The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A century of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya

The author is former director general, National Council for Applied Economic Research and chairman, Central Electricity Regulatory Commission [email protected]

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya was born a century ago in a well-to-do family in Mangalore on April 3, 1903 and died in 1988. In her long and active life she played many roles at the same time. Her life was influenced, in the words of her biographer, Shakuntala Narasimham, by the “spectacle and drama in the natural surroundings” and “the community celebrations” “that helped initiate her in the richness of our performing arts and folk traditions that she helped resurrect in her later years”.

Her interests ranged from handicrafts and handlooms to traditional performing arts including theatre, puppetry, music and dance. She was a soldier in the independence movement, a self-made woman political leader without a family political lineage to promote her. She was a mentor to many talented young people, some of whom became leaders in their respective fields. She rediscovered dying and neglected art forms and identified talented traditional artistes and crafts persons to help resuscitate them. She helped them find materials, money and markets, instituted design centres to make their products more contemporary, started training schools for crafts and the arts, institutionalized government backing for the arts and crafts, set up a network of crafts councils, to support Indian crafts and assist craftspersons. Today, the handicrafts and handloom industries are said to employ about 58 lakh craftspersons mostly from among tribals, scheduled castes and the minorities.

These are among the poorest and most oppressed in the country. Production of handicraft items in 2000-01 was estimated at Rs 16,340 crore while exports were Rs 9,270 crore. Craftspersons today are not the “virtual slaves” they were, on the margins of society. But more research needs to be done on facts like employment figures, value of production, earnings, end selling prices, and the status of craftspersons in society.

The annual Economic Survey of the government of India has no data on handicrafts and handlooms except under exports. There is a very large domestic and export-oriented private sector whose numbers are also not known. The apparent priority given by all political parties to employment and poverty elimination does not extend to handicrafts, a major source of employment with dignity for among the most marginalized section of society.

In using handicrafts and handloom products that are unique to India, Indians young and old experience a sense of pride and an expression of Indian identity. If swadeshi is represented by anything, it is by these traditional handicrafts made by thousands of craftspersons. It is strange that our swadeshi enthusiasts of today only champion the cause of organized large industry and their ownership. If the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the Bombay Club were serious about swadeshi, they would also be looking for ways to give help to handicrafts and the millions working in the sector to make better and sustainable livelihoods. Celebrating Kamaladevi’s birth centenary is a way to focus again on the important role that handicrafts play in our economy.

It is a little known fact that Morarji Desai as prime minister of the first Janata Party government, offered the presidency of India to Kamaladevi. She was perhaps better suited to the position than many who have occupied it. But she always shunned public office (except when asked to start the all India handicrafts board in which she made a difference to handicrafts). She declined the offer and instead suggested Rukmini Devi Arundale, who also refused. We then got N. Sanjeeva Reddy and all the political manipulations that followed.

But this article focusses on her contribution to Indian handicrafts, not politics. As Jasleen Dhamija, her chela and a highly respected expert on living cultural traditions said: “Today a woman can pick up a Pochampalli (Andhra), Baluchari (Bengal), or a Paithani (Maharashtra) sari in any part of India. This is directly due to Kamaladevi. In earlier years, one had to search for them in dingy little shops in the neighbourhood of the weaving centres.”

The same thing applies to a variety of other handicrafts like terracotta and ceramics, woodwork, stoneware, textile based soft goods, metalware, jewellery, coir, jute, cane and bamboo ware, leather, toys and dolls, folk painting and theatre crafts. These are now available everywhere in government and private handicraft emporia. She achieved this as the first chairperson of the all-India handicrafts board, lobbying with government, training craftspersons, making available quality raw materials, through design intervention and marketing by setting up state emporia.

Today there are many more outlets. Big private businesses have crafts persons engaged round the clock, making these goods for domestic and overseas markets. With economic development there is increasing homogeneity in products through large-scale manufacture. Handcrafted products enable consumers to renew their past and live their traditions. With improving economic prosperity, handicraft and handloom products will be in even greater demand. The trick is to ride this growth potential by expanding production.

There are many problems. There is a huge variation in quality of products. The materials used are not always well chosen. Innovation through research and design, with use of new technologies, like information technology, must improve quality, set standards, create new products and access the best markets. The craftsperson gets a fraction of the end selling price, the rest going into high inventory costs of the trader, and the margins of the various intermediaries in the chain up to the customer. He must earn more. Raw materials are expensive, difficult to procure, and these poor craftspeople have little access to organized credit. This must improve.

The crafts councils have achieved much since Kamaladevi died. They have resuscitated many languishing crafts, undertaken documentation, helped with marketing through exhibitions and sales, initiated developmental work for craftspersons, recognized excellence in craftspersons through awards, expanded training facilities and raised overall aesthetic consciousness. But they need to do more by modelling themselves like the chambers of commerce, as lobbies for their members’ interests, disseminate information to them and arrange essential business training.

We need more and better-equipped design centres for each craft, and universally high-quality training schools to train new craftspersons and retrain old ones in newer tools, techniques and materials. Crafts councils can push for these things to happen. Within the individual artistry of each craftsperson we can still have standardization of design if materials are uniform and designs conform to an overall template. We need centralized marketing and decentralized production so that orders for large quantities can be farmed out to hundreds of craftspersons. Yet they must all produce to a common template. In these days of information technology, and communication, there is no reason why this cannot be done.

If Ela Bhat could do it for the humble papad and market it under the one brand name, Lijjat, the same techniques can be applied to other more majestic handmade products. Like all things in India, we need systems, processes, methods, that can be standardized but without taking away the creative element of the craftsperson. Management skills have been mostly absent from handicrafts production and marketing. Management does not mean the death of creativity. It does mean better quality and common elements that make for better functioning of the products.

Kamaladevi was not one who was ossified in the past. She was a vibrant and alive person who recognized that change is a constant and was not preaching that everything should stay as it was. She recognized that crafts provide employment to millions of the poor, renew our cultural roots, and make us distinct as a society. That is equally true today.

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