Gond wall mural, middleman in crafts, SKS microfinance, Compartomos

Designer Artisan collaboration

Every time I listen to a student presentation (or even tea-time discussion) on crafts, I hear about this obnoxious middleman. The guy who is in between the artisan and the final customer, the one who makes the maximum profits leaving the poor artisan with barely anything for survival. I imagine the middle aged man with a paunch wearing a gold strapped watch and chewing paan. His life’s goal is to fleece the poor artisan. Only the reality is far away from it.

The artisan has to deal with multiple issues like lack of access to credit, understanding of his market, idea of design, pricing, packaging, inventory management and whole lot more that I can rant on about for pages. Middlemen are the least of his problems. I am a middleman (yes, another sexist term!) and I am not that guy. In a typical product based organization, there is a manufacturing/production unit, sales and marketing unit and allied functions like Human Resources, Finance and Accounting and many others depending on the specific needs of an organization. In no set-up is it possible for the manufacturing unit to directly sell their products to a bunch of customers and then go back to making more of those products. So why should this phenomenon exist in the craft industry? The maker/producer’s core competency is production, so it is in his best interest that he/she sells it to the ‘middleman’ who in turn stocks inventory from multiple producers and sells it at a higher price.

So the next question is how much should the artisan earn? What is the fair price for his product? Since craft is an unorganized sector, there is no policy on this. Hence in such situations, the market decides the cost of the product. This scenario leads to competition and this in turn leads to ‘better quality’ wares being demanded more.

Take for instance Fabindia. You could call it a middleman. Being an organization that buys from artisans and sells to the customer through its brand name, by definition, Fabindia falls into this ambit. The big difference being, Fabindia just does not buy. It trains artisans to make better quality products. Their design team understands market needs, translates them into products and helps artisans form self help groups that create channels for access to credit. The resulting products are both urban centric and rural made, with a strong flavor of the traditional form. While all this portrays the organization as a beacon of hope for the craft industry, there is always a question of how much profit that it makes? The industry average of net profit margins for social enterprises is pegged at around 3%, while Fabindia makes 8%. For the sector that it belongs, it is a highly profitable company. Fabindia employs 80,000 artisans and is for most of them, the only source of livelihood. For me, this one factor clearly justifies the business model of the organization and the profits that it generates.

Social mission is the foundation that houses many organizations, but profitability is what makes them grow. It infuses efficiency and accountability in the system and incentivizes the individual working to further the mission. Microfinance is a grey area here, it struggles to walk the tight rope between eradicating poverty and worsening it.

Hyderabad based SKS Microfinance may have taken a leaf out Compartamos’ book, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to ensure the same success story. SKS went public a year or so after Compartamos, the leading Microfinance institution in Mexico. While Compartamos regularly netted a profit margin of around 20%, SKS promised investors a higher figure. Critiqued globally (even by the father of Microfinance Mohammed Yunus), Comparatamos is seen as an organization that got richer by charging interest rates of up to 90% to its million poor borrowers who are mostly women. The success stories range from small grocery stores selling snacks to high school kids to producing homemade cheese that sells to bigger markets every year. While Mexican borrowers did not care much for the criticism or the high interest rates, the scenario was quite different in India. A spate of suicides in Andhra Pradesh owing to pressures by the microfinance institutions led to government scrutiny and a ruling that prohibited any sort of pressure to recover funds from borrowers. This led to unrecovered loans to the tune of rupees 1300 crores forcing SKS to exit state operations. While the situation isn’t exactly black and white and the factors that finally did SKS in was much more than just the hand of the government, the end result was that the needy were deprived of the much needed capital. While the Mexican counterpart continues to grow its base and help the women borrowers grow their business, the Indian story once again stagnates.

The answer to the artisan poverty problem isn’t doing away with the middleman. He isn’t a bad guy, after all.

 

I’ve always hated hospitals and airports. I find them vast and cold, very very cold. I guess it is to do with all the swanky steel and the blinding white light. It is not a cozy place to be in. And I would attribute this inherent dislike to my absolutely Indian sense of aesthetics. Before I am banished off of as someone who loves the hideously carved and highly varnished ‘Indian’ furniture, hear me out. I love the straight lines of FabIndia’s furniture. But give me the same thing in steel and leather and I would run a mile the other way. I’ve always wondered why our architects and interior designers borrowed so much from the West. We have some wonderful materials, a million sources of inspiration and some gifted artisans, yet our recently built public and corporate spaces mirror those in the West.

