicrafts and handlooms are majorly unorganized. This is more often than not attributed to the communities being socially disadvantaged groups with low literacy level and the inability of artisans to access modern resources. The development which accompanied globalization and liberalization (especially broadcasting, internet, television) added to the extinction by commercializing folklore on a global scale without due respect being given to cultural or economic interest of the communities from which they originate and without any revenue-sharing benefits to the people who are its authors.
Artisans are faced with rapidly changing markets, competition, diminishing natural materials and lack of skill, recognition and money. The problem of industrialization can be best described as the ease of an industrialist to copy identical patterns of traditional handicrafts within few minutes. Additionally, designers use the traditional patterns for commercial exploitation and also, many a times, acquire designs protection under the intellectual property regime. Such a situation forces artisans to forego their cultural, tradition and custom in order to earn his daily wage. Indirectly, it has halted the process of transmission of skills to the next generation as the artisans want their kids to take up more conventional jobs for economic stability. There is no incentive for the younger generation to pursue the traditional art/craft of their community as primary economic activity due to lack of protection. While the artisan community of developing countries like India believe that designers and industrialist have no respect for customs, the developed nations/designers perceive it as “artisans clinging onto their past”. Particularly in developing countries, folklore is a living and functional tradition, rather than a mere souvenir of the past.
How to bring these perspectives together to form collaboration is a thought-provoking task. It depicts the critical need of protecting artisans, and their traditional art/crafts – both nationally and internationally. For a developing country, like India, it should be an aspiration to preserve traditional cultures/knowledge with a desire to stimulate tradition based creativity to achieve a sustainable economic development and flourish a creative economy. But, we seem to be deliberately pushing our unique traditional art/craft and hereditary craftsmanship to extinction.
Think about it…