It was her first project after she studied ceramic design at NID (Ahmedabad), which made Devika Krishnan aware of the realities of gender, caste or class. The project, through Dastkar Ranthambore, was aimed at reviving black pottery with the remotely located potters near Ranthambore in the early ’90s. The potters were quick to question: “why a south Indian, upper-caste, young woman (who should ideally be married and raising children) be working with Rajasthani, low-caste potters?” says Krishnan.
Bengaluru-based Krishnan, 50, who recently spoke about the design of social business at DesignUp festival in her city, has realised the importance of keeping enterprises small for self-sustenance and that women are a much-ignored untapped workforce. “The day this nation wakes up to making itself a gender-equitable society, we will see double the growth in our economy,” she says. India stood at 130 of the 189 countries on the Human Development Index study by the UNDP in 2018.
One aspect common in some of the communities she’s worked with is urban migration. Be it the migrant workers in Bengaluru slums, or the forest-dwelling villagers who had to relocate because the Ranthambore National Park was being built for tiger conservation, or seasonal migration of the nomadic tribes of Gujjars and Bakarwals in south Kashmir. Until her 2011 project Shepherdcrafts, Krishnan didn’t know that Gujjars were found beyond Haryana and Rajasthan or of the marginalised Bakarwals, with whom they work in Pahalgam. With yarns around their toes, they weave belts, ankle bands and saddlecloth for their ponies, and their craft has remained largely undocumented.
“All the work I do with communities involve understanding their cultural context, skillset and limitations, the use of natural materials or upcycling low-value waste,” she says. Whether it be collecting used tetra paks from garbage heaps, and weaving them into baskets and handbags through Joy At Work enterprise in Bengaluru’s Janakiram Layout slum, or making blockprints of tigers — the reason of their displacement and the symbol of their livelihood — in trying to revive bandhani there through Dastkar Ranthambore. “The theme of the jungle is always kept in mind,” she says, “Our decade-old foray into creating scrap fabric replicas — by plaiting and plying — of the birds of Ranthambore. From initial three — treepie, woodpecker and roller, we now have over 30 birds in our inventory but there are still over 300 to design in fabric.”
Design for Krishnan is a conduit to creating sustainable livelihoods for the core “vulnerable” community. The aim must be “Repairability, Reusability, Recyclability”. Her work since 2017 with Srinagar-based NGO Commitment to Kashmir, which has empowered 27 entrepreneurs, has shown her that “one of the biggest issues the Valley faces is of unemployment as there are very few private enterprises ready to invest in a conflict zone and government jobs are few and far between. With bandh, curfew, rains or snow, people have no option but to stay indoors. And, over 60 per cent of the households in the Valley are engaged in crafts — pashmina weaving, namda felting, walnut-wood carving, copper work and papier mache.” The works were on display at DesignUp, and 400 designs will again be exhibited on November 26 in Bengaluru.
The biggest setback for Kashmiri craftspeople, she says, have been cancelled orders for Diwali and Christmas due to the lockdown since August.
The issue of unemployment is, however, not only limited to Kashmir. “The rate of internal migration is at its highest since a decade as several states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha do not have avenues of employment. Bengaluru is a shining example of this burgeoning internal migration. We need to make meaningful employment available to people in their geographies,” she says. “For all crafts to thrive in the country, the need is to respect others’ work, fair trade and fair price policies,” she adds.
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