I still remember the first time I ever traveled to India back in 2000. I landed in Karnataka at night, still pretty unsure if I had made the right choice wanting to spend a full month running around southern Asia in the middle of the summer.
But I kept remembering everything that I read. It was the duality of the culture that drew me in. Ultimately I felt connected to people and communities I had never met and wanted to meet them face to face. And this trip would give me that chance.
No trip to India would be complete without visiting temples, eating local food, and of course visiting markets to get a suitcase full of souvenirs.
But one of the most memorable moments from the trip was going to visit a women’s co-op group.
We sat in a circle of 10 women in a village where virtually no tourist had ever been before.
These women has also never ventured out of their village.
We learned that they were the sole income earners for their families.
Now this is something contradictory to what I had known about women in India. The most strict traditions do not advocate women to work.
As they shared their stories, we came to know they produced embroidered fabric for an international exporter.
While sitting together, swapping housekeeping tips and exchanging the occasional gossip, they were challenging age old social constructs. They were also blowing my mind.
This was my first introduction to the world of Artisan crafts.
From then on I became fascinated with handicraft work in India and cottage industries.
Just as I have continued to be fascinated with Indian handicrafts since that first trip, I want to share with you both the beauty and importance of The craft sector in India.
Economic Importance of Handicrafts in India
From the hand chiseled carvings on temples in Karnataka to the beautiful hand embellishments on vintage clothing from Rajasthan, it’s not hard to appreciate the craftsmanship of Indian handicrafts.
It wasn’t surprising to learn that handicraft is the second largest sector for job creation in India behind agriculture.
This is specially true in rural areas as job opportunities are scarce.
In 2010 Indian exported $471 million worth of handicrafts and that number rose to $1.8 billion in 2017.
The majority of handicrafts made in India come from the rural sector. This means that it is important for both local and international consumers to continue to invest in these products.
Currently, Indian export of handcrafted goods only accounts for 2% of the global handicraft export business.
This means that there is nothing but growth and opportunity to continue to pair consumers with artisan made brands and companies.
Risks to the Artisan Industry
As mentioned before, most artisan production occurs in the rural sector. Rural and tribal communities are more likely to learn traditional techniques from their elders, so it is easier to set up a women’s co-op in these areas.
But there has been a threat to these traditions being passed down.
Much like the agricultural sector, the handicraft sector has decreased by 10% each decade due to younger generations migrating to urban areas.
This is done in the hopes of finding more job opportunities which is often not the case. Urban employment for migrant workers is often unskilled and pays less than $1.25 a day.
This amount is not efficient to support an individual anywhere in the world. And most individuals hope their income can support them as well as the family they let to seek a better opportunity.
Another threat to artisan work in India is the ever increasing price of materials and other manufacturing input cost.
While India is traditionally known as being one of the least expensive countries to produce, China continuously undercuts them with mass factory produced goods.
Using synthetic materials such as plastic means these replicas can also be sold at a much lower cost. Local and international consumers are often unaware of these subtle but vital differences in the marketplace.
Local markets in India are often flooded by copy cat products. These machine made products means the same designs can be produced much quicker reducing production time up to 10x!
These cost cutting productions put traditional techniques and skills at risk to being lost to history.
Opportunities for Empowerment
In addition to keeping these techniques alive, handicrafts provide a unique job opportunity for women in India.
Due to the to societal religious and cultural constraints many women, especially in rural areas, do not have many opportunities to support their family with an additional income.
Through cottage industry systems built around artisan work women, are allowed to contribute and can feel empowered.
Indian artisans can continue to be competitive in the global market by partnering with companies that have an understanding of local markets through fair trade and other ethical initiatives.
It is up to consumers to be an advocate everyday and let brands know we would love to support these products.
Now I know this was a very quick snapshot of what Indian handicrafts mean to both India and the world.
Hopefully you have a greater appreciation for artisan made crafts.
I would love to hear of your first experience with Artisan crafts! Let me know in the comments!