Education

Craft As A Powerful Tool Of Emotional, Economic, And Intellectual Empowerment For Children

School curriculums must include crafts from a young age so that it's seen as a professional skill rather than a hobby

Poetry of resistance
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India is good at creating caste systems: from age-old prejudices of birth, community, and gender coexisting with newly coined ones born out of education, wealth, power and privilege. While old prejudices lose their rigid hold, new ones keep emerging—urban/rural, English speaking/vernacular speaking, literate/illiterate, down to the colour of one’s skin. Additionally, parental ambition and prejudice downgrade the educational advantages of liberal arts versus science and technology. One serious consequence is positioning highly skilled traditional craftspeople on the lowest rung of the professional ladder.

It’s Stockholm airport in Sweden, and Shanta, 23 years old and the youngest ever craftsperson to win the Master Craftsperson Award for her tribal embroidery, stands on top of an escalator for the first time in her life. She has flown in a plane, exhibited a major new work at one of Europe’s premier art museums, danced with international artists, and lectured at Sweden’s Boras Design School, becoming the first Lambani to travel abroad. “Isn’t there a World Cup for Embroidery?” she asks. “I’m going to win it!” Why not? Embroidery should be given due recognition—as a creative art as well as a competitive career opportunity.

Elsewhere, Chandra Bhushan and Irfan Khatri are two young men with totally different skill sets and backgrounds, coming from different communities and areas of India. One is a Brahmin folk artist from Bihar, the other, a Muslim block printer from Kutch.  But they share common, important links—they are both craftspeople, and have both received the prestigious National Master Craftsperson Award in 2005.

More significantly, both Bhushan and Khatri, like Shanta, are successfully practising craft as an ‘economic’ rather than a ‘cultural’ activity, at a time when many young craftspeople are leaving the sector in search of other more lucrative careers and stable employment.

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Righteous Pride: Shanta Bai, a Lambani embroiderer and the youngest ever National Master Craftsperson awardee Photo: Laila Tyabji—Dastkar

Craft and craftspeople are in a curious position today—one of both strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, markets and consumerism are growing, with affluent upwardly mobile lifestyles creating new demands and opportunities; on the other, the new middle class, especially the young, are getting more into branded Western labels and 21st century professions. Craft is looked at as boring, primitive, passé. This is shortsighted. One of India’s major advantages is that we have our feet in both the East and the West, and have not lost our traditions, culture, and arts in the process of acquiring new aptitudes like English education or information technology. Sadly, we don’t realise it, or where it can take us in the future. At a time when the rest of the world mourns its lost handcraft traditions and celebrates its few remaining makers, artisans in India are anonymous, uncredited and under-valued.

The intricacy, design skills and mathematical precision required to create a double ikat warp and weft or the taleem notations for a jaamdani shawl is considered vastly inferior to programming computer software, just as a master weaver would be considered a most unwelcome son-in-law for a middle-class mother.

Contemporary Indians get terribly excited when an Indian enters space, wins Miss Universe, or gets a medal at the Olympics. But few appreciate our unique distinction in having literally millions of existing master craftspeople practising skills that are no longer extant in the rest of the world. It is foreigners, whether tourists, merchandisers, or designers, who realise that India’s living crafts traditions are not only a tourist attraction, but have a huge long-term commercial potential as well.

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We in India need to be aware of this gold mine, rather than let others exploit it. If we want to capture the world, we have to do it on the basis of our strengths not our weaknesses. And one of our strengths is our distinctive aesthetic and knowledge systems. Not just the materials, motifs, and techniques, but the unique ways in which traditional communities look at things and problem-solve, use waste, take from the environment and give back to it.

Ironically, worldwide post-Covid recession and growing environmental concerns can be an opportunity for India! People looking for cheaper green alternatives to expensively mass-produced goods are rediscovering the beauty, utility and variety of indigenous handcrafted products: a mirrorwork jhola instead of a Gucci bag, embroidered juthis instead of Louboutin heels, a hand-painted Madhubani T shirt instead of a Benetton one, moda chairs and woven durries—the folk art that inspired the likes of Jamini Roy and M.F. Hussain.

Craft, in both practice and theory, can be a powerful tool of emotional, economic and intellectual empowerment for children at all levels, locations and sectors.

The craft sector with its millions of craftspeople practicing every kind of unique tradition, in every possible material and medium—from terracotta to gold, from metal casting to intricate embroidery—is a wonderful career opportunity for the young who want a life that is creative, fulfilling, and also economically rewarding. Whether you are a designer, a development consultant, an architect, a social anthropologist or photographer; an entrepreneur, retailer or exporter; craft offers career options that are challenging, varied, and different. If your goal is to see your creations on the fashion ramp in Paris or New York, using Indian textiles and craft is an obvious way to stand out. If your ambition is to build a business, any of the many forms of handcraft production is one area that doesn’t require energy, machinery, a huge and expensive infrastructure, or training of your work force. Even raw materials are locally available! And any academic or novelist would have a fascinating lode to mine in the story of Indian crafts and the people who craft it.

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As more and more people move to the cities, and education is increasingly geared to developing professional expertise with an international corporate potential, we need to ensure that schools and colleges inculcate an awareness of India’s own values and skills. And the power and potential that lie within them. This needs to be done in a manner that is creative and fun—not as boring and irrelevant history. It should link up with everyday life and the other professional expertise that students acquire.

Craft, in both practice and theory, can be a powerful tool of emotional, economic and intellectual empowerment for children at all levels, locations and sectors of school and society.

Learning about craft, and working with craft techniques and materials can give you an appreciation of the relationship between you and your environment, and the inter-dependence of the two. It teaches you hand-eye coordination, the use of materials and the importance of making from scratch. It has the potential to teach you tolerance, understanding and appreciation of difference. It is a means of enriching your world as well as giving you information processing skills: showing you how to locate and collect relevant information, compare, contrast, and analyse relations between the whole and a part.

Craft education can also build in the child ‘enquiry skills’ which involve asking questions, planning activities; improving ideas that go hand-in-hand with creative skills—expressing oneself artistically, exploring different ways of personal expression along with involvement in school projects and with business. Lastly, it can equip you with valuable entrepreneurial skills that allow you to enjoy change, practice risk management and learn from mistakes.

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The process should start at play-school and continue through the learning process of each student, remaining an integral part of their psyche and ethos throughout their lives; affecting how they look at history, society, culture, economics and art. Craft is not an old-fashioned ‘hobby’ but a vital entry point to India’s past, present and future. Like other liberal arts, it can lead to a discovery of oneself and one’s life directions.

Craft is not just for Shanta, Chandra Bhushan and Irfan Khatri, who have inherited craft skills from their ancestors. Nor should the choice be either/or technology or tradition, arts or sciences, rural or urban. Each has its place and purpose, and a synthesis of both would create an exciting and necessary dynamic, opening up new avenues, new careers and a new India.

(This appeared in the print as 'Crafting An Education')

Laila Tyabji is a designer, writer and founder member of DASTKAR Society for Crafts and craftspeople

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