Who made this saree? The anonymous world of Indian designers, craftsmen


Who made this saree? The anonymous world of Indian designers, craftsmen

When 64-year-old Rohit Salvi, a Patan Patola master weaver arrived to participate at World Ikat Textiles: Ties that Bind, a cross-cultural exhibition, symposium and bazaar held in Delhi a few weeks back, he was turned away from the hotel where he was supposed to stay. There was no reservation for him at the Western Court Hotel, he was informed, never mind the email of confirmation from the organisers.

Along with Savan, his 33-year-old nephew, the youngest weaver in the family, Salvi had to check into a small hotel near the railway station. Representatives of the World Crafts Council who had co-organised the event with the Delhi Crafts Council and other noted textile and crafts brands later apologised to them but Savan says they were hurt at being initially overlooked. Especially as a visual representation of the Shrikar Bhat, an award-winning drape woven by Rohit Salvi was the lead image on all promotional materials for this event. Since 1978, the Salvis who weave Patan’s famous double Ikat Patola, have been honoured with four national awards and two Shilpguru citations.

Far away in the temple town of Nathdwara in Rajasthan, 62-year-old Shyam Sharma, also a 1987 national awardee for reverse painting on glass and an old hand at Pichhwai art, bemoans the fact that artists like him can never directly reach the “kala-premis” (art lovers) of the world, thwarted as they are by gallery owners and middlemen. “I got a national award but no proper platform ever to evolve my art or earnings. One painting takes me 20-25 days to make but earnings depend on negotiations with middlemen. Sometimes I get as little as Rs 15,000 a piece even though it sells for ten times the price in city galleries,” says Sharma.

Currently, there is a visible inflection point in India’s design journey. A contemporary awakening of sorts surrounds us through travelling shows, seminars, crafts tours, handloom melas, ministry and media engagements. Many more people now know about tribal and folk art, the hand-made aesthetic in textile and the dilemmas of the country’s heritage legacy. A movement summed up rather succinctly by Bhopal-based Gond artist Bhajju Shyam: “Five years back we were called craftsmen. Today we are known as contemporary artists.”

Yet there is a lot of lopsidedness in the crevices of this evolution when it comes to commercial gains, name and fame of urban designers compared to village artisans. Indian design is a co-created entity shared by urban design thinkers and rural artisans. Asia’s well-known design guru Rajeev Sethi calls the latter the “skilled poor, the base of the creative community”. They have seldom been credited for their contributions to the nation’s cultural monuments even though it is in collaboration with their skills and underpaid work that sensitised minds trained in design schools have evolved what India at 70 recognises as its design idiom.

The ‘other half’

The point is not who invented the wheel or who is more important in the caravan of brand India. Nor is it about diminishing the role of design gurus without whom innovation, finesse and recognition would be impossible. But it is about deconstructing the story to reveal its nuances. More than 43 lakh people are engaged in weaving and allied activities according to the Handloom Census of India of 2009-2010 while 45,000 creations made by 9,000 artisans, awardees and retailers were showcased at Textiles India 2017 in Gandhinagar this June.

Yet an ambiguous anonymity continues to cloud the “other half”.

So while most of us know about Jaipur blue pottery, the jadau jewellery of Rajasthan, handblown glass from Moradabad, Naqashi of Kashmir; recounting the names of master craftsmen or the stars from the younger generation of artisans is hard. Undoubtedly, a clutch of successful designers work with craftsmen in fair and mutually enriching ways. Some bring them to fashion week ramps for visibility, others take them abroad for visual retelling of their skills at international design festivals. But only a few over the years have publicly shared the signature with an artisan.

Credit sharing

Textile designers Shani Himanshu of 11:11/eleven eleven and Swati Kalsi are among those keen to turn the tide. With Arvind Limited, Himanshu created 100 per cent Khadi jeans, a line of limited edition indigo dyed denims. Each pair carries the name of the craftsperson on the label. Kalsi works with female Sujani embroidery artisans from Bihar in interactive workshops to create work on the cusp of art, craft and textiles. “The hand has a brain of its own. It can think of and make surfaces that neither machines nor the human mind can recreate. Each artisan has an individual style of doing the same embroidery,” she says of her “one-of-a -kind pieces”. Kalsi foots the expenditure for the travel, stay and boarding of artisans in the city and believes that profit-sharing models need to be evolved by engagement, time, skill, and risk-taking on the part of artisans.

