April 03, 2020
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Handicraft Uncrafted By Artisan Hands

How technology is altering equations between traditional skills and the market

Handicraft Uncrafted By Artisan Hands
Tech Mech
In brass city Moradabad, the use of technology has grown, replacing much of what used to be handcrafted
Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari
Handicraft Uncrafted By Artisan Hands

Dilshad Hussain, winner of several national and state awards, now depends mostly on his family members, including his daughters and daughters-in-law, to carry forward the traditional craft of engraving or nakashi and enamel or kathai work that has been slowly disappearing from Moradabad—the town once known as the brass city of Uttar Pradesh and a major export hub. With government support, Hussain has trained several youngsters keen to learn the craft he learnt from his grandfather, and happily mentions that his daughter Ujma Khatoon is also a state award-winner.

“The brass city is now a misnomer,” says Hussain. “As the cost of brass has more than doubled since 2005, aluminum, steel, wood and glass have repla­ced it in most cases. Technology is also advancing very fast and steadily replacing handicraft. For ins­tance, moulding, casting, engraving, scrapping, polishing and finishing are now mostly done by machines, particularly in big units.”

Ajam Ansari, member of the All India Handicr­afts Board, admits that barring small units still using old machinery, export units are mostly mechanised, with computerised designs and even laser engraving for faster production at lower cost.  Only 60 per cent of the handicrafts sold in the dom­estic market or exported are handcrafted, he reckons. The estimate can be doubted as new ­machinery has made it difficult to tell handcrafted products from machine-made ones. Handcrafted items are unique in design, come with long traditions, and are special to a region.

“The traditional craft of embellishing brass and copper utensils with fine engravings is almost ­vanishing as the number of trained and skilled craftsmen is declining, while customers are chary of having to pay more for these wares,” says Anuj Kumar , deputy commissioner (industries), ­Mora­dabad. According to Shantmanu, development commissioner (handicrafts) under the ministry of textiles, they have to follow the definition of handicrafts in the Supreme Court’s 1995 judgment and be strict about applicability of the norms while implementing government schemes. “It should primarily be handmade and the element of machinery, if any, should be minimal. There also has to be some element of artistic appeal,” explains the bureaucrat. Engraving and inlaying are artistic work that have to be done by hand to qualify as handicraft. Certain groups use machines for doing everything, while there is a smaller segment that is still doing only part of the work using machines.

The government has ­identified 35 crafts as endangered or languishing craft. “Besides these, wherever machines are posing a challenge to the conservation of traditional crafts, we ­impart short- and long-term training to artisans by giving them ­incentives,” says Shantmanu. The segments most affected by mechanisation are toys, as seen in clusters in Karnataka, Andhra Prad­esh and Varanasi in UP, where machine-­made toys have made major inroads. Even block printing has gradually been taken over by web screen printing and it is difficult to tell handmade from machine-­made. Another sector affected is of metal or stone-made idols of Ganesha, for example, with cheaper ­imports from countries like China posing a major challenge and hastening mechanisation. In case of handmade carpets, however, Indian products make up over one-third of the global supply.

“Handcrafted no longer implies the use of dexterous human fingers, informed by an agile mind, motivated by tradition and moved by the spirit,” says Rajeev Sethi, curator and founder-chairman of the Asian Heritage Foundation. “In the name of lessening drudgery or increasing production and promoting efficiency, labour-saving devices are replacing handcrafted tools to the detriment of skills that even the poorest of the poor can possess.” Sethi believes “made by hand” is a much-abused tag in case of most Indian handicraft products.

Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

Mechanisation has crept into a lot of material, including marble, with mac­hines doing every­thing from cutting to polishing to edging. The fine­sse may be better, but the products aren’t unique or handcrafted. “A lot of wire inlay is being done by machines,” says Puneet Kaushik, an artist who has been working with art­isans for over two decades. “The significance of doing a unique one piece is no more there. It’s all about quantity.”

