Working on ground with Indian craftsmen across pincodes that are dotted through the length and breadth of the country, Jaya Jaitly, Founder, Dastkari Haat Samiti, has witnessed many a silent revolution. When she was on the path of building up her larger role now, she was working as a Design and Marketing Consultant to the Gujarat State Handloom Development Corporation. “As a drought relief measure, we decided to buy old embroidery work from the women in the drought-affected villages in Kutch and also offered to give them new work. During those testing times of despair and drought, the only other option available for these families in Kutch was to break stones on the roadside in harsh sunlight. We started work with just two households in one village and today that spans more than 500 villages. The drought may have resulted in dried up fodder and affected the cattle, but the craft is something that stayed,” Jaya tells about one of the many such projects she undertook. Her eyes light up as she continues to elaborate about her experience, “As a result of this initiative, the womenfolk have moved from the fringes and have become mainstream wage earners of the society. They have reached a stage where they maintain their own bank accounts. They are even learning to read and write, and are proud of the fact that electricity has reached the villages in Kutch and that they get electricity bills. But more than that, they now have the ability to pay and that is a matter of prestige.” Jaya attributes this economic success to the fact that a marketplace, hitherto inexistent, was created for the embroidery work of these women of Kutch. Given the work directly to the women, and not the men, was a brilliant initiative that harnessed the creative potential of these women and empowered them in the true sense of the word.
Having done as much, Jaya feels, “We should not impose the western ideas of women empowerment on our people.” She shares, “As long as women have their say and respect, they can continue in their traditional roles, like covering their heads and other such practicalities of a patriarchal society. Stepping out of their homes to avail medical facilities, visit the hospital or educational centres to learn how to read and write is a big leap in their lives.” Jaya would know as she is now working with the third generation of families of karigars, who are equally proud of their work.
The love for crafts comes naturally to her. She spent a considerable part of her childhood in Japan, where she developed a natural instinct and love for aesthetics. Speaking of the trigger point of this larger-than-life movement that she is helming now, Jaya tells “I was in Kashmir after my marriage in 1965. It was there that I realised there were so many skilled craftsmen rotting away in the back gullys waiting for tourists and customers to pick their wares. Also, they were not getting the kind of attention or markets that they deserved and were stuck in a kind of time warp. I came from a socially conscious family background and crafts were a perfect combination of socio-political-public activist kind of interests that are dear to me. Being part of the socialist movement, I feel empowering the backward class is more important than demanding reservation. Status doesn’t give them anything. One has to give them a market place to succeed. When I started reading about Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (proponent of art in independent India) and Gandhi on his love for Khadi, I felt that besides fulfilling a political cause I was helping raise the socio-economic status of the craftsmen by using my own natural instinct and love for aesthetic craft.” And turning her socio-economic stance into a stellar of an example, she set up the Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national association for Indian crafts, in 1986. The samiti has been instrumental in the revival of crafts in India. “The crafts that we’ve been working on for the past 30–35 years would have otherwise died out. Khurja pottery is a case in point. It was on a decline when we started to work with the potters. We gave them a market, which in turn gave them much-needed exposure. And now Khurja pottery is flourishing. Through this newly created market, exporters approached them with better colours and concepts, which enhanced the visual element of the craft and gave it an international appeal,” she tells.
Over the years, Jaya with her varied experience has been working towards giving design inputs to contemporise the craftsmen’s work. She also encourages them to break certain boundaries. For the recent edition of the Akshara project, she brought Indian calligraphy to the fore by using Indian regional scripts as a design element into crafts. From Bengali alphabets done in terracotta to a tota (parrot) carrying the Odiya script in its beak, she has given them a new voice to communicate with. Calligraphy was never seen as craft by these karigars. Resultantly, the karigars could shed their inhibitions of their inability to communicate in English and exude pride for their respective local languages. It encourages them to think for themselves and new pathways of work have been found by making them experiment in their own language and comfort zone. “In fact, for the Akshara show, an artist wrote the entire hanuman chalisa on fine silk calligraphy scrolls, of which, he sold 15–20 pieces for about INR 25 lakh. He was able to achieve this feat as he was a phad artist and had a history of doing the same work on 36-feet-long canvas. By modifying his art and compressing it into a small length, he was able to create something new in tune with market demands, but absolutely within his own comfort zone,” Jaya proudly narrates.
