It is official. The National Handicrafts and Handloom Museum of New Delhi, known as the Crafts Museum, will become a subset of a new Hastkala Academy.

The announcement has pushed to the fore a debate on whether these institutions should be part of the same set-up, and how they should be run. Some think the Crafts Museum needs support and strategic uplift, others argue that bringing an academy to the same premises is just about a new government wanting its own way. The Union textiles ministry, whose department of handicrafts supervises the museum, believes the move will be good for the crafts industry.

The Crafts Museum was set up over a few decades, starting from the 1950s, by the late freedom fighter and conservationist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay as an institution for the preservation of traditional arts and crafts. Its mandate included linking crafts with commerce, rather than mere display.

The museum, which contains the craft history of more than a hundred years, currently has around 33,000 objects—paintings, woven and embroidered textiles, stone and wood carvings, etc. The lovely low-lying building, a part of New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan complex, has been designed by well-known architect Charles Correa and references traditional Indian architecture. It has never, however, been considered a powerful research institution or even a thriving place for crafts and commerce. Not even under its former director, Jyotindra Jain, whose 17-year tenure saw the crafts sector beginning to reap benefits through the exhibition and display of live crafts.

After Jain, the museum was headless till 2010. It is only in the last few years, under its chairman Ruchira Ghose, that it began to establish some connect with the public.

The Café Lota, much awarded for its design and cuisine, came up next to the now flourishing museum store, also named Lota, which reported unprecedented revenue last month—taking just the figures for one month, February, up from a little over 11 lakh in 2011 to nearly 39 lakh this year. Other changes—like the refurbished dormitories for craftspersons-in-residence, called Shilpa Kuteer, the stronger branding and presentation of galleries, crafts demonstration programmes, and higher wage compensation for visiting craftsmen, up from 80 per day in 2010 to 300 per day in 2014—began to etch the outlines of a new story. Most tellingly, perhaps, visitor numbers have increased manifold since 2010, crossing the 300,000 mark just for the month of December last year.

This story, it is feared, may now stand punctuated.

In his budget speech in 2014, the Union finance minister announced that a Hastkala Academy would be set up at an estimated cost of 100 crore— 30 crore was allocated by the government, the rest was to be mobilized from the private sector.

“What concerns me is that in the rush to impose a new mandate, the earlier one to rescue and revitalize the museum—involving the repair of the severely degraded buildings—will be abandoned," says Ghose, whose tenure ends next month. “We worked hard to get the funds and are now halfway through the works and the budget," she adds, visibly disappointed with the turn of events.

This is not the first time Ghose has found the situation dismaying. An economist who trained and taught at Cambridge, UK, she was first brought to the Crafts Museum as a professional consultant in 2008. That stint lasted just under six months; Ghose resigned, citing bureaucratic interference and absence of financial freedom. But she returned as its “chairman" in 2010. Even so, she says, “it took a year and a half to get the financial powers that should have been given to me on appointment".

A folk performance at the museum premises.

“I was not part of any discussion and have not seen a concrete proposal," she says. “I discovered by chance when people from the department of handicrafts started arriving, unannounced, at the Crafts Museum to measure up spaces for classrooms for the Hastkala Academy."

Despite the overtones of a subdued if bristly war, it is important to state that the Hastkala Academy, proposed by culture and crafts expert and politician Jaya Jaitly, the founding president of Dastkari Haat Samiti, is not the villain of the piece. Jaitly says there is a lot of confusion in the perception of this issue.

“I had proposed an academy on the lines of the Sangeet Natak Akademi so that cultural traditions that give birth to crafts are nurtured and supported," she says. “If crafts products can be marketed with the semblance of their roots, religious or ritualistic stories intact, there will be more value for them and more respect for those who create them.

“Such an academy should ideally be run without sarkari (government) patronage, fuelled instead by a vibrant public-partnership model. It would also award crafts practitioners by actually exploring their body of work over the years. Currently, our national awards are given for products and not for people who create them, without diligent investigation of who did what," adds Jaitley.

Besides resurrecting dying crafts, commissioning skills, academic publications, research, films and exhibitions, the academy aims to support best practices in arts and crafts.

It’s not yet clear when exactly it will be launched.

“Nothing will be closed down," says S.K. Panda, secretary, textiles. “That’s wrong information. We cannot have two bodies pursuing the same thing after all and the availability of land at the Crafts Museum, in fact, will be put to better and bigger use." Panda says the ministry is seriously pursuing the proposal to try and mobilize the 70 crore in funds for the academy. “I have already written to about 50-odd corporates; a couple have responded but I am still to receive a concrete proposal," he says.

While Panda emphasizes that the voice of the ministry should be heard on this and “not that of any individual", there is definite disquiet among all those involved. Especially as it is now known that the secretary, expenditure, in the Union finance ministry has proposed that instead of following a brand new model, the academy should replicate that of the National Museum, where an educational institute (planned to be upgraded to a deemed university in future) is a part of the museum.

“But the National Museum Institute was added later to the National Museum; the latter wasn’t absorbed by the institute," Ghose says. “Even as a separate entity, the experiment has not worked. Plans are to move the National Museum Institute out of the National Museum."

Jaitly too has her reservations. “I think the bureaucracy is getting into something they don’t understand. The National Museum Institute is a very small office which arranges courses for students to learn about certain aspects of conservation and art. For the Hastkala Academy, we should not begin with grandiose plans of a deemed university but instead figure out how to integrate it with the Crafts Museum to create a bigger and interactive space," she says.

Crafts experts like Ashoke Chatterjee, a former president of the Crafts Council of India, too see no logic in the move. “I haven’t seen the papers to comment on institutional identities but these two are not duplicate institutes. One is a museum, the other an advocacy and promotional body," says Chatterjee, pointing out that the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), for instance, is not a part of the Lalit Kala Akademi.

“In principle, I believe that the Crafts Museum, one of the most important museums in Delhi, is on a trajectory that should be supported. Nothing should be done to dilute the work that has been done by Jain and Ghose," he adds.

Ghose and Jaitly believe that the museum should be given autonomy and be run by crafts practitioners. “It cannot become one more bureaucratic institute formulated by people who have no lifetime experience in this sector," says Jaitly.

Ghose agrees. “A museum cannot be run efficiently as a subordinate office of a ministry. For it to become an institution of excellence, it must be run with a vision, a long-term plan, and not be susceptible to government interference. Autonomy is of the essence," she says.

India’s crafts industry provides a livelihood to millions and is a huge political constituency, so it may be time to invite experts in the field to shape the present and future of the institutions. At the moment, there are complaints of files slowly stumbling through various offices, funds dangling, senior crafts professionals having to report to government officials who may not know as much about the sector.

There is a worthy list of crafts experts in India to choose from. Getting an able and accountable head may also be the only way to attract a new generation of crafts activists, rather than allowing the label of “sunset industry" that dogs Indian crafts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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