So when I saw pictures of the T2 terminal in Mumbai, I was elated. Designed by Rajeev Sethi, this is the reminder that we have arrived on the global scene. The way we flaunt our culture in one of the most visible points of the country is our way of telling the world, “Hey, look you are now in one of the most gorgeous countries of the world”. One of the largest art & craft galleries in the world with 7,000 artifacts and works by 1,500 artists, the 3 Km long art walk is a definite incentive to reach the airport much before time.

For someone who works with crafts everyday, this is welcome news. ‘Contemporary’ architects and designers, please take note. We’d gladly help you install some of our country’s most beautiful hand-crafted products and solutions in your projects. Take a pick from 22 different craft clusters, experiment with modern ideas and shed those inhibitions once and for all. We have enough artisans waiting to take up this challenge. Let’s bring our crafts back home. Sharing some pictures of the T2 terminal.

Mumbai airport, CraftCanvas, handicrafts

T2 terminal, Mumbai airport

Inspired by the peacock feather, the entryway is an ode to our National bird

T2 terminal, Mumbai International airport, CraftCanvas, handicraft flooring

Floral pattern on the floor, T2 terminal, Mumbai airport

Marble Inlay, very very Indian

T2 terminal, Mumbai International airport, CraftCanvas, handicraft flooring

Jaali installation

With inspiration from the carvers and carvings in key monuments of various states, a jaali (lattice) installation

T2 terminal, Mumbai International airport, CraftCanvas, Madhubani wall

Madhubani wall installation by Pratik Prabhakar

This is a special one, designed by a friend. As you can see, Madhubani is not all about Ram-Sita or Radha-Krishna. It is contemporary, celebrates our roots and cherishes a collective memory.

Do watch this video on the process. Narrated by Amitabh Bachhan, this one is sure to touch that proud patriotic nerve somewhere.

Video on art and crafts at the T2 terminal, Mumbai International Airport

Rajeev Sethi and GVK, take a bow!

 

I was born in the 80s, in Chennai. That would explain most of my childhood. It was education all the way. My life was wrapped around mathematics, sciences and my mother’s unflinching belief in the need to master Hindi (maybe she had an inkling about my future choice of husband!). I wasn’t particularly good at sports, but I made up by being the fastest at multiplication tables. It was a choice- sports or academics, never both.

In all this, I missed out on few things during my childhood. Art was one such thing. I wasn’t the best at using the pastels back in school, but I loved the care-free indulgence that painting offered. There was no right answer and that thought was so much fun.

So when I got my chance finally (forget that I am almost 30!), the paints still hold that charm for me. I’ve gone berserk trying to mix colors, paint in that secret book (this is equivalent to bathroom singing) and having a ball of a time.

Now I am glad I am able to offer that chance to many like me. A 5 day workshop on Warli painting. It will be conducted by Dilipbhai, a National Award winning painter. More about Warli very soon, but do remember that is an easy to learn painting. I am not training to be the next Hussain here. I am just going to paint my heart out, just indulge myself.

If you are in Ahmedabad, come join me. Indulge!

According to Wikipedia, India has about 882 million mobile phone users. The number of land line connections are a mere 35 million and they have been around far far longer than mobile phones. Compare this with a basic need like electricity. In December 2011, over 300 million Indian citizens had no access to electricity.Over one third of India’s rural population lacked electricity, as did 6% of the urban population. Of those who did have access to electricity in India, the supply was intermittent and unreliable. In 2010, blackouts and power shedding interrupted irrigation and manufacturing across the country (Source: Wikipedia)

While such growth and potential have caused major scams and losses amounting to several crore rupees, the telecom sector has given rise to many heartening signs. The numbers above claim that about 70% of our population have access to mobile phones. This means so many people can connect easily with the rest of the world.

Consider a situation 10 years ago for any Indian village. While the urban areas were getting better, the villages did not see any major growth. Our GDP rose rapidly, thanks to all the development in the service sector. In the middle of these shining statistics, a huge bulk of India was left behind. They had no access to power, clean drinking water, sanitation, primary education and no focus on women’s development. While successive governments were battling these basic issues, protecting local art and craft was not on the list.

