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Our handicrafts industry needs both patronage and innovation to thrive, says Design Create founder Sheela Lunkad

A handicraft fair usually draws more of the browser than serious shopper these days.

As we look through stalls showcasing hundreds of novelties and utilities made out of wood, metal, stone and cloth, our thoughts rarely linger on the skillful hands that would have fashioned such items of beauty.

Visitors to handicraft fairs are often more busy comparing prices rather than examining the craftsmanship of the items on display.

Perhaps that is why Indian handicrafts are more visible and appreciated outside the country.

Despite it being fragmented and unorganised, the Indian handicraft industry employs 7 million regional artisans and has more than 67,000 exporters engaged in promoting its wares in domestic and foreign markets.

“In a way I feel no traditional craft is really dying. What’s missing is market linkage, design interpretation and communication with people who really want to buy,” says Sheela Lunkad, founder, Direct Create, an online community of artists, artisans, makers, buyers and designers who are involved in the promotion of exclusive handmade creations. Direct Create is participating in the ongoing ‘Trichy Utsav 2017 — Celebrating Handmade’ exhibition-cum-sale at Hotel Sangam this week on the invitation of Aura women’s group.

Sheela Lunkad was speaking to The Hindu MetroPlus on the sidelines of a meeting organised by the local chapter of Young Indians (affiliated to Confederation of Indian Industry) and MAM School of Architecture on contemporary art and sustainable planning for the heritage city of Srirangam on Thursday.

Going digital

With a slogan that says ‘Buy from people, not brands,’ Lunkad’s initiative has created an online platform for remotely located artisans to take advantage of the emerging demand for furnishings and design elements that are culturally significant and locally made.

The Aura shopping festival is featuring over 30 people representing traditional handicrafts who have come to Tiruchi for the first time.

Handicraft makers can advertise their wares through a mobile phone application floated by Design Create, which lets buyers approach them directly. “The moment you create something and sow a seed with a credible order, you will find the craft community revived,” Lunkad says.

Some 500 makers are already registered with Direct Create, and its database of 2000 craftspersons is growing.

Personal touch

But Lunkad, a trained architect who curated a living exhibition for the 2002 Smithsonian Folk Life Festival, in Washington, DC and managed the construction and interiors of Fabindia’s 8,000 sq ft flagship store in the Greater Kailash in New Delhi before striking out on her own into eco-friendly tourism and product design, says that not everything that is handmade can be marketed.

“We have to be able invest time and lots of energy into creating a handicraft industry that is not reduced to making just tacky souvenirs,” she says. “We also have to look at good design. The story of the craftsman is missing from the handicraft, which is why this sector is losing patronage in India.”

But handicrafts also need a steady generational transferring of skills, which has slowed, or in some cases, completely disappeared in India’s artisanal communities. “Not being able to cultivate the artistic capability of human beings and putting them into a mechanised employment is a disaster for humanity,” says Lunkad. “The artist needs to take pride in his craft, earn a decent living and feel that he has utilised his creative energy. That is something that we as citizens and groups of people can make possible easily.”


Preserving history

Highlighting the many hidden wonders of Srirangam and the Sri Ranganathar Swamy Temple, J Ramanan, Design Chair, MAM School of Architecture, spoke about the need for a more discerning urban design for the sacred town at Thursday’s event.

“Here is a town which is more than 2500 years old, and it has all the glories of Vaishnavite architecture. So many great souls have lived here. But we still don’t know much about its history,” he said.

The spurt in construction in Srirangam is slowly erasing the architectural legacy of its previous eras, said Ramanan. “In the core of the historical areas, you will find beautiful heritage structures and artless glass and chrome buildings next to each other,” he said.

Ramanan’s talk included a slide show of drawings that proposed an alternative and more culturally sensitive front elevation to existing new structures in Srirangam.

The lack of organisation had also cost Tiruchi dearly in terms of tourism revenue, he said.

“Tiruchi has lost out to Thanjavur and Madurai in the last 10 years because authorities have failed to project the historicity of Sriranagam,” he said.

On September 21, MAM architecture students will be holding an exhibition of drawings at the Ayiram kaal mandapam (1000-pillar hall) of Sri Ranganathar Swamy Temple explaining the history and growth of Srirangam and the need to conserve its heritage buildings.


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