Sustenance on Streets
The untrained planners on the streets of Ahmedabad
The sun was harsh and the heat was thrusting on the ground like a hammer on an anvil. A frail figure stood silently near its kiosk of clay pots. The pavement was deserted with not a single soul to appreciate the finesse of the workmen. The fire in the clay seemed to have long gone but the zeal in Bhavesh still burns.Though the Indian handicrafts are of a great demand all over the world but there still remains a portion of crafts that aren’t recognised handicrafts and remain under a shadow of the existing ones.
Form follows Function
In search for such small scaled crafts that have adapted well or are sustaining led me to Bhavesh, a 32 year old vendor selling clay products. His settlement includes just a small hut near a footpath, with majority of it occupied by his clay products. On reaching there the spot was empty while he stood a bit afar from his settlement. My arrival came to as a surprise since there was hardly anyone buying clay pots nowadays let alone a college boy. On further inquiry he said that the times have changed and people hardly buy pots for plants and other purpose. It was only certain occasion like Diwali that demanded Diyas and pots. Demand thus plays an important role when selling merchandise. There is no business if there isn’t a demand for it. Thus it raises a question as designer as to what can be done if the demand of a certain craft has substantially gone low? Be it the introduction of a cheaper alternative or some other reason.
Being in this profession for 25 years, he recalls the time when his father worked and how he worked hard to just meet the immense demand. Now times have changed, people prefer plastic pots that are cheaper and easy to carry.
The only way he tries to promote his work is through adaption of existing non-clay based products. like clay tawa’s, fragrant lamps and modern piggy banks. Use of bright colours is preferred over the regular browns to stand out. He says that there is still a portion of the clientele that comes for the authentic clay products, but that portion is very small.
A very interesting thing about his vicinity is that it opens up a path for the customers and lead them to enter a place where one is surrounded by different pot at varied heights. This form of harmonious repetition apart from being attractive is also functional.
Inexpensive Raw Materials
Street sellers do not have the luxury to use expensive raw materials like other large-scale crafts. Street crafts need to be inexpensive, labor efficient and easy to reproduce, since they lack machinery to produce in large number.
Paper the most basic of the material is moulded to form something so beautiful yet simple. Razia a 20 year old young girl is carrying on the age old tradition of flower making in Ahmadabad. With the market filled with plastic flowers, the family continues to carry on the skill within the market hidden from the general crowd. She explains how as a child she used to see her parents make the paper flowers, when soon she was proficient in the craft. Her display already secluded, consists of just a small stall that would otherwise be lost in the ruckus of the streets. But the novelty of this craft makes people look for it. Though it’s a labour intensive craft the price still is nominal. Unlike the plastic flowers these have a certain charm to them, be it the texture of the paper or the colours chosen or the accurate geometric shape they all bring out the exquisiteness of this handicraft. Though this craft is performed by the Muslim community of the region, but the flowers find their way to all the major Hindu festivals also. In fact the first thing that Razia said was that Diwali was the time when the have the maximum sale and it was majorly for this festival that they start the preparation quiet early. Another interesting fact was that changes seen in the construction of the paper flowers. Earlier the flowers resembled what one might find in the form of plastic flowers. The cost of production of those was much less and thus there was a shift in the market. Seeing this trend the flower makers too adapted themselves and resolved to something entirely different. The shape is now very geometric and one would not find anything of that sorts in the market. The flowers are carried on a bamboo constructed cart resembling a Taazia laded with flowers of different colours and sizes. The cart looks like moving garden and thus acts as moving VM. The cart solves multiple purposes at the same time. The family not only uses it for selling the flowers but also as a Taazia during Eid.
Urbanisation can be the threat in this case while the innovative approach will be the adaptability factor. Urbanisation though has made the cost of living difficult but the innovative approaches they incorporate have been the sole reason of their continued existence. With adversity comes the ability to use things judiciously or the Indian approach of “Jugaad- the indigenous innovation” comes into play. The fact that these innovative ideas come out of natural instincts and no prior education is interesting. Navi Radjou in his book Jugaad Innovation says that, they exhibit remarkable entrepreneurial skills. Purchasing of commodities or manufacturing is no easy task with constant market fluctuations. Commodities have to be in sync with both consumer tastes and paying capacity. As most handicrafts sellers deal with the goods that have a certain time restrain they have to be ready at the right time, that involves a lot of planning.
Let’s take the example of the famous manjha makers of Bareliee . Workers in large numbers from states such as UP and Rajasthan flock to the city. Their purpose is to prepare ‘manja’ for kite enthusiasts.
Manjha makers coming from Bareilly are moving street sellers with their season starting from August. They start the preparation from early May for kite flying season during 15th august in Delhi. They then move to UP for the famous Dusshera celebration in the month of October and then Ahmadabad for the famous kite flying festival. Certain families have carried out this routine for years while others have resorted to settle down at some place. Each family prepares 50 to 250 ‘charkhis’ of kite playing string every day. The dealer, who provides them the raw material, pays them one rupee for every reel they prepare. The dealers sell the same reel for any amount between Rs50 and Rs250.
Some of them sell on their own at a nominal price of 1-2 rupees per meter.“Several people manage to do brisk business during the kite flying season. However, we have enough money to buy raw material and equipment needed to manufacture the thread. We earn just enough money of Rs20,000 and sometimes manage to save a bit,” said a worker accompanying Shabir.