As with most businesses that flourish mainly because of demand, this one started dying a slow death. Craftsmen moved to alternate livelihoods. The most skilled painters were working as a daily wage labourers building huge skyscrapers for the urban audience that was growing by the day. Some of those who retained their craft started making low quality products in order to speed up their production.They used low quality raw materials. They were fighting a battle against mass produced inexpensive machine made products. Quality deteriorated and so did the demand. The second generation did not see a lucrative livelihood in this and they refused to learn the art.

Today the scenario is a little different. A craftsman can set up a stall in one of the many exhibitions. He can pass on his mobile number to prospective customers. They customers can use that number to call him and place additional orders. He can stay in touch with designs with the help of MMS, market information, exhibitions via text messages and forums. His business is slowly coming back. At this point, he should be helped with some inputs on design and quality, better supply chain processes and a steady market for his products. He needs to be handheld for a while, till he is able to work on his own and even train the next generation. All this will take some time.

From my side, I am glad for this. I am able to connect with artisans across the country. I use technology to help bridge the gap. I use technology to introduce them to urban centric products and aesthetics. I am helping them earn a livelihood with what they know best. I hope the next generation too will see this potential and take up the craft.

And my sincere thanks to the telecom industry for this.

I’ve been blogging for about a year now. I blog about my passions- the crafts that I work with, my travels, some projects that I do for clients and all the little things that I do in my home. So this blog has evolved as something bigger than just my work. 2011 has shaped me more than any of other years and I am happy for that. I start 2012 on a wiser note and I wish to share this as well.  We all believe in a cause (sometimes many) and should stand up to that, no matter what. In this section, I will write about those things, the ones that matter to me and the people around me. 

I’ve been on Facebook for so long that I don’t remember a life without it. If there are a handful who know about what I do, I owe it to Facebook. Social media has changed the way we live, love and stay in touch. My mom leaves me messages on Facebook. She thinks it reaches me faster than the telephone! :)  While spending those countless hours on Facebook, I started looking at it from a different point of view.

My current profile picture (the one with my husband) has more than 30 likes and 20 odd people talking about it in the comments section. This is unlike my previous profile picture where I am holding an handcrafted, beautiful product in my hand. That picture has just 1 like and 1 person talking about it. Worse still, the products on my ‘page’ get about 2-3 likes. It takes me a good couple of hours to create the setting, compose the pictures, take multiple shots and edit them before they finally go on Facebook.

Compare all this with 37,866,245 views on Kolaveri Di (when I last checked it), the hundreds of gushes over Aishwarya Rai’s baby and the patriotism that we shower on Indian Cricket. So why did I look up or rather wonder about all this?

Because my livelihood depends on it. Social Media helps small companies like mine achieve some kind of awareness at a relatively low cost. I work with dying crafts, less priveleged craftspeople and their handicrafts (mostly of deteriorating quality). I work at understanding their work, using my skills and my experience in improving the quality of their work and help them create products that may be relevant to the audience. All this is hard work. It may seem interesting that I travel so much, get to meet those cool craftsmen, work on those bright colors and drink chai at the highway dhaba (while some others are slogging it off in air-conditioned offices, tired of flying so much and eating all that junk food). Trust me, it is not cool to travel 30 hours in a train (even second AC coaches have rats running around), eat random meals, haggle with the hotel owners to save those of couple of hundred rupees in an attempt to reduce costs, take local transport, talk to the craftsmen in sign language (India speaks several hundred languages and I speak just 3 of them) and convince them to work for me. I cannot promise regular work. I cannot be sure that my products will be ‘liked’, will be ‘shared’ and finally will be bought.

In my naive days, I thought the tepid response was because people didn’t understand what they were buying. So I planned a day long trip to a craft village near Bangalore. Needless to guess, not one signed up. On a weekend, people had art galleries to visit, friends to meet, clothes to buy, movies to watch. So I ended up cancelling the non-event. It is not difficult to explain this to the craftsmen. They have been through it all these years and they know it all.

I am one of the few who chose this path in life. I am definitely happy doing what I do, but I will not be able to sustain this if there is no demand. A business is a business afterall. Unlike the craftsmen, I have a couple of good academic degress and I can go back to the corporate world. I have an alternate livelihood. Hope that never happens, cos I will miss the ‘chai at the highway dhaba’! :)