In the latest episode of Mann ki Baat, PM Modi invoked the importance of handlooms and extending assistance to artisans and weavers to boost the craft and the handloom industry, specifically the production and consumption of Khadi. With National Handloom Day being celebrated today, such messaging to strengthen the ‘Bharat Jodo Andolan’ is timely. It also aligns with the principles of ‘Vocal for Local’ while promoting livelihoods of artisans, weavers, and the self-help groups (SHGs) reeling under massive socio-economic pressures since COVID-19 disruptions last year.
While the Government of India has been commemorating National Handloom Day since 2015 to mark the Swadesi Andolan that began in 1905 on August 07, COVID-19 still punctured the sector, followed by a sudden stagnation in the initial few months of the lockdown. For instance, TRIFED (Down to Earth, April 2020) reported that tribal handicrafts worth Rs 100 crores were left unsold. The issue of unsold inventories was further compounded with no exhibitions, fairs or melas taking place last year, initially.
Anita, 36, an embroidery artist from the Kutch region in Gujarat, mentioned how the lockdown impacted the supply of newer products. In the absence of limited products, even after the first gradual unlocks, there was barely any demand for her unique amalgam of embroidery styles from Afghanistan, Gujarat, etc.
However, these constraints didn’t deter the entrepreneurial spirit of SHGs, artisans, and weavers. They quickly rose to the occasion and adapted to the market’s changing needs by training themselves in products defining the new normal. These groups, along with jail inmates, craft-persons engaged in small enterprises, made essentials like face masks, sanitisers, and other medical necessities. It was essentially during this time that the latent potential of India’s SHGs and the success of schemes like the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Rurban Mission came to be noticed.
Here, we examine the adeptness of creative craftspersons and how there has been a shift toward cultural methods of communication predominantly through art and craft.
Product diversification, SHGs, and indigenous skills
According to a report in the Observer Research Foundation (Sunaina Kumar, July 2021), there are 6.9 million SHGs as of May 2021, with 75 million members. Traditionally, the members of SHGs are engaged in micro-enterprises, home-based businesses and are pivotal in running schemes such as the Mid Day Meal (MDM) and the NRLM. However, most importantly, SHGs serve as the backbone of the handloom and handicraft economy, contributing nearly Rs 10,000 crores annually in export earnings, according to a report in 2018.
Their entrepreneurial acumen and usage of indigenous skills came to light with how they experimented with the face mask. For instance, a ‘Mask Silai Unit’ or a mask stitching centre in Serikheri Gram Panchayat, Raipur, Chhattisgarh, came up in February 2020. It employed women enabling them to earn Rs 6000 per month. Women stitch cotton facemasks and also engage in making school uniforms at the unit.
Realising the necessity these facemasks had become last year, artisans and SHGs adapted themselves to the market’s changing needs establishing themselves as the brand ambassadors of Indian handloom by embroidering, stitching, weaving, and painting a variety of facemasks, thus, demonstrating skilled inventiveness, emergency management, and an improvisational potential, while keeping their art alive.
For example, cotton, handloom, and cloth masks with Madhubani and Mithila paintings became an instant hit. There were masks with block prints with Sanganeri, Bagh, Kalamkari, and Ajrakh patterns. Then there were the Kantha and Kasuti embroidered masks. Sambhalpuri designs, Ikat, Batik, applique work, and Muga silk masks were other choices.
In another unique initiative, Kudumbashree, the poverty eradication and women empowerment programme implemented by the State Poverty Eradication Mission (SPEM) of the Government of Kerala, forayed into manufacturing ‘AYUR’ masks made of reusable cotton, handloom cloth, and herbs such as basil and turmeric.
Steps to support artisans in COVID-19
Realising these creative skills and how the pandemic would impact artisans’ livelihoods, organisations, governments, and individuals encouraged artisans. For instance, Enamor has procured Ikat handloom fabric from the Kalabharathi handloom craft cluster in Telangana.
To provide access to online marketplaces (one of the most critical deficits marring linkages to the artisan community) and encourage artisans and weavers, especially women, to continue making handcrafts, Amazon India waived off the fee under the aegis of its ‘Stand for Handmade’ programme to support artisans and entrepreneurs from ‘Amazon Kaarigar’ and ‘Amazon Saheli’ initiatives. While this may be a digitally-friendly step, more efforts need to be undertaken to enable artisans to access new technologies, app-based business models, and so on.
Similarly, the Jharkhand Department of Posts tied up with Kasturba Gramodyog Sansthan, Ranchi, to promote khadi masks through post offices to boost eco-friendly crafts and handlooms while promoting livelihoods.
Additionally, in an attempt to integrate efforts in vaccine advocacy and strengthening livelihoods, TRIFED and UNICEF joined hands to initiate the ‘COVID Teeka Sang Surakshit Van Dhan aur Uddyam’ campaign. Unique in its approach, this initiative safeguards and restores tribals’ livelihoods, health & wellness and naturally supports artisans engaged in handlooms and the arts.
Craft, art, tradition & vaccine advocacy
Recently, artist Kundan Roy’s Mithila painting depicting a medical staff vaccinating a woman went viral. Mithila paintings also find their representation on handlooms, sarees from the state and are vibrant cultural symbols from the region.
Isn’t it Lovely ? ❤️
Corona Vaccination in Mithila Painting By Kundan Roy pic.twitter.com/pkXKLZXJaV
— Aditya Mohan (@AdityaJhamohan) June 30, 2021
Traditionally, wall paintings, rangolis, mehendi designs, and art forms have been used as essential methods for social messaging, furthering what is known as the ‘Communications for Development’ approach in the policy space. During COVID-19, such messages helped mitigate vaccine hesitancy. These also helped increase overall awareness about the pandemic, COVID-19 appropriate behaviour while also significantly contributing to the country’s cultural capital.
For instance, puppetry is being used in Madhya Pradesh to spread awareness on vaccination. Street plays, folk music, dance, slogans on vehicles, messages painted on roads connecting gram panchayats are also being used in different parts of the country. Messages in local languages, for example, conversations in Korku in the Melghat region of Maharashtra to combat vaccine hesitancy, have brought to light the importance of local languages that resonate with the communities. Traditional methods such as ‘Khatla Baithaks’ in the Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh are other conventional activities being revived during the pandemic.
A sustained revival of handlooms, arts, and crafts linked with local languages are thus pivotal in community development. COVID-19 brought to light the communication gap between policy centres and the actual beneficiaries of policy tucked away in remote corners of the country. The pandemic brought to fore the hardships faced explicitly by the urban poor.
Livelihood efforts focused on local products, including handicrafts and textiles, through ‘urban livelihoods’ specifically focused on ‘urban poor’ will be important in sustained revivalism of the sector. Initiatives like the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana-National Urban Livelihoods Mission under the aegis of which ‘Project Ummeed’ by the Delhi government enabling SHGs and women in making products like Rakhis, garments, and other activities are welcome steps.
(Chattisgarh inputs from Rajiv Tripathi, State Project Manager, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Rurban Mission and Shrinkhala Jain, Rurban Specialist, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Rurban Mission)