India is home to several craft forms. Estimates show there are over 200 million artisans in the country, using a large variety of indigenous materials such as clay, stone, metal, glass, bamboo, coir, paper, among others.
These artisans together comprise much of the non-farm rural economy. Before the covid-19 pandemic hit us in early 2020, the craft sector was already in decline due to the weak market access, leading to the next generation of artisan families looking for employment opportunities outside their traditional craft.
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The first half of 2020 was chaotic to say the least with no one having any idea of where were headed, bringing most human activity to a standstill. The sudden lockdown of cities led to a collapse of traditional sales channels of reaching the customers, nationally and internationally. With the mass reverse migration of urban workers to rural India, it led to a further annihilation and sped up the decline of the sector.
While there is much gloom around the future of this sector, there are reasons to hope for a brighter future for the sector in the post-pandemic era. We highlight a few trends that give us this hope.
First, the superficial link between the artisans and the impact entrepreneurs who promised them market access got fully exposed in the first few months of the pandemic-induced lockdown in the country. Of course, since the artisanal skill is mostly displayed in the craft they practice, the brands and entrepreneurs have relied heavily on glorifying the artisans in their communication.
However, the pandemic and its aftermath has demonstrated that the artisans themselves are more interested in livelihood and source of their social status in the community. This has led to many artisans questioning their continuing to produce the crafts that were difficult to sell. It is important for the entrepreneurs linking them with the markets to realise that like customers, they need to pay attention to the artisans’ needs because the craft will either continue to evolve (and improve) by being picked up by the next generation or compel the artisanal families to change their source of livelihood.
Second, since early 2020, digital commerce has also exploded and even the most hesitant consumers have started exploring and adopting online purchases. This shift has created a new and very rapidly growing trade channel for craft products, including access to global markets. This is also complemented by the demand fuelled by the global trend towards more conscious and sustainable living. This is great news for the craft industry as customer awareness and reach have been the biggest bottlenecks thus far.
During this period, adoption of simple smart phone tools amongst the artisans has been a catalyst in another major transformation in making. With returning migrants from urban centres and plenty of time on hand, the artisans found a real chance to learn and become better at such tools that are making the process of development and information transfer much faster and accurate. many are setting up digital processes to share designs, inspirations, supply chain status and even quality assurance. For example, Mysore Saree Udyog has connected its most important weavers directly to their store inventory system so that they have real time information on sales of their products. This is not only encouraging weavers to take ownership of sales at their “counter” but also transparent knowledge of what is selling. Besides strengthening the relation and trust, the process is also making the weavers take initiative in re-merchandising.
Third, there has been a massive shift in the supply of more hands due to the sudden shutdown that led to a large-scale reverse migration of urban workers to their rural homes in the early months of the pandemic. However, due to increased fear of survival and simultaneous collapse of the raw material and finished goods supply chains made everyone more open to new approaches and new skills, while not ruling out shifting to other employment options. This prompted many good initiatives in the artisanal supply chain.
Driven by her passion for khadi, shortly before covid hit us, Ahalya (Ally) Matthan, for instance, had acquired the famed khadi collection of saris and fabrics curated by late Martand Singh. During the peak of the lockdown, she took this beautiful testimony to India’s heritage on a digital journey to meet its creators in handloom clusters like Kodiyala, Dharwad and Punduru. This was a first for the rural artisans who used simple phone setups to connect with the supply chain.
The digital link was followed by the samples reaching the clusters. The resulting pride and connection with their own craft inspired a strong desire to create finer products. In a matter of just a few months, she was able to create a very eager and large base to conduct research, document it and end up with production and a sales platform. Her online venture Yali.store was imagined, conceived, established, and launched during the pandemic.
We believe that the intent and vision of the entrepreneurs separate the more serious social entrepreneurs and brands from the rest. There are many entrepreneurs like Ally for whom the pause during the pandemic was also a trigger for authentic efforts to do things with the crafts community that will make it more sustainable over the long term.
Larger and established organisations have also come forward in their own ways. Two notable examples are Tanishq and Jaipur Rugs. They realised the significance of equipping the artisans with adequate resources to create value for the customers. Both the brands made the surplus time with artisans to upgrade with creative, quality and waste management skills and got rewarded with notable growth during the pandemic and as we clear out of it, we will expect them to accelerate further. Such initiatives not only improve the livelihoods of rural artisans but also increase the supply base. In the long term, everyone earns a greater share of the value created.
This transformation towards a more sustainable product portfolio and supply chain is going to drive the future of our craft industry. After decades of failed experimentations with patronising the artisans, finally we are seeing greater trust and transparency. The future lies in giving the rural artisans ownership of their destiny and this pandemic is enabling it in more ways than one.
The entrepreneurs should focus on aligning the needs of the value chain from consumers to artisans instead of merely trying to revive the craft without providing a deeper and longer term market linkage and work closely with the artisans to improve productivity, performance, and desirability of the products.
If we lose this moment and do not transform our approach to artisanal craft industry, we may risk consumer dissonance and lose an epochal opportunity to make a big difference to the Indian creative and cultural sector.
Anchal Jain is the Founding Partner at Valmore Action Advisory. Amit Karna is a Professor of Strategy at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. Together they co-chair the Creative and Cultural Businesses Programme (CCBP) at IIM Ahmedabad.
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