Shaping lives of artisans

LIVELIHOODS

Shaping lives of artisans

We travelled from Bangalore to Halebeedu, a journey of  216 kms, traversing the heart of Tumkur district and through the district headquarters of Hassan. Halebeedu, 31 kms away, located in the Hassan district is the 12th-century capital of the Hoysala dynasty, renowned for its exquisite Hoysaleswara temple.

Considered to be one of India’s architectural gems, the temple enshrines the twin Hoysaleswara and Shantaleswara temples named after builder Vishnuvardhana Hoysala and his wife Queen Shantala. Built on a stellar plan, the Hoysaleswara temple is a masterpiece studded with exquisite carvings. There are pierced windows in fine jali, trellis work on the walls about a meter high each, flanked by sculptures of divinities. Halebeedu was sacked by the armies of Malik Kafur in the early fourteenth century, after which it fell into a state of disrepair and neglect.

This temple is now being proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as a result, no construction is permitted within 50 yards of the temple. A row of shanty stalls have come up lining the inside edge of the parking lot, located outside the stone walls of the temple. The main souvenirs sold in these stalls include a range of stone products such as Ganesas, Anjaneyas (Hanumans), Basavas, bulls, mantapas, pavilions as well as lamps of various shapes and sizes. These are sold by young women, who actively solicit business with tourists as they get in and off their vehicles.

While men make the products by hand, women colour and polish them with black soot paint, and engrave them with simple designs. Talented artisans from the Vishwakarma community, migrated from Salem, Tamil Nadu, about 150 years ago to neighbouring towns, in search of raw material and new markets. They settled down in the tourist centres of Halebeedu and Belur because they are the natural source markets for their handcrafted stone products. Products originally made and marketed at the shanty markets were dose kall chatties, dose griddles, appam kall chatties, griddles with hollowed cups, salt containers and other traditional household products.

Soapstone from Agare’s quarries
“Where do you get your raw material from?” I asked Muthukumar, the head of the artisan group. “Soft soapstone is mainly sourced from quarries in the village of Agare, 10 kms away. We have to go 20 ft deep and dig out two to three feet of the stone with hand tools. Quarrying operations are done on Mondays and Tuesdays,” he answered. Tractor loads are bought by the artisans collectively and transported to their homes and distributed among themselves. Wednesdays are rest days and the rest of the week is spent on handcrafting the souvenirs.

Travellers across the world return to their homes with souvenirs. The importance of quality souvenirs cannot be overestimated, as they directly represent the identity and image of a culture and serve as an evidence of history, heritage or geography. Craft souvenirs are a particular focus and discerning tourists value their authenticity. The importance of souvenirs to economies, cultures and visitors has been well researched. The sale of souvenirs in the USA alone accounts for $25 billion in sales annually. Approximately 15 lakh tourists visit Halebeedu and Belur annually. Of these about 10 per cent are foreigners who visit during September- February, according to Bhaskar, Tourism Officer, Karnataka Tourism. Tourist train Golden Chariot also has Halebeedu on its itinerary. The potential for development of souvenirs for tourists is enormous.  

Diversifying products
Crafts Council of Karnataka pursued a dialogue with this group of artisans who were producing the stoneware souvenirs in Halebeedu on whether they would be interested in diversifying their products. The new products proposed would be mainly contemporary product ranges primarily based on the unique designs of the Hoysaleswara temple. This would appeal to foreign tourists as well as the emerging young and discerning domestic tourists and expand their current limited markets.

“Their positive and enthusiastic response to this suggestion resulted in the Crafts Council of Karnataka organising an integrated design development and technical skill upgradation training programme between February and June at Halebeedu, sponsored by the Government of Karnataka through the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation,” said Mangala Narasimhan, CCK Project Coordinator.

National Institute of Design-trained expert designer Sibananad Bohl, who has expertise in stone work, together with master craftsperson Sashadev are conducting the training for 20 artisans. The brief given to the designers by CCK was to develop a range of contemporary ware that would be based on the unique designs of the Hoysaleswara temple that would appeal to tourists, both domestic and foreign.

“After ascertaining the skill level of artisans, quality of stone and tools required, we distributed tool kits to all participants and developed 20 new designs,” said Bhol. “In the beginning, the artisans did not even know how to measure. We gradually taught them the notions of scale, proportion and geometry. Stone slicing machines, special chisels and tools helped artisans learn more efficient methods of working with the stone, resulting in economic usage of raw material and in better and more aesthetic products being made,” he added.

The training began with what workers were familiar with and what was in demand. Therefore the first range of products was traditional - Buddha heads, Basavas, diyas etc. Later they started making small contemporary utilitarian objects like tealight holders, small trays, incense holders etc. Gradually they started producing larger stone boxes with designs of lattice or jali work echoing the beautiful lattice windows of the Hoysaleswara temple at Halebeedu.  

Socio-economic needs
Apart from skill enhancement, socio-economic needs of craftspersons are a concern for CCK. With a view to contributing in this area, CCK has taken some initiatives. Artisan identity cards have been prepared and distributed to all 20 participants, said Vimala Rangachar, Chairperson of the Crafts Council of Karnataka.

The Office of the Commissioner - Handicrafts, Government of India, has in collaboration with an insurance firm organised a health insurance scheme, where artisans paying an annual premium of Rs 200 will be eligible for reimbursement of medical expenses of upto Rs 15,000 per annum for hospitalisation and other medical expenses for themselves and their family. “The Crafts Council is assisting these craftspersons by contributing Rs 200 each per annum towards the premium and making them eligible for the benefits,” the CCK chairperson said. 

Apart from facilitating the training programme and allotment of artisan cards, Devaramane, Deputy Director - Handicrafts, Regional Design & Technical Development Centre announced ‘Janashree Bhima Yojana’ as part of which life insurance would be given free of charge to artisans with an amount of Rs 30,000 payable on death and an education allowance of Rs 1,200 per annum for two children studying in 9th, 10th and PU classes. 

The path forward after the end of the training is an important one. Plans are afoot to form self-help groups in collaboration with artisans from neighbouring areas like Belur and others engaged in similar crafts. This will make them eligible for the benefits of larger co-operatives, artisan credit cards, raw material banks and joint promotional activities like production of literature, catalogues etc.

Offsite marketing at Cauvery emporia, CCK Crafts Shop, Kamalini and other crafts outlets can help provide additional marketing opportunities.

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