How Craft got Re-Conceived

This is a transcription of a talk. Oral text …

3 NOV 2020

So let’s start from the beginning. You are across two different domains; hypothetically you’re across art and you’re across design. Now art is in the process of making art and the people who make the art are artists. For example, if you look at hip hop, then that is artists making art, you know that using their condition their memory. 

People writing poetry, now that is the production of art and community art. So if you go to work with indigenous artists, then you are not teaching them art; but they are producing art to maintain their tradition to be embedded in their community. And to continue their practice of visual making. So that’s one  discourse.

Then there’s reading Sennet, or sociology of art or doing visual ethnography or doing participatory practice – all this sits inside the community art space and that’s the Simon space. 

Simon is the chairperson of the associations of regional arts in Australia. Let’s say he’s the head of all the regional arts bodies and a huge amount of that work happens with indigenous people. So there is a discourse around what would be considered as memorializing or talking to tradition. It is about working with the hand as a meditative practice, gendered practice and so on. It’s that whole sociology or anthropology of tradition conservation art and so on. 

Historically in India, that domain is missing. And the reason it’s missing is that the poor remote, rural, were embedded into the project of Kapila Vatsyayan. So I would recommend that you look at the history of Craft in India. There’s people who’ve written about Kapila.

She was close to Nehru, the first prime minister and she was in charge of refugee resettlement in  Delhi. So essentially one way of thinking about the partition is not to think about the Hindu Muslim divide, but to think about it as the resettlement of Punjabis. 

There were a couple of different projects and her project was about the resettlement of these people and to provide them with livelihoods. so then there was a craft insertion in there. Now she’s what you would call a rich elite, Close to the powers that be. And hence she gets funding to work with the resettlement program and make decisions about the livelihoods of displaced Punjabi women, for example. So it’s a woman’s work kind of thing and she’s a woman and so there’s this contribution into the traditional discourse that you can make here.

So I’m just putting you into the discourse and this is really fantastic. Here you’ve got Kapila versus Simon and we’ll shortly arrive at that. 

But we’ve now left Simon and the notion of artisan and craft and so on, embedded inside the community and tradition. We’ve moved into, this narrative of displacement and the narrative for  craft in India is really, really important. Because Kapila Vatsayayan as the key architect of what we see today, the narrative doesn’t actually acknowledge the following:

One is that she gets given this but in phase two she gets given something else, which is that in each of the cities: Calcutta, Mumbai Lahore, Chennai – there are British Art schools. For e.g. in Delhi –  it’s the School of Art and Calcutta it’s the government art college, in Mumbai it’s JJ school of Art and so on. So the government art college in Calcutta  was where the seat of power was; there was an art college which was essentially an institute of art in industry.

And the institute of art in industry is a proselytizing organization, it’s an organization which helps improve the quality of craft and manufactured goods and things like that. and these were both established in 1950-54 is when the government art college was set up. 

But within 10-15 years the Tagore’s and co. came into the picture and said we don’t want this.  (It was set up as a design school and a design promotion agency, but in the old days, design was called ‘art in industry’. (As part of the South Kensington report)).

Tagore launched what’s called the ‘Bhadra lok assault’ on the government art college, saying this is not working – you’re teaching drafting, you’re teaching, industrial art and craft which is design; we want pure Art, we want drawing painting and things like that. So they destroyed the curriculum of the government art college and they brought in something new.

The rich elite of Calcutta came into light from the 1850s/1880s;  Tagore came into the picture the1900s onwards but by the 1920s he was a superstar and hobnobbed with the colonial administrators and the elite. And soon became the elite himself. He broke away from the government Art colleges they used to teach at earlier. He broke away to set up his own space (Shantiniketan); and there they mainly taught lithography. 

So that connects back with your printmaking. They were printmakers who broke away from the government art college and then they went and set up Shantiniketan that was significantly a printmaking school to which they then started adding furniture etc.  They’re different kinds of people with a different thought process based on the Bauhaus model. (Tagore travelled to Germany; he loved the Bauhaus). 

