The handicraft and handloom sector in India is a ₹24,300-crore industry and contributes nearly ₹10,000 crore annually in export earnings. The 12th Five Year Plan had projected it would become the largest non-farm sector in rural India, swelling its workforce by 10 per cent, doubling the output and exporting 18 per cent more during 2012-17.

On the ground there are many challenges — weak infrastructure, limited access to raw material, broken supply chains, poor marketing and an absence of consensus on what constitutes ‘handicraft’. On top of it all, artisans walk a tightrope between preserving traditional skills and innovating for the contemporary marketplace. Weavers, for instance, often replace expensive raw materials with cheaper imitations, only to end up devaluing their craft and the customer’s experience of it.

The government’s role has been criticised as inadequate, and wrongly aligned. Government schemes are geared toward subsidy and miss out on the value of craft, rues Judy Frater, founder-director of Somaiya Kala Vidya, which promotes the craft traditions of Gujarat and Kutch in particular. “They begin with the sense that artisans need help, which is not a service to them. We have to think of creating opportunity rather than subsidy,” she says.

On May 14 this year, the Ministry of Minority Affairs launched the USTAAD (Upgrading the Skills and Training in Traditional Arts/Crafts for Development) scheme under the ‘Seekho Aur Kamao’ (learn and earn) programme.

DS Bist, joint secretary in the ministry, said the scheme would revitalise traditional crafts, particularly those in which minority communities are engaged. He mentioned globalisation, lack of market access and declining skills as some of the challenges facing artisans, and stressed the need to impart relevant education to their children to ensure the future development of crafts and dignity of work.

This scheme and others like it have, however, invited scepticism from artisans and others working in the craft sector. The ‘Make in India’ campaign, for instance, is seen as favouring only Banaras weavers, who were better off than many of the other craft clusters of India. “It is mere tokenism, which has a very short life. Only a handful of master weavers and already flourishing urban designers are benefited in the end,” says textile designer Gunjan Jain, whose Bhubaneswar-based alternative design studio Vriksh works solely with handloom weavers and artisans.

Experts agree that the government should instead address issues ranging from skill development to financial assistance, in collaboration with stakeholders and artisans. There is a need to invest in research and development, much like in the area of agriculture.

Several craft organisations are already working out ways to make the sector economically viable and attractive for the future generations of artisans.

Sally Holkar’s The Handloom School (THS) in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, is working with SK Panda, secretary Textile Ministry, to introduce THS curriculum at IIHTs (Indian Institute of Handloom Technology) across India. “At THS we are teaching young, talented weavers to interact directly with the market. They already have knowledge of weaving and we are teaching them basic weaving, business English, flexibility with fibres and dimensions, use of smartphones for business and so on,” says Holkar.

Judy Frater, who formerly ran Kalaraksha Vidyalaya before launching Somaiya Kala Vidya in Kutch, agrees that craft training is essential to empower artisans. “I think the main thing is to make craft attractive in terms of income and respect. We have found that when artisans learn design, both income and respect are raised, and their family members automatically gravitate to their traditional work” says Frater.

There is a growing consensus that to further the cause of craft-based education, mainstream institutes should become training facilities too. “It is high time the government reserved some seats in all courses run by design schools… institutes that have trust funds can offer waivers to deserving students from the craft sector… this can boost the morale of second-generation craftsmen,” says Shilpa Sharma, co-founder and product-creative head of Jaypore, an online brand that showcases craft-based designs. She also recommends a compulsory stint for design students with craft communities in their home state, to gain an understanding of their key priorities. Marketing organisations should be roped in to help bag orders for collections developed, says Sharma, who is a mentor at IIM-Ahmedabad’s 18-week programme ‘Crafting Luxury and Lifestyle Businesses’, which attracts a mix of students and young entrepreneurs with craft-based and sustainable business ideas. “The youth joining the workforce today are full of ideas, and have a voracious appetite for risk and experimentation. If we could find ways to get them to see the difference they can make to the craft sector, and create significantly differentiated propositions… I feel they could be interested in it. The international audience is very partial to craft-based products and those willing to take up craft-based design can make a mark for themselves with these audiences. At Jaypore we encourage young designers in the craft sector to showcase their creations through us,” she says.

In a show of interest from the private sector, recently the Tata Trust and Harvard University South Asia Institute announced that the handicrafts and handloom sectors would be one of their key areas of focus for collaboration on knowledge creation and capacity building.

At the inauguration of the 40th edition of Indian Handicrafts & Gifts Fair (IHGF) in Greater Noida in October last year, Textiles Minister Santosh Gangwar too emphasised that handicraft exporters must innovate to create unique works. He suggested marrying traditional skills with training in contemporary designs to reach target markets. “The best way to contemporise craft is to empower artisans to do their own innovation. When they have direct contact with markets and can innovate, the work is vibrant and they remain interested. Ownership is essential,” says Frater.

Craft to fashion

Master-weavers such as Gajam Govardhan, who was conferred with the Padma Shri in 2011 for ikat dyeing of Telia Rumaal, and national awardees like the Salvi family, who are the custodians of the Patan Patola weaving tradition of Gujarat, have succeeded in promoting their works through collaborations with designers.

Nearly 50 master-weavers worked with designer Ritu Kumar on her ‘Varanasi Weaves’ collection presented at the Lakme Fashion Week 2015. Gaurang Shah’s ‘Kalpavriksha’ exhibition-cum-presentation was created with Jamdani master-weavers from Andhra Pradesh and Bangladesh.

However, while master-weavers are at the helm of craft production and promotion in most clusters, the semi-skilled artisans, who make up the majority of the craft population, often remain neglected, says textile designer Gunjan Jain of Vriksh. “Most craft-based design houses, NGOs, government schemes and independent urban designers end up working with high-skilled weavers and craftspeople on design solutions for the urban consumer. We need to work on simple design solutions that give the huge workforce of semi-skilled artisans an opportunity to enter the urban market,” she says.

She cites the success of Malkha (Andhra Pradesh), Desi Trust (Karnataka), and Dastkar Andhra in enabling semi-skilled craftspersons to take quality yet affordable handloom products to the modern consumer.

To achieve this and other goals, the sector needs massive investment, which remains one of its biggest challenges as capital from formal financial institutions remains elusive. This leaves it dependent on sources such as bank loans, equity and donation. Moreover, in order to attract large investments the sector must boast a certain scale of production, which would eliminate middlemen and put the primary producers directly in touch with investors and buyers.

Help could possibly take the form of model handloom clusters supported by the government, small saving schemes for artisans, rebate scheme and a relief fund to cushion poverty-stricken weavers from market shocks.

The end-result of all endeavours must be to ensure that artisans are valued for their skills and become active beneficiaries of the wealth created through their craft. An inclusive and socially responsible approach that supports producers through the entire value chain would strengthen both production and marketing and help leverage traditional skills to create internationally competitive craft products. Key stakeholders including the government, handloom experts, designers, financial institutions, entrepreneurs, artisans and livelihood organisations must partner to achieve these goals. A shift from subsidy-based to market-led sustainable development is possible.

Manika Dhama is a Dubai-based journalist