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When the Indian artisan turns digital entrepreneur

Eager to sustain traditional art, artisans are slowly taking to social media and digital tools to market and sell their products directly to buyers

A sari made by Babuli Das, an artisan from Odisha's Gopalpur who uses Instagram for his business of selling traditional temple sarees and stoles
A sari made by Babuli Das, an artisan from Odisha's Gopalpur who uses Instagram for his business of selling traditional temple sarees and stoles (Courtesy Antaran/Instagram)

The Indian handloom and handicrafts sector has always been pegged as a gateway to economic opportunities for artisans. It is the second largest sector in the country, employing over 20 million people. The sector’s impact stretches to international borders as well, what with India’s production of handwoven fabric constituting 95% of the global production. And as of 2020, the export of Indian handloom was valued at over $319.02 million. 

Against this backdrop remain vast communities of Indian artisans and weavers who practice centuries-old art through uniquely crafted products, forming the backbone of the industry. Yet, most of them continue to be daily-wage earners, with no social or medical covers, or formal employment recognition. 

Also read | The gap between tech and the artisan

The past few decades have seen the growing influence of industrialization, mass production and standardization threatening their livelihoods. The sudden onset of the pandemic, and the consequent shutting down of all non-essential supply chains, has only made things worse by clobbering a near-death blow to the industry, and jeopardising the jobs of millions of artisans. As the country slowly charts its journey of economic recovery, artisans are now faced with a powerful and unique opportunity to transition to refreshed tech-backed business models, and a will to become self-reliant.   

The covid-19 impact decoded

The pandemic has left a long-lasting imprint on the economy of the country, and the handloom and handicrafts sector has been among the worst hit. Business-to-business (B2B) markets have been functioning at sub-par levels and supply chains have been disrupted. Many brands have been forced to cancel factory orders, leaving thousands of artisans at hiatus with unsold stock that they created in anticipation of exhibitions and for B2B buyers. 

Further, most artisans, as members of the informal employment sector, have been left more vulnerable to the fluctuations of the economy amid the pandemic. With no job security or scope for pursuing business, artisans across major clusters have switched to alternate livelihoods to make ends meet. This disquieting reality has not only robbed thousands of their creative livelihoods, but also adversely impacted the unique cultural history of Indian handicrafts. 

Thinking digital 

As the pandemic continues to build an increasingly remote reality, most markets have shifted online to shelter from further economic repercussions. The digital potential, however, won’t be appealing if artisans can’t enter this alternate marketplace. The challenge then is twofold, comprising the need to manage the transition of the sale-purchase experience from tactile to virtual, and to build capacities of artisans to shift to a business-to-consumer (B2C) model online. 

Artisans are now eager to sustain their art and livelihoods and can be seen picking up requisite skills to properly market their products in today’s remote reality. As in-person events become a thing of the past, many artisans are inspired to embrace entrepreneurship by leaning on the advantages of the digital medium. High-quality photographs, statistically informed cost-pricing, online platform partnerships, and accepting digital payments, have emerged as essential skills in this regard. 

In working with B2C buyers, many artisan entrepreneurs have also learned to transact with customers through phone, video calls, WhatsApp for business, and by posting products on Instagram and Facebook, using appropriate hashtags. Switching gears to use social media, can similarly help many artisans to grow their businesses and come out of this grim situation as new age entrepreneurs. 

Rise of budding entrepreneurs 

Given the earnest efforts of artisans to sustain their art and establish themselves without depending on bigger brands, it is imperative for the government, the people and other social welfare organizations to work together and help rehabilitate them. In line with the government vision of an Atmanirbhar Bharat, welfare organisations must take active efforts to educate artisans in design, marketing and distribution. 

Enabling a shift in consumer mindset is also necessary. For years, artisans have been clouded with anonymity behind big labels, with no recognition for their individual skill and art. Organizations must actively seek to advocate for the necessity to preserve traditional handicraft, while highlighting the inherently sustainable nature of Indian handloom amid an already socially and environmentally conscious youth. In fact, encouraging the next generation consumer to directly buy from artisans can substantially augment their entrepreneurial efforts. 

The rough and tumble of the current situation should not stop artisans from learning about ways of doing online business. The destiny of Indian weavers is neither a tabula rasa nor a fait accompli but a page in the process of being written. In the midst of all hue and cry, pandemic offers new possibilities to creative and aspirational artisans to be the true custodians of the heritage craft by interacting with marketing directly while being based at their villages.

Sharda Gautam, anchor, Antaran Initiative, zonal manager (north) at Tata Trusts.

Also read | Why handloom is the 'ultimate luxury' 

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