50 Years of Delhi Crafts Council

50 Years of Delhi Crafts Council


What does the word “crafts” mean to us? Many Indians would answer this promptly from a collective point of view, especially those who work within the country’s fashion, textile, handloom and cultural industries. Words like handmade, distinct, rooted in oral and other folk traditions, created by the skilled poor would light up in our minds when we talk crafts.

At a personal level though, this question may not be so easy to answer. Can one have a relationship with the “crafts” of one’s country? Or are our responses merely cultural reflexes that stem from a sentimental affinity with the products and people of a certain region? Does a particular form of weaving, dyeing or printing tradition spark warmth in us? Or all we care for are crafts fairs for shopping?

When this question goes around among some members of the executive committee at the Shahpurjat office of the Delhi Crafts Council (DCC), personal insights light up symbiotic connects between crafts, its creators and consumers. On paper, the organization lists 155 members. But the current executive committee is a group of 8-12 female members from different age groups. A spirited, deeply committed bunch wearing passion, wide smiles and distinctive handloom saris, these ladies with varied personal and professional pursuits have simultaneously chosen to invest time into their pledge towards crafts.

A completely voluntary organization that works for and within the crafts ecosystem, DCC recently concluded year-long celebrations to mark 50 years of its existence. For some, the Kamala stores that stock attractively curated products, saris and fabrics may be the only face we recognize of DCC. For others, that face may be the popular biannual Sarees of India exhibition that started 17 years ago, and was once the display ground for now well-known designers like Sanjay Garg, Anavila Misra, Gunjan Jain and Bappaditya Biswas of Kolkata’s bailou.


Photo: Courtesy Delhi Crafts Council

From World Ikat Textiles: Ties That Bind

The 50th Year
DCC’s golden year celebrations included narrative displays on technique and art of certain crafts and weaves, interactive seminars, performing art programmes and the giving away of awards to craftspeople.

Without booze and party sponsors, advertising majors, millennial-minded PR firms to handle publicity and social media or “Bollywood presence”, this year-long observation of its golden jubilee got only selective attention. Yet with single minded clarity, the organization kept away from the pomp, pump or reflected glory of powerful chief guests or politicians to light lamps. It focused instead on its own senior members and lauded crafts practitioners of India to give away the Kamaladevi puraskars (awards), which they feel are an intrinsic part of their commitment to crafts.

Why DCC matters
Founded in 1967 by freedom fighter and social activist Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya to nurture crafts traditions in Post-Independence India, DCC’s goal was to preserve heritage and promote livelihoods. “In the early years, India’s pride in its heritage provided a foundation for action. Yet there were no easy models for DCC or other pioneers to position crafts within industrialization and a planned economy. The need was for vision, imagination, creativity and a capacity to communicate,” says Ashoke Chatterjee, the former director of NID and former head of the Crafts Council of India. Chatterjee believes that DCC could demonstrate what development meant for this sector. “Understanding new markets and identification of opportunities, followed by research, documentation, design, market testing, retail opportunities, training and advocacy— with artisans always at the centre, not as beneficiaries but as equal partners— DCC did all of this,” he adds.


Photo: Courtesy Delhi Crafts Council

Chamba Rumal: Life to a Dying Art

Others agree. “Placed in a unique position like Delhi, the capital city where the best of India is showcased anyway, DCC overcame that challenge to find a unique niche for itself. It concentrated on a few crafts, worked with artisans continuously
to take those crafts to the next level of sophistication so that the product could command a better price and the artisan better earnings,” says Gita Ram, the Chennai-based current chairperson of Crafts Council of India.

The formidable ladies of DCC
Over the decades, the members of DCC became a dedicated army of managers and mentors to craftspeople. Veteran textile practitioners like Jasleen Dhamija, Gulshan Nanda, Manju Bharat Ram and Manju Narula (the latter is still an active member), were among those who showed the way ahead. Women of iron will and unflinching loyalty, they walked their talk without a single rupee of remuneration. In fact, even the travel DCC members undertake for work is their own personal expenditure.

“Growing up in Odisha, I would romanticize handlooms and working with weavers. But working with DCC has given me a more equanimous perspective— it is essentially about work and focus, not about patronage of any kind,” says Sharika Sharma one of the youngest members.

Dressed (as usual) in striking handlooms, they assimilated for a photo shoot at the Kamala store in Delhi.


