How To Tell A Crafts Story

How To Tell A Crafts Story

Toolika Gupta, initiator of India’s first crafts communication academic course, on mixing local storytelling with AR-VR, comics, and gaming to decolonise crafts education

Even before Toolika Gupta, the widely smiling and charmingly persuasive director of Jaipur’s Indian Institute of Crafts & Design (IICD), begins to address the purpose of our meeting, you sense she has many stories to tell. Her articulation blends an intuitive connect with her listener and is expressed in the right language and context.

Where manner, conversation, dress and appearance go, the former professor from the National Institute of Fashion Design (NIFT) Delhi, is more ‘Toolika’ (which means a painter’s brush or a Collyritun stick in Sanskrit) than Gupta. In one fell swoop she argues for the needs of young, rural enthusiasts of crafts and textiles, creating crafts syllabi beyond those through English or European academic ideas and for storytelling that makes sense to pursuers of design in villages as well as urban audiences.


Director of Jaipur’s Indian Institute of Crafts & Design (IICD), Toolika Gupta.


Seated in her director’s chair in the campus of IICD, an institute that speaks in the language of authentic crafts work and teaching, Toolika explains the context of India’s first crafts communications course. IICD is known for its academic programmes in crafts design and outreach to keen students in the villages of Rajasthan. Besides a new incubator course in crafts businesses, it also invites nuanced debates among those who matter in the textiles and crafts ecosystem of India.

The First Move on Crafts Communication

Introduced in 2021 at IICD, the full-time, on-ground academic programme offered in affiliation with Rajasthan’s ILD Skills University is the first of its kind offered by any institute in the country. While fashion communication has been taught at NIFT institutes since the early 2000s. Since then many other fashion design institutes across India offer undergrad or post-grad courses that include fashion and media communication. They aim to address the all-important need to teach students how to narrate fashion, research, tell and retell stories, archive for museums or books, visual interpretations and create communication design that uses audio-visual and written cues. However, no course specifically designed to teach the communication of crafts has been imagined or introduced in India so far.


A compilation of a storytelling project using Tikuli art at IICD.

“Before joining IICD, I was focused on textiles, crafts, clothing, accessories, and fashion,” says Toolika talking of her work at NIFT Delhi and before. “When I joined as director of IICD five years back, I realised after spending time with different departments, that there was so much to take forward in terms of the language Indian crafts use to express themselves,” she says. Her thoughts kept returning to the fact that while an original narrative style lives in Indian textiles and crafts like Bihar’s Madhubani, Bengal’s Baluchari, paintings of Rajasthan known as Pabuji ka phad (painted narratives on textiles), “each carrying tales on them through weaving or painting, other forms of early Indian storytelling remain untapped.”

Local nautanki (street theatre), especially the enactments of Ramayana through Ramleela mandlis (groups) exist in India, but these have not been used to communicate the crafts, she feels. “When you look at magazines, books used to teach students of fashion or of crafts, the storytelling is Western,” she observes. Assimilating these thoughts, arguing that if there is Belgian glass, why can’t there be Bikaneri wool; if Japan’s Manga comics and graphic novels communicating a specific country’s stories, why not the possibilities of narrations through Mithila paintings, puppetry, Indian pottery.


A still from the comic project ‘Apne Jadon Se’ at IICD.

Crafts-speak in Cities and Villages

“The aim is not only to communicate Indian crafts to urban or global audiences but to open a language among young people in villages and small centres so that their engagement with their own crafts remains alive,” explains Toolika. AR-VR, gaming technology, comics, UI-UX wonders of digital media and their relevance to fire up, retell even the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or a potter’s tale from a village, mixed with local narrative crafts like painted scrolls, or Kawad (wooden temple-like creations with multiple hand-painted stories, little doorways that open to deities and deeper stories), were the motivating thoughts. “If a Spiderman’s story can be turned into high-tech gaming, why not that of Arjuna or Krishna?” she asks rhetorically.



The local narrative craft consists of wooden temple-like creations with multiple hand-painted stories, little doorways that open to deities and deeper stories.


Toolika invited experts in crafts from across India to confer on how the elements of the course could be broken down to four semesters for postgraduate students and ways of teaching it.

Named Crafts Communication, this course now offered to postgraduate students as well as to undergrads (the first-year teachings are common), took two years to gestate.  Distinct from fashion communication programmes, it uses Indian characters, ideas, crafts, tools to address museology, media, archiving research, book designing, verbal and written communication about crafts.

It is drawn keeping in mind a keen pursuant from a village as well as an urban student. The post-grad programme is for two years; the first batch is expected to roll out in June 2023. The undergrad programme is associated with other courses for the four-year stint and its first batch will roll out in 2025. The course mandates those seeking admission to live in Jaipur to pursue it.


A Kawad craft project opening up to reveal more stories.

The functional usage of this course in the crafts and cultural industries of India, in textile economies that link Indian villages with urban fashion manufacturing units and several other branches will be tested on ground only after the first batch emerges and applies its directions. However, is clear that it takes forward the interpretation of India’s New Education Policy introduced in 2020.

Or, as Toolika says, it is all very well to say we must read and teach vernacular literature but what about the continuity and future of Indian crafts? Especially as even today, “70 per cent of Indians live in villages like Gandhiji said, but we continue to design communication primarily for city dwellers or global citizens”.


A still from the comic project ‘Tsunamica’ at IICD.

Crafts Apps For Locals

This course which aims to enable students to make crafts Apps that could potentially engage village residents, most of who have mobile phones is not an isolated work area to relink communities distanced by economic or educational disparities. IICD makes repeated educational outreaches to interested students of fashion and design in villages. Organising fashion events, teaching girls and boys to stitch, sew and design, create communication material go on as part of the institute’s activities. Toolika says she remembers suggesting to her faculty for a project in Napasar village in Bikaner district, that instead of teaching basic bodice, trousers, skirt patterns, they should be taught how to tailor salwar-kurtas and other local silhouettes. “We hired a tailor to teach them how to make these,” she informs.

She speaks of such initiatives essentially in terms of decolonisation, loosening them from the grip of Western teaching modules, tailoring and design initiatives or the implementation of crafts communication through Western fonts, languages, choice of photography and their application in books, brochures and visual campaigns.

It may be of compelling interest though to those who track stories of change that female recipients in villages of interventions like those by IICD may not be happy with the status quo on their identities as craftspeople. Case in point is a refrain from women potters in the village of Baswa who told the IICD team that they did not wish to remain potters working on pounding, kneading, breaking and baking clay and mud or working relentlessly with their hands. Nor do they want to marry their daughters to village potters who ran indigenous kilns. They say they want city lives. Another girl in a village tailoring workshop wanted to learn how to stitch a jumpsuit.


Female recipients in villages of interventions like those by IICD may not be happy with the status quo on their identities as craftspeople. They say they want city lives.


Most delightful is the anecdote of a girl from the Chirawa village in Rajasthan who showed the teaching team that she had nearly 8,000 followers on Instagram. The subject of her posts is Lord Krishna. She makes a variety of clothes and accessories for the ‘Blue God’, dressing him in sunglasses and other innovative ideas, making hers a unique social media handle.

“That’s what decolonising is, to communicate our local skills,” says Toolika.