Reinventing Traditional Skills and Livelihoods

A large number of Indian population depends on traditional crafts for their livelihood. Tourism and culture is closely associated with it. The new government has tried to bring an obvious combination among these three areas. It would help reinvent India’s traditional skills and create new job opportunities,
says Jaya Jaitly

01 October, 2014 Opinion, Tourism & Culture
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The idea of encouraging and enabling separate ministries to open their minds and doors to the activities of other ministries that offer synergy has long been overdue. It needed an“outsider”, as the Prime Minister Narendra Modi describes himself, to recognise this and push ministries into cooperating rather than creating competing or contentious fiefdoms. These methods of changing attitudes and actions indicate a new way of bringing about administrative reforms that are crucial to any attempts at better governance. An obvious and easy combination makes itself available in the Ministry of Textiles, which oversees the development of crafts and textiles, with the mandates of tourism and culture.

Essentially, a well developed and coordinated synergy will incrementally improve national and international awareness of tangible and intangible heritage spaces, concepts, skills and livelihoods existing in India. This kind of integration will also enable the inclusion and upliftment of the simplest of occupations. Livelihoods that are handled by the Ministry of Rural Development under khadi and gramodyog banner still need to be included with policies on crafts and handlooms to make the integration complete.

Another important step was the Prime Minister’s 15th August 2014 call for every Member of Parliament to adopt a village for development with funds from the much misused and abused MPLAD scheme. Listing infrastructure improvements required by a village is relatively easy since local demands for roads, bridges, water points, electricity, health clinics, drinking water are specific and the sine qua non of any development. The recognition of local livelihoods, local creative expressions, traditional wisdom and techniques in manufacturing, skills that need upgrading and people with unviable occupations is the next more complicated need. An important question arises as to who or which agencies can come forward to assist such MPs in looking at development in an integrated and holistic manner, incorporate creative livelihoods and potential for tourism?

A well developed and coordinated synergy will incrementally improve national and international awareness of tangible and intangible heritage spaces, concepts, skills and livelihoods existing in India.

Integration of Crafts, Culture and Tourism

Jaya Jaitly,
Founder and President, Dastkari Haat Samiti

For crafts, culture and tourism to be integrated in such villages one would need to discover its special soul that makes it unique. Cultural activists and tourism experts could look for potential to showcase local assets. Its special or traditional skills would have to be mapped. Its cultural and historical heritage and places of special interest can be developed as social and cultural meeting places that stimulate conversation and creativity. If these are at marketplaces called local haats, it can retain and improve upon India’s traditional economic and social hubs. Each village would be able to showcase its specialty by making every section of the community stakeholders.  

Villages inhabited by communities practicing craft in Kutch are unique examples of forward thinking groups who have understood that their path to economic prosperity lies in presenting their traditional cultures and skills within the framework of tourism. Villages of rabari embroiders, vankars (weavers), harijan embroiders and leather workers, copper bell makers and others have seamlessly joined with the upward flow of development that went into Kutch after the 2001 earthquake. A waterless dry area in Banni, the little Rann, now has tourist resorts adjoining its villages. A few traditional ‘bungas’ (round huts that withstood the earthquake) are now attractive circular bedrooms in their unique décor, with attached showers and western style toilets. Visitors step out into spotless courtyards to relax on charpoys. Local singers entertain visitors with local musical instruments in the evenings during dinner in community style dining areas. Traditional Kutchi food with fresh butter and buttermilk from their own herd of cattle and nutritious rotis are served on brass thalis. Village women are taught embroidery from a very young age to develop their womanly skills. They make embroidered items ranging from quilts to key rings. Men make a range of diversified crafts based on traditional items of usage like copper cattle bells, leather bags and footwear. When groups of visitors come, they lay out their wares for sale like an impromptu haat, getting prices 5 times higher than they did when selling to middlemen or even government showrooms.

The best recipe to work towards an ideal ‘rurban’ village that discourages outward migration is when basic amenities like good roads, transport services and electricity are provided.

All this has been made possible because of continuous water and electricity having been provided by the Gujarat Government. They now want small showrooms and more opportunities for marketing.

Instead of imitating alien cultures or urban standards of ‘development’ they came to realise that a simple notching up of their own lifestyles and presenting them with pride, made their lives stand out as unique and added value to their earnings.

Bhujodi is an example of a weaver’s village a short distance from Bhuj. From humble beginnings as weavers of blankets and camel covers in rough wool, they have progressed to the stature of national award winners. The wealth and range of their textiles is remarkable. Many weaver homes that also house their work sheds have added a small showroom in the front. Shoppers are invited to enter and observe the weaving process. Weavers and other members of the gram panchayat at a meeting with senior state and central government officials expressed their wish to have a café and small museum of their archival work for tourists. They also said the younger generation wants to continue the work and could be motivated and rewarded with youth awards. This was a good indicator that the craft was not fading out. If the government offered support for the museum the panchayat was willing to provide the land. Any private entrepreneur could set up a café.