Q&A with Purnima Rai

Later, over ginger ale at the Indian Women’s Press Corps in Delhi, Purnima Rai, the former DCC president and head of the organizing committee of the Golden Jubilee programmes spoke to The Voice of Fashion. Rai talked about DCC’s old and new days and how they are the only organization to have inspired a band of new generation members to take forward— with new ideas— the old commitment to crafts at a voluntary level. Edited excerpts:

What does DCC stands for today?
It stands for excellence in crafts. The crafts sector is so vast, the problems so severe, deep and varied that we are trying to do sensitive interactions within our reach. Liaising, documentation, design intervention— we work as catalysts, where can we help, how can we help. We are design interventionists as well as problem solvers.

How did you zero down to the most representative ideas of your work for the golden jubilee celebrations?
We decided to create one event each for all the major projects we have been working on for the last 50 years. We started with an exhibition on Kamaladeviji our founder and then our celebratory year was divided into Kamladevi Puraskars for craftspeople, a contemporary showing on Chamba Rumal and one on Sanjhi Art. We have been working on these crafts consistently for the last two to three decades. We started work on Chamba Rumal in the Nineties, and have a centre in Chamba. The Sanjhi project started in 1983 while documenting crafts in and around Delhi. But four to five years back, we felt this craft deserved a much larger exploration so we curated special works on architectural themes. We also created special collections and themes for our sari exhibitions, the highly successful Saris of India, that started 17 years ago to become a source of revenue generation. Then there was a Jamdani exhibition with old and new weaves and technique displays by crafts people.

How did you plan the Kamaladevi Puraskars evening?
Kamaladevi was a very big theatre enthusiast. So for the awards evening, we wanted to give special awards to crafts that support performing arts.

Manipuri costumes for instance, or those of drum makers, shadow puppetry and others. Crafts like scroll painting, Kawad and other narrative styles are story telling crafts. So we invited some live performances for the evening and gave away awards amidst that.

What have been your biggest challenges over the years?
Initially we used to work with government grants. The formats were rigid and there was only so much we could do. The lifting of the grants was a liberation to work freely and with more focused strategy. The other challenge we face is that the crafts world has changed in many ways. Organisations must then work on contemporarising craft. Since craft is essentially defined as utilitarian, we must find ways to keep it that. The third challenge is to engage with the young worker at DCC. It is not so attractive as this is a completely voluntary organization.

How do you differentiate yourself from other crafts organisations?
We have managed to inspire and recruit a team of younger workers as a conscious decision, as an outreach. This is DCC’s achievement. We are completely democratic. When someone writes to us to ask if they can intern with us, we don’t know what to immediately assign them, as there are many tributaries of work open in our office and waiting to be taken on. We invite young enthusiasts to come in and see what they can do. We teach them articulation, opening dialogues with craftspeople and how to work in collaboration and humility with them. Craftspeople are our equal partners and we must hold hands even as we move ahead with them. These are not tangible ideas, we are after all teaching a sensibility which needs to be communicated through self-expression and commitment. But just as fifty years back, Jasleen Dhamija and Kamladevi herself walked with us, we try to do the same for our younger members.

Let’s not forget, that our husbands have been spending on our work for all these years and it is not easy to find young voluntary workers who can’t take anything home as earnings. At one stage, DCC was critiqued as a group of rich women, who used to come together, eat samosas and talk about crafts of their neighbourhood. People had notions about us. Thankfully, they were all razed to the ground.


Photo: Courtesy Delhi Crafts Council

Saris of India Exhibition

What is the experience of the Kamala store? What do you think has worked?
The Kamala stores were set up— the first in 2005 in Delhi— to create a brand, to explore marketing. We have three now, with Kolkata and Chennai additions. Through the Kamla store, we are trying to push the 2-3 lakh craftspeople we are engaged with beyond the limits of what they usually create. It is not just the aesthetic of what’s sold there, we also have a small committee that is very active in the way the shop is run. We especially design things for Kamala through a sustained dialogue between us and the craftspersons. We also work hard on visual merchandising.

What is the big take away of these 50 years? What are your reasons for staying so long with DCC and that too, so many of you? Would you call it patriotism?
It is passion and empathy for the craftsperson’s condition. Patriotism too, yes, absolutely.


Photo: Sagar Ahuja

(L to R) Radhika Bharat Ram, Manjari Nirula, Kumkum Lal, Sharika Sharma, Purnima Rai, Anjana Somany, Kamayani Jalan, Reena Singh