COVID19 Creates Dry Spell for Handicraft Sector


Tirnath is an artisan practicing the art of Dhokra metal casting, which has been in use in India for over 4000 years. To put things into perspective, Tirnath often spent 7-8 days perfecting a Dhokra art piece. His dependency on the art form came crashing down as he increasingly found himself out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tirnath started to spend all his time indoors in lockdown, unable to provide for his family of six.

For over two months, the family survived on nothing more than rice, dal (lentils), and a little sugar.

During this period, Tirnath turned away from #Dhokra art, which had once granted him employment, livelihood, and respect. He presently does unskilled manual labor to draw daily earnings under MNREGA.

Like Tirnath, countless artisans have lost their daily earnings. An Indian Express article states that although there has been no census, estimates say that art and crafts involve more than 130 lakh people in rural and semi-rural locations. As the handicraft industry generates the most jobs in India after agriculture, how it endures throughout and after the pandemic is becoming an area of concern.

*History of Indian Handicraft*

Dilli Haat is all about arts, crafts, culture, and ethnic food. If you go there, you will be witnessing more than just an individual artisan’s product. Even when you don't know, centuries' worth of development and progress surrounds you when you view an art piece.

Whether it is Bell Metal art from Bastar or Bidriware from Bidar or Terracotta art from Orissa, each art form has its unique and fascinating history. As an example, a piece of Meenakari jewelry still goes through the same assembly line of craftspeople as it used to go through about 500 years ago.

You might recognize some of the handicraft types mentioned above. Terracotta, for instance, was one of the handicrafts that helped establish ancient India as the #1 leader and pioneer in the handicraft market. According to Know India (an initiative under the government of India): Through the ages, handicrafts made in India like the Kashmiri woolen carpets, Zari embroidered fabrics, terracotta, and ceramic products, silk fabrics, etc. have maintained their exclusiveness. In ancient times, these handicrafts were exported to far off countries of Europe, Africa, West Asia, and the Far East via the 'silk route'.

Of course, the trends keep changing, and so do the handicrafts that bring India the most popularity. For example, during the Gupta period, the characteristic elements of the Indian temple emerged. Sculpture in stone became popular like the image of Buddha in red sandstone, focus on the female figure, etc. The stone carving from the temples at Deogarh and those from the temples of Udayagiri and Ajanta are excellent specimens of figure sculpture.

During the 200 years of British rule, the handicraft industry faced a sharp decline. After regaining independence, the industry, like a beautiful phoenix, rebuilt itself on its ashes. The Indians carried themselves through every difficulty and thus moved forward. The need of the hour is to emulate the same attitude.

*Impact of COVID-19*

Lockdown brought restrictions into the country, which caused a sharp dip in demand for non-essential items. As a result, the artisans have been out of work for the past two months.

Though the government has granted some respite by relaxing certain lockdown norms, it is still unclear when and how the demand for craft-based products will see a rise.

The Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH) has canceled the IHGF - Delhi Fair that was to be held in April this year. Similar fairs attract massive crowds of craft lovers and traders from different parts of the country as well as other countries that help Indian artisans and exporters to earn handsome amounts of money. The cancellation of these fairs can cost millions to this industry. The EPCH estimates that the handicraft sector may lose around 8000-10000 crore rupees during this pandemic. This loss can have a devastating effect on the life of the countless artisans in this country.

This pandemic is becoming a scourge for the craft industry. Many handicraft-based enterprises may not survive this pandemic. Since most artisans depend on enterprises, this may mean that the survival of the artisans may become suspicious.

*What to do now*

We want to divide the action plan into two distinct parts:

How to Survive this #Pandemic– We don't know how long the curse of coronavirus is going to plague us, but until it dies down, there is little to no chance of holding any exhibitions. We cannot just wait for the time to change. As there is a limited chance of being able to sell at retail stores, we need to focus on selling on online platforms instead.

Every social media platform has different sets of audiences, and therefore, different ways of being marketed to different kinds of people.

A team effort can also go a long way in any domain and profession. To work fruitfully, we can plan collaborations with those involved in the same sector. The collaborations will also help us expand our network by meeting new people.

Post-Pandemic Strategies –

One of the biggest challenges of this industry is to compete with machine-made products. Machine-made products are cheaper than handmade products and have less completion time. In our opinion, this is the central problem with choosing this industry. Artisans naturally try to compete with the production capacity of machines.

It is very inapt to compare a #handmade product with a machine-made one.

How can we compare a Rolls-Royce that takes a total of 6 months to build with a Toyota that takes merely 13 hours for the same?

Hence, we need to change the marketing strategy of handcrafted products. It should be different from that of machine-made products.

Another issue is that it is quite difficult for the #government to work with every artisan.

The government should work alongside a monitoring agency that can help and monitor those startups who are working with the artisans on the ground level.

It will enable the government to watch the growth of every artisan.

Lastly, startups and design institutes should collaborate. With time, such collaborations will help the industry improve.

What many people don't know is that there is a complete educational institute, Indian Institute of Crafts and Design (IICD), established in Jaipur, Rajasthan, which mainly educates for the crafts and their existence with design. As lack of awareness might be one of the reasons for the stunted growth of artisans, so is the absence of training (especially in-village training). Lack of training may stop individuals who are not born in artistic families from taking up an ancient craft and practice.

*Closing Thoughts*

More has been done with less in other economies, and with more than 3,000 craft forms, India looks to be sitting on an untapped goldmine. The nation has not adequately capitalized on this industry. The vast untapped potential of artisans to leave an impression on the global scene affects not only them but every optimistic, patriotic citizen of India. The need of the hour is to formulate and design a strategy to spread ethnic products all over the world.

As a handicraft-based #socialenterprise, Coshal Art believes that when we view a handicraft, people, present issues, surroundings, and the environment, culture, heritage, and endless other topics come to the forefront of our consciousness. We thus request fellow Indians to see every art and craft as a jewel of colors and forms, something that can make us breathless and also make us think deeply.

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