A lot has been said and written about the imminent demise of India’s traditional craft forms. In an increasingly industrialised and technology driven world, naysayers have a legitimate case. Challenges including government apathy to major reforms, rampant deployment of mass production power loom technologies, lack of interest in the younger generation to pursue crafts as a vocation are chronic and difficult issues. To add to them, our traditional aesthetic is perceived as increasingly irrelevant in a high street driven marketing world.
Still, there are opportunities for digital tools to catalyse a robust resurgence of India’s crafts. India has over 60 lakh practising artisans. This is a ready talent pool that does not need vocational training. At the same time, market opportunities such as emerging handcrafted luxury lifestyle brands; ethical handcraft brands with traceable supply chains and travel experiences integrated with artisanal destinations are ripe for a seamless connect between a practising artisan and a patron.
Digital tools can be a powerful enabler for artisans to connect directly with markets and access affordable credit. An emerging ecosystem of online marketplaces, affordable communication tools, online consumer communities, entrepreneurship programmes, crowd-funding for artisan entrepreneurs and local digital design archives holds promise for change.
The growth of e-commerce platforms particularly online marketplaces has activated avenues for artisans to connect with patrons. On a visit to Bagru, we witnessed several block printing artisans upload their textiles online with pictures, pricing details and design specifications. Seasoned artisans may hesitate to embrace technology but do not lack will as they take assistance from younger family members.
The prolific use of Whatsapp by artisans to connect with buyers is a trend to stay. Artisans share new designs or work-in-progress images to stay connected with their patrons despite being remotely located.
Conventional perceptions of unreliable delivery are being belied. On a field visit to a village in Mirzapur, we requested a dhurrie weaver to ship his textiles to us. Sceptical that they would reach, we were delighted when he shared shipping tracking details down to the expected hour of delivery. The textiles showed up at our doorstep at the appointed hour.
A growing tribe of young independent designers is actively collaborating with artisans to transform the aesthetic of traditional crafts to appeal to global consumers. They’re extensively using digital platforms to evangelise their brands and the process that goes behind crafting their collections. Digital tools are being used to archive designs as references for practising artisans and preserving craft history. Chanderi’s weavers have access to an exhaustive digital design bank pooled entirely by their own peers.
While nascent, crowd funding platforms are enabling artisan entrepreneurs to raise working capital from individual philanthropists. With the recent thrust on digital financial inclusion, artisans are likely to benefit considerably as they have historically been underserved by financial institutions. Such developments may appear as a spontaneous response to an omnipresent digital ecosystem; but deliberate action is also in play by non-profit organisations to help artisans use digital tools to their advantage.
The writer leads strategy and partnerships at Tata Trusts