In­dian Hand­i­crafts in Dig­i­tal Times

Pankaja Balaji looks at the re­vival of In­dian hand­i­crafts in the dig­i­tal age.

Apparel - - CONTENTS OCTOBER 2018 -

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.



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 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.





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