Beenu Bawa, the brand director of lifestyle brand Goodearth who has made a series of craft films titled Pehchaan (recognition) on the talent of India’s unknown artisans says it is time the spotlight moves to other crafts beyond weaves. “Artisans are the best representations of the Indian entrepreneurial spirit which is the engine of growth. But we must listen before trying to help them. They crave the respect and freedom of modern artists. They understand market forces and find fair-trade regulations insulting,” says Bawa.

Forty years ago, lest insult became injury, Sethi says he requested Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, the leading social reformer of post-independence India to help constitute the ‘Bhule Bisre Kalakaar Cooperative’ for forgotten artists. This was just after the Emergency when bulldozers had razed the mud homes of artists in the Kathputli colony near Shadipur depot in Delhi. “Anand Gram, a unique arts habitat blending urban and rural ethos for artists relegated to city slums, was imagined. The four decade-long failure to take these projects to their logical conclusion continues to hurt,” says Sethi.

Later in 1985-86, the Golden Eye exhibition of India curated by Sethi for the Smithsonian Museum in the US had panels with names and quotes of the 55 contributing craftsmen. A red stone bench made by Sethi with Kesariya Ram, a stone artist from Rajasthan, is now famously a part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Likewise, each work at the Jaya He museum jointly carries the name of the Ustaad (the head) of the artisan group with that of Sethi.

Concerns around artisanal signature formed the basic promise of Indian design as envisioned by Chattopadhyaya and cultural activist Pupul Jayakar, says Ashoke Chatterjee, former director of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, from 1975-2000. “

Incubation of the design process however came later. Acknowledging their work and instilling self-confidence in artisans began with the collaborations between NID faculty and students for craft documentation projects who came from privileged backgrounds,” says Chatterjee. “Craft is our only hope and this inclusive ethic of joint signature and credit must apply to all interventions,” he says adding that a majority of artisans remain voiceless. “It is an unequal society and while there have been wonderful people and projects, others have exploited them and left them behind.”

Bhajju Shyam for instance sells each of his Gond painting for Rs 20,000-Rs 25000 from his home studio while city galleries charge upwards of Rs 60,000, taking their cut which Shyam believes is fair. “We need design gurus to hone our skills and galleries to give us space,” he says. Goodearth says they never negotiate money or fees with an artisan once the sampling is approved. “A yearly order plan is shared for artisans to plan raw material, 30 to 50 per cent is given as advance and the entire order, sometimes even extra is picked up when ready with no rejections.”

It may be time however to highlight unsung artists alongside flourishing city talents. Like Hansiba, a hand embroidery brand named after the first and oldest artisan of SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Association). Not as patriotic duty or social service but as professional ethic and the sturdy market mantra of credit where due.



In the late Seventies, Fabindia founder John Bissell collaborated with less-known Baroda artist Riten Majumdar. The colour blind Majumdar, brushed past the then prevalent idiom of floral and ethnic patterns to imagine a new graphic, geometric matrix in high intensity colours. It was used by Fabindia as a fundamental design map for garments, wall hangings and other products. “Not only did products evolved from Majumdar’s idiom fly off Fabindia shelves but became ubiquitous in street markets,” says Prableen Sabhaney, head of communications and public affairs at Fabindia. As part of a project that discovers less-known designers of South Asia, Whitworth Gallery in the University of Manchester is currently displaying the late Majumdar’s work loaned by Fabindia.


Artisans work on wages. There is no concept of profit in their work,” says crafts consultant Meera Goradia, former director of Kutch-based NGO Khamir. This statement underpins the inequalities. Artisan wages are usually matched to daily minimum wages proscribed for unskilled labourers. The minimum wage of non-agricultural, unskilled workers in the central sphere was raised from Rs 246 to Rs 350 per day in 2016.

There are various models of wage protection, minimum work provision and sustenance for craftspeople. Some fall under government schemes, funds and subsidies for the handloom and handicrafts sector. Others are initiated by not for profit organisations like Dastkar, Dastkari Haat Samiti, SEWA or Jiyo by Asian Heritage Foundation whose sole aim is to make crafts communities independent. Others like Khamir, Shrujan, Fabindia, have evolved models of profit-sharing by percentage as a give-back to craftspeople.

On average, a rural craftsperson earns between Rs 6,000 to Rs 14,000 a month, from the Ikat weaver of Odisha to the Uppada artisan of Andhra Pradesh. Earnings depend on daily productivity, speed and quality of work. Master craftspeople who double up as middlemen or as associates of city designers earn more. Despite the current hype around turning Khadi into a luxury brand, a spinner earns only Rs 7 per hank (unit of yarn). An average of 25 hanks (unit of yarn) per day still adds up to only Rs 175 daily wage. “It is important to debate how the net profit percentage is calculated by big design houses and how overheads claimed by stores are justified,” says Goradia.