The craft sector of India, which provides employment to thousands of artisans, was one of the worst hit during the two waves of Covid-19. Grassroot artisans were left scrambling for straws as production stopped following cancelled orders and no payments.
The pandemic also forced annual craft fairs to stand cancelled, also blocking a major source of their income. And while the fashion industry adopted hyper digitisation of sales and marketing with aplomb, the crafts sector and the artisans, who make for the backbone of India’s coveted textiles and fashion repository, were left behind.
The scenic region of Kutch in Gujarat is home to multiple generational craft forms, practised by now-dwindling artisans finding it hard to keep the art form alive due to decrease in demand. Belonging to the Khatri community of Kutch who have been practising ajrakh since ages is Sufiyan Khatri, an 11th generation ajrakh artisan and supplier to fashion giants like Fab India, péro, Anita Dongre, and the like. During March 2020, Khatri found his facility filled with stock material for the coming months of production, amid cancelled orders and half or no payments.
After months of trying to piece a solution together, he along with his co-founder Juned Khatri resorted to an ecommerce site, kutchibazaar.com, on March 2020, selling ajrakh, bandhani, banarasi, and batik garments and fabric pieces straight from the artisans, not only inviting national and international orders but also cutting down on intermediary costs.
“Earlier, if a buyer paid Rs 200 to buy fabric from us, he used to sell it for Rs 300, a profit that is deserved by the artisans. With the website, we are able to not showcase the craftsmanship of the artisans of Kutch but also give them their due income. Being an artisan myself, I know what our work is worth, and so do they.” The website now has a stock of 3000 products selling to national as well as international customers with a 15-20 percent month-on-month growth since its inception.
In the other part of the country, the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh presents a humble miniature of the state’s rich tribal culture and crafts which also faces ignorance, erosion, and downfall worsened by the pandemic. That’s why, four friends, Ayush Shrivastava, Gaurav Kushwaha, Suyash Sankhla, Rishabh Jain, born and brought up in Bastar, decided to change the status quo. They founded lokabazar.in, Bastar’s 1st e-commerce startup for handmade crafts and products, a year ago. “While we are all proud that we have well-known forest products such as mahua and GI-tagged arts such as wrought iron art and dhokra art, even the locals were unaware of the artist or the village where the art is performed. When we first started visiting the villages and talking with artisans, we discovered that they are far off from the major handicraft markets and that they are disorganized due to a lack of government policies. A land that was earlier renowned for its violence and sacrifices should now be remembered for its achievements.”
The website, which sells daily-use, modern, utilitarian products made in the dhokra art form, intends to empower the 40+ tribal artisans they work with individually by facilitating the sale of their products directly with their identity preserved, encouraging them to pass down the craft knowledge to future generations. Kushwaha stated that the response to their website has been “surprisingly great” so far.
In Nagaland, Neenu Maben and Nengneithem Hengna, the founders of runwayindia.in had foreseen the benefits of digitisation way before the pandemic. In 2013, they founded Runway India, formerly runwaynagaland.in, with a similar vision — to bridge the gap between makers and buyers, and to empower the artisans with entrepreneurial skills. Along with full-time salaried artisans and work-from-home artisans, Runway India also works with hundreds of weavers and craft clusters in the villages like ‘Community Learning & Business Resources Centre’ Jalukie and ‘Lovi Twine’ in Pimla and ‘Dorcas’ in Khaibung Village, among others.
“We have also recently tied up a unit in Mon district with a motive to preserve the essence of our indigenous art of making handmade accessories by learning the art from the elders of the village.” Hengna shares that they have adopted a two-pronged approach of employing female artisans along with engaging the youth in their initiative to encourage passing down the craft wisdom down the generations.
With a new name, the initiative paves a new future plan of incorporating underappreciated craft forms from other states as well while continuing their expansion in Nagaland. “Seeing the positive impact it was creating in the lives of the artisans, we decided to extend to a bigger ecommerce platform that will offer space to handcraft artisans of different states to sell their products on our website. Our website offers customers to not only purchase specialised crafts of a particular state but also to know the story behind the crafts.”
And while for bengalstore.com, too, sales dipped during the pandemic, founder Indrajit Sen said that the chemical and pesticide-free food products, like nolen gur (liquid jaggery) and raw honey from the Sundarbans, that they sell on their portal helped bring customers to the art and craft products. The website, which went live on August 2019, also sells artworks by local Bengali photographers, painters, ceramicists, and sculptors along with crafts risking endangerment like the Mojlipur and Kathalia dolls. Each of their art and craft products have a detailed profile on its respective artisans.
“Bengal has some of the most exquisite and functional crafts being made in the 23 districts of the state, but there has not been any serious effort (except the customary government initiatives) to showcase them to the mass. The craft did not go beyond the yearly fairs held at the behest of the state government. Although the present government is doing much to stand beside them, no structural and scientific efforts are being made in its spread,” said Sen.
Every entrepreneur believes that ecommerce is the future of crafts in India. “After the pandemic, the world is completely turning into the digital era and it’s our responsibility to help our regional and indigenous artisans to connect with the digital world. The tribal people of Bastar are not much aware of the digital revolution, and due to lack of literacy were unable to connect to newer markets. That’s the gap we aimed to fill,” said Kushwaha, while Sen urged on a phygital approach with stores that “help engage the youth with forgotten crafts simultaneously with a strong digital presence.”