Dying wisdom of artisans

Dying wisdom of artisans

Asia’s market-led economic growth has created euphoria among the politicians who frequently claim that while the 20th century belon­ged to Europe and America, 21st century will belong to Asia. Of course, the 21st century may certainly belong to the Asian rich, but not to the Asian poor.

According to the Asian Development Bank (2015), Asia’s 2010 poverty rate is nearly one-third of the population, adding 343 million people to the rank of the poor. It may be recalled that Gunnar Myrdal (1968) in his treatise “Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations” observed that Asia lives in mud-huts referring to the abject poverty of 1970s. But these mud-huts of 1970s had represented the rich heritage of culture of the people and sustainable livelihood which are intricately woven with nature and their crafts.

The skills of these people are unmatched by the modern machinery even to date as handicraft items continue to decorate the showcases of the rich all over the world.

More importantly, the nature of poverty in 1970s and in 2015 is altogether different. It is true that living conditions in Asia and worldwide were highly miserable and largely stagnant up to the 20th century, but there were small fluctuations in the economy.

Today, in the 21st century, living conditions in Asia and the world are fast improving but fluctuations in the economy are very frequent causing impoverishment of basic livelihoods. The process of globalisation has paved the way for creative destruction where, through incessant product and process innovation mechanism, new production units replace outdated ones just like cellphones replace land phones and laptops replace typewriting machines.

However, industrialised or modern products have proper replacement when compared to agriculture, rural or artisan based products. The onset of globalisation has destroyed not only the culture and wisdom of millions of artisans but also their traditional industries throughout India in recent years. And this flood of modern products has struck without any advantage of creative destruction, where old products of artisans are replaced by new ones.

Indian artisans intricately created different kinds of artifacts starting from consumer goods to pretty pieces out of paper, wood, clay, shells, rock, stone, metal etc, with the help of simple tools. These kinds of crafted items are called handicrafts owing to the fact that they are exclusively hand made without the usage of any machine and much drudgery. Even today, more than 50% of people in rural areas rely on natural resources and their traditional knowledge for meeting their basic needs.

They eke out their livelihood by adding value to natural resources through the creation of many artistic products which have high cultural and aesthetic value even though not fetching high market value. Conservation of local resources gave birth to many cottage, handicraft and small scale industries such as silk and cotton handloom, wood-based handicrafts, bamboo-ba­sed basket weaving, coir-based mat making, mud-based potte­ry, forest-based toy products etc.

These artisan industries rely completely on traditional knowledge that arises from longstanding information, traditions, practices and informal institution which in turn have affirmed identity of local communities. These industries have helped in sustainable management of resources and sustainable livelihoods.

Sustainable livelihood
Sustainable livelihood represents human capabilities, assets and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets. The neglect of artisans and their cultural influences is a serious shortcoming for achieving sustainable livelihoods.

Economic survival of millions of artisan industries has been threatened with the embodiment of western consumerism where their products are welcomed, adorned and celebrated at the cost of local-made traditional goods. The influx of cheap machine made goods and chan­ges in the culture of consumer preference and tastes have changed the scenario of traditional and cottage industries.

Consequently, the creativity, aesthetics and craftsmanship are fast dying with extinction of local resources and initiative. Further, non-availability and increasing costs of inputs, high cost of production, low demand, lack of education and skill development and absence of government support have also impacted the artisan industries. As a consequence, economic backwardness and regional imbalance is ubiquitous as many artisans do not own land and are completely dependent on their age-old skills.

Therefore, the new market system should not just be a me­ans for exchange of goods but also act as a mechanism for sustaining and maintaining an entire society — agriculturists, arti­san, traders, industrialists, consumers etc. Finally, unless the mass population of 343 million is lifted out of poverty, the 21st century belonging to Asia may just turn out to be a rhetoric.

(The writer is Associate Professor and Head, Centre for Economic Studies and Policy, ISEC, Bengaluru)