As the local legend goes, a ‘Raffoogar’ (darner) named Alibaba lived in the valley of Kashmir. He was proficient in his job of stitching and mending torn clothes and spent his days doing countless stitches and bringing dead clothes to life. One day a fowl stepped on a white cloth lying around, drying on his porch. The imprints of fowl’s feet caught Alibaba’s attention and he wanted to preserve this true to nature print. He picked up a needle with a colored thread and stitched around the print, preserving it for lifetime. An all new technique of ornamenting the fabric, which was later known by the name of ‘Kashida kaam’ was thus invented.
There are millions of such stories about the origin of various forms of Indian handicrafts across the length and breadth of India. These stories and the intricate processes involved in the handicraft creation are passed on from generation to generation. Over years, as Indian handicrafts kept losing its charm and demand in the market, artisans took up alternative means to support their families. When the plight of Indian handicrafts and the artisans came to notice to government and industry, they started focusing on researching and documenting these arts and artisans’ history. But only researching and archiving about craft is not enough; sales and exposure to the market is the key to self-reliance for artists which is the only way to preserve this handicraft heritage of India.
A group of NID graduates, while researching for their academic project got to know the quality and demand of Indian handicrafts in the world. “The sheer number of lives it touches and the fact that this sector struggles even today & holds a minute share in the global market, looked like a big opportunity for us. An opportunity of not only pushing the application of our own technical and design education to its limits, but also being able to make a difference at a large scale. When a craft dies, not only do we lose the art objects but we also lose generations of faith and wisdom that went into the object. Today when we remit payments to an artisan, earlier struggling for recognition, the warmth we get in return is a feeling we never imagined the gravity of at the onset,” says Sumiran Pandya, one of the team members of this research, which has now taken the shape of a social enterprise called Gaatha.
Gaatha was originally created only for researching and documenting the rapid erosion of Indian craft clusters and heritage. It is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘a great story’ or ‘a legend’. In this case, they were concentrating on the legends of the craftsmen and their crafts. The sole purpose was to tell their stories, to create a database of the folklores, myths and the memoirs of the past that shape today’s social and cultural behavior towards handicrafts. But while researching, they learned from the artisans that the need was not to conduct research alone but to restore a sense of pride in the art and create commercial opportunities in the ecosystem for them.
After graduating, they started the venture in 2009 and have been incubated at the NDBI – National Design Business Incubator ever since then. They leverage existing documentation and their academic researcher network to mark out potential clusters for their field visits. Sometimes they obtain a local contact while often it’s a wild goose chase. During their visit, when they come across clusters rich in activity they document the stories and build the supply chain with the artisans.
Besides inadequate civic amenities such as water supply, power, banking etc, the main challenges artisans face are those of awareness and outreach. Due to lack of exposure and isolation, the sense of quality and processes has not evolved enough in some clusters to compete with industrial counterpart goods. Training is needed to bring such clusters at par with global market expectations. And even when artisans surpass market expectations and create splendid pieces of work, they don’t have any powerful showcasing tools at their disposal to share it with a wider audience who can pay its worth.
Often they have to provide elementary trainings such as coding, pricing, packaging, local shipping and basic banking to the artisans. Sumiran says, “We encourage artisans to pick up basic outreach skills needed in updating their online showcase, sometimes even as basic as clicking pictures of new products and sending them across. We also engage in co-creation projects where we try to forge industry – artisan partnerships by hosting co-creation sessions and figuring how artisans can add value to industries on a sustained basis for stable revenue streams.”
Their craft research has been in progress since Nov 2009 and they have about 3000 artisans and 35 NGOs hailing from clusters across Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Kashmir and Orissa. During their crafts research they have documented and published materials on 177 crafts. They have covered the art forms from pottery, weaving, metal work, carving to painting and musical instruments etc. The Crafts Wiki went live in 20120 and has spread handicrafts history and knowledge to about 1,46,000 online visitors with a current rate of about 500 daily visitors.
Their recent addition is the Crafts Retails pilot which went live this August for selling the artisans’ products online and has received more than 100 orders generating close to Rs 4 lakhs in revenue for Gaatha of which payouts worth 2.4 lakhs have been remitted to 76 artisan households already.
They work with 3 models of engaging with artisans. They create a Gaatha vendor login and provide back-end IT training to the vendor or the organization. Here the vendor is responsible for updating showcase, managing inventory, handling orders, packing and shipping out orders. In the second model they create a Gaatha vendor monitoring login where the vendor has to only monitor the movement of goods and the responsibility of managing the vendors showcase, inventory, orders, packing, shipping and payments is of Gaatha. In another model, they buy goods or design and co-create goods with the vendors and sell them under Gaatha’s own brand. All three models hold different margin ratios and cater to a different section of artisans depending upon their levels of literacy and pro-activeness.
Sumiran shares, “We go searching for the artisans who are far away from any mainstream conversation, meet them, understand their work and only then empanel them. Our engagement is much beyond mere commercial exchanges, we are also working towards civic development of the artisans living environment. Somehow our customers sense this relation we have with artisans and support it. This we believe is our greatest strength and differentiator. When we travel to the interiors of Indian states looking out for these dexterous pair of artisan hands, language often poses a big barrier. With 30 mainstream languages and hundreds of sub dialects, sourcing a language guide for each district is not feasible and becomes a big challenge.”
They are aiming to bring the lost respect and wealth back to these beautiful and aesthetically rich Indian handicraft clusters by marrying craft research with understanding of technology to build immersive online experiences. Sumiran adds, “Amidst growing online retail, Gaatha intends to educate the visitor about the heritage behind the crafts and present an opportunity to not only learn about India’s glorious heritage but also contribute towards conserving it.”
In the long run, they envision Gaatha as a people powered platform, where the masses are the curators of their continually evolving heritage stories with some mild moderation and control thrown in. Sumiran shares that they are still closely observing the recent retail pilot numbers and are unsure of its impact on revenues but they are sure of the power of storytelling in gathering patrons to lost forms of craft.
Speaking of the plans for the future, Sumiran shares, “We have a road-map for scaling the research and supply chain development to a pan India level. A time frame of about 3.2 years is estimated to cover over 3000 crafts of interest in about 750 clusters across India. ‘Covering a craft’ here implies documentation, training, supply chain building and cluster empowerment activities. Post pan-India coverage we would like to take the ‘Gaatha’ concept global. A first step of this expansion would be to look at the neighboring SAARC Nations.”