An Artisan Training school on the Western edge of India doing things a little differently

On my trip to Bhuj I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with the amazing Judy Frater. She is a really incredible personality and I feel very honoured to have engaged on innumerable engaging and challenging conversations with her. Her passion and advocacy for Kutch Crafts as well as her groundbreaking work in both the education and intellectual framing of local craftspeople has impacted my thoughts in profound ways. 

I first met her at Somaiya Kala Vidya, an amazing school which is a division of the K.J. Somaiya Gujarat Trust and which she founded in 2003 after receiving an Ashoka Fellowship which was a large enabling factor. She has been involved in the crafts of the Kutch region since the 1970s when she first visited and has been living here for around 25 years. Before founding SKV Judy was instrumental in the success of Kala Raksha and the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya which has had a significant impact on the income, ethics and standard of design in craft of the local artisans. The school is based about an hour outside of Bhuj in Adipur and is heralded as the first design school for artisans. Somaiya Kala Vidya teaches an 11 month long course in Design Education and a “post graduate” course in Business Management to craftspeople from a variety of villages in the region.

These courses provide the artisans with new opportunities such as higher education, higher value products and access to supportive markets. New markets are an absolute necessity in the continuity of the rich crafts legacy of these communities as the communities themselves no longer support enough of a demand for handworked textiles to support their many craftspeople. The school teaches design, business and traditional identity in such a way that the artisans may find new market. This is based on a premise that the artisans have innate skill, creativity and knowledge and that they are not lacking or in any way inferior to the new market but that through training in design thinking and entrepreneurship they could learn the language of these new predominantly urban consumer bases. The students create a collection through which they can explore and develop their own artistic, design sensibilities and voice, growing on their personal sensibilities through institutionalised guidance. They are taught about traditional practices, design principles and entrepreneurship so that they may better understand the vocabulary of the urban market. Furthermore, they are directly exposed to new markets so that they may better understand how they function, their needs and desires as well as how best to benefit from them.

I’ve found that in a discourse on the education of craftspeople and the elevation of crafts a certain type of language arises which positions the crafts and rural artisans as inferior to the urban market. A word that seems to recurrently come up is “empowerment”. According to Miriam Webster dictionary (for ease of access and familiarity) empowerment is defined foremost as “the act or action of empowering someone or something : the granting of the power, right, or authority to perform various acts or duties.” To me, the social hierarchy here is glaringly obvious and begs addressing. In this language the craftsperson is framed as not only inferior but in need of help, therefore implying desperation. Judy defines empowerment as the opposition to desperation, namely, the access to choice. For this choice, a new market must be developed and this market must positions craft as a valuable and desirable rather than on the sinking end of a scale. 

All of this dichotomy speak begs the question, in opposition to what? If craft is an inferior, a lesser form of production what is the superior alternative? Looking at specific products it seems that the only alternative is mass produced textiles and apparel. While mass production is not all bad, the unfortunate reality is that much of it depends on the exploitation and devaluation of its workers, often subjecting them to inhumane lifestyles. Further, mass production is so far removed from the origins of the fibre, and the consumption of the product that it tends to have horrific environmental implications. Despite all of this, it is marketed incredibly well. True handcraft offers an alternative to this. I believe that when a product is created by a human it will inherently be better suited for human consumption than its machine made counterpart. Supported by a market which values their work artisans are able to live a holistic lifestyle without alienation from their tradition, culture or environment. However, the marketing power of the craftsman has historically been weak. 

As students of SKV, these craftspeople are better equipped to appeal and connect more strongly with their new markets. However, making these connections is still the most difficult step in the equation. While there is a strong market for beautiful and technically excellent handcraft, there is definitely room for this demand to grow. I believe that the shift in consumer demand from mass production to handmade would produce a decentralisation of wealth and resources which could only produce positive effects. However, it does demand a serious rethinking of modern and particularly urban modes of consumption. While these products appeal to certain markets in terms of practicality and costing, the market for mass produced, poorly made products denies both the producer and the buyer of value. Handcraft goods should cost more because they are made by hand, by humans, this takes time and skill and imbues value which comes at a cost. When

consumers demand clothes at low prices, what they are demanding is unliveable wages and the removal of the human from the equation. As such, when a market demands poorly made textiles and apparel it devalues both end of the exchange. Alternatively, I believe that the value of handcrafts is such that it inherently enriches the life of both the maker and the consumer.

Read more about Somaiya Kala Vidya Here

Read more about Kala Raksha Here

Read more about the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya Here

Image credits

All Images in this story taken by Leila Walter in the homes of former students of Somaiya Kala Vidya in Bhujodhi, India, 2018

Featured Image pictures Pachan Premji Siju, A Vankar Weaver from Bhujodi and Graduate of Somaiya Kala Vidya wearing a beautifully detailed shirt he wove himself while sitting at his loom. 

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