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Reinventing Craftsmanship in India

Preserving and championing India’s iconic crafts heritage, Iti Tyagi, founder of India Craft Week speaks about her deep connection to the arts and crafts of the country.

Photo courtesy: ICW

Words by Rini Mukkath

Craft Village and its initiative India Craft Week (ICW) is the creation of artist Iti Tyagi.

With a degree in fashion from NIFT India, one in interior design from KLC School of Design London and an elaborate experience in lifestyle retail, Iti understands the true value of design interventions to enhance the value of traditional craftsmanship in India.

Having worked in the field for the last two decades and being closely connected to numerous craft clusters, she realised the underappreciated status of India’s iconic heritage.

Through ICW, she hopes to elevate often overlooked status of craft, to the realm of design and unravel stories of the makers and their hard-work. She has worked on various cluster development projects with Govt. of India, and has been active in helping Artisans and Craftspeople finding new work opportunities and bring innovations.

On International Women’s Day 2018, Iti was conferred the Nari Shakti Puruskar 2018 by the Govt of India, presented to her by Honourable President Shri Ram Nath Kovind; for her contributions towards women’s empowerment. “Crafts has always been perceived mediocre in India, though world over hand-crafted and hand-made has found a great demand.

The formats of yesteryears are still predominant like Mela,Bazaar and Haats. However, the consumer generation world over has changed and is looking for more aspirational and well-branded products, and therefore there is enough opportunity to build or re-invent a new imagery for Craft Sector & Products,” says Iti Tyagi.. Excerpts from an interview:

Can we know a bit about your background and what drove you to start ICW?

I have been working closely with the craft sector for decades now. Back in the early days, I was involved with major UP clusters like Saharanpur, Moradabad, Khurza, Firozabad in glass, metalwork, wood and other handicraft industries. At that time, being the design head of a company, I was working with craftspersons on serving the design needs of international markets like Pottery Barn, Ikea, Bombay Company, Neiman Marcus among many others.

However, the impact of my work was only limited to industry clusters and not craftspersons or community based clusters. After working in delhi for few years, I shifted to Ahmedabad post marriage, where I started working on big cluster projects and my turning point came while working with one such craft cluster, Balakathi in Orissa. It exposed the pitiable condition of the crafts in places away from metro centers, with no access to information, knowledge, tools, technology and market/buyers.

I lived with a family who used to make brass utensils, and realized that all these customs evolved from personal needs and barter system of the past. They needed to ideate in terms of diversification of products such as brass that could sell well, it was then that I felt a strong need for an ecosystem that would not only help them in innovating new designs but also help in getting greater market access and better value of their products through a well-established channel, and could as well create substantial livelihood for them.

With this belief and vision, I started Craft Village in 2015. Since then it has served as a venue for the training and promotion of crafts, and has also established a quick connect with the urban crowd that not just buys but also patronises crafts. India Craft Week, which is the world’s fourth and India’s first official craft week, was born out of a desire to bring together the people of craft- be it master artisans, craftpreneurs, craft enthusiasts, or craft consumers, and to celebrate the fine artistry of handwork from across India. The opportunity has not only helped promote our artists and their craft but has also helped build a global connect.

What are some of the main challenges you faced setting this up and how has the craft industry changed over time?

We are talking about an industry that has huge resistance to change. Firstly, what I had in mind was a format that was unlike the usual melas, haats and bazaars. While they are brilliant formats of yesteryears, what I was looking for was a more innovative and high-end format.

With even the retail moving so rapidly from mom and pop shops to e-tailing and super specialized malls/complexes, the craft industry, I felt, too needed such an approach as it encompasses literally everything from products, paintings, home & interiors to performing and narrative art.

Secondly, the aspect of collaborative relationship between craftsperson and designer comes into play. It is the responsibility of designers to enhance the skills of craftspersons who often have better skills than a designer. The biggest challenge is to preserve these authentic skills, original know how of making genuine things, and position the crafts in a wholesome manner. Lastly, there is also a growing need for a framework which is collaborative rather than one trying to replace the old with new.

The craft industry needs new ideas and disruptive thoughts to bring it out of its current state, where most of the crafts are either lost or are on the verge of extinction. With Craft Village and ICW, we are re-inventing new imagery for the craft without compromising on traditional values.

What makes indian crafts one-of-its-kind, according to you?

I love how diversified our Indian crafts are, and how they take distinctive names/ genres across countries. Internationally, for example, people would term it folk, or tribal art, but look at the beautiful nomenclature we have, such as Madhubani (made with love) Gond (kond an expression from green mountain from central india) Miniature paintings (that has originated from fine art schools from india), and the list seems endless.

Similarly, in fabrics we have Kalamkari, Banarasi brocade, Sujani, Kantha, Phulkari, Chamba Rumal, Pashmina, the range of names are too fascinating and diverse, that reflect the different lands, customs, tribes/communities, meaning and purpose they represent. Crafts certainly have superior design and an innovation aspect. They offer excellent functionality, and are multi-purpose and culturally connected. Ideal for sustainable development, they come with timeless appeal.

The modern industry is so deeply influenced by the west, that it often forgets that crafts have been one of the most essential tools to connect life with change. They have resulted in superior products, processes, people management, change management, that can help managers and leaders run successful companies. A bit of humility to understand the importance of crafts is much needed while looking at them as ‘strategic objects’ and not mere decorative objects of the bygone era.

How do you think can the crafts industry become more sustainable?

The craft sector has gone through a phase of distress with a desperate need for revival since it is connected with the employability of millions of households engaged in craft production activities. If the industry needs revival as a part of “make in india” initiative, the time has come to renew its ‘4c’ focus for better and long-term results.

Since 1990’s, 40% of our artisans have left the craft sector in search for low key jobs and have migrated as daily wage labourers, which is bound to grow if an effective strategy is not implemented for 1) Change in perception for craft items and sector 2) Creating global brands & markets 3) Connecting it with innovation & design 4) Craft technology by creating a 360 interface with consumers, stakeholders, artisans and industry.

Perhaps, the time has come to work front-end and on building market space for our artisans and craftspersons, rather than an earlier approach of changing everything back-end. We should also change gears from a manufacturing hub to branded/experiential craft hubs, as craft is not only about product making, but is more holistic in its content and approach.

What are your hopes for ICW and its hope?

My only hope with India Craft Week is to change the perception of crafts and increase its presence in urban and global markets as ‘objects of desire’ and luxury, this is the only way authentic crafts can be preserved, and would receive higher patronage. ICW is focused at promoting authentic and rare crafts, that have been the backbone of any luxury industry world wide.

Luxury is known to be exclusive, authentic, hand-made, and that which defines the finest craftsmanship available. My aim is to present craft and artisanship as the future of luxury. Secondly, most of the brands and products have come to stagnant points, with not much seen in innovative space. I want to create ICW as a platform that inspires the young generations with new ideas that are original, unique and noble.

With this initiative, we seek to bring the best of our culture and heritage, that can create experiential environment and narrate the stories of India’s very own artisans and their craft. Overall, it is an attempt to save our own authentic heritage and culture through the mediums of crafts, and give dignity of life to people working in non-urban centers of india.

This is just the beginning and I am positive that a lot would be achieved in the coming years. One of my defining moments came when India Craft Week was invited for a preview at the prestigious London Craft Week. It gave me immense satisfaction to see our traditional artists be present amongst the world’s most prestigious crafted brands like Dunhill, Bentley, Vivienne Westwood, Purdey, Rolls Royce, Mont Blanc, Burberry, Italian Trade Agency, V&A, William Morris, and many others.

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