Craft activists suggest it’s time for private organisations to join hands and create a new and dynamic platform, with weavers and artisans as equal stakeholders
Just days before the National Handloom Day on 7 August , the central government abolished the handicrafts and handloom boards. The resolution to scrap the two advisory bodies was passed on 27 July 2020 by the Office of the Development Commissioner of Handlooms and was made in “consonance with the Government of India vision of 'Minimum Government and Maximum Governance' and leaner government machinery and the need for systematic rationalisation of government bodies."
The roots of both the bodies, meant for the overall development of the craft sector, lie in the efforts of stalwart craft revivalists—while the handicrafts board was first established in 1952 by Pupul Jayakar and chaired by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, the handloom board was formed in 1992 and comprised representatives from the sector, besides members of the central and state governments. Over the years, this board was reconstituted several times.
The scrapping of the two bodies has elicited mixed reactions from within the crafts sector. In a Facebook post, Laila Tyabji, founder of Dastkar, a Delhi-based not-for-profit working towards the revival of traditional crafts in India, write: “All these years on, it (AIHB) remained the one official forum, however watered down, where the voices and views of weavers and craftspeople could be expressed directly." She further added that it was the one place where representatives of the sector were present in considerable numbers, and were actually empowered to advise the government in policy and sectoral spending. “The spaces where people themselves can interact directly with the government, or be part of their own governance, are certainly becoming leaner and increasingly few in number. It is worrying," added Tyabji.
However, as the news of this development came to the fore, many people even wondered whether the two boards had done anything of significance in the recent past. In fact Jaya Jaitly, founder and president of the Dastakari Haat Samiti, feels glad that the All India Handloom Board has been abolished. “It was made gradually useless since the beginning of the 1990s," she states. “I have been personally associated with this exercise in futility since then." Instead of reinventing a “dead object", Jaitly suggests creating something new, effective and dynamic in tune with the idea of ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’, “with inputs from truly experienced and knowledgeable persons rather than using it for patronage of favourites."
In fact, the popular opinion seems to be that the government should be kept out of bodies meant for the crafts sector, “unless there are specific individuals, who are passionate about the role that handlooms in India will play in the future in the country," suggests textile designer and curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul. “There needs to be a good relationship between the private sector and the government, but these institutions have stopped being relevant."
Perhaps it is time for the sector to take matters in its own hands, with private organisations collaborating on matters of key importance such as policy. “The space for people like us who are expected to speak on behalf of the weavers is long gone. They need to have a voice, even in reports like these," says Kaul. Instead of a top-down approach of imposing diktats on the weavers and artisans, it’s time for them to be equal stakeholders in plans for their progress and development. “Newer formats where they can be heard need to be created. The designer-weaver communities need to come together to find their own mechanisms and feed into new networks, which then become powerful enough to influence government policies," he adds.