This article will draw on recent PhD research on design education for handloom weavers. It will draw primarily on findings from one of two focus case studies: Somaiya Kala Vidya (SKV) in Kachchh, western India, which provides a year-long curriculum in design, marketing and merchandising to local artisans1.
The PhD aimed to understand how student artisans, particularly weavers, navigate between their craft skills and the design knowledge they would develop at SKV, to understand the value and importance of handloom weaving from the perspective of the artisans and that of the market, and to explore whether design education could lead to desirable and sustainable livelihoods in handloom. This article will draw on some of the findings of this research to discuss ways in which a history of dualisms between craft and design and between informal and formal knowledge in India, have influenced the representations of craft in contemporary popular narratives, and how graduates of the two institutes are challenging and straddling these dualisms. It also discusses the importance of a shift in perspective in both craft development interventions and craft research in order to centralise artisans who have historically been on the peripheries of both, and make space for the value and recognition of diverse forms of knowledge.
Histories of craft development and display in India
There is a range of literature that critiques the narrative of craft development in India, as one which positions artisans as outmoded against modern industry and objects of welfare on the one hand, and as symbols of tradition, heritage and national identity on the other (Mamidipudi, Sayamasundari and Biker, 2012; Mohsini, 2016). In popular Indian craft development narratives, ‘craft’, which itself is a slippery term (Adamson, 2013; Marchand, 2016), has come to be situated in direct opposition to both design and machine-made products. In India, craftspeople typically belong to ‘scheduled’ castes which have historically been oppressed due to the impurity associated with manual work within the traditional caste system. At the same time, crafts can embody a divine status because of their association with creation (Bayly, 1986, p. 294).
The separation of the concepts of design and making on the subcontinent is evident as far back as the Central Asian invasions in the fourteenth century when naqshas (pattern makers) made patterns for the jala (drawloom and later industrialised jacquard) weavers in hubs such as Banaras and Kashmir. However, there are no separate terms given to ‘craft’ and ‘design’ in any Indian language. The nearest translation to both in Sanskrit is kala which according to Kumar Vyas (1991, p. 189) is a ‘unifying concept’ embracing all aspects of human ‘arts, crafts, skills and techniques’ ranging from dance to engineering (Balaram, 2005). When considering the range of skills and knowledge a handloom weaver possesses, the term kala seems more relevant to handloom weaving than simply craft, design or art (or even engineering) on their own.
In European colonial exhibitions during the 19th and early 20th centuries, displays of traditional crafts alongside modern textile technology created a romantic, orientalist view of pre-industrial crafts, while simultaneously confining artisans to the peripheries of industrial modernity (Mathur, 2007; McGowan, 2009). The fine art, decorative art and technical schools set up by the British in India followed a similar paradox, drawing directly from these displays. Decorative art schools encouraged students to remain traditional artisans, while technical art schools trained students to apply their skills to work in the burgeoning mill industry. (Dewan, 2001; McGowan, 2009; Raina and Irfan Habib, 2009). Artisans were largely excluded from the fine art schools due to their high cost and separation from learning in a domestic sphere, and such schools were attended primarily by higher class English-speaking Indians (McGowan, 2009).
As India gained independence, these oppositions continued to form the basis of industrial and economic development as well as the building of a national identity. While Gandhi encouraged every household to hand-spin their own yarn during his swadeshi (self-rule) campaigns, imitations of khadi (cloth hand-woven from hand-spun yarn) were produced in the burgeoning mills of Ahmedabad and Bombay (Leadbeater, 1993). The majority of the independent government’s educational initiatives for handloom weavers involved training in new skills or technologies in order to increase efficiency and compete with power looms and mills. The National Institute of Design (NID) – founded just over a decade after independence – was a key part of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s agenda to build India’s economy and a distinct national identity. Crafts were viewed as an important part of this identity as well as an important resource for students and graduates of NID. However, like the colonial fine art schools, The NID and subsequent design institutes such as the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) were only available to middle and upper class English-speaking urban Indians, who became the ‘designer’ in craft development projects while artisans who did not have access to the education became ‘tradition-bound crafts workers’ (DeNicola and Wilkinson-Weber, 2016).
