“Creativity is contagious, pass it on”, once said Albert Einstein. And isn’t that how arts and crafts evolve and grow? Generation after generation observes, learns and develops crafts to ensure that the legacy adapts to changing times. Unfortunately, there are more exceptions to this than there are rules. Niche arts lose their heritage in this age of information overload. I am on a mission to understand one such craft.
In developing economies, rapid industrialization poses a threat to unorganized sectors, which are unable to adapt to new modes of consumption. In India, weak infrastructure, unsustainable business models and competition from mass production has led to a crisis for the handicrafts and handloom industry. My experience in the field suggests that the industry requires unique business solutions that would fit simultaneously specific cultural functions while following global modes of operation.
In 2014, I was pursuing my thesis research project in Kashmir and realised that specifically artisans in Kashmir are caught between the militancy and army. Workers who depended on a daily wage for subsistence suffered the most; and although they could create products, curfews and strikes disturbed the supply chain. That day I decided to take that plunge as an entrepreneur to work on the design and social impact but hand in hand with my strength and inspiration, my team of artisans.
Comparison Map (main crafts from Kashmir):
It is rightly said, “If we are to preserve the art we must continue to create and pass it on”. But, the 700-year-old ‘Kashmiri paper mâché craft’ which was once famous and renowned; is currently losing its identity and is at the verge of perishing because of inadequate government support and decreasing customer demand. This has impacted the economic activity of several artisans as they are dependent on it for their livelihood.
How might we reimagine kashmiri papier mache artisan sector?
How might we innovate on Papier Mache kashmir products?
How might we connect a dying artisan industry with a thriving collector subculture to create new opportunities and meaning for both groups?
Khurshid Ahmed Khan is a papier mache artisan who is residing at Amdapura Road, Srinagar. He is into this profession of art almost from last 30-35 years. The basic time that is required for preparing each piece varies as per the size and shape of the product. A small paper mache artefacts can be prepared in two days whereas bigger artefacts take 10 days to a few months depending upon the degree of labour required. He has acquired this art form from Imtiaz Ahmed and is working at his place only.
Considering the aspect of ‘monetary return’ from this art form, he is not much satisfied with the current scenario. In the initial years, he had a decent income from the paper mache craft. But currently due to political instability, riots and violent environment; the income from this profession is widely suffered. And additionally; the covid 19 has barely left any area unaffected. ‘Lockdown’ and ‘social distancing practice’ has further worsened their basic source of earning.
There is a lot of piled up inventory which has further increased the storage cost. Hence, he is not completely satisfied with the current market scenario of the art form. I am striving to help and lend support to these artisans by showcasing their products on platforms and empowering them financially as well.
2020, during the pandemic I joined hands with Crafts Council India to ensure Kashmir artisans’ livelihood.
Crafts Council of India is an NGO and a volunteer-led, not-for-profit organization working towards sustaining Indian crafts and its artisans. Currently, the NGO is upskilling artisan communities to work within the new normal and handholding them following the lockdown woes.
My initiative answered to a call for volunteers at CCI during the pandemic to designing products as per their aesthetics and needs. The collaboration attempt is to provide a platform where they can flourish in their work and make their products accessible to a relevant and interested audience.
The successful designs that were created especially for CCI are below:
Setting up a collaborative venture4 with Kashmiri artisans was a formidable challenge in my career. The initial hurdle was to gain the trust of the artisans. Businesses in India tend to be exploitative; the artisans did not have much faith in my profit-sharing model. I realised that building a relationship would take time and patience. Over months, I travelled to Srinagar regularly; carrying work supplies to them, facilitating sales, transporting finished products back to Delhi, and most importantly, making sure that they received a timely and regular flow of funds from sales.
Using my privileges of mobility and access, I am able to travel in and out of the valley un-hindered. I built a team of 10 national award-winning artisans and 60 co-workers and now my brand ‘Revived By Surabhi’ has become an exclusive home decor boutique. My goal is to contribute to the sustainability project worldwide, by borrowing not just design motifs, but also design intelligence from India’s heritage arts.
2021, developing a B2B e-commerce platform to impact their businesses and educate others of their products.