* Excerpt from Frater, Judy, “Education for Artisans: Beginning a Sustainable Future for Craft Traditions,” in Mignosa, Anna and Kotipalli, Priyatej (eds) A Cultural Economic Analysis of Craft. Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming.
Most people assume that at Somaiya Kala Vidya we teach craft skills. When I say no, they quickly assume that we must be giving artisans designs. These two assumptions encapsulate the concept of artisans: skilled technicians capable of realizing someone’s concepts.
The depth of tradition is far more than skilled technique. Traditional artisans are the stewards of cultural heritage. Their traditions encompass knowledge, aesthetics, and history as well as skills. The language of a tradition tells the story of the artisans’ origins, journey, relationships, and experiences.
In Kutch, traditional weavers, printers, bandhani artists and embroiderers created exquisite art for intimately known people. They designed it and appropriately innovated as the lives of those people evolved. Time was not a constraint, and value was not primarily in monetary terms. Industry arrived. Local clients declined, and artisans sought distant and unknown markets. Design as an entity was introduced as “intervention,” and artisans became workers. Their capacity to create was neither recognized nor utilized. At the same time, the rich language of cultural heritage was supplanted by meaningless clichés.
Cultural heritage is the expression of living, growing, and changing traditions. But traditions can only evolve when they exist in a dynamic environment in which practitioners can connect to the end users of their work. To provide artisans with the opportunity to realize their creative capacity, and to insure that craft traditions remained genuine cultural heritage, I began a design education program for artisans. In 2005, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya opened its doors to artisan students: traditional weavers, ajrakh printers, bandhani artists, and embroiderers, with no further prerequisites of age or formal education.
In 2014, the year-long program evolved and expanded to Somaiya Kala Vidya. In six two-week intensive residential sessions spread over a year, artisan students learn to innovate within their traditions. The most innovative tool that we use in our design classes is simply to present problems to solve. We also draw on local traditions and teach as practically as possible. In effect, the design course re-imagines traditional systems in an appropriate contemporary form. Master artisan advisors teach students about traditions, as children once learned from elders; weavers, printers, and dyers learning together revitalizes the inherent interdependence in traditional textiles; and interface with urban markets reinvents direct contact with hereditary clients.
Over thirteen years, the program has transformed artisan graduates. They have connected to new markets, increased incomes, and won awards. The word on the ground is that anyone who has taken the course has built a bigger house and workshop. Traditions have diversified, and the market has expanded. As one graduate noted, “My income has increased ten times while the long-time major producer’s income has not suffered. It is win-win!” Perhaps the most significant success is children of artisans choosing craft as an attractive livelihood.
In 2014, when design education for artisans in Kutch was reaching its goals, and when we began Somaiya Kala Vidya, we thought of scaling out to test our approach in other regions. Keeping cultural heritage as the foundation, we intended to teach design within those regions, drawing on local language and culture. We launched the Outreach program in Bagalkot, Karnataka. With the inspiration of a Kutch weaver graduate, we used an Artisan-to-Artisan approach: weaver design graduates mentored Bagalkot weavers. The immediate goals were for partner artisans to quickly reach better markets, to recognize their regional traditions, and to learn to innovate within them rather than abandon them. As hoped, the weavers sold well in their first market experience. What did you learn? I asked. Color matters, they said. I asked if they would like to learn color, and they enthusiastically agreed.
Over two years, we conducted a condensed, tailored design course in Bagalkot, in the Kannada language. Over five years, the Bagalkot weavers dramatically transformed from indentured job workers to independent entrepreneurs. They reveled in innovative Ilkal. Within the first year, they began to wear their own work, a mark of appreciation of tradition as well as an important means of evaluating the quality of the work. And now they have learned to value their traditional kondi technique. Subsequently we conducted similar projects with embroiderers in Lucknow and weavers in Kumaon.
Though the success of education for artisans is irrefutable, graduates face challenges. The deepest, most pervasive is the persistent perception of artisans as workers. When people believe that artisans are capable only of following directives, they cannot see their creative potential. The quality of artisan designer work may be equal to or even better than that of branded designers, but there is a vast difference in perceived value.
The rich cultural heritage of craft traditions is India’s great resource. If craft is to genuinely continue, we must consider cultural sustainability. It is the artisans, the heirs to their traditions, who can effectively insure the evolution of tradition with integrity. When artisans are again the designers of their art they earn recognition as well as income, and with recognition craft traditions flourish.