!-- Start Alexa Certify Javascript --> !-- Start Alexa Certify Javascript --> !-- Start Alexa Certify Javascript --> COVER STORY: Crafting a Revival of Indian Artisans: Erasing the Intermediaries | SILICONEER | OCTOBER 2013

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Crafting a Revival of Indian Artisans: Erasing the Intermediaries

Since ancient times, artisans and craftsmen have been the basis of India’s rural economy, cultural diversity, art, religion, fashion and a large export, that flooded the markets of the Middle Eastern and Western worlds. According to a recent study conducted by United Nations, in the last three decades the number of artisans dwindled to a third indicating a continuous downward slide of these invaluable micro-cultures. Hence, when it comes to strategies and processes for revival and revitalization of these cultures and art forms, direct patronization and the bridging of gap between consumers and buyers, and rural market or artisans, proves significant and primary to the elimination of non-productive and parasitic class of middlemen or intermediaries. Achieving this escalates the income of artisans by making their goods available to a larger and more-affluent worldwide audience, and from the customers’ perspective, it means more availability of exotic, previously inaccessible goods, at more affordable prices, writes Priyanka Bhardwaj.

(Above): Artisans in India.

Over 12 million artisans (per unofficial estimates, official figures peg it to roughly seven hundred thousand) have been the practitioners and transmitters of beautiful, luxurious and exotic crafts and techniques – handloom, textile, hand embroidery, tie and dye, printing, etc – through innumerable, traditional individual and small scale initiatives that have thrived out of villages and informal, urban work settings.

Dasra, a strategic philanthropic organization which identifies causes for meaningful investment, reports that the country contributes just about 2 percent to the $400 billion worth of global handicrafts market, and its handicraft and handloom sectors, amounting to about $4.48 billion, contributes just about $1.85 billion to its export earnings that totals to $300 billion.

Typically artisans provide their wares to local markets, city outlets, private agents, wholesalers, or retail traders and exporters, and more than 95 percent of artisans’ production is promoted by private involvement which include traditional intermediaries or variously put, the traders and exporters who also act as financers and thus are able to exploit poor artisans who do not have much knowledge about the value of their products and much less access to market linkages.

Backed by the Axis Bank Foundation, Delhi-based IndianArtisansOnline.com is one link that endeavors to get the two ends together and has been providing a one-stop shop for about five years. The forum strives to sell the artisan story via the web and bring the discerning consumer to the very locales where traditional skills are executed. It has enlisted on its Website, names of 250 artisans, their contact details, craft processes and product collections, and talks of other services for buyers, such as options for commissioning a customized piece of work.

The IAO team reveals that they had to overcome the initial hurdle to collate the database of artisans scattered in remote locations and connect with them to showcase their exquisite, natural forms of craftsmanship.

Forums similar in business offer share in profits to the artisans.

Manoj Gupta, founder of Craftsvilla, prefers the web rather than the supply chain infrastructure. He says, “Our site exhibits wares of more than 4,000 sellers enlisted with their wares on the site and provides an opportunity to buyers to discover artisans on a single platform by using technology. The best strategy is to connect rural artisans directly with buyers.”

The country’s largest private retail project, Fabindia, an entrepreneurial brainchild of an American, John Bissell, has successfully linked 80,000 crafts-based rural producers, also shareholders in the firm, to urban markets in the past five decades. Its socially conscious, inclusive model of capitalism has proved viable and profitable and has given a blue print for scaleable market-based ventures.

William Bissell says, “On one hand the company creates lasting relationships with artisans with incentives of regular work, on time sustainable payments, and treatment at par with respectable organizations. On the other hand, buyers get access to crafts-based contemporary, eco-friendly, aesthetically designed and affordable products.”

He adds, “Success is generally defined by measurable outcomes, financial profit and material impact, and squeezing every opportunity as hard as possible, to maximize profits. But even in my experience of running one of most successful businesses in retail space, the central theme is to make producers, stakeholders and larger beneficiaries of wealth creation processes.”