The above examples could nudge us to consider the concept of declaring National Heritage Villages (and National Heritage Cities like Varanasi). A village or city would need to adhere to a set of collectively arrived at criteria to obtain this title and be eligible for further support from departments dealing with their development like tourism and culture.

Villages like Hodka in Banni for embroideries, Bhujodi for handloom weaving, Ajrakhpur for handblock printing have been created through village efforts. Other establishments like Shrujan and Khameer (development NGOs that help with design, production and marketing) have set up museums and showrooms to attract tourists and other clientele to savour the cultural skills of Kutch. They have all adopted this approach to progress and the potential for development using ‘culture’ as the symbolic tool in the local area itself.

Another idea worth developing is the ‘modern’ version of the self-reliant village or cluster of villages. Nakhatrana district is a possible area in which cotton farmers can be encouraged to integrate their outputs with the needs of local spinners and weavers needing cotton textile. There are examples of villages that have developed efficient community systems of 24×7 water distribution four decades ago and some provide ‘RO’ water for some hours of the day at a nominal rate.


The best recipe to work towards an ideal ‘rurban’ village that discourages outward migration is when basic amenities like good roads, transport services and electricity are provided. In such villages a co-operative spirit can be inculcated among the creative community to attract cultural tourism and even farm tourism.

An example to applaud and replicate is Hiware Bazaar in Ahmednagar District of Maharashtra where one panchayat head has achieved a remarkable turnaround in irrigation and water management, closing liquor vends and creating reverse migration. Today, this village has received awards, caters to 400 tourist visitors a day and every villager is a beneficiary of development that has brought financial inclusiveness. A village with this profile also deserves to be recognised as a National Heritage Village for its sustainable traditional farming and water management methods.

Another crucial direction provided to the nation by the Prime Minister on Independence Day is the need for cleanliness and sanitation. We must accept that any talk of culture, tourism and the presentation of craft skills for the economic benefit of craftspersons cannot allow filth and garbage to mar the landscape, health and well being of the people in a village.

Primarily, there should be a collective citizen’s campaign to propagate the “Culture of Cleanliness” before we expand upon the common understanding of ‘Culture’. Pride in one’s country, culture and self-worth can come only if our surroundings are clean and well kept. It is lack of caring rather than poverty that has anything to do with it, since some of the poorest rural homes all over India are the cleanest and it is city and small town areas where civic services are poor that harmful garbage is most visible. The ‘mai-baap’ approach in governments that gradually turned inefficient and corrupt, killed the initiative of citizens who became begging beneficiaries rather than proactive stakeholders.

National Heritage City

Varanasi is the first city that comes to mind as a National Heritage City on the lines of the National Heritage Village. Therefore, a campaign for cleanliness applies on a mega scale to all aspects of development in Varanasi. The “Culture of Cleanliness” idea has to precede any plans to highlight the culture of Varanasi. This is of primary importance before the rest of the world is encouraged to visit. The time is over when we could ignore our squalor and indulgently appreciate those backpack tourists for loving the chaos and filth of India as if it is a given that goes with the territory. To believe there is any spirituality or praiseworthy “Indianness” involved when tourists film half burnt corpses at the cremation ghat in Varanasi is to be part of the disrespect shown not just to our traditions but to the dead as well. This cannot be encouraged as a part of culture and tourism. Since so many pilgrims come to Varanasi to die and achieve ‘moksha’ they deserve dignified circumstances to do so, and should count as part of tourism development since a tourist is not just one who comes to look at the sights.

The ultimate meaning of the sacredness of the Ganga is the recognition of the crucial need for water to sustain any form of human life. Festering garbage, open sewers and dirty water foster diseases that destroy human life. The two cannot be allowed to co-exist in a city where the River Ganga resides deeply in the psyche of every citizen, and cannot be ignored by even a casual visitor. It should not be too difficult for public and private agencies to work together to convert chronically dirty grounds into small lotus ponds fenced off with grill to beautify and protect the space and demonstrate how dirt can be converted into beauty. It would also gently echo the need for a campaign for cleanliness and the sacredness of the River Ganga reaching every dark corner of the back lanes of the old and new city.

Varanasi handlooms, especially its brocades, have been famous for millennia. Today, one cannot walk down the narrow lanes to handloom weaver’s establishments because of the filth lying strewn in those lanes. Conditions of weavers are very bad in many old parts. Development plans for their uplift must be progressive, practical and result-oriented. Distributing largesse, or giving partial loans they cannot return without serious efforts at marketing being made is no answer. If we wished to show a tourist how handlooms are woven, the present working conditions of weavers would put us to shame. Powerlooms are a challenge, but a natural development that has multiplied since electricity supply became regular. Their aggressive noise drowns out the gentle click-clack of the handloom. Yet, many special skills and techniques known to Varanasi handloom weavers need to be kept alive, since they do not exist in other countries and can be marketed for the ‘specialness’ to command higher prices. If we lose them we lose an important part of our heritage and will have no ‘Culture’ to display with pride.