Kaushik points out that people even in crafts museums are happy when appr­o­a­ched with an order for 10 identical pieces as they know it is not difficult to make a die and put it together. For instance, most of Kalamkari craft is now screen printed. Forget natural dyes and colours, even in miniature paintings you have beautiful prints made to look hand-pain­ted with little tweaking of hand or eye.

Experts say handcrafted handicraft ­exists only in small pockets where the artisans don’t have a choice due to being too poor or unaware of alternative ways—as in case of palm leaf work. Or if it is a very labour-intensive craft involving working with the hand right from scratch—for example, pattachitra paintings or terracotta work in Odisha.

Amrita Sabat of Sabat Exports, which has done yeoman’s service for popularising Odisha’s handicrafts in the global market, laments that with machine-­made and cheaper terracotta work from West Bengal flooding the market, the terracotta artisans of Bolangir and Sonepur districts are facing tough times. “Once machines come in, it no longer ­remains handicraft,” stresses Sabat

Even the famed tarakasi (silver ­filigree work), which until two decades ago was entirely handmade, is now seeing some switchover to machines. “It is still strictly restricted to making and straightening of the fine wires, which used to take a long time earlier,” says Prafulla Sahu, secretary of Odisha Swarna Roupya Shilpi Mahasangha. “Wire-making, which could take up to two full days earlier, is now done with machines in five minutes.  The rest is all handmade.”

Experts say there is need for both the government and private sectors to highlight the handmade aspect of our products for enhancing awareness about our culture. Shubhra Singh, chief operating officer, The Nabha Foundation, points to their efforts to revive and promote phulkari, Punjab’s traditional embroidery included in every trousseau and household in the state. “If you leave out the past 5-7 years, there was a huge ­deterioration with machine-made phulkari taking over the market. Things have gradually started changing as we work very closely with artisans trying to ­revive this part of Punjab’s culture and heritage,” says Singh.

When the foundation started working with artisans around a decade ago, it rea­lised that women had forgotten how to do phulkari even in the villages. “Some 30 years ago, every woman would know how to do it, but we saw that the younger women had no idea about its heritage value. Even in households where women were doing phulkari work, many of the original intricate motifs were all lost,” says Singh, who is happy that they have been able to collect some traditional des­igns from personal collections and wedding trousseau, and also recreate designs with the help of reference photographs.


Award-winning Moradabad artisans Dilshad Hussain and daughter Ujma Khatoon.

Photograph by Tribhuvan Tiwari

Similar is the story of Kantha embroidery in Bengal and chikkan work in UP. Kantha originated as an art form around 1,000 years ago when stories (katha) were woven on cloth. “This art form would have been on the verge of extinction, but for a few individuals who helped revive and re-revive it multiple times through the ages,” says Farah Khan, who works on reviving Kantha embroidery. “From something that would merely fuel the local economy, it has become of great commercial value nationally and internationally.”

Growth is paralysed, feels Khan, as the handicrafts sector is unorganised, and poorly exposed to new designs and technologies, besides suffering from lack of marketing facilities, proper infrastructure and institutional framework. Fara­way villages without proper transport facility make the business very difficult. Hence kantha products sold in the market were of poor quality. The dedicated work of a few individuals is helping ­revive this traditional craft.

Shantmanu is happy that some segments like musical instruments face no threat unlike traditional toys and dolls.  The handicraft commissioner stressed that you cannot force any artisan to follow old ways when concerns of livelihood overrule other considerations. Nearly two decades ago, there were around 65 lakh artisans in the country. Three years ago, when the government started the process of granting a unique number to the artisans based on the Aadhaar card, 25 lakh were identified. “The process is continuing and we may at the most touch around 40 lakh, which shows the decline in the number of handicraft artisans,” he says.

On the roads of Moradabad and many other handicraft cluster towns, ­hundreds of artisans have switched to other professions and are encouraging their progeny to follow suit. Others keen to pursue the craft seem to be increasingly adopting machines. In the process, much of our traditional arts and craft seem to be losing their past glory and the country its heritage.

By Lola Nayar with inputs from Lachmi Deb Roy and Sandeep Sahu

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