The Indian Artisan x Fashion Designer: Rights and Rites

The Indian Artisan x Fashion Designer: Rights and Rites

Letter from the Editor: A new series that debates issues of crafts copyright, and who owns the artisanal signature in India 

“With the kind of resources they have, I would have loved to see the Sabyasachi brand develop its own motif-print instead of using an open source motif for the H&M collection,” said textile designer Gaurav Jai Gupta, besides other perceptive insights on a recent panel discussion. The Sanganeri print (among many other prints of India especially the ubiquitous chintz motifs) is apparently “open source”. Such prints are on covers of books on Indian textiles, on street side stoles, T-shirts, home linen and furniture dressing by some of India’s top home décor brands and on carpets. Well. Like machine printed Kalamkari, Ikat, Ajrakh and so on…



A file image of a Patola sari worked on by Indian artist Satishchandra Salvi, at a workshop in Patan, Gujarat.

Jai Gupta’s insight tucked under heaps of opinions (fewer facts) swirling on social media and in publications offers a rather relevant moment in the debate about Sabyasachi’s digital reproduction of Sanganeri prints for fast fashion clothes. Even as we argue why designers (and manufacturers, traders, boutiques, export houses) continue to replicate the same old, oft-repeated vocabulary of motifs to perpetuate “Indian design”, this issue needs an urgent delinking from Sabyasachi.

The debate must now orient itself towards the current status of GI (Geographical Indication) in India. How easy it is to implement and fight for it beyond the certification, what copyright means in artisanal work and what about oral knowledge that rests with semi-literate and marginalised artisans? Especially when everything must go digital to survive, who will then take responsibility for the protection of heritage, dignity, value and profitability of artisans who continue to live under the long shadow of disempowerment and unequal recognition.

If aboriginal arts practiced by the indigenous tribes of Africa on the one hand and Australia on the other, which were digitised, commercially interpreted and sold could bring the culpable to book through legal measures (there are verifiable accounts about it), why do Indian crafts and artisanal motifs remain so porous?


Photo: Shutterstock

The traditional Kente clothes of Ghana, worn by kings during the Odwira Festval.

Then there is the issue of craftwashing. One expert explains it as “the concern that the crafts idiom is delinked from the practice and practitioners and yet authenticity is claimed.” Click open any online marketplace selling “ethnic Indian crafts” and you know what this means.

There are too many aspects to this issue—each complex. And since loopholes have been left unattended without policy frameworks and legal guidelines, many of us, the media specifically suffer from limited means to argue it out. The door never stops revolving.

On the other hand, while some fashion designers flagrantly violate or ignore crediting artisans and routinely copy from them, the fact is that without the intervention, innovation and enterprising ideas of many others, the evolution of India’s crafts into fashion would have been stunted.

All the more reason we need a consensus on the ownership of the artisanal signature.


Photo: Hugo Maertens, Bruges/ CC BY-SA 3.0

(L-R) Jacket in chintz, skirt in wool damask, 1750-1800; MoMu Collection T12/14/B4, T12/26/B62. Dress and skirts in chintz, India, ca. 1770-1790, shawl (fichu) in embroidered batiste, 1770-1800; MoMu Collection T13/582/J81 and T12/995AB/B37. Jacoba de Jonge Collection in MoMu – Fashion Museum Province of Antwerp.

The Voice of Fashion uses this opportunity to invite a series of stories, opinion pieces, even podcasts from leading practitioners of crafts, heads of bodies that represent artisan networks, craftspeople themselves plus fashion designers and design thinkers. So that we can collectively cut through issues about copyright, IPR, GI, dignity of craftspeople as well as the open-to-interpretation, inspirational graph for fashion designers.

This is a cultural debate, as crafts is just one subset of it. It is about the identity and rootedness of traditional design. As the erudite and persuasive former director of Crafts Council of India, and the former head of National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, Prof Ashoke Chatterjee says, “We may also need to accept that heritage is shared across all sorts of boundaries and is thus ‘owned by none of us’.”

This series—Artisan x Designer—begins tomorrow with a piece by Dastkari Haat Samiti founder, Jaya Jaitly. Every week for the next month or so, we will publish two pieces until we hope to bring up some consensus to a live panel.

An important closing question: will we manage to unwrap all issues that are pertinent, relevant and need discussion on a media platform? I would say no. But let’s start. Do expect a riveting curation of topics and some very meaningful ideas.