Although the handicraft industry is the anchor of the rural Indian economy, it finds itself in a vulnerable position. It provides an employment avenue, especially for women and people of the Dalit, OBC and minority communities. The industry, characterised by its self-sustaining model, also took a severe hit during the pandemic, as the lack of regular work was further exacerbated by the pandemic.
Several organisations and the government have attempted to bridge the funding and scaling gaps that prove detrimental to the growth of handicraft. My sister mentioned quite woefull, that on her first visit to the Banjara market in Gurugram, an expansive handicraft market, she was deeply disappointed to find employees of established home décor companies buying the products from the artisans for a much lesser price and selling it for almost ten times the price (if not more) on their websites.
Rangsutra, a sustainable fashion brand, recognises this. The brand went a step ahead and made the artisans shareholders, whereby, a community-owned handicraft company was born. The estimated 3,000 artisans spread across the country are able to improve their craft to meet global standards (due to their newfound access to global markets), supplement their income, and create dignified living conditions for themselves. Rangsutra thus recognises that the practice of sustainability lies not only in the act of production but in providing sustainable employment avenues for its producers.
Rangsutra employs a record 70 percent women artisans. I interviewed four artisans- Tagu, a craft manager at the Barmer craft centre, Ugam, an applique artisan at the Indranagar craft centre, Indra, an embroidery artisan at the Nehru Nagar craft centre, and Dhani, the first female weaver from Rajasthan to be associated with Rangsutra.
Achal, the cluster coordinator furnished additional information about the functioning of the craft centres and translated my questions for the artisans. I was first curious to know how they had learnt their skills perhaps, because of my unsuccessful attempts at manipulating fabric. Most of them had learnt it by observing family members. All the male members in Dhani’s family practised weaving, a historically male-dominated industry.
Dhani was the first woman in her family to attempt it. When I asked her, quite irrelevantly, ‘why weaving?’, without wasting a second, she said, ‘Mujhe accha lagta hai’, I enjoy doing it. Indra’s case was different— she had learnt embroidery at the training facility in Rangsutra. Ugam added that since several artisans are semi-skilled or unskilled, they first undergo a skill assessment test on rough fabric to adjudge their skill-level and training needs.
The training programs consider skilling as the first step for sustainable production and then progress to upskilling. The skilled artisans are further trained in quality control,improved production processes, record keeping and passing on their skills to their fellow artisans because the production pipeline is decentralized. The control of the production process primarily lies with the artisans who also exercise considerable control over the design process. Fascinatingly, Tagu’s mother, also an artisan at Rangsutra, has been practising her craft for the past 20 years and even worked with several NGOs before joining Rangsutra.
The artisans then revealed that the most defining characteristic of Rangsutra was the guarantee of employment. Prior to working with Rangsutra, they confessed that they did not enjoy much of a choice— they either engaged in irregular work from home (which yielded only a tenth of their current earning), or worked intermittently with NGOs. Now, things have only been looking up, they say. They are paid fairly and their payment is deposited in their bank accounts at the beginning of the month. ‘Parivaar ke samaan’— ‘like a family’, was a phrase Achal used to describe their work atmosphere, which conveys that they occupy a safe and equitable space as shareholders. They finally have something- the share certificates to call their own.
Tagu adds that her shares (for which she gets dividends) have appreciated to almost one and a half times their original value. The artisans are thus the pivot around which the organisation is structured and rightfully so. Women must be at the heart of sustainable production for us to be able to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals proposed by the UN.
Shrimayee, the E-commerce and Marketing Manager, chipped in to add that Rangsutra envisions itself as a social enterprise which recognises that people and the planet are the planks on which sustainable profit must be mounted. A proactive effort in including women in the economic structure could perhaps help weed out the inherent gender bias.
This appears an accurate estimate. Indra was beaming when she recollected how she finds pride in her work which has paved the way for feeling independent. Ugam hinted at an improved social status too, when she said ‘bheekh maangne ki zaroorat nahi hai’, which means that she now doesn’t need to beg anyone, perhaps for dignity as well as financial stability (which enables them to save money). A part of Tagu’s salary has gone towards constructing her own space, i.e., building a house of her own, which couldn’t materialize when her husband was the sole earning member of the family.
Ugam included that the artisans are also covered under insurance schemes. I also wondered how the pandemic and political turmoil affected their work. The artisans reported that these circumstances did not impede their work since the craft centre was fully functional and Achal could be found there. Since the handicraft industry does not make any specific infrastructural demands, the artisans had the flexibility of even working from home temporarily.
He added that although orders were cancelled, Rangsutra made a concerted effort so that its effects did not percolate down to the artisans. The company tried to ensure that the artisans were not ‘idle’ lest it affect their morale since their typical work day lasts for about eight hours with an earning between ₹250 and ₹400.
The ‘parivaar’ simile led me to question how their actual families reacted to their choice to work with Rangsutra. The responses were quite varied. Tagu recalled that she worked for a year to convince her family and gain their support. Indra’s family didn’t pose a threat, however, the craft centre was not situated in her area of residence.
Like a Pied Piper, she collected 35 artisans from her area, which led to the construction of a craft centre there and collaboration within her local community. Achal also mentioned that the families of their female artisans in Rajasthan were not keen on allowing them to leave home for work, when Rangsutra initially changed their working model to a centre-based one instead of the previous home-based model. The centre which was frequented by five or six artisans, is now thronged by 80 of them.
Finally, I couldn’t resist asking Shrimayee the question I have been asked the most frequently in recent times. ‘Plans for the future?’, I asked. She answered that Rangsutra, which has largely focused on its B2B vertical (and forged important partnerships with companies including IKEA and Fabindia), would like to strengthen the operations of its B2C vertical. They would also work consistently towards ensuring that the production process is made more sustainable.
For changing the warp and weft of society, Rangsutra aims at establishing more craft clusters in the states of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Kashmir.
Featured Image Source: Rangsutra