Local Merchants And Rural Artisans- A Trade On The Verge Of Extinction?
| Written by Roshni Roy
While I cannot speak for anyone else, it is definite that the best part of my childhood would be the little excursions to the small shops hidden in the criss-cross streets of Ulsoor. These little nooks from which scents of freshly baked buns are a permanent fixture or the small ‘chai kadai’ with its selection of biscuits and ‘mithai’ were like mini adventures to us.
As a child, there was a very limited area where we could explore, and the streets with several intersections that got narrower and narrower resembling a maze were a haven for us. The potter’s small cart that boasted of brightly painted money pots shaped into a wide variety of fruits and shapes.
These are the memories that flash through my eyes as I walk through those streets now. The colourful display of the small shops has given way to statuesque buildings and towering glass megaliths. While I would never depreciate the value of commercial progress, there is a feeling of phantom absence for what used to be.
Nowadays, most local businesses and local artisans are losing business due to the commercialization of their livelihood and their craft. Due to the hardship involved with maintaining a local line of business, the children of said artisans often leave the profession to look for more sustainable fields of work.
Due to this reason, many art forms are also becoming extinct owing to the less number of artists maintaining their field.
Reasons for the decline of the local businesses:
Chaotic production –
In the case of smaller businesses such as the neighbourhood ‘chai kadai’ or even the small roadside bakery, they do not stand a chance against the larger commercial chains.
As a largely unorganized sector, handicrafts face problems such as a paucity of professional infrastructures, including a lack of work sheds, storage space, shipping and packing facilities.
Lack of proper education –
Many crafts require the entire household to participate in production in some capacity. In many cases, crafts also serve as a seasonal source of income for agricultural households.This means that the children have to lend a hand in the family business and they often end up missing school, resulting in low education levels for the family overall.
The lack of education makes it difficult to manage inventory, access government schemes and market information, and bargain with traders and middlemen. It is estimated that in 2003, around 50% of heads of households of crafts producing families had no education whatsoever, and more shockingly, around 90% of the women in these households were completely uneducated, according to a report published in Economic and Political Weekly 2003, by World Bank, titled, ‘Handmade in India: Preliminary Analysis of Crafts Producers and Crafts Production.’
Lack of interest by the second generation –
These days, the youth are seeing their parents struggling with their small crafts businesses. And, they usually do not take up the family business but instead, opt for an organised job that promises a steady income.
Rural youth are increasingly uninterested in continuing their family craft traditions, for three main reasons.
First, having seen their parents struggle to find markets and fair prices for their products, they are inclined to pursue other trades. Second, the school system today does not integrate lessons regarding the importance of crafts into the school curriculum, and instead, students are pushed towards white-collar office jobs, even if they pay low. Finally, the crafts are strongly associated with a family’s caste.
In the rural artisan’s communities the families pass down their craft as one would an heirloom . Switching crafts are not advisable as it is difficult to gain expertise in a short period of time to be financially viable.
Neglect by governments –
The Government views the craft sector as a sunset industry, no longer relevant in India’s technology-driven economic growth. Thus, schemes designed for artisans tend to have low priority in terms of execution and assessment. Within crafts, the government’s priorities are skewed towards the export market, with 70% of its crafts budget going towards the development of an environment to enable export. (Source :National handicrafts development program -2018-2019)
Further, the fact that the crafts sector falls under the purview of 17 different Government ministries, ranging from the Ministry of Textiles to the Ministry of Women and Children, results in confusion and inaction.
Lack of a marketing strategy –
While consumers of crafts products are increasingly becoming urbanized, crafts continue to be sold through local markets. The artisans have few opportunities to reach out to new consumers through relevant retail platforms, such as department stores and shopping malls. Further, due to their rural orientation, artisans are often unable to access training and technology to link their products to online markets.
The dominance of middle-men –
Although middle-men are necessary to enable effective market linkages, they often, if not always, exploit artisans by paying them a fraction of their fair wages. I remember being shocked at the difference of cost between what a rural artist would sell his craft for and what the mainstream retailer was so vast often thousands of rupees in difference.
This may be due to lack of information on the part of middlemen about true manufacturing costs, or merely due to their ability to coerce artisans, who often lack bargaining power.
What can we do about it?
Advocate for funding from the government:
The present schemes for the smaller businesses and artisans have not taken into account the technological strides we have made in the past couple of decades, they need to be updated to help the present community. At present there are few of the schemes in use.
USTAAD:- The Scheme aims at upgrading Skills and Training in the preservation of traditional Ancestral Arts/Crafts of minorities.
Hamari Darohar:- The Scheme aims to preserve the rich heritage of minority communities in the context of Indian culture. While they do try to address the said problem , the number of people benefiting from the said scheme are inconsequential.
Increase interaction with the consumers:
Most local businesses have not updated their method of working in a couple of decades. This has caused stagnation and has caused most businesses to fall out of favour with current consumers.
Artisans need to interact with the consumers and tell them all about their work, and the knowledge and meaning behind it. This establishes a connection between art and buyer, and also helps the artisans know what the consumers want or need.
Use effective promotional strategies:
As most small craft-based businesses are going up against large multinational companies, they really need to up their game to attract customers.
To bring back art and handicrafts into the market, craftsmen and the artisans need to understand the modern market and its promotional strategies. They have to understand their space in the global market and then fix the price of their products.
The best way is to create public awareness about the said field. At both the rural and urban levels, workshops should be organised that enhance the skills and also the knowledge of the people. Skill showcasing, design education, and product development workshops can be followed up with pricing, marketing, branding, micro-finance, etc.
Create a link between artisans and designers:
These awareness programmes will also initiate collaborations between the artisans and the urban designer and brands to explore the opportunities together. Through such initiatives and activities, we can save and promote our traditional craft nationally and globally, with the various other art and craft forms, to find a place in the dynamic art culture of the world. These initiatives will bring out the traditional craft and also promote the hidden talents in India.
Dasara - Creating a livelihood https://www.dasra.org/resource/creating-livelihoods-for-artisans
Research gate -problems and prospects of handicrafts
India today - Art is losing its grip, written by Neha Jain, Senior Faculty in Interior Design Department, IMSDIA
Indian retailer - Factors for acute decline of art -Varinder Singh Jawanda, Founder
India environmental portal - The untold story -
National handicrafts guidelines - 2018-2019 (National handicrafts development program -2018-2019)
Roshni Roy is currently pursuing B.arch degree at MCE in Chennai. Her field of expertise include Sketching and painting, Writing and Graphic designing.