Many special skills and techniques known to Varanasi handloom weavers need to be kept alive, since they do not exist in other countries, and can be marketed for its speciality to command higher prices.

Government institutions set up to provide services to handloom weavers have become shabby and apathetic. Yet, these institutions have been invested with good intentions and public money. They need to be revamped and upgraded to encourage visitors who can see how this important sector is being effectively served. If these tried structures are activated with a dynamic, contemporary approach wherein all such services are considered a part of the Research & Development, which enhances the economic value of a product, it becomes a viable part of a business plan rather than a welfare and subsidy arrangement. Such establishments could then be incorporated into a tourism plan and charge a moderate fee to those who would like to visit the establishment to see the latest developments in dyeing, weaving and design development. An attractive cafeteria by a private sector partner will immediately make a tired old department into a viable tourist spot that highlights steps being taken to sustain Varanasi’s famous handloom weaving as a source of pride. We have to admit that while other countries find ways to project the smallest of their national assets for the benefit of tourism, we let most of ours die in neglect. Coordination and imaginative planning between the ministries of Textiles and Tourism would help overcome such shortcomings more easily and bring benefit to the lives of the needy.

Artistic Touch to Rickshaws

North India is heavily populated with rickshaws. A healthy coordination between the Ministry of Transport and those concerned with the overall development of Varanasi, Agra and other heritage cities should allocate funds for the production of ergonomically improved rickshaws. There are many agencies in the world that have worked on designs and there is even a patent for one held by the Government of India, but obviously none have been pursued. Rickshaw owners, drivers as well as passengers (especially tourists) could have an advantage with artistically decorated, more comfortable rickshaws to traverse narrow spotlessly clean streets. It’s already there in Varanasi, humble toy painters do add an artistic touch to the humble rickshaw though it is being hardly noticed by anyone.

Imagine comfortable attractive rickshaws taking shoppers to handloom establishments in those narrow lanes to observe hand-weaving skills – it would encourage the purchase of such textiles at better prices, benefiting the weavers and the traders.

A flute seller who plays on the banks of the Ganga at assighat is a symbol of the true spiritual, cultural and harmonious spirit of Varanasi. He tells potential customers that he makes the flutes himself and is well tuned to musical tonalities. He offers to teach how to play the flute free for one hour if the customer buys one. Not only does he entertain as the strains of his charming music flow along the ghats and into the air above, he smiles gently saying he is happy with his life thanks to the gifts of ‘Ganga Maiyya’ and the god above. His name is Mushtaq Ahmad. His truly inclusive spiritual attitude needs to be recognised, appreciated and showcased. It is simple, talented persons like him who could be supported as the people’s cultural ambassadors of Varanasi, along with the big names who are so closely associated with the music schools of the city. The classical schools of music traditions, the guru shishya tradition, the long hours of painstaking riyaz, would teach a western tourist about the depth of our musical heritage. Opportunities for growth and recognition of these gharanas will come automatically.

Traditional Paintings

The famous ghat walls are covered with tasteless advertisements for shops or beverages, yoga classes and graffiti. Yet the mural painting of Varanasi is a dying tradition that can be revived by encouraging artists to paint in this style and convert the ghat walls into a splendid art gallery which, when lit well and viewed from a boat, would be quite magical. Local business groups can sponsor such programmes if they are handled by imaginative and sensitive persons and not half-heartedly by government officials. A Son et Lumiere would add to the splendour and create a modern tourist experience as exciting as the magnificent Dasashwamedha Ghat aarti puja.

Traditional wooden toy makers and painters in Varanasi live in squalid conditions, forgotten by the people as well as the government. They have special skills as wood workers and artistic painters. Some attention and nurturing to assist them to access raw materials and market prominently will bring this special craft of Varanasi alive again.

The complex at Kabir Chauraha is an almost museum-like place. It could be incorporated into the educational and tourist programmes to highlight the legacy of societal harmony and respect for simple livelihoods. Highlighting the legacy of Sant Kabir of the 14th-15th century will offer salvation of another kind to many, by taking care to include the small worker — those with simple traditional skills and the lower rungs of the toiling classes — into plans for Varanasi.

There is a wide canvas that opens up across the country if we look at patronage as creative collaborations between all sections of the society. Once we collectively realise that neither the government nor individuals struggling against the system can bring about change on their own, we may find a way to create a new environment.

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