Post-independent national and international exhibitions of Indian crafts, such as the 1980s festivals of India (Durrans, 1982; Wintle, 2017) and the Crafts Museum in Delhi (Greenough, 1995; McKnight Sethi, 2013) have also been widely criticised for creating an idealised singular image of India and a homogenised cultural identity of Indian crafts. Even the more recent and hugely popular, ‘Fabric of India’ exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2015 to 2016 was criticised by Ahmed and Mansingh Kaul (2016) for including only a small section on India’s couture fashion designers and for ignoring many designers who are known for ‘radically new interventions in surface embellishments and silhouettes’, suggesting that the international appreciation of Indian designs lies solely in the hand-made.
The Vankars (this surname literally translates to ‘weaver’) of Kachchh, Gujarat are members of the Dalit Meghwal community2. In the past, Vankars held long-standing relationships with local farming communities, bound by the exchange of cloth woven by the Vankars in return for dairy products and sheep wool3. As in many other craft producing rural areas of India, this market declined as cheaper machine-made alternatives became available and wool production was industrialised. The decline of Indian pre-industrialised craft was widely used in nationalist campaigns to gain independence from British colonial rule and regain an Indian identity. Roy (2002, 2008) argues that these nationalist narratives presented weavers as the poor victim to industrialisation, while weavers would in fact respond to, and adapt to technologies, techniques and markets that they saw fit to meet their economic needs (ibid). Likewise within colonial art education, McGowan argues that many artisans actively chose not to attend formal education because they preferred their traditional ways of learning – in the home according to the ‘religious and moral precepts of the community’; or they attended the institutes to gain literacy with an aim to escape their occupations (McGowan, 2009) 4.
The development of crafts and handloom in Kachchh
From the 1970s onwards, designers working with Gujarat State Handicraft Development Corporation as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and commercial enterprises began entering the region to adapt crafts for urban markets. After the devastating earthquake of 2001, there was heavy investment in the area, and the region became more visible worldwide. Kachchh today receives large numbers of tourists, craft enthusiasts and buyers from all over India and the world, and many craftspeople from Kachchh travel across India and some, the world, to sell and showcase their craft. Kachchh weavers have often been described as holding entrepreneurial spirit, and have navigated these markets and craft intervention by employing a form of ‘self-orientalism’ (Jones and Leshkowich, 2003) in which they appropriate the orientalist ideas of traditional crafts developed in colonial and post-colonial narratives, to take back ownership of their craft and succeed in the market. Examples of this can be seen not only in the designs they weave but in their own choices of dress and home decor. While the majority of young men in Kachchh wear jeans and t-shirt on a daily basis, for the final jury of the SKV course, attended by successful designers, academics and other formerly educated craft and design experts, many weavers dressed up in their traditional attire, which they may also do for urban exhibitions.
Master weaver Shamji Vishram Valji, who is an advisor to SKV and is widely travelled and written about in documentation on Kachchhi or Bhujodi weaving, regularly wears hand-woven kurta and shalwar. Shamji expresses pride in reviving hand spinning using the local sheep wool, and the community’s rejection of the government’s offer to introduce modernised looms and weave jacquard cloths (a common initiative in government schemes across India to increase efficiency and modernise the industry). This decision was based on an understanding of the more lucrative market in textiles produced on the traditional pit loom utilising the extra-weft technique for patterning5. This decision reflects what Wilk terms ‘subversive naturalisation’ (cited in Venkatesan, 2009), in which weavers are not passive to technological changes but actively chose to adapt or not depending on what suits the community.
Positionality and reflexivity
Considering the problematic approaches to histories of craft development discussed above, as well as in histories of ethnography (in particular ‘salvage ethnography’ which many craft revival efforts demonstrate), it was important for me to carefully consider my position as a white British woman entering a former colony and shed preconceptions influenced by the romanticised visions of Indian crafts discussed above. Furthermore, while there are multiple traits and characteristics that differentiate the researcher and the ‘other’, they will have many common (Silverman, 2001; Alcoff, 1991). These are important to focus on to avoid an imbalanced researcher-participant relationship. My textile background and shared interest in textile crafts helped facilitate conversations with research participants and included a month-long weaving apprenticeship with several of the graduates of SKV in Bhujodi village in Kachchh, informed by the research of anthropologists including Venkatesan (2010) and Downey, Dalidowicz and Mason (2015). This alongside giving structured talks and informal advice at SKV, facilitated a more shared research relationship that did not only involve the extraction of information by myself as the researcher.