Coming back to the pre-independence times there was the government Art college and there was the institute of Art in industry and it had its own journal. In the post-independent spirit in the 1950s, Pupul Jaykar said, ‘yeh mujhe de do’.  So the government gave her all the art in industry promotion organization, their buildings, their library; everything was given to her and she converted them into the sort of a crafts council that became the Crafta Association. She was building that – but parallel to what she was building which was basically these urban women’s crafts; there was a rural crafts report that the planning commission in India had commissioned called the Karve Report –  that’s the gem you must read!

Because you have to realize that Kapila is not the gem; she’s basically muddling through bullshit, whereas the Karve report is a systematic study of Indian handicrafts and talks about the economic project of transformation of the handicrafts. 

The Karve report is soon submitted to the planning commission and the planning commission then tells the government to put it into the five-year plan.  And all the recommendations of the Karve reports start to get implemented; they set up something called the KVIC – Khadi and village industries commission. 

So now we have a ‘village industries’ (achar making, papad making) and there is also a thing called ‘cottage industry’ that should be set up so there’s the CCIC and there’s a separate organization. The government of India adopts the Karve report and all of it’s recommendations are implemented through funding and new organizations are set up. 

Now KVIC is achar making, papad making; CCIC is clothes and khadi. (Trivia: khadi gram udyog is one of the offshoots of KVIC; the original KVIC).  Now you might wonder what happened to Kapila. She was not getting any money, she’s on the board of these organisations but her own enterprise is getting completely marginalized. But in places like Delhi and amongst women elite, they knew how to survive. I don’t know how much you know about the crafts councils to the vestige of Kapila and Pupul who in turn were really close to Indira Gandhi. They didn’t come with any intellectual credentials, they were around through association. And they have an overwhelming influence on, let’s say, the Gita Narayanans of the world because they believed it’s the narrative of the Pupul and Kapila.

But for me when I’m looking at the literature and I do my literature review, (this is going back to the 90s) I said, these guys don’t make sense, they just hang out with designers they go to all the embassy cocktails they travel the world but they haven’t formulated any organization. 

They’re not committed to rural, they’re not committed to tradition, they’re mostly socialites in the cities. The narrative of design with Pupul/Kapila/ NID/Ashok Chatterjee (Ashok was somebody that was brought out of the tea industry box (metal box) in Calcutta) so there’s this social circle of people of Delhi and of North India who get together to build their own narrative of craft. Now into this narrative approach entered a woman called Jaya Jaitley.. 

Jaya comes to the fore because she talks about in the contemporary period, the professionalization of craft.. They will be trained, they will they will be craftspeople. Khadi and village industries commission basically said India has a dual strategy one is mass production with high tech one is Khadi and village industries. so India was visualized as having a two-track economy during the Nehruvian period,(1960s-1970s). But with Jaya Jaitley coming in in the 1980s, it now became very crass and commercial so craft then was just to be sold – it became a commodity.

If you look at the way they talk about it; you know Laila Tyabji, Jaya, they’re talking about export industry export potential; shops, retail, consumers, educating the consumer, reviving the sari,  more people need to wear Indian clothes; like the fab India thing – that’s their discourse. So suddenly you realize that the craftsperson is not relevant because It’s not a narrative. 

That’s when Judy Frater made her appearance in the 1980s. her narrative was that the craftsperson is not a second class citizen to a designer – The craftsperson should become a designer –  so we should do capacity development. 

Now you can see where Nicola enters the picture.  In the contemporary period that’s a very problematic way because what you’re saying is city people will go to villages and the villagers are second-class citizens and you will train them to become like city people. 

Which is essentially what the Judy Frater Kalaraksha project was. She said we don’t need designers. These guys will become superstar designers because we’ll teach them the language. 

In the contemporary period with hindsight, we refer to this whole project as the ‘paternalistic phase’. Where the local community is lesser than you. It’s a very city-focused, English language based, an international, westernized way of looking at stuff.  I think it’s the narrative that Nicole is talking about. 

