An NGO backed by the World Bank is on a mission to save Indian folk art, finds Samrat Chakrabarti
WHAT SPACE does a globalising world leave for traditional arts and skills? Is 9 percent GDP growth a zero-sum game with Kerala’s shadow puppetry in the losers column? In our hurry to queue up for world citizen rights, are we losing our own stories and our ways of telling them?
Lip serviced into a fringe existence, India’s arts and crafts legacy — and the traditional knowledge of its communities — is just a few generations away from being forgotten. The keepers of our artistic wealth are giving up in disappointment. 35-yearold Ashok Chitrakar, a jadu patua (painter-storyteller) says, “The situation is bad. We can hardly feed ourselves and there isn’t much of a future left in this.”
The effort to salvage our artistic history has so far been piecemeal, unimaginative, and myopic. But some 300 years after the East India Company came to take away our cotton, and 60 years after textiles gave us the metaphor of independence, the empire may yet strike back — in deep ochre Madhubani, and turquoise green Kalamkari, and even the delicious Guntur pickle.
On March 31, the Asian Heritage Foundation (AHF), a Delhi-based NGO founded by culture czar Rajeev Sethi, will launch an ambitious project called Jiyo, administered by the World Bank and financed by the Japan Social Development Fund, which has invested $1.7 million in the company. Jiyo, which has appointed Sam Pitroda as its director, aims to catalyse what Sethi calls a ‘creative culture industry’ — traditional knowledge and skills contemporised, resulting in products geared for the 21st century marketplace.
So far, Jiyo has concentrated on Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Bihar, has identified local traditional arts, each unique to the region. The project is organised into nine clusters of interventions, organised according to products and subbrands — and catering to everything from clothing and home furnishings to toys. Products the AHF has looked at include Kalamkari furniture, Madhubani animation, hand-painted modular wallpaper from Madhubani, lamps using art inspired by shadow puppetry in Andhra, Etikopakka toys, and packaged foods from Guntur.
Its ambition is to consolidate India’s folk traditions under one umbrella, with design interventions and simple innovations to find them space in the global marketplace. The most ready markets for these products are posh boutiques at home and foreigners in search of exotica abroad. Their sustainableliving credentials is an important USP to the well-heeled conscientious consumer.
Jiyo’s goal is self-sustainability: “We have looked at a very contemporary way of setting up a company. A private limited company owned 100 percent by the artisans,” says Sethi. That objective of self-governed, artisan-owned corporation is some time away, yet. Perhaps a decade of hand-holding, interventions and marketplace success before the idea becomes reality.
If that happens, it’ll be less about ‘saving’ the arts, and more about the arts saving us — an economic growth that includes a growth in jobs requiring skill, intelligence and an aesthetic that does not reduce the human to a production line automaton. Perhaps it will also remind us of our rich collective legacy, forging an identity that goes beyond cricket and Bollywood.