The website of Sargaalaya, the arts and crafts village at Iringal in Kozhikode district, describes the facility as both craft village and tourist spot. The village is a "craft cluster" that was conceptualised and established as a tourism destination in 2011 by the department of tourism.
The origins of the village make the website's description an appropriate account of what happens at the facility, spread over 20 acres of land on the banks of the Moorad river.
As Sargaalaya prepares for the seventh edition of its annual Sargaalaya International Arts and Crafts Festival (SIACF), it's the tourism story that the promoters are pitching again. This year, amid post-GST business concerns, they'll have to pitch it harder. The festival will be held at the village between December 21, 2017 and January 8, 2018.
Along with the department of tourism, the departments of industries, culture, and the state's coir development bodies are collaborating for the festival. The SIACF, this year, will feature works of about 500 artisans. The organisers expect the participation of more than 400 artisans from about 25 states. Artisans from South Africa, Egypt, Uganda, Nepal and Sri Lanka will also participate in the festival.
P P Bhaskaran, CEO of Sargaalaya, says apart from showcasing artisans from other regions of the country and abroad, the festival will have on display the works of about 100 artisans who have permanent stalls at the craft village.
"In this edition, we are also trying to make the experience more interactive. The setting of some of the important weaving villages in the state, including Balaramapuram in Thiruvananthapuram district and Chendamangalam in Ernakulam district, will be recreated as part of the festival. The idea is to give the visitors and the tourists a taste of the real thing and, in turn, try to get more footfall at these villages," he says.
The SIACF will have artisans from villages, including Aranmula, known for its unique, copper-tin alloy mirrors, Thazhava where weaving of screwpine mats has been a traditional vocation and Perumbava which is renowned for manufacturing musical instruments mridangam and maddalam.
It will feature works from Vellinezhi, known for the decorative accessories used in the make-up of Kathakali artistes, the clay products of Aruvacode, wooden handicrafts from Cherppu and metal handicrafts from Kunhimangalam. Handicraft products, including the Balaramapuram saris, Chendamangalam dhotis, Palakkad setmundu, Koothambulli saris, Kannur furnishings and Kasaragod saris will be displayed at special pavilions.
Art shows and variety entertainment programmes performed by artists from about 10 states will be organised by the Central government's South Zone Cultural Centre in Thanjavur; the department of culture's Bharat Bhavan and the Kerala Folklore Academy, on the sidelines of the festival. The focus, however, will remain on enhancing the trade potential of work by traditional artisans, says Bhaskaran.
"This is part of ongoing efforts to find a common platform for these artisans. Through the festival, over the years, we have tried to develop a centralised model for marketing their products and ensure that they are not exploited by middle-men. When even 100% margins are becoming a norm for middle-men in handicraft trade, we are sticking to a very functional margin. For instance, we sell a product that is sourced from the artisan at Rs 100 for only about Rs 130, inclusive of GST," Bhaskaran says. Sargaalaya does not draw a commission on sales from the artisans and provides accommodation for them, he says. The entry ticket to the festival is priced Rs 40.
In the run-up to this edition of the festival, the organisers have started the promotional handicrafts heritage tour which travels from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod, passing through many heritage villages rooted in their tradition of arts and handicraft. The heritage tour was flagged off on November 29 by Minister for Co-Operation, Tourism and Devaswom Kadakampally Surendran. Through the annual festival, its organisers have also tried to address the proliferation of unoriginal handicraft products that continue to prop the fringe economies around tourism in the state.
The efforts at Sargaalaya to showcase the works of original artisans are also streamlined to develop authentic craft both as a culture and a viable, sustainable market possibility. "Barring, perhaps, a few ceramic products that arrive from outside of the state, I can assure you that all the hand-crafted products we source are authentic," says Bhaskaran. N C Ayyappan, a permanent artisan at Sargaalaya and a veteran grass weaver known for his kora mats, won a World Craft Council Award last year. In 2016, the festival recorded the entry of about 1.85 lakh visitors, apart from the about 2 lakh regular visitors to the craft village. Sargaalaya (sargaalaya.in), managed by the Uralungal Labour Contract Cooperative Society, has been designed and developed as a Responsible Tourism initiative.
Located at Vatakara, about 40 km from Kozhikode city, the craft village houses 27 cottages used by over 100 artisans as their workspaces. At the village, visitors interact directly with the artisans and place their product orders. Sargaalaya offers exclusive tour packages for school students that include training in craft. It also offers its artists on hire, for services outside of the village.