We also shared a network of craft curators, collectors, buyers and other craft enthusiasts which informed multi-sited ethnographic research in urban galleries and shops, the education institute as well as the weaving village. In these places, both pre-arranged interviews and more informal discussions were held, many of which were initiated by participants themselves, on topics around intellectual property, scale of production and the challenges of working with distant markets.
Drawing on Marcus’ argument that ethnographic research should not be ‘reducible to a form of knowledge that can be packaged in the monologic voice of the ethnographer alone’ (cited in Angrosino and Rosenberg, 2011), it was important that this body of knowledge including intellectual knowledge, design and embodied knowledge be represented in the dissemination of the research. Therefore, I employed visual ethnography to document the weaving process as well as conversations and interviews with artisan-designers6. Future research will explore how participants can take a more active role in the research process, for example by using ‘indigenous media’ (Marcus, 1995) in order to centralise weavers’ knowledge and move beyond the ‘we’ vs ‘ they’ dichotomy (Uddin, 2011, p. 6), as well as to challenge the positioning of Western literate knowledge as the global dominant form of knowledge (Bradley, 2012, p.27).
Does design education reinforce or dissolve divides between craft and design, and modern and traditional?
While SKV’s curriculum was developed to challenge the existing problems and criticism with craft development initiatives in India discussed above, their direction was paved by such initiatives and did not stand completely separate from them. It was initially part funded by the government of India’s Development Commissioner of Handlooms, employed graduate urban designers from India and abroad, and employed jury members that were part of the elite ‘craft world’ (Venkatesan, 2009) to judge the students’ final collections. The curriculum for SKV was developed by an American anthropologist and museum curator, Judy Frater, based in part on concepts taught in western design schools, including concept development, mood boards, market research and colour theory. To avoid a reinforcement of past imbalances in education for artisans, Frater is emphatic about the need for building awareness in, and value for each students’ own traditional craft and knowledge base. To achieve this, an advisory board of master artisans – older generations who are both experts in the craft as well as influential leaders in their community – advise on the curriculum and lead ‘traditional aesthetics workshops’ to students. Additionally, while visiting faculty comprise of graduates of institutes such as the NID and other urban design schools, it also includes artisan-graduates from the course itself who work as intermediaries between the students and visiting faculty.
In a filmed interview, weaver Pachan Premji Vankar who graduated from SKV in 2015, talks through the design concepts of the traditional Kachchhi dhabla (blanket/shawl):
‘Today I am a designer eager to make new things, so surely previous generations thought like designers too. Decisions such as the length of the border, the placement of motifs. This (pointing to the dhabla) traditional jhad (tree) motif is inspired by nature… all these motifs designed by our forefathers continue to be valuable for us. We try not to let go of this legacy. Instead, we take it forward and make new innovations. We don’t want to forget older traditions because they are our backbone’7.
Pachan then goes onto show a stole he designed for his final SKV collection and his thought process behind it. Poonam Vankar of the same batch, said ‘I created new designs before but SKV provided proper direction.’ 8 Indeed, the term ‘design’ was widely used by weavers who had not attended SKV, often in tandem with ‘new’. Pachan as well as Dayalal Kudecha, a permanent faculty member at the time of the research and filming, amongst several other weavers, would point out the carefully thought out ‘designs’ of older pieces kept in a collection. This awareness of inherent ‘design’ thinking of their ancestors along with a key aim of the curriculum to ‘enable artisans to develop critical judgement and the ability to assess their work, develop critical thinking skills and develop communication, interpersonal and literacy skills’ (Frater, 2014), suggests that the education does not enforce any particular direction, but provides students with the skills to judge for themselves the direction to take their technical and creative skills in.
