“All my life I’ve made copperware, but I’ve only now realised the value of creating new products that customers want.”
“I have always felt as if I’m a labourer who makes papier-mache objects, but now I feel as if I could also be a businessman making a viable venture out of his craft.”
When cynics question the survival of Indian handicraft, voices such as these, of Tanveer Bhat and Kaounsar Ahmad Shah, give hope that there’s a way forward, a way for crafts to evolve with modern times and tastes. “We founded Commitment to Kashmir (CtoK) with this exact aim — to mentor craftspeople from this beleaguered state not only in terms of design but also to provide them with market linkages so that they can understand what customers really want,” says Laila Tyabji, founder of Dastkar and one of the co-founders of CtoK. Not only does the fledgling organisation connect craft producers with designers such as Priya Ravish Mehra and Gitanjali Kashyap, but it has also organised workshops to educate them in establishing commercially viable craft businesses. The School of Design at the Ambedkar University and the Craft Development Institute, Srinagar, have been willing partners in this exercise.
Launched in 2011, CtoK grew as a response to the unrest that gripped Kashmir Valley in 2009 and 2010, paralysing the livelihoods of thousands of craftspeople. Dependent as they were on revenues earned from tourism, every act of militancy caused their primary market to shrink further. The late L C Jain, former Planning Commission member and crafts visionary, came up with a plan to enable young Kashmiri craftspeople to earn sustainable livelihoods. Today, the trust includes amongst its members Tyabji, Manju Nirula and Gita Ram of the Crafts Council of India, Ritu Sethi of Craft Revival Trust, Gulshan Nanda, former chairperson of Central Cottage Industries Emporium, and members of Jain’s family.
Tanveen Rathi with a group that creates papier-mache objects
Every year, up to six young craftspersons are chosen for mentoring and specifically targeted grants. Arifa Jan, a struggling wool felter, is from the first batch of grantees. CtoK sponsored her participation in an international felting workshop held in Kyrgyzstan in 2013.
Today, she employs 18 felters and has witnessed a commensurate sixfold increase in sales through the various Ctok initiatives. Entrepreneurship training has also shown young craftspeople how selling their products to traders affects their profitability. Instead, they’re improving their designs and exploring new markets. Muteen and Manzoor, both CtoK grantees, have taken traditional pashmina weaving to a new level of craftsmanship and design. Within nine months of mentorship from CtoK, they’ve set up their label, Blossoms of Heaven which is on display at Dastkar Nature Bazaar in Delhi till November 17. They have a 12-loom pashmina unit with 13 full-time weavers and employ seven other drafters, clippers and dyers.
They are also training 18 women in the rural Tanmarg district for free. Their unique and striking designs have secured a large order from the international brand, S Oliver.
“To me, the importance of CtoK’s work is that it is showing a ripple effect in different crafts communities,” says Yasir Mir, faculty member of Crafts Development Institute. “Each grantee who sets up a business is able to train and employ other people in his or her community. This way their learning passes on to others.”
This year, many of CtoK’s grantees saw their raw materials, finished goods and workshops washed away by the floods. The floods have also led to a drastic fall in the number of tourists, thus diminishing the market for Kashmiri craftspeople. “Most of the craftspeople here depend upon tourism and the local market for sales,” says Mir. “This year’s floods in Srinagar primarily affected tourist areas such as Lal Chowk, Dal Gate and Boulevard where all the big hotels and handicraft showrooms are located. This will affect future business.” This situation is forcing many craftspeople to take hard decisions. Tanveer Bhat, a CtoK grantee whose copper work unit was damaged by the flood, has migrated to Delhi for now, while his family continues to live in Srinagar. “There’s no market left for me to sell in Srinagar,” Bhat says.
The task ahead, of ensuring that crafts become — and remain — a sustainable livelihood, is now even tougher than before. “I stored raw material as well as finished papier mache products in my workshop. When the flood came, I was in Delhi. Even as I was trying to get news of my family in Srinagar, I learnt that my workshop and all my stock worth about Rs 4 lakh had been lost,” he says. Consequently, CtoK’s efforts are now focused on rehabilitation. Shah has already received Rs 80,000 from CtoK to rebuild his life. “Now I’m shifting to Jammu for the winter, where I’ll slowly start buying small quantities of raw material once again,” says he.
CtoK is funded by individual donors and Jain’s family, but needs resources to grow. In the meantime, it remains a tiny beacon of light that shows a viable way forward, not only for crafts in Kashmir, but also in the rest of India.
(CtoK can be contacted at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org, or through Facebook)
Next fortnight: The inspiring tale of a rural entrepreneur who dropped out of school and went on to invent refrigerators that run without electricity, as well as pressure cookers and thermos flasks -- all from terracotta.