Handicrafts have always been a part of the cultural heritage of a state. With West Bengal’s strong presence in the field of handicrafts ranging from Terracotta to Patachitra to Dokra, the government has tried to support the sector. BE’s Isha Chakraborty spoke to two different organisations working in collaboration with the West Bengal Government- the West Bengal Handicrafts Development Corporation Limited and Banglanatok dot com (Rural Craft Hubs of West Bengal).
Amit Datta, Managing Director, West Bengal Handicrafts Development Corporation Limited, said, “The demand for handicrafts in West Bengal, particularly in households, corporate, and hotel industries is on the rise. There is a good chunk of event managers in the country, as well as state meets, where handicraft products are given as return gifts. Even in Kolkata, during the Durga pujas or Kali Puja, most pandals are theme-based and are created by the event managers who choose handicraft items to build their pandals, i.e., shola craft, jute, leather crafts, terracotta, ceramic crafts, etc. They are becoming the principal buyers of these handicraft houses. Now, due to these events happening all over the state or the country, the demand for handicrafts rises, these are only crafted by the artisans and no one else can make them perfectly since it is not machine made or something mechanical, and thus the demand for artisans go higher as well. So, whenever they get orders, the artisans get job in their own field and their earnings increase. We are trying to support the artisans in West Bengal by providing them with orders and thus improve their household living quality. This will someday in future rectify the conditions and thus handicrafts would observe a much brighter future.”
Returns for artisans
Datta says, “Our principle motto is to see that the artisans are getting enough work for running their households, support the education for their children, enough to survive, etc. Until and unless the artisans can earn that, they will get distracted from their own art form. Every single thing is crafted from the hands of these artisans that can be sold in the market and appreciated by the people. So, the artisans have to follow the likes and the budget of the target customers. Another part is that the artisans are no more limited to only certain items for showcasing their art, they are using sarees, table cloths, wallpapers, cups, mats, etc. This is also giving the customers a wider array of choices to select from.”
Niloy Basu, General Manager, Banglanatokdotcom, told BE, “Let me cite an example to understand the situation of artisans in a better way. Bikna is a village with a population of seven families, i.e., when we visited the place in 2013, it almost resembled a ghetto- no sanitation, no drainage system, no safe drinking water, and because of the hard metal work, there was smoke everywhere. We heard that most of the people suffered and died from Tuberculosis (TB). Since they did not have any working capital they had to borrow huge amounts from their mahajans, with high rates of interest. Then Paschim Banga Khadi gave them a working capital of Rs. 5 lakh so they did not have to take money from mahajans. By 2018, the society created in Bikna have earned almost an amount of Rs. 2 crore in collaboration with Biswa Bangla. The village now has a proper art museum and a community centre with a proper sanitation system and drinking water. They were also given a furnace, which was economically beneficial and less hazardous as well. These people have become highly celebrated artists once they received some exposure. These areas have received geographical indications as well, so yes, they are advancing with time. People who were once earning only Rs. 400 - Rs. 800 are now earning Rs. 12000. The artisans are now teaching their offspring as well since now they have hopes of making money through this profession as well.”
Is the country appreciating its heritage or is it dying away?
Basu says, “It is a very crucial question since half of the people don’t even know that kather kaaj is done in Kushmandi. So informing the crowd or spreading awareness about the heritage is also an important task. We have been running a programme named, “heritage education” since 2013 where we are bringing urban children and helping them interact with the rural artists. We also get a lot of support from media because of which we can show these things to the general crowd as well. There was a time when craft wasn’t sold in the rural areas but now they have a market and it is mostly local, so that means people are aware of the craft being present there. People are taking up the craft for their household items instead of purchasing steel or plastic or glassware. The presence of handicraft has increased constantly over the span of two to three years in the urban areas. It can be said that with the increase in the visibility of the craft, the desire for the craft is also increasing. Another very important fact is that when these artisans are going for these workshops or melas, they are selling half the product they produced but they are also bringing back orders worth the double of that amount and more business contacts for future.”
Market outside India
In this context Datta said, “The market is very active even outside India. Baluchari sarees are being sent to London and the USA. Recently, we took part in a big handicraft fair in China in coordination with the West Bengal State Export Promotion Society (WBSEPS) where we took a group of artisans for showcasing their products and all their products were sold. This also gave them orders from several other businessmen who were present at the fair.”
Basu had something else to say, “It is not possible to send a single craft outside India since the impact is way lesser, but if there is a cultural package then its impact is stronger. For example, Sweden’s Urkult festival has had a team of Baul artists named Folks of Bengal. Along with this goes Patachitra and then when both are combined and performed together, it represents West Bengal. Now, there are several festivals where these artists are now performing where the essentially rural flavour of that presentation is being appreciated.”
How is your organization helping the sector?
Basu told BE, “In the year 2013, we conducted a survey in which we observed that the main handicraft clusters present in West Bengal are really bad. For certain reasons we selected ten specific clusters - Chau Mask of Purulia, Clay Doll of Nadia, Wooden Doll of Bardhaman, Dokra Hub of Dariyapur, Dokra Hub at Bikna, Terracotta of Panchmura, Kantha from Nanoor, Madurkathi from Purba Medinipur, Patachitra of Pingla, Sitalpati from Ghughumari, and Wooden Mask of Kushmandi. Most of the crafts were in abominable conditions; the artists were not only earning less but their living conditions were worse. In certain areas, people were not interested at all since this wasn’t a sustainable livelihood option. We have a methodology that is, “Art for Life”, which rests on the three pillars of capacity building, direct market linkage, and exchange collaborations. So, we thought by using this methodology we can actually make a turnaround. For this reason, with a group of 3000 artists and ten different art forms, we started working. West Bengal MSME and UNESCO has helped us throughout our way.”
Datta said, “We are under the MSME department, as well as the textile department, where we sell handicraft products of West Bengal throughout the state as well in different parts of the country. For the handicrafts sector, we also deal with the government, private and public sectors. Either they purchase in retail, in smaller quantities or they give orders in bulk. We mainly procure the orders from different depart-ments as per their budget and requirement and then we pass the orders to our artisans. We have trained master artisans who produce these products and thereafter we collect it from them and put it forward to the customers. This is the working mechanism of our organization. In terms of the e-commerce platform, on Snapdeal, we have our own page where we are selling our products. Not everyone understands where they can find the perfect artisans or have the time to hunt and the artisans also don’t know where to approach. We, at the West Bengal Handicraft Development Corporation Limited (WBHDCL) act as the nodal agency for both the theme makers, businessmen, and the artisans.”
Datta says, “Handicraft is given principal priority by the West Bengal state government since the complete focus is on promoting the handicraft artisans of the state. We are trying to set up different projects in collaboration with UNESCO that are supporting their developmental process. This is helping them in developing their own products in a way that would be sold in the market because of their quality irrespective of their price. Software and hardware intervention was brought in to support these people. People are even opting for coloured walls with stories as depicted in Patachitra. This is changing the whole outlook and ambience of their room. They are purchasing sarees with different designs and using craft items as their daily household utensils or requirements. We are actually trying to do what needs to be done given the present scenario, since everything is market driven. Thus, when someone has the capability of creating art, we provide the opportunity to help them to progress.”
Basu concluded by saying, “The packaging has to be improved with the time. Customised packaging is essential. Machine intervention is also another important part in terms of the future aspects. To reach the new generation, educational tourism is also being implemented in order to reach the second generation audience. MSME & T is helping in this.”