India is one of the important suppliers of handicrafts to the world market. This industry provides employment to over six million artisans in rural and semi urban areas and generates substantial foreign exchange for the country, creating particular masterpieces made of metal, wood carvings, hand printed textiles, leather, lacquer, marble etc.; a wide range of crafts produced in more than 40 different areas around India. However, it remains largely fragmented and unorganized; suffering from lack of education, low capital, and poor exposure to new technologies.
In a bid to preserve traditional handicraft practices from extinction, keep its rich history alive and empower local rural communities, Punarnawa Crafts is creating livelihood chains for artisans via skill & design development trainings. Currently, it is engaged in six districts in Odisha in both textiles and non-textiles crafts and more than eight crafts, reaching more than 100 artisans.
Punarnawa is a Sanskrit word meaning “which renews itself every moment”. It brings women’s empowerment by facilitating higher education and creates a livelihood parallel with the peasant occupation of the artisans’ majority. “We are trying to create a synergy between local practices and sustaining handicrafts traditions, but with a vision of making it global, where it can contribute and benefit to the Indian economy and to every people involved in this mission”, says Subrata Pandey, who co-founded Punarnawa Crafts along with Shaswat Mohanty.
Subrata graduated from the Indian Institute of Crafts & Design in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and was later recognized with the 13th Kanagawa painting award by UNESCO. She gained experience by working with crafts clusters in Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, and Rajasthan and is currently a fellow from Young India Fellowship, in Delhi. “During school I realized I wanted to be more than an artist and somebody who could solve problems with a creative approach. Design being the solutions to these problems was my answer; I knew what I wanted to do and thus Punarnawa happened”.
Local impact for global change
The grassroots organization’s solution combines rigorous skill, design and agri-based development trainings plus marketing assistance – in order to help artisans establish themselves as registered producer groups called Self Help Groups (SHG); infrastructure & logistics development to scale up; development of market penetration through B2B and B2C fair trade concept; research incubation cells and raw material banks.
So far, their artisans are making earnings ranging from Rs 1,500 to 15,000 per month depending on the production capacity and order. “Our venture is also supporting the education fees for some of the young girls who want to study further. Now, more and more families are allowing their women and girls to work with us as they are assured of dignity and income”, informs Subrata. According to her, the Government of Odisha is also encouraging design-skill development programs across the state after seeing the impact of Punarnawa Crafts.
On the other hand, the handicrafts sector is still undergoing prejudice and resistance amongst artisans against newer practices as well as consumers in general. “Handicraft has become a showpiece in our daily life, but unless we make it a daily use item this sector will find it very hard capture market space. People fail to understand that any handicraft product that they hold is actually made by softer palms, not iron wheels. It takes both time and skill for any handicraft to reach its final marketable point”, says Subrata.
The Young Indian Fellowship came in an auspicious moment, as none of the team members had business backgrounds. It took them one year to create the crafts clusters and another year to build the basic infrastructure. Now, the future looks bright: Punarnawa has been nominated for the “All India Achievers Foundation” and it is not behind the major buyers for handicrafts – Germany, U.S.A., U.K. and Saudi Arabia. Subrata and her team have clients from Canada and Dubai, have tied-up with e-shops like Aniika, Novica and Babycart, are selling through retail stores in the Tribal route of Mumbai and will have their products showcased at the Frakfurt fair in Germany next year. They also plan to increase their global penetration through Punarnawa’s own e-commerce shop, which will be launched this year.
The entire range of Punarnawa’s products goes through a proper research and development, which makes it sustainable and useful, keeping the ethnicity intact. They developed the concept of “Designgineering” (Design + Engineering) to explain the balance between concept & creativity and usability, with each product carrying a hang tag specifying the name and picture of the artisan. “Design, as widely known as a powerful soft skill, is a concept that has to be fresh and keep on changing, not only on the surface but on the physical aspect of the product too. This idea has helped me immensely in coming up with a plethora of colorful utility product ranges”, she says.Subrata says that, for her, the path is always more pleasurable than the destination and she is fearless to face life’s uncertainties. “If I take the ‘kite’ example, I would say no sane mind would come out to fly their kite on a rainy day. It requires some foresight and practicality to determine when to venture out. And if the market scenario looks prominent there shouldn’t be any looking back. I think a good conscience with a focused mind can never be a failure. At times it might get little gloomy but the light will never be off for such determined entrepreneurs”.