Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Hand block printing on cotton, Akola, Rajastan © Craft Revival Trust

Revisiting the Ethics of Engagement between Traditional Craftspeople and Designers

Design intervention has been an established initiative of development projects initiated by governments and NGOs across the world as a means to enhance market reach and the livelihood of traditional craft communities. However, innumerable instances have been cited on the ethics of engagement where design development has ended by benefitting the interests of designers and commercial enterprises while craftspeople have continued to remain unnamed and unknown.

In the design world, practitioners are well aware of the issues and rights governing the copying and infringement of design and brand identities. This same level of rigor, however, does not seem to always apply when designers deal with traditional craft communities, with an almost marked absence of charges on copying associated with the many hundreds of indigenous crafts and textiles.

Mainly located in rural areas, the craft sector in India provides employment to many millions of people, an overwhelming majority belonging to the weaker, more vulnerable sections of society. It is an accepted truth that craft communities are the holders and bearers of tradition, of skills and techniques, acquired through an intergenerational oral transmission and sharpened through apprenticeship and long practice. Designers and manufacturers are alert to the values inherent in craft products, differing as they do from other goods. Endowed with symbolic meanings, these craft genres are clearly delineated brand identities and yet seem to have no place in popular conversations on ‘design’ and ‘brand’.

An additional challenge faced by craftspeople is the ubiquitous availability of replicated and fake craft products marketed in high street stores in India and across the globe under the name of the craft cluster. Factory printed Bandhini, the traditional tie-dyed textile of Rajasthan and Gujarat, plastic reproductions of the Kolahpuri sandals of Maharashtra, and hand block printed textiles available in cheap screen-prints to the famed hand-woven brocades of Banaras replicated on the power loom are only a few such examples. This all-pervading availability of fakes and ‘borrowings’ has hit craftspeople hard, not just economically by depriving them of the benefits of their traditional community knowledge but also socially, deepening the perception of inequality and unfairness.

Measures to protect the moral right and intellectual property of craft communities over their millennia-old creations and the potential economic benefit arising from it has been the subject of international debate since at least 1982 when a sui generis model for intellectual property type protection of traditional cultural expressions was developed.1WIPO-UNESCO model provision law for folklore Decades on, debate continues without any conclusive legal protective measure enacted so far.

Some countries have taken initiative, responding to their particular context and needs, including Panama and New Zealand. In India, the enactment of Geographical Indication Act is expected to bring legal protection to community knowledge. A family of Trade-Related Intellectual Property Right, the Act identifies goods originating from a particular place, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic become essentially attributable to its geographic origin. Considered to be an effective tool protecting goods associated with or deriving from local cultural traditions, 178 goods have been registered till February 2013 of which 113 belong to traditional crafts.

However, it is still a new system. The number of registered GIs is not yet sufficient to cover the wide range of traditional crafts of India.2Craft Revival Trust free online encyclopedia (craftrevival.org) documents more than 950 different craft forms across India Further, it is yet to demonstrate how the registration will concretely benefit craftspeople, protecting their economic and cultural rights. A post-registration, follow-up mechanism is not yet in place, effectively linking GI recognition and the well-being of craft communities.

We, therefore, continue to live and struggle in an imperfect world. In the meantime, examples of the passing-off, misappropriation, and borrowing of traditional designs continue to impede craftspeople and their communities.

In the absence of appropriate institutional and legal protection, the Craft Revival Trust has been advocating for a new code of ethics that would govern interaction between the designers and traditional craftspeople. Published with the support of UNESCO in 2005, Designers Meet Artisans, edited by Ritu Sethi, provides various case studies and good practices of collaboration between designers and traditional artisans communities across the world. Eight years later, a revised version of Designers Meet Artisans is being prepared to reflect the rapid growth in the world market and the need for a stronger awareness raising and guidelines for protecting moral rights of the traditional crafts communities. It is hoped that this publication will provide the first step to reposition the setting between the craftspeople and designers.

Ritu Sethi (Chairperson, Craft Revival Trust, India)

Notes   [ + ]

1. WIPO-UNESCO model provision law for folklore
2. Craft Revival Trust free online encyclopedia (craftrevival.org) documents more than 950 different craft forms across India