Needless to say, Jaya relentlessly works for the welfare of the karigars and helps them keep in tune with the ways of the international market. She shares, “Through the samiti we offer skill exchange programmes with international craftsmen. For example, we worked on a mandate to train Egyptian artists so they could in turn train 45 villages when they return home, thus proliferating their newly honed skills. In most skill exchange programs, we also try to learn the techniques, ideas, best skills and practices of the other country while teaching them ours. We also advise them on creating tourist-friendly products. Learning from each other, we look for opportunities to integrate their craft with ours and also create something new, for the benefit in the wider market.” Jaya talks about a fair that they will be organising in January at Dilli Haat, (A place conceptualised by the lady herself), “where craftsmen from Myanmar, who are excellent with their baans, lacquer, and paper umbrellas, will be teamed up with our local craftsmen and we hope to create an exciting range of products.” The proof of success of providing a direct marketplace to the karigars is evident from the fact that the samiti sustains itself and its activities through the karigars. Jaya enthusiastically reveals that, “The average sales are about INR 10 crore at our fairs. The craftsmen do so well that they give 10% back to the samiti and that helps the samiti pay its staff salaries, bonuses, expenses at fairs like generator, electricity, and decoration, etc., along with maintenance expenses of the karigars. With this money we also provide them linkages, helping them out in conceptualising design, paying them to travel to Delhi and train them as required.”
On an invite from the India China Economic and Cultural Council, the samiti is now taking the Akshara show to China along with 25 craftsmen. “It is a matter of pride to display 21 craft skills and 14 out of 21 national languages. The other day I got a call from one of the young, quirky Madhubani painters from a village, asking me excitedly, main yahan gaon mein sabko batadoon ki main China jaraha hoon? Interestingly, the craftsmen are paying for their own fare, though part of it is refunded. That is the kind of pride and excitement people are experiencing with the recognition that comes with the craft,” tells Jaya, gleamingly. For, she is an artist herself who is staging this market, opening avenues and making things happen behind the scenes for these karigars, the original craftsmen of India.
Jaya is often seen clad in a handloom Sari with her signature large bindi and it isn’t easy to guess that behind a calm countenance is a person who is workaholic at heart. Her devotion to the arts and crafts scene of India comes alive when she speaks about her latest project, the setting up of Hastkala Academy; a research and documentation mother body for which the previous and the current government have both agreed to work upon. She shares, “In last year’s budget, INR 30 crore has been allocated for this academy. We have missed the cultural underpinning of each craft, which gives a value to the story and that is what we want to document through the academy. We want to put together the usage and importance of certain colours in certain crafts. There are so many facets to our crafts. For example, we want to highlight why certain colours are avoided. We want to spread awareness on why a craft is produced only during certain months in the year. There is a culture associated with each craft and the work is symbolic of that culture and its traditions.” She elaborates, “The academy will also hold short duration courses conducted by the craftsmen themselves for tourists, foreigners, and students.” To make Hastkala Academy run efficiently, and remove the political aspect of running an organisation, Jaya plans to, “build a lean, mean organisation with participation from the private sector on a CSR model.”
The times have changed since Jaya started. She shares, “Now the children of craftsmen are learning to use technology and language. They have iPhones, iPads, and use WhatsApp to communicate for designs input, internet research, interacting with the foreign buyers over email, taking printouts and using them as reference points to make products. Their lifestyles are also changing. Some own SUV’s; one karigar from the once drought-ridden Kutch runs a resort now. I keep telling them it’s good to grow economically but grow with your craft. They shouldn’t stop this work because they are what they are because of the craft. Some people say Oh! The crafts are dying. I don’t see the pessimism in that, because the very same people never got their hand dirty working with the karigars, leave alone staying in a village. Some crafts die but new crafts also spring up. That’s the cycle of life. Maharashtra, which for example is traditionally low on crafts, now has this group of people making abstract stone animals with brass trimmings. A group of women in Uttarakhand with the help of NGOs are learning to weave stoles made of hemp and nettle. Every day you see a karigar making something new and I see a new possibility on the horizon to present our wonderful heritage. My only wish is that I can continue to do so as long as I live,” she smiles.
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