Among the few things that inspired optimism in the rubble of the pandemic’s devastation of industries, small and big, was the “digital empowerment” of the Indian craftsperson. “Being online” was no longer about hashtag-happy selfie brats from the smartphone-friendly younger generation of artisan families.
This was a new battleground—the digital wiring and rewiring of India’s crafts and cultural industries, filled with the jargon of webinars, online exhibitions, digital workshops and relief funds, pointing to a new page in retail history. Across the country, collectives and non-profits rolled up their sleeves to train craftspeople in ways to click photographs, use social media, write product descriptors, work on Google sheets and sign up with payment gateways to boost sales.
GoCoop, India’s first online marketplace for craftspeople, launched in 2012, turned mentor. Khamir, a Kutch-based platform for crafts and heritage, reached out to GoCoop to train artisans, and collaborated with Creative Dignity, launched last year by a group of professionals to provide relief to artisans hit by covid-19. Dastkar, a society for crafts and craftspeople led by the astute Laila Tyabji, started its online store in September. Tata Trusts’ crafts-based livelihood initiative Antaran, forced by the pandemic to temporarily shutter its incubation and design centres, carried on virtual communication and training through its YouTube channel, Antaran Knowledge Centre.
Specialised platforms like the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF), founded by Osama Manzar, highlighted the urgent need to provide digital training to craftspeople. With the Commonwealth of Learning, an intergovernmental organisation created to promote open learning, DEF created a baseline survey, reaching out to 2,000 weavers and craftspeople and publishing an endline study, Improving Livelihoods Of Rural Weavers Through Digital Training, to map the results.
There are many such instances of digital interventions but this is not a story about the birthing of India’s Crafts-Silicon Valley. For while the technological training of the craftsperson is a progressive step, it is fraught with deep knowledge gaps, inequalities of position, education, information and ownership (of mobile devices, to begin with). If metaphors compel you, imagine the scenario of Purani Dilli’s open and low-hanging electrical wiring before its architectural makeover—every loose wire lighting a bulb somewhere, but the circuitry carrying the threat of sparks, shocks, even blackouts.
“While it is true that digital skilling gives a chance to everyone to reach out to the consumer directly, extends democratic rights and opportunity, it is an extremely layered knowledge phenomenon,” says Manzar. From the financial burden on artisans to the complexities of retail supply chains they know little about, vast inequalities are at play.
A long road ahead
Language is among the first hurdles. While most craftspeople use the English script to write in Hindi on WhatsApp, this cannot be used for product catalogue descriptors. If you view shops and sellers of Indian weaves and crafts on Instagram, an unequal universe opens up. Images of crumpled or folded woven saris, photographed from unflattering angles, appear with captions like “Im direct weavers” (@warpweftchanderisaree). Or, “Handloom and couture manufacturer” (@fairy_weaves_chanderi) or @kanjeevaram_silkhouse with the tag “Weavers Place”. Dozens of such posts must compete for attention with A-league brands like Raw Mango or Gaurang. On the one hand, semi-literate craftspeople, learning to handle the smartphone with sketchy 3G networks. On the other, established brands that can buy technology, stylists, content writers, professional photographers and campaign directors.
Differences will persist and, in fact, help the market mature. For the moment, however, the hurried digital debuts of craftspeople have also led to issues of fakes in the name of weavers’ products and confusing variations in pricing. The same (or similar) Chanderi sari on Instagram, for instance, can cost you anything from ₹6,500 to ₹35,000. The buyer has no way to ascertain authenticity.
A few months ago, designer Gaurang Shah confronted a seller from Maharashtra who was selling Paithani saris on Instagram using images from the designer’s show at the Lakmé Fashion Week for their visual campaign.
“When we started working, we realised a majority of artisans don’t use the digital medium. Making them tech-enabled cannot happen overnight and till the market matures, yes, there is the danger of fakes, even of artisans undercutting their own business or taking advantage of the situation,” says crafts consultant Meera Goradia, one of the founders of Creative Dignity. “It is not just about posting a video, it involves product customisation, managing a portal, learning to work on Google slides or spreadsheets for inventory management, protection and secure payment wallets.”
Khamir’s director Ghatit Laheru says that while some established Kutch artisans do sell online, most are not interested in developing digital skills. “We organised a professional studio with a proper photography setup for local artisans to use but few showed interest,” he says.
The issue is far more complex in Kashmir, says Shruti Jagota, project head of the Commitment to Kashmir (CtoK) Trust, which works with artisans on capacity building, design and skill development. “Mobile connectivity was an issue till recently, with 2G network that slowed down the speed of uplinking products within delivery deadlines (4G has now been restored). The difficulty of teaching online marketing through webinars, the paucity of professional product photographers in Kashmir, problems of packaging products for shipment, inventory management and trying to ‘connect’ with faceless customers, is easier said than done,” says Jagota. She cites the example of CtoK’s e-commerce platform Zaina, saying it is a challenge to interpret this world for artisans traditionally used to selling in crafts bazaars.
The deeper you dig, the more you realise how intimidating it is for artisans. Even on a platform like Amazon, an artisan is only given a relationship manager to help navigate the retail complexities of the vast e-commerce marketplace if they have over 40 products to display and sell. Smaller sellers must figure out the space themselves, something that is not feasible for them, says Jagota.
The distance between the Indian artisan’s recent introduction to technology and modern technological knowledge on data protection and design copyright is huge. So it is with the growing global shift towards blockchain technology (enabling the permanent recording and tracking of product information across the supply chain). This is why it is now as important for crafts welfare organisations to enable digital prowess as teach design diversification and quality. However, like Purani Dilli’s knotted electric wires that manage to light up bazaars, there is light here too—and not necessarily at the end of the tunnel.
The DEF survey underlines as much. Conducted across eight states, it studied 974 of the 2,000 artisans trained during covid-19. A total of 80% said digital training was important, 75% said reaching customers online helped during the lockdown, and 74% started taking pictures and videos of their products after training. What’s more, 65% were aware of digital wallets and 93% of 510 respondents started using social media for business.
“Last month, we trained 40 female mat weavers in Pattamadai. Each arrived with their smartphones, and within minutes of launching Google Meets, they were talking to each other online,” says Manzar.
Time, perhaps, then to “like” the emerging technological middlemen in the lives of Indian artisans: welfare-minded, tech-savvy mentor-collaborators who are co-authoring the new development story.
Shefalee Vasudev is editor of The Voice of Fashion and author of Powder Room: The Untold Story Of Indian Fashion.