The art of sav­ing craft

‘Lattu’ fo­cuses on a unique but dy­ing craft of Varanasi — wooden toys — by think­ing up new ap­pli­ca­tions for the tal­ent of ar­ti­sans with­out com­pro­mis­ing tech­nique or qual­ity and cre­at­ing new mar­kets, writes Aditi Phad­nis

Business Standard - - DEMOCRACY AT WORK -

The colours are jewel-like and glow bril­liantly. There is not a child who will not reach out long­ingly to the tops, minia­ture uten­sils, dolls and other wooden toys made by the crafts­men of Varanasi. Kaushiki Agrawal has set out to re­vive this dy­ing art to make the craft avail­able to other cities in In­dia and abroad through her busi­ness called ‘Lattu’ (spin­ning top in Hindi). Lattu is an ef­fort to save a craft, use the tal­ent of the ar­ti­sans to cre­ate new prod­ucts and take these prod­ucts to the rest of In­dia.

“I al­ways had an in­cli­na­tion to­wards art and craft and be­ing from Varanasi, the Varanasi wooden toys were the clos­est to my heart. Ow­ing to my par­ents’ in­sis­tence, I fin­ished my MBA and soon af­ter, chanced upon a larger project that was striv­ing to up­lift the en­tire wood­craft in­dus­try. I per­son­ally re­searched over a 150 ar­ti­san fam­i­lies, met some ex­cel­lent crafts­men, a few of whom were will­ing to try some­thing new with the craft. That is what got me started” she said about a town best known for its tem­ples and its silk. Agrawal says the ar­ti­sans made wooden toys and show­pieces which didn’t have much of a mar­ket and their craft hadn’t evolved enough with time. “I de­cided to get to­gether with the ar­ti­sans to de­sign new prod­ucts that can be used in our con­tem­po­rary daily lives and that would quickly build de­mand in the mar­ket, thereby in­creas­ing their liveli­hood” she said. The idea was to add util­ity to the craft, giv­ing it a new life and the ar­ti­sans a new sense of pride in their work. “And that’s how Lattu be­gan” she said.

How do you pre­serve a craft? By rein­vent­ing its ap­pli­ca­tions. With­out chang­ing the tech­niques of a craft that has been re­fined and per­fected for over 2,000 years — wooden toys are made as ‘ prasad’ for the Gods in Varanasi: It is usual to in­clude them as an of­fer­ing, es­pe­cially in func­tions such as wed­dings — Agrawal sat with them, watched them do what they do best and tried to find ba­sic prod­ucts from ev­ery­day lives that could be made or em­bel­lished with their craft. “We are con­stantly im­prov­ing our prod­ucts and mak­ing sure that while the craft gets its due and looks at­trac­tive, the func­tion­al­ity of the prod­uct is not com­pro­mised” she said.

“Wood­craft was es­sen­tially a means of story telling. The crafts­men made wooden dolls rep­re­sent­ing the cul­ture of the so­ci­ety then, minia­ture ver­sions of their ev­ery­day tools and uten­sils for chil­dren to play with. There is also a fair amount of re­li­gious in­flu­ence in the form of small dolls made of char­ac­ters from the Ma­hab­harat and the Ra­mayan. Over time they also started to make dolls to recre­ate the scene of the birth of Christ” she ex­plained.

Us­ing the same toy mak­ing tech­niques, Lattu en­abled the ar­ti­sans to make nap­kin­hold­ers, pen­cil tops, cake stands and more and sold at ex­hi­bi­tions in Mum­bai, Chandi­garh, Ben­galuru and Hy­der­abad. “I was for­tu­nate to get an in­ter­est free loan from my father so didn’t have to strug­gle when it came to rais­ing cap­i­tal. I was de­lighted that Lattu was able to re­pay that in less than a year of be­ing in oper­a­tion” she said.

Agrawal says that al­though no one from the Prime Min­is­ter’s sec­re­tariat in Varanasi has reached out to her, the city, be­ing his con­stituency has brought more fo­cus and re­sources to Varanasi and that has kick-started a start-up rev­o­lu­tion cen­tred around cul­tural tourism, back­packer hos­tels, her­itage walks, ac­tiv­i­ties on the ghats and so on. “The city al­ways had a lot of tourists in the form of pil­grims but now it is bub­bling with a new age of tourists and a dy­namic young zeal”.

She sees her in­ter­ven­tion as one way to pre­vent the craft from dy­ing out, be­cause it is be­com­ing harder and harder to sur­vive. “Elec­tric­ity sup­ply is get­ting bet­ter but that seems to be the big­gest chal­lenge. The nu­mer­ous lev­els of mid­dle­men in­creases the gap be­tween what the cus­tomer pays and what the cre­ator is paid for his crafts­man­ship. That re­sults in lower in­comes and fewer peo­ple from every fol­low­ing gen­er­a­tion stay­ing with the craft” she says. She is try­ing to in­clude more art forms into the Lattu fold, like artists work­ing with Moonjh grass to ex­pand their ex­per­tise and grow their in­come.

LOVE FOR ARTKaushiki Agrawal (left) is try­ing to in­clude more art forms into the ‘Lattu’ fold, like artists work­ing with Moonjh grass to ex­pand their ex­per­tise and grow their in­come; (Top) A set of uten­sils made by craf­st­men in Varanasi

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