“Ever since the pandemic started and tourists stopped coming in, we have not even been able to sell enough to pay our rent.”
The eyes of Aman Chacha, a small handicraft artisan in the streets of Bikaner was hiding a tinge of sadness. He fears that if this situation continues, he may well have to close up shop and bid adieu to the craft he had been practicing for his entire life. For thousands of others working in handicrafts like Aman chacha, the situation is no different.
An empty handicraft enclave in Nathdwara, in direct contrast to the busy street
Aman chacha is just one of many working in handicrafts that have been brutally hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent repercussions, and each of them has almost the same thing to say; With the travel bans and badly hit tourism industry, the customers who used to purchase their products the most have disappeared.
A Karigar in his workshop
The news gets even grimmer. Due to the economic crunch brought in by the pandemic, the exports of Indian handicrafts have also taken a huge hit. To give you a bit of context on why this is such a worrying issue, India exported US$ 4 billion worth of handicrafts per year in the pre-covid era. This is almost 10 times the value of the domestic market of handicrafts in India. As a result, almost three-fourth of all handicrafts that are produced here are exported into other countries to satisfy the foreign need for authentic Indian heritage. It is this avenue that has taken a huge hit, leaving traders and Karigars like Aman chacha to worry about their future in this industry. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the handicraft industry is walking on crutches right now and that too very weak ones.
Even though this may be how things stand, there is a more interesting and at the same time troubling fact that we can see: Indians themselves don’t buy Indian handicrafts. If it wasn’t evident enough before the pandemic, it is pretty clear now going by the status of handicraft stores and firms across the country.
Where the magic happens
The most alluring thing about handicrafts was always the tales they had to tell. Each piece of art has some unique story, some fragments of history embedded in them. So, it might seem peculiar that tourists who come for a 10-day stay value those pieces of tradition more than the natives themselves, the rightful heirs of this great legacy who must and should be working towards preserving it.
So, what is going so wrong that a country with a population of 130 crore people can’t even generate 1/4th of the demand that feeds its karigars numbering 7 million? As in everything, it all comes down to how handicrafts are perceived by the general populace of India. It is one of the great tragedies of our society that handicrafts have been categorized as “posh” and “decorative” goods that have been, is, and will be only used by rich and affluent people. In short, Indian handicrafts could be losing out on a huge market due to its own niche brand image.
Most of the Indian craft forms that have survived today are in dire need of recognition and upliftment, with only a handful of artisans practicing them, like Usta Kala of Bikaner where only 15 practitioners of the gold embossing craft remain when once there were hundreds of them.
Virasat members in conversation with Mohsin Ji, one of the few remaining practitioners of the golden Usta Art of Bikaner
The time has come to act, and act we must. If we don’t do anything now, we risk losing artforms that have evolved over centuries, carrying our legacy and our tradition with them. So the question is, what can we do? The answer is very simple: We, as Indians must awake to the importance of our handicrafts, and the role that they could play in our daily lives. We live under this constant misconception that Indian handicrafts are decorative items that are extremely expensive, which is only good to be seen at museums or in documentaries. Never do we think of buying it with our own money to be kept in our own homes. After all, we think, what is the use?
But, there is a whole world of utility handicrafts out there that look aesthetic, while being useful at the same time. Lest we forget, all of these traditional craft forms were born as a result of our ancestors’ efforts to make articles that could make their daily lives easier. As time passed, the artistic character of handicrafts eventually overpowered the utility side of it, but the artisans themselves are rediscovering this side to their crafts in these changing times. Nevertheless, this is not something the karigars can do on their own.
Novel Initiatives, like Project Virasat, have been started to uplift the dying craft forms of India.
These artisans have been the torchbearers of our cultural legacy for years now. Sharing the same rich background, the least we can do is contribute to their livelihood by making sure that they do not leave their crafts, taking away centuries of sweat, blood, and legacy with them.