Dwarka Prasad Jangid from Chittorgarh, Rajasthan, opens out a kawad to share the story of forest rabbits who find ways to outwit the elephants in their space. His colourful panels tell of his 40 years as an artist. He is a regular at the INA Dilli Haat, and has been exhibiting his work here for more than 10 years.
Recent tweets by Jaya Jaitly on Chinese flowers, which retail at the crafts market she founded, best tell how the character of the space has changed. Founder of Dastkari Haat Samiti, Jaitly had conceptualised Dilli Haat nearly six years before it became a reality in 1994, set up jointly by Delhi Tourism, Ministry of Textiles, and the New Delhi Municipal Corporation. “It was to be a permanent space for impermanent people, where artisans could interact with customers directly,” says Jaitly.
The idea of a semi-open bazaar with regional cuisine and crafts would be the mainstay of this six-acre property. Odisha ikat weavers sat beside leather embroidery artisans from Punjab in the three-metre-high brick stalls, and Aruvacode potters from Kerala next to miniature painters from Rajasthan. Foodies would flock to the Arunachal Pradesh food stall for momos and fruit beer, or head to the Kashmir stall for the mini wazwan thali. One could get lessons in handloom directly from the weavers, or watch as a patachitra artist painted on wood.
There were few places in the city that allowed such a vibrant exchange. There was the Cottage Emporium, which catered to an exclusive clientele, and the string of state emporiums on Janpath that purely retailed wares. At the Crafts Museum, artisans sold and sometimes even made their work before you, but its formal air discouraged lingering. The INA Dilli Haat straddled both worlds; it brought craft closer to people, in an environment that was culturally alive and accessible.
Today, however, a walk around the premises gives the impression that the craftspeople are on a holiday as vendors selling rexine suitcases, friendship bands, artificial silver jewellery and clumsy clay pottery have taken over. One barely finds visitors keen on textiles and crafts anymore. It’s the eager tourist, who wants souvenirs, or college students, who turn up at these gates. “I would take visitors, from both India and abroad, to the INA Dilli Haat. You could experience the making of authentic crafts of India, all under one roof. I’ve bought Bhadoi rugs and Manipuri skirts from the makers directly. Now, you get the same things that are available at Sarojini Nagar and Janpath,” says Mamta Upadhyaya, a freelance writer.
Laila Tyabji, Founder, Dastkar, who believed in the idea of an artisan-led market, says it failed to fulfill its promise. She says, “Except when organisations such as Dastkari Haat or Dastkar curated their own shows and ensured that genuine artisans got their stalls and were given promotional support. Being run by multiple government organisations with no interest or knowledge of either craftspeople or craft, it was going to end up in a mess”.
“When we started, an international beverage company came in with their dustbins and glasses, we said no, because we wanted this to be a pure space for crafts. Today it has become a traders’ market. The Ministry of Textiles, who allot space in Dilli Haat, have lost the grip of what this space should be. Delhi Tourism is encroaching its way into the allotment of stalls and even pricing the rents differently. Under the pretext of brand promotion, they have allowed traders to overshadow craftspeople,” says Jaitly.
A weaver from Bhagalpur points out that the rentals have gone up nearly three to five times from the existing government rate of
Rs 10,450. “There are few takers for our handwoven materials. Just seven years ago, even before we could lay out our wares, it would be sold off. People don’t understand the value of handmade anymore, and are always bargaining with us,” says Mintu, one of the helpers.
“While it was envisioned as a democratic public space, it was one of Delhi’s first car-free markets. We wanted people to feel relaxed and welcome in this space. The INA Dilli Haat is a model to be looked at and while the government is talking about livelihoods and skill development, this is a success story. We cannot afford poor management and petty greed to run this project,” says architect Pradeep Sachdeva, who built the Dilli Haat at INA. It spawned other outlets in Pitampura and Janakpuri, which have become event-led venues rather than craft-centric spaces.
The good news though is that renovation ideas are being planned with Delhi Tourism for its 200-odd stalls. “We would like to enhance the experience for visitors. We are in talks to retain its character and keep the tradition of crafts alive,” says SP Singh, Managing Director, Delhi Tourism.
In the struggle between craft and commerce, here’s the hope that both can win without compromising the essence of what the INA Dilli Haat is to the city, evangelising the rich crafts heritage of our country.