With the decline of Kachchhi weavers’ traditional, local clients from the mid-twentieth century, alternative occupations included working in the new local industries like concrete factories, migrating to urban areas or the Middle East, or entering government higher education. Some worked as ‘job weavers’ for the master weavers who were spotted by urban boutiques or the Gujarat State Handicraft development corporation and later other craft development organisations that were founded in the local region. These employment choices reflect the wider representations of handloom that developed in colonial and postcolonial, nationalist discourse and a dualistic opposition between traditional and modern occupations. Master weaver, Shamji Vishram Valji9 informed me that at the time of research, fifty percent choose to remain in their family’s handloom business and fifty percent are ‘enamoured by the glitter of the world’ and migrate to urban areas or pursue other ‘modern’ employment. While there are not detailed statistics on this, my time spent in conversation with weavers across the region reflected a similar picture.
While the research findings showed that design and business education builds creativity, confidence, cultural, social and economic capital and the ability to set trends and influence social change, several graduates expressed concerns around challenges they faced. One common challenge was maintaining a balance between an increasing market demand for sustainable, hand-made textiles with rich cultural value, and the maintenance of that cultural value. An increase in the scale of production on the traditional handloom technology, can also recreate the inequalities between ‘designers’ and ‘artisans’ that the education aimed to eradicate in its very existence. While it is not clear yet how the weavers will overcome these challenges, their engagement in debates on such issues allows them to be the arbiters of their industry’s ‘development’. It is crucial that weavers’ agency and body of knowledge is recognised on a wider level however, within global markets, within education10, in India as well as globally, and within government policies. The handloom industry continues to come under the governments’ development commission. Only when it is viewed as a creative economy, relevant to contemporary visions of India, like the IT sector (which employs 1.4 million people while handloom employs over 4 million) will longstanding dualisms be fully challenged and handloom weaving be valued as a creative and dynamic industry relevant to both an ever-growing demand for sustainable fashion as well as local economies and culture.
Title image: The courtyard of the house of master weaver Vishram Valji, his son Shamjibhai Valji and family. Shamji has recently revived the hand-spinning of local sheep wool, employing women from a local Rabari community (traditional neighbouring community and clients of the Vankars). Photo: Shradha Jain
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- The curriculum was first created for Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, founded by Judy Frater and Prakash Bhanani in 2005. In 2014, Frater took the curriculum to a new institute called Somaiya Kala Vidya (SKV) which is a division of the K.J Somaiya Trust: https://www.somaiya-kalavidya.org/
- Dalit literally translates to ‘oppressed’ and was the term applied to historically subjugated groups in India by anti-caste campaigner Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar.
- Valji, V., 2016. Retired master weaver: Interview with Ruth Clifford, Bhujodi, 2 August; Edwards, 2011. Textiles and Dress of Gujarat. Ahmedabad, London: Mappin Publishing PvT. Ltd in association with V&A Publishing.
- This was not possible after 1901 when the then Viceroy Lord Curzon made the decision that literacy instruction should be left out of artisanal education, because it was leading to boys leaving their crafts (McGowan, 2009). This exemption of literacy instruction in technical schools enabled the colonial government to divide society in accordance with economic and political needs, in a similar way that it emphasised caste divisions.
- Vishram Valji, S., 2016. Master weaver: Interview with Ruth Clifford, Bhujodi, 3 August
- Clifford, R. (2021) Tana Bana: Weaving Life into Cloth. India [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rx0s7GDUpQQ
- Siju, P., 2016. Weaver, KRV and SKV graduate: Interview with Ruth Clifford, Bhujodi, 1 August
- Vankar, P., 2016. Master weaver: Interview with Ruth Clifford, Mota Varnora village, Kachchh, 3 January
- Vishram Valji, S., 2016. Master weaver: Interview with Ruth Clifford, Bhujodi, 3 August
- For example, school education still largely relies on learning by rote and is still heavily influenced by the colonial curriculums which are not relevant to the students’ local context. Current research carried out by NGO Khamir in Kachchh is working towards integrating crafts into the local primary school curriculum. Additionally, there are efforts to decolonise fashion and design (and more broadly) education in the UK, and shift the central focus from a Eurocentric and ethnocentric one, to one that privileges non-western communities’ perspectives.