The mere fact that they are huge in number makes it important to stand out from the others. The key feature seen in the market is use of bright colours. Array of bright colours stacked over one other makes one draw towards it. Also something that instantly attracts ones attention is the spinning of the manjha. This acts as the VM for the vendors, and engages the onlooker and makes one draw towards it.
Visual Merchandising (mobile)
Another example of adaptability is seen in the case of a firki (Pinwheel)seller. Bhuvan a pinwheel seller was spotted near is regular stop at Kankariya lake. The most interesting thing about his settlement in that it’s a mobile shop on a cycle with a big wooden pole and the pinwheels jutting out. Kankariya lake being a favourite spot for the kids is the best place to attract people. Since the product is too small for clear visibility, the use of a long pole helps attract people over a larger distance. Also one might not be able to make out what the beautiful coloured thing is, but it would definitely draw attention of the onlooker. Also having a mobile shop makes it easier to change location according to the hour of the day.
The pinwheel seller uses the most inexpensive material locally available but the colour choice is the key factor here. With all the greys and browns in the city, the sight of a colourful seller appeals to the eyes. Bhuvan also tries to incorporate some of that in his dressing and avoiding any dull colours instead becoming a part of the whole composition.
This gives us an insight about the thinking of a street seller. The financial restriction enables them to think in ways that are not only inexpensive but also effective.
The festive season is a source of income for a large population of the Indian street vendors. From the firecracker sellers, garland sellers, diyas all of them work in accordance to the festivals and would only be seen during such festivals. While certain crafts are men oriented some of them are primarily being performed by the women of the village. One such village is Tansaar in Gujarat, where the women make the wall hangings for the various festivals. The wall hangings are something that made by the women while the selling is left to the men. The wall hangings are brought to the city to be sold in the market. The way i could find them was the location chosen for selling to take place. The shop was located at a height in one of the extended windows of the teen darwaaza making it visible to anyone. Taking advantage of a historical monument gives an edge since everyone is unconsciously looking at it. Thus it makes it the best selling point area. The shop owner was young guy who has rented this place for that season. The spot was on a high demand and was not a permanent spot for the seller. But for the time being he was making the most out of it.
Lost in Tide of times
While most of the handicrafts have still somehow managed to sustain despite of the urbanisation that the world is going through, there was one such craft that had almost vanished from the streets as it seemed, till the time i came across Yusuf.
Yusuf with his small table and a wooden box with glass bottles stool tall amidst the clamouring crowd. He was a perfume seller or in regional term “ether” . His box filled with all the possible smells from the garden of Eden's which he sold at a nominal price of 40. The whole settlement had the whole aura of the late 90’s to it. The was something that basically attracted me. It was clear that the business was not good, because there was hardly anyone to buy such stuff. People prefer other products with superior smell. Yusuf explained how earlier people used to purchase his products during Eid and other religious functions which is not the case now.
But he had a quiet unique way of selling his product. He makes his buyers try his smells by actually applying them, after which one could decide on his own. Even the bottle of perfume has faced a drastic change of a roll on perfume. But all this hasn't helped the craft in anyway. Knockoffs of it are found all over the market. The tradition perfumes made from the natural flowers seemed to have lost their essence since the people have started using chemicals which are cheaper and have a higher yield. Yusuf explains how the low demand has made him resort to use certain chemical smells but there is nothing he could do about it. Though there was hardly anything that Yusuf offered unique, but the mere experience was something that attracted be towards the vendor. So as designer it becomes very important to not only focus on the design aesthetics of the products but also the user experience pertaining to it.
A small kiosk in the exteriors of Gandhinagar sells bamboo products, like brooms, curtains, vessels etc. It was something I hadn’t seen in a very long time, since I considered it to be a thing of the past without realising it still existed. It was a family run business near a junction and appears more like a small cattle rearing pasture.
The family shifted from the village in search of a better opportunity, but the cost of living was something that had to be met with. The settlement is not something that would grab the attention unless one is looking for them. But the kind of product and finesse they have could fetch a larger audience. The intricate and beautiful pull-up curtains, baskets and other adornments that could used as for their functionality or for their mere aesthetic appeal.
But because the lack of knowledge of such craft and also negligence by the craftsperson to promote it, makes it extremely difficult for it to come into the limelight.
The Indian street craft sellers have somehow withstood the tides of time. The reason for that could be their uniqueness, exquisiteness, resourcefulness etc. One might not look at them with the perspective of an elaborate business model but the fact that they exist and grow and a group of newer ones join on a daily basis, says it all. The mere existence of the street vendors even at times now explains it sufficiently that there is something that has either gone in their favour or something that they have been doing right. The products are inexpensive, easy to make, mass-produced and have a cultural significance to them. The street vendors cash on these factors and work according to consumers reaction. As a designer the way street vendors efficiently and sustainably use their resources becomes of key important. The lack of resources and financial aid doesn’t hinder in the working of the Indian street vendors. They are fully aware of the market, its needs and how to fulfill them most inexpensively. From using cost-effective materials, to mobile displays they have explored it all. They are a source of information to many of the MNC’s, which take business queues from them. When the entire world is moving towards sustainability and efficiency, these street vendors have for long been following this and have mastered it.