SWABHIMAAN’s Special Edition In collaboration with Feminist Economics & Policy Initiative (FEPI) on Women, Culture, & Traditional Crafts
Craft communities in India usually exist in close knit clusters by virtue of which they have strong traditional knowledge systems. The older craftsmen have relied on these knowledge systems to pass down their knowledge and expertise in the craft to the younger generations. One such craft pocket is the hand block printed textiles in the towns of Jaipur district, namely Bagru and Sanganer.
India’s textile and apparel industry has risen in the pandemic accounting for 5 percent of its GDP, 7 percent of its value added output and 12 percent of its export earnings. However, little do we realise the hidden costs behind the market dynamics of such commodification, capitalisation and globalisation.
The Declining Craftsmen
In 1958, a research advisory panel set up under the All India Handicrafts Board cautioned against the policy of ‘technological laissez-faire’ in India – a country with vast and rapidly increasing population and chronic mass unemployment (Jain,1984). The panel deciphered that mill production which is imperative for growth must be quantitatively capped. This limit beginning from 500 million meters p.a. was annually increased thereafter until it was completely abolished in 1966. With phenomenal growth rates every year, the mechanised sector last registered a total production of 2400 million meters in 1980. Since then, there have been no records to gauge the size of this industry. Simultaneously, hand printing has only shrunk, losing an estimated more than 2.5 lakh jobs to mechanization (Jain, 1984).
Screen printing has dominated the market today and even the small proportion of hand printed material has lost its authenticity. This is mainly due to two reasons – a large influx of unskilled migrant workers and lack of interest by the younger generations. In this capitalised production, the block printers are perceived as mere workers and their skill as hard labour. This has shifted the focus of the craft from the kala to a more strenuous form of work that brings home only a minimum wage – making the sector unappealing for employment to the youth. At the same time, increased production through screen printing has opened opportunities for migrant workers that seek income in this region. Ultimately, a pool of printers has been created that neither hold the experience of printing nor are related to its heritage in any manner. Lack of governmental efforts to restore the craft have only worsened the situation as due credit is not provided to these artisans.
“We made a very big mistake. When we recognised our crafts and craftsmen we did not give them dignity. We should have certified them as gurus and given them disciplines to train”
~ Raj KanwarJi, owner of Ojjas
“Before 1990, the government of India supported artisans. We all received the yellow artisan card which provided us with many subsidies. Today, that card holds no value. I do not even get a stall for free to display my work in Delhi.”
~ Suraj Titanwala, a printer from Bagru
Additionally, the modern education system is very exclusive of arts and crafts. They are pushed aside as ‘extracurriculars’ with no developed curriculum. Training programmes run by the government too are not tailored to the needs of the industry since they take an entrepreneurial approach that does not equip students with enough skill to practice the craft.
Workers engaging in screen printing in Sanganer
Image credits: Jignesh Mistry
Loss in Identity
The domino effect of the rapid commercialisation of the craft is the loss of its identity and authenticity. While increasing exports have filled the shelves of the foreign market with ‘Made in India’ labels, few people are able to tell the prints apart from one another or even whether the product is hand-made or screen printed.
‘Made in India’ does not simply represent goods being manufactured in this location but also the identities of the cultures, people and materials used in its production. In today’s fast-paced globalisation, labels such as these help trace the product to its origin. Moreover, it is a reflection of the workers of the country and an acknowledgement of their efforts and techniques. All of this is compromised when in order to meet the growing demand, the artisan’s hand is replaced by a machine and they are completely alienated from the production process.
Furthermore, it is important to question who benefits from this process. This can be understood simply from the recent episode of fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee using the Sanganeri (screen) print in his collection – Wanderlust – under collaboration with the global organisation H&M. An open letter sent to him on behalf of the artisan sector lays out the sheer potential that Indian craftsmen possess only to be time and again robbed of the opportunity to showcase their own skills and designs. It states – “…to adopt technology for greater efficiencies while taking a rights based approach to protect artisan rights and bring back ownership and prosperity to them. It isthis vision we hope you will export to the world.”
Appropriation of prints into screen production has only become easier over time resulting in faster loss of identity. Earlier, the blocks (designs) made of sheesham wood were discarded in riverbeds where they would naturally disintegrate. Today, older blocks are sold as souvenirs to people hailing from all over the world allowing for easy replication. Absence of labels leaves no means for consumers to trace the origin of the craft that they are purchasing. Even in the rare cases that they are present, there is no strong legal obligation that serves its purpose. For example, Sanganeri print artisans have a Geographical Indication (GI) registration, however, there is no proof of their compensation from the high sales of Sabyasachi’s collection.
Apart from this, even the hand printed textile today lacks in quality. The original prints such as fadatas which were much finer and intricate are no longer produced and have been replaced by modern patterns that are larger and cater to the global demand. This is mainly due to the disintegration of the printing community and a rise in unskilled labour as explained earlier.
Fading Traditions and Sustainability
Screen printing requires minimal human effort and also completely eliminates the dependence on blocks. This threatens the heritage of not only hand block printing but also the large cottage industry of block carving.
The situation is disheartening for those handful of artisans and business owners who still practice authentic hand block printing in a traditional and sustainable manner with organic colours, designs such as the fadatas and efficient water management. These include a few chippas from Bagru and collectives such as Jaipur Bloc. They strongly believe that the culture of hand block printing can be revived by reintegrating some of these characteristics.
“If sustainability can become part of our craftsthen they can be sustained.”
~ Raj KanwarJi
However, market forces and the climate crisis have challenged these efforts both socially and economically. Suraj Narain Titanwala and his son Deepak stand as commendable examplesin this movement.
“In the earlier days, I would easily find natural colours and clean water. There was no difficulty in procuring raw materials”
~ Suraj Titanwala
Polluting and diminishing water supply in the Thar region can completely wither the intended shade of the dyes. Bagru too, has been struggling with harsher quality of water every year. The village is in urgent need of a water treatment facility in order to carry out the processes of dyeing and washing. Therefore, it is imperative to mainstream a sustainable form of textile production in the face of growing environmental threats that can no longer tolerate the pressures of production through business as usual.
Bagru and Sanganer too might face the same fate as Jaipur which has completely lost its printing tradition. Older printers provide narratives of Jaipur’s heritage of mud resist printing to be far finer than that of its nearby towns. However, with rapid expansion of the city and paucity of space and water, almost all of Jaipur’s printers have moved away orstopped printing.
Suraj and his son Deepak in front of the museum built by them displays all of their works
Image credits: Jignesh Mistry
Much is needed to be done to uplift the crafts community which would be possible only when it is prioritized over individual profits. At the moment, the industry requires policy attention and hand holding. Given the large quantities exported by hand block printing, the sector already receives steady investment. What needs to be redefined is the focus areas of these investments – from business owners to the craftsmen. In other words, the form of value addition must be clearly shifted from making profits to preserving the identity of our heritage and culture. Introduction and standardization of a label as proof of the authenticity of the craft, while difficult, will serve the dual purpose of spreading consumer awareness and providing identity to the craftsmen. An amalgamation of the above interventions will go a long way in correcting the negative impact of the market dynamics on both the livelihoods and the environment of hand block printing.