Indian Handicrafts in Digital Times
Pankaja Balaji looks at the revival of Indian handicrafts in the digital age.
A look at the revival of traditional Indian handicrafts in the digital age
In this globally-connected world that we live in, over the years, there has been a wave of homogenisation based on certain aesthetics and sensibilities that society has developed. Consumer demands have changed and continue to change with each season, year and decade. There is a move away from the traditional and locally sourced to the more modern, finished and oftentimes branded.
While this has meant that Indian handicrafts have had some tough times over the years, in the past decade there has been a move to bring Indian handicrafts to the modern era such that it retains its unique identity while still appealing to the consumer.
It is not surprising then that the digital revolution has played a significant part in this. The world is going digital; why shouldn’t handicrafts as well?
‘An unorganised, decentralised, labour-intensive cottage industry’ well describes the handicrafts sector in the country. This sector happens to be the second largest employer of people after agriculture. Being unorganised, there remains no clear number of how many are employed in the sector, but the estimate seems to be around 76 lakh people.
The Indian handicrafts sector is estimated to be worth US$5 billion, and in the last financial year it saw exports of more than US$3.5 million. This sector took almost two years to bounce back from the 2008 recession but has held steady since, even as the overall export basket has fallen. However, despite these positive developments, internationally Indian handicrafts are unable to lay claim to more than two to three per cent of the market.
Indian handicrafts, while much in demand both internationally and domestically, fail to compete in the market of standardised and finished goods. Local artisans following the same production methods as previous generations fail to respond to the demands of the market. This makes their craft obsolete. To put the onus on the artisan alone is wrong. The informal nature of the sector also works against them.
Clearly, the gaps are many. But thankfully, so are the attempts to address them. The Government has, since independence, utilised multiple schemes to train artisans, created market linkages to sell their products, promoted handicrafts at various levels and taken various other steps including geo-tagging, creating emporiums and launching various exhibitions. It has also welcomed, with open arms, e-commerce as another integral avenue to support this industry.
LOCAL ARTISANS FOLLOWING THE SAME PRODUCTION METHODS AS PREVIOUS GENERATIONS FAIL TO RESPOND TO THE DEMANDS OF THE MARKET.
HANDICRAFTS GO DIGITAL
Being an unorganised sector and a communitybased industry, handicrafts have faced many bottlenecks in production, aggregation and market reach. Since handicrafts are also largely a rural cottage industry, many artisans are employed in agriculture as well, making the production of handicrafts seasonal.
Lack of education and insufficient training has made it easy for middlemen to exploit the artisans by buying in bulk and keeping the procurement price very low. In situations where the artisans must also take on the cost of buying raw material, there is very little profit for the artisan to take home.
E-commerce platforms are bringing these artisans into the new age. With e-commerce, artisans are able to access a wider market for their goods and raise awareness about their art and traditions. With the opening up of new markets and greater returns, they are able to dedicate their time year-long to this form of livelihood.
Since e-commerce platforms often source directly from the artisan, it eliminates the middlemen and levels the playing field. Competition among e-commerce platforms works to benefit these artisans, as they are able to choose the model and partner that works best for them. E-commerce entrepreneur ice partners can take on some or all aspects of managing the business such as procuring raw material, sales & marketing, shipping and others, leaving the artisans too focus on their craft. Conversely, some e-commerce platforms simply function as yellow pages and showcase only the catalogue of items, leaving the artisan to manage the rest of it.
No doubt that the ability to reach a wider audience is important. But if the product itself fails to meet the basic quality and finishing standards, it will fail to compete. This is where the partner and the model both become critical. E-commerce platforms can help artisans become more sensitive to market trends, improve their production process and source better quality raw materials. For instance, by sourcing on a cyclical basis and directly from the artisans, they initiate a dialogue with the artisans about what are the current trends and the existing standards to work towards. There are multiple sourcing options to explore: buy what the artisan designs but in a more standardised form, contract them for the production of items of a certain design, employ them in workshops or some other format. Working with the artisan directly helps the buyer understand what the art, tradition and culture is about, while giving the artisans increased exposure and understanding of market demand which helps them innovate.
E-commerce platforms are not confined to private sector companies. Many NGOs, nonprofits and social entrepreneurs are leveraging them as a vehicle to empower the artisans. These partners either mobilise rural artisans to adopt handicrafts as a sustainable livelihood and/or help them upgrade their production process and skills such that handicrafts can sustain them. These
models often focus on skilling, capacity building, micro-entrepreneurship etc.
THE SUPPLY AND THE SUPPLIER
The disconnect between the international demand, increasing domestic interest and scattered supply chain can be bridged effectively as shown by the likes of Fabindia, Craftsvilla, CraftsBazaar, Okhai and others. The sheer number of e-commerce websites and platforms showcasing Indian handicrafts is a sign of the huge market potential for the sector. The reasoning might be rural development, sustainable livelihoods, new business avenues or any other; the fact remains that there is much that can be done to bring Indian handicrafts into the modern age and help them become an organised sector that has rules and regulations which protect all who are part of it.
The idea of net neutrality is quickly being challenged. Entry-level barriers, language barriers and internet connectivity are but some of the aspects that need to be accounted for when talking about the empowering ability of e-commerce platforms for rural artisans. On the other hand, without a significant ppolicy-level intervention, there is nothing preventing the e-commerce platforms from taking advantage of the artisans. Policy interventio interventions in India are reactive and often knee-jerk. The existing policy on handicrafts needs to bbe upgraded to better navigate the digital age and to respond to the changing domestic and international trends.
The recent trend of swadeshi and local sourcing has resulted in many portals sourcing directly from artisanal communities and collectives. Artisans are kept front and centre of all communications and marketing. This, however, does highlight the need to ensure that artisans, their art and their culture do not become appropriated by the brands and the market at large.
The very essence of handicrafts is that the artisan and the community’s culture and tradition is given a physical form. The small little imperfections in the finished product are the sign of a human being working hard to create it. If that essence is lost, then not only is the artisan dehumanised but so does the handicraft lose its value. In the rush for mass production, monetary returns and new markets, it is essential not to lose sight of the individual.
THE SHEER NUMBER OF E-COMMERCE WEBSITES AND PLATFORMS SHOWCASING G INDIAN HANDICRAFTS IS A SIGN OF THE HUGE MARKET ET POTENTIAL FOR THE SECTOR. OR.