Stand up for craftspeople: how to support India’s artisan community during the COVID-19 crisis

“The Corona epidemic has broken our back,” says a normally cheerful Aarti Patra, part of a group of sabai-grass basket-makers in an Odisha village. Rajkumari Joshi, a craftswoman from SADHANA, a women’s cooperative we work with in Rajasthan, agrees. “All the women here are feeling completely helpless and in need. We do not have work,” she says. Other artisans tell Dastkar they wonder what will finish them first – the virus or hunger.

It is a curious time. Not just fear of a possibly mortal disease, but a lockdown of all social, and economic activity. For craftspeople, dependent on daily production and sales, life has come to a halt — there are no melas, no sales, no raw material, no money to feed their families. We have worked with them for decades, now we share their pain.

“All our orders have been cancelled,” Vimal Kumar, a young Rajasthani potter, explains. “Even if we try our best, we will not be able to clear this stock for two years at least. This will cause not only debt, but a decrease in production. Craftspeople will be out of jobs for a long time,” he adds.

Every drop counts

  • Three weeks ago, Dastkar reopened its Artisan Support Fund (created post the 2001 Bhuj earthquake). Supported by the likes of online craft portal Jaypore, proceeds from the initiative will go to fund artisan families and their necessities such as medical aid, raw material, equipment and more. Details: dastkar.org/donation/
  • How can men support the daily wage workers of the sari industry? An ongoing social media challenge calls on men to shoot a video of themselves wearing a sari, then tag a friend to pass it forward. The idea is to create awareness and urge people to donate on dastkar.org

Will crafts and their makers survive?

Those videos, of jobless migrant workers walking homewards, were incredibly moving. Craftspeople, equally affected, remain invisible and therefore ignored — by the Government, by the media, even by those who used to buy their products. Outside the safety net of regular salaries or social security, they are helpless.

The global economy is predicted to contract 3%. Even as Italian fashion house Armani makes protective overalls, and Louis Vuitton turns out face masks instead of luxury luggage, craftspeople too will need to adapt to changing times. Craft is sadly not an essential; it is the first thing to be struck off consumer wish lists when purchasing power diminishes.

Different crafts and communities need different solutions — disposing of existing stock, planning their re-entry into what will be a very changed market. Skills have to be targeted to differing markets; some making functional products of everyday use, others creating one-of-a-kind pieces for high-end buyers.

A child learning the craft of weaving

Lessons in resilience

Though many fear the impact of COVID 19 may be the end of craftspeople, still reeling from demonetisation and the unplanned imposition of GST, it is their creativity and resilience that could save them.

I remember what Ajrakh master craftsperson Ismail Bhai Khatri said after the 2001 Kutch earthquake, standing in the ruins of his devastated home, “All we want is the means to stand on our feet again, we will rebuild our own lives ourselves.”

Sitting at our makeshift work-stations, answering appeals from craftspeople all over India, Dastkar is moved by that same resolute spirit. Women used to making fine embroidery or bandhani are turning their hands to mask-making. Urmul Seemant in Bajju made 5,000 masks in the first two weeks, Rangsutra has distributed 26,000.

Craftspeople, not content to sit lamenting, realising that art is communication, are using it to create awareness — much needed in rural areas with little access to news or medicare. Bhilwara in Rajasthan had numerous early fatalities. Kalyan Joshi, a local traditional phad painter, created a series of colourful posters, inspired by WHO health directives. Bhilwara is now free of infection.

Kashmiri copper craftsman Aslam

Mohan, a Sanjhi paper cutter from Mathura, followed suit with a piece on ‘Krishna in the Time of Coronavirus’. He quips that with schools closed, it is a great time to pass on his family tradition: “Normally my son is busy with school and play. In this lockdown, he has thoroughly enjoyed learning the family skill, and I’m enjoying teaching it to him.”

Hirabhai and Laxmiben Chauhan from Gujarat, both over 70, have been appliqué artisans all their lives. Suddenly sales have come to an end. Undaunted, they are using the lockdown “to think and create new designs for our next exhibition. Moreover, we look forward to the wedding of our grandchildren when this lifts, (if we are still alive and healthy). For that we are preparing new songs”.

Many crafts communities are reaching back to old folk stories, family songs and rituals for comfort. They see no need to congregate at mandirs and mosques. “Worship happens in your heart,” says one.

Others are rediscovering long-lost techniques. Madhubani craftsman Devendra Jha has been using chemical colours for years. Unable to buy paints in the lockdown, he went back to making natural colours at home. As one craftsperson says, “On normal days, we are busy, be it a Bazaar or fulfilling a big order, but the time is completely different now. Since we are at home, why don’t we refine our art and create something unique?”

Tari Bai from Urmul Bajju

In it together

As Dastkar responds to distress calls from across India, we know our aid is a temporary sop. Craftspeople, the second largest employment sector in India, need sustained investment and assistance. Housebound, it’s easy to feel helpless. But the courage and spirit of these artisans keeps us from despair.

Government, crafts organisations and designers need to come together and work closely with the craftspeople, listen to their voices, build on their strengths, think out of the box. Anand Mahindra’s response to the plight of banana farmers — getting his factory canteens to substitute banana leaves for plates — is a brilliant example.

To end with master craftsman, Prakash Joshi, “We are artists and the artist shapes the tomorrow with his art, dissipating the negative energy because after a thick dark night there is always a golden morning.”

While we celebrate that spirit, we need also to help craftspeople rediscover that golden morning.

Laila Tyabji of Dastkar has been working with artisans all over India for the last 40 years