Home / Opinion / Online-views /  India’s handicrafts are going upscale, to survive and thrive

The Kamala store opened on a strip near Connaught Place two years ago with wide-open spaces and displays explaining the history of individual crafts—a sharp contrast to the jumbled, disorganized piles of goods at government emporiums nearby.

Today, the Rajiv Gandhi Handicrafts Bhawan, as the strip where Kamala has its store is called, boasts of a handful of other boutiques selling traditional textiles and stone and wood carvings with a modern twist: They are pre-selected for wealthy shoppers who don’t want to dig through stalls and push through crowds at Dilli Haat and other marketplaces.

To survive and succeed in India’s competitive organized retail market and to meet the sophisticated demands of both the export and domestic market, non-profit firms and manufacturers are better organizing their operations and vouching for the quality of their goods. Besides growing business and tapping new markets, they say the strategy can also make more money for artisans.

Crafting success: The Kamala store near Connaught Place has wide-open spaces and displays explaining the history of individual crafts.

India currently accounts for about 2% of that total, but wants to double its share, according to the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts.

India’s handicrafts exports grew 16% to Rs17,288 crore in year ended March 31, 2007 compared with Rs14,526 crore in the year earlier period, according to the council.

“A huge boom has taken place in front of my eyes over the past five or 10 years. One of the big reasons for that was Dilli Haat, which gave artisans a place to sell and hear directly what customers want." says Jaya Jaitly, president of DastKari Haat Samiti, an NGO that represents artisans, some of whom supply the new boutiques. Dilli Haat, a food and crafts bazaar in South Delhi, was founded more than a decade ago and allows artisans to sell products from stalls.

“The best word I can think of for Dilli Haat is democratic," says Jaitly. “Even people who don’t have too much money can find something. But these higher end shops now give people who have a lot of money to spend a place to go where they don’t have to search to find what they want because the work has been done for them."

Many of the products at Kamala—including the Rs3,100 Bhikshpatras, thin-walled vessels carved from the wood of a tree that only grows in Rajasthan and traditionally used by Jain monks to carry food—carry a “seal of excellence" conferred by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization,. That means they meet strict criteria for craftsmanship and quality, adequate pay for the artisan and an environmental-friendly manufacturing process. “Some of the artisans felt like their skills no longer had any relevance and were giving it up and taking work as day labourers and construction workers," says Delhi-based designer and architect Ritu Varuni, who works with artisans around the country to produce furniture, lamps and other goods. “We needed to bring a new life to these crafts so they didn’t die out and we can do that by making the designs modern and appealing."

At Kamala, which often operates on consignment, the artisan who made an item gets the full sale price minus a mark-up of 10% to 25% to cover the cost of operating the boutique. The 15,000 female artisans who produce STFC’s goods own 80% of the company, which has quadrupled its revenues over the past two years and expects to become profitable on Rs4 crore in sales this year.

In the absence of such authenticity seals, some businesses have formalized their supply and distribution networks. STFC, the for-profit arm of female trade union Self Employed Women’s Association, has centralized its distribution for Hansiba goods near Ahmedabad and strictly checks that all merchandise meets benchmarks, such as clothing sizes that match tags.

However, the League of Artisans, which concentrates on marketing home accents, handmade paper goods and silk scarves found supply-chain problems in India were dampening its expansion plans. The league markets on behaf of about a dozen NGOs at boutiques in New York City and at major US retail chains such as book and music giant Barnes and Noble.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us in terms of organizing our supply chain around really good designs, a set delivery schedule, things like that," said New York-based executive director Sangeeta Chowdhry. “For us, our brand is important because it communicates that everything meets a certain aesthetic and standard since we are bringing the work of multiple crafts groups and selling them under a single name."

At Kamala, products must also meet strict standards. “Things like design and finish never used to be important, but today they are essential. People demand refinement," says Manjuri Nirula, vice president of the Crafts Council of India, who also coordinates of Unesco’s seal of excellence programme for South Asia.

Going forward, the council wants to see the Kamala brand in every major city in India. A Hyderabad store is likely to join the Delhi flagship, which currently reports about Rs700,000 in sales a month and growing. The council also plans to enter the export game soon as well, according to Nirula, just returned from an international crafts show in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She plans to take the council’s wares to another in Paris soon.

The phenomenon of branding traditional goods and adapting them for the modern market makes sense and can be successful, both for business and for culture, says Faith Singh, the retired founder of Anokhi. The Jaipur-based company, which was a pioneer in crafts preservation more than three decades ago, still sells textiles and clothing based on traditional Rajasthani block prints and enjoys a cult status abroad.

“A lot of India’s crafts are in danger and that’s frightening," she said. “Don’t lose or neglect what you have here just because Tommy Hilfiger and Armani are coming in. It might very difficult replace it once it’s gone."

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