What is known as the community development narrative –  so if you go to India, and if you work with People who take money from UNDP United Nations development program, or you take money from the government of India to implement a program. For example: you say we’ll go build wells or we’ll go and do a malaria program or we’ll go into a crafts program we’ll do income generation, we’ll hire designers from Delhi and ID graduates and they’ll go and do a good redesign program. This is an external people going to a village and asking the village people to change. Now that is an older way of looking at things. It’s problematic, it’s a behaviour change program. But there’s a lot of literature and strategies there – it’s a different discourse.

The discourse is an income generation discourse. It is that craft products are chunky; they’re not well designed. However if you redesign the craft products like dhokra brass wear or if you get the Sankheda furniture, or the Kutch embroidery; give them new designs, they’ll be able to compete with Levi’s or Allen Solly’s of the world and people will be attracted to adopt the ethnic. For example the Sandur kala kendra for the Lambani craft. That’s a project of redesign by it’s founder MahaLakshmi who basically provided the village women with new designs and used them as manual labour to actually build those designs. 

So in a sense, the commercialization or the industrialization of craft or the expansion of work opportunities in the craft sector – That is the goal there. It’s an economic agenda. The arts agenda, which is the community arts agenda, is a narrative of the soul. 

You might not attract more money but the focus is on the soul. So they’re just different texts. For the text of intervention you should read the author Ravi Mathai. He was the architect of the Jawaja project. The Leather crafts of Jawaja is a case study of how designer plus management graduate goes to a rural community and changes their produce and upskills them and industrializes their manufacture. 

But looking back on 40 years-45 years later, you realize that in that time that was the only way of thinking. Pre-liberalization in India, the only way you talked about craft was in economic terms. Livelihood terms. So they’re livelihood projects and they get funded by international agencies. If you want World Bank funding, then you have to talk in livelihood terms. If you want GTZ, Dutch or British funding; if you want ODS assistance then you have to talk the language that those guys are talking which is alleviation of poverty which was in turn a part of the Cold War discourse. Because where there is poverty, there’s communism. So the ‘garibi hatao’, the Punjab agricultural green revolution which was American funding to Help the poverty ridden state . They poured in money, they built the Bhakra dam, they did such things to keep the Russians at Bay. 

So now you’ve got two different paradigms; meta paradigms of discourse for your literature review. And you don’t have to choose one or the other but you have to navigate. At least for the literature you need to be able to portray and paint these two pictures. Because what is missing in the piece is the Simon Spain story. 

It is the piece before 1947 when crafts had a different purpose. There’s a hundred-year period from Crystal Palace to 1947 where craft was allowed to continue. Like Bidari work was just Bidari work. There was no desire for it to become an export industry or to become a livelihood for everyone. 

So that’s the sort of craft that the development organization said they wanted to break. Another example is  Kutch’s suf embroidery which is made in 50 different states in India. You go to Auroville, you will find suf embroidery. The Auroville crafts village people are competing against traditional Kutchi craft in this market of the cities. What was the need to take a craft from one place and plant it in another place? Why couldn’t you come up with something more authentic in that place?  This is the critique of the Kapilas and the Pupul Jaykars, Jaya J who basically just focused on livelihoods. 

So in terms of your question, where do you go ahead? For this, you need to do some background research. You need to go through Simon’s literature to understand the role of the Arts person. 

Now, Australia doesn’t have craftspeople. So when Nicole is using the word craft, she’s not talking about craftspeople in the Indian context. She’s talking about craft  and here  that means art; but art that does material production of utilitarian goods. Whereas in India, craft essentially means an alternative form of manufacture, so there is zero art or community art in the discourse in India. And that for me is your winning ticket. You can take the wisdom of Simon Spain to India. Because India does not have the soul of community art being practiced by village craftspeople. Because a village craftsperson is basically seen as the way you would see a machine, like a spinning loom or weaving loom. Whereas what you’re saying to them is, continue with your commercial livelihood work, but I also want to open out the soul of your practice because you’re doing stuff that is slow, you’re doing stuff that has a community aesthetic, you’re telling stories. And that’s the one that I want to explore. 

You’re not changing the world, you’re just doing a project with them. 

