It is a blessing for anyone working in the creative industry to be in India—which other country is as culturally vibrant, or as geographically and climatically diverse?

Despite industrialization and urbanization, we are primarily an agricultural country. An ecosystem has developed around the agrarian set-up of every region, including handicrafts. Crafts traditionally flourished under royal and aristocratic patronage, but the industrial revolution turned people towards mass-produced goods. The culture of patronage meant that these craftspersons never really learnt to market their products. The crafts started dying out.

Today there’s an emphasis on sustainable development, due to concerns about pollution and climate change. Our uninhibited use of resources poses a threat for the future, and we are trying to set new goals for achieving sustainability. We are also in the fourth stage of the industrial revolution, defined as “a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres". In such times, industrial skills become crucial, and many craftspersons who have quit their traditional livelihoods for unskilled jobs and manual labour stand to lose. Can we then look back at our creative culture industry for solutions?

Design plays a crucial role in reaching sustainable goals. Take, for instance, hand-spun Khadi, wood carving or metal and stone crafts. These are all made by hand, generate minimal carbon footprint and are conceptually beautiful in an age of mass-produced goods. With so much focus on sustainability, there’s now a great opportunity for us to promote such products. My idea is to revisit our cultural capital and use it to make a strong impact.

Social entrepreneurship can nurture the next generation—the children—of craftspersons, many of whom are moving away from their traditional occupations. Using Geographic Indication (GI tags are used to mark products made in a specific geographical location or origin) would be an effective way of identifying these individuals. I would like to start a design school in India where the only point of admission is that one must come from a family of craftspeople. Their educational qualifications or proficiency in English will have no bearing on their eligibility. It is important that we look past the qualifications of this community, and acknowledge that they know the material they work with better than us.

We will help them hone the skills that can enable them to become entrepreneurs. Craftspersons are often dependent on others for technological intervention, and one of the key areas of learning will be technology. For instance, how can they process leather better? Can they develop a new technology? We will also offer access to high-quality raw materials and tools, so that they are able to develop better designs and superior products. And obviously, we will also teach them English, a major tool for business and communication across the world.

One major input will be teaching them management—the business of crafts and design—so they can develop their skills into businesses and not have to turn to other means of income or depend on subsidies. If we can nurture five people, they can in turn help their entire cluster and move forward. Our crafts clusters today are devoted to supplying raw materials for export. We can empower them to become professionals and entrepreneurs who will work in the social sector.

In Uttar Pradesh, Moradabad is known for its brassware while Firozabad has a long tradition of glassware. Kannauj (also in UP) is a perfumery hub. These are potential clusters that can develop distinct brand identities. We have to preserve this heterogeneity of cultures, be it the local crafts of Bhuj or the North-East.

Our aim should be to create new knowledge built on our traditional base. When American designers Charles and Ray Eames were invited to India in 1958, they wrote about the lota in “The India Report" (which led to the formation of the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad). They wrote, “No one man designed the lota but many men over many generations." The country has a lot of such knowledge that passes on between generations. We dream of nurturing new designers rooted in our material culture who can take up the sustainable development challenge and take a position of global leadership.

As told to Sohini Dey.

Pradyumna Vyas is the director of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. He has a master’s in industrial design from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

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