These enterprises have to be seen as distinct from high-end fashion houses being led by fashion designers like Ritu Kumar, Ritu Beri and Tarun Tahiliani, who may have brought international acclaim to the “Made in India” brand in modern times but have focused on private commercial gains by outsourcing designing and implementation of high-end products to the master craftsmen who in turn gets the work done from scratch from other artisans.

These ventures have brought in employment to many artisans but have not been enough to push them out of their oblivious alcoves and they remain in the periphery of profit spaces dominated by designers, fashion houses and an assortment of middlemen.

(Above): Art from India.

Of late, there are some grassroots designers like Pankaj Tripathi who have set out to achieve distinct focus on the skilled workers and incorporate them as co-sharers of their profit-based entities.

His Infinity Designs imparts specialized crystal designing work done on home furnishings, garments, paintings, furniture, and a variety of objects, to workers, then supplies to global and national brands like GAP, Zara, Guess International, Casa Paradox, and even globally renowned fashion designers like Suneet Verma, Ritu Beri and Malini Ramani, and shares the proceeds of the profit with workers along with payment of a fixed salary.

Such social business models impart market opportunities, quality control, production management, unimpeded supply chains, storage, retail and pre-production equipment, financing and training inputs.

Tripathi says, “Ours is a manual labor of love and our designs have successfully substituted high-end design products that use expensive Swarovski crystals but without compromising on the bling factor. Moreover with our competitive prices and top quality, the stream of buyers has only swelled.”

While Tripathi’s maybe a small but scaleable social enterprise targeting social impact and financial gains, Rangsutra and Industree are big entrants in this arena who enjoy larger capabilities to raise capital from artisans in the form of shares, venture capital funds, corporates and investors such as Villgro, Avishkaar and Grassroots Business Fund.

Industree Crafts follows a hybrid model of non-profit and for-profit organizations as well as government initiatives, and by end of this fiscal year, expects Rs. 0.2 billion worth of revenue.

Another follower of the hybrid model is Mother Earth and founder Neelam Chibber philosophizes, “There is intellectual property out there, and companies need to give some ownership of the brand to the ultimate producer and, at the same time, make money.”

Other instruments lending credit provisions to non-profits are private foundations like Aid to Artisans and Sir Dorab Tata Trust, and global development communities like the United Nations Agency called UNESCO and World Bank.

UNESCO’s special platform provides for sharing of best practices, research and documentation, to strengthen creative and cultural industries via plans like the Jodhpur Symposium.

Creative head of Spider Design, Chandrashekhar Bheda has a different take, “Middlemen do have a role to play in the supply chain. Only issue is when undue proportion of profit is taken by them. Removal of middlemen means the role has to be played by weaver himself, or master weavers, or NGO, or governmental agency. This service is most needed when the weaver is unwilling or unable to reach out to the market on his own and needs professional support. Irrespective of presence of middlemen what is more important is ensuring at least 250/300 days of work for weavers.”

He gives the example of weavers making Chanderi Sarees at Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh who are given respectable wages, loans, raw materials and design inputs regularly for 300 days a year by their seths or businessmen who market the product.

“Nurturing of entrepreneurial ability of craftspeople and supporting dialog between artisans and designers for regular product development and diversification of skills within established traditional parameters and contemporary needs of new generation buyers,” are some of Bheda’s suggestions.

While connoisseurs may be aware of the utilitarian value of Indian fabrics in products of brands like Gucci, Burberry and Christian Louboutin, the general attitude of non-acknowledgement by the brands do not make for good advertisements.

For this to happen, the Indian government and private initiatives will need to adopt a concerted and cohesive policy to encourage inflow of investments to empower the extraordinarily skilled artisans, increase direct access initiatives like ‘Dilli Haat’ and strengthen more decentralized production models that would eventually add worth to lives and livelihoods of this highly marginalized section.

Priyanka Bhardwaj is a reporter with Siliconeer. She is based in New Delhi.


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