So if conflicted about the sort of direction your reading should take now –  my sort of response to that is to read two different kinds of things:  one is to read about a case study, which is the development of crafts in India (Karve report and the KApila V/ Pupul J) –  which eventually resulted in something called the handloom and handicrafts; for example  – HHIC, which is an internationally focused craft for export. Pupul J, as part of livelihood development was also exporting craft. You need to do a little bit of that research to understand the language for when you go and speak to Judy Frater.  When she’s speaking, you need to understand the nuances of what she’s saying.

In Australia on the other hand – when they use the word craft, they also use the word art – sometimes interchangeably – which shouldn’t really be the case –  or there should be a different word. Now because you’re based in Australia, you want to go deeper into this particular thought process – when craftspeople are considered artists. 

So that’s the paradigm here. But when craftspeople are considered factory workers, that is the paradigm in India. And I think for a period you can suspend what your project is about by saying that I’m going to go deeper into these two paradigms and read more and understand more and then when you do your practice, which is your intervention with the women in Kutch; It can just be material production or creative practice, but when you sit and talk to them, you can explain to them the nuances of being a craftsperson in Australia – you can tell them you’re not a machine, you’re a human being. For example if they were in Australia, how they would have gotten much more respect and that it’s not always about money and that they will be appreciated for who they are –  as identity based artists.

There are two pathways. Nicole’s pathway is a  commercial view  – that’s the way design looks at craftspeople. 

You need to go deeper into that view and you need to go deeper into the community arts view. And the reason you need to do both is because you are an artist. Primarily you’re a creative practitioner. And that’s sensibility that you have. 

You want to work with that sensibility and when you want to work with community people, they might be reluctant and then your job is to convince them by saying – just humour me, do a project with me! You don’t want them to change –  you want them to experience something with you. And that sensibility you will get from talking with Simon. 

 I used to be Simon’s supervisor so you’ve got some of that stuff in terms of what he’s reading or what he’s doing and how he was allowed to stay within the community practice  and i enabled him to develop a fortress so that he could be in the space that he’s comfortable in. Because the difference between art and community art is also like the difference between Nicole versus Simon. 

Art is a narrative discourse of a particular form of elitism; that happens in cities. Whereas community artists where there aren’t that many artists – so the ego is gone; the gallery is gone. Whereas in Art,  the gallery is central.  Art is also the commercial form of art which means that people are collecting your work, which means that you need to talk to talk to history.  But in Community Art, you don’t need to do any of that. 

When Craft is talked about in India, it is actually not craft –  it is village industry. When they use the word craft, they lie.  That’s why its’s important to  read the Karve report, to know how Kapila adopted the term craft; and renamed village industries as Craft.  And so what they’ve done is they have sucked the oxygen out of the term craft, so India really doesn’t have craft, it’s only a large village industry.

From how Sennet talks about craft in India, to craft started getting bastardized and  used as a term for village industries. What you have to then make a clear distinction is when an Indian text talks about craft, they mean village industry so which means that you are saying that craft exists as a more soulful activity. Whether the craft is in cooking or whether the craft is in doing embroidery, or whether the craft is in gardening.  When you talk about the craft of gardening you’re talking about – Not gardening as a commercial activity, but gardening as a soulful, fulfilling activity. And I think in Australia when people use the word craft, they use it in that sense,  for example the craft of lithography or of printmaking.  What you want is to then reclaim craft back into its original meaning. And to do that, you need to be able to read enough so that you are genuinely knowledgeable about how this term has to be reinvented in India. 

You will have two forms of practice – so you do your public practice and your personal practice. 

Every time you do printmaking you have to produce the artefact, which is the print; but you also have to produce a text that goes with it. You have to be able to talk about what printmaking is, or what it makes you feel, the soul of it, so that’s how you will develop your practice. 

The practice of the art production has a community dimension to it, so if you are going to do four projects – two of them can be your printmaking and two of them can be interventions in Kutch/ collaborations in Kutch. 

Read Simon’s thesis to understand more – the above two don’t have to connect. You are the connect –  the person who is doing both of them. 

By Soumitri Varadarajan

Soumitri lives in Melbourne, Australia - #probonodesign #codesign #sustainability #patientexperience #quantifiedself #mdg

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