“When a craft dies, not only do we lose the object, but we also lose generations of faith and wisdom that went into the object, that showed us an elegant, balanced way of life.”
Shivani Dhar, creator of ‘Gaatha’- the online blog and store for handicraft products made by Indian artisans – talks about the need to marry craft-research with technology in order to conserve India’s craft heritage and also about her soft spot for Kashmir.
What inspired you to name your venture ‘Gaatha’?
SD: Gaatha is a word of Sanskrit origin and means ‘a great story’ – a legend of the craftsmen and their crafts. The sole purpose of the initiative was to tell stories, to create a database of the folklores, myths and memoirs of the past that shape the social behavior and understanding of our society. Most of the crafts are an outcome of man’s primary occupations- to hunt, farm, store, create shelter and adorn. Therefore, these stories invariably weave around the stories of their skilled ventures. We chose a fish as our logo because fish has been depicted as a great storyteller in many folktales.
We started documenting crafts in and around Gujarat initially, given the inexperience and monetary constraints. We were bootstrapping all the way till very recently, when we started our online store (shop.gaatha.com).
How did you come up with the idea of undertaking a project that showcases the Kashmiri art and craft? What was the main objective?
SD: Kashmir is my birthplace and also a place that has suffered immensely in the early 90’s, resulting in migration of Pundits from the state. As a kid I remember being taken by my grandmother to the local jeweller shop, owned by a woman with a taste for good things. She would always have her own designs tailor-made from the jeweller, explaining to him exactly what she wanted as the outcome. This discussion of possibilities would go on till the desired level of satisfaction was achieved. I remember observing all of it and I don’t remember a moment of lost interest. Everything about the experience – the visuals of embroidery, and wooden furniture, the aroma of kesar and cinnamon emanating from the piping hot ‘kevha’ (Kashmiri Tea) and the other multi-sensory delights- was firmly implanted in my memory and my heart. Then, in 2006 on a re-visit, it was heart shattering to find it replaced with starkness and hopelessness. I started wandering around the streets by myself to dig all of those skilled masters out of their caves. The Craft Development Institute (CDI) of Kashmir- an initiative by former NIDians to revive and preserve the rich heritage of the state- helped me with contacts and navigation within the city. My first job was to get to these people and then to make them talk without inhibitions. I covered several stories of 11 different crafts, going to each one of these workshops in and around Srinagar individually. There is much to absorb and we are developing samples, reworking upon the artists and meanwhile we are also working towards putting up these stories on the Gaatha portal with an aim of providing them with a face and a global audience.
What were your inspirations while working on the Kashmiri craft?
SD: Their work and sensibilities towards aesthetics are already very refined and inspired- nature being their main source of inspiration. I worked with them on the idea of making ‘fast-running products’ for contemporary usage while keeping the traditional skills intact.
What kind of research is involved in your work?
SD: There are intensive field surveys done on city level and detailed craft documentations done with individual craftsmen – right from the source of the raw material and the process of the craft, to digging down to its origin with the help of folklores or literary research.
Tell us about the Kashmiri craftsmen whom you worked with. What were their backgrounds? How was your experience working with them?
SD: Most of the people I met have been traditionally into their crafts. Some are more open to new ideas than others, in which case work progresses faster. Even so,the pace is a tad bit slower here as compared to other states, owing to the poor infrastructural facilities, a not-so-great connectivity with the rest of the country and the perpetual state of unrest in the region.
What are the processes behind developing the artisan-market connection? How is it done?
SD: We thoroughly leverage existing documentation and our academic researcher network to mark out potential clusters for our field visits. Sometimes we obtain a local contact which often ends up in a wild goose chase. During our visit – upon coming across clusters rich in activity – we thoroughly document the work and build the supply chain with the artisans. Often, we have to provide elementary training in coding, pricing, packaging, local shipping and basic banking to the artisans.
We encourage artisans to pick up basic outreach skills needed in updating their online showcase, sometimes even as basic as clicking pictures of new produce and sending them across. We also engage in co-creation projects, wherein we try to forge industry – artisan partnerships by hosting co-creation sessions and figuring how artisans can add value to industries on a sustained basis for stable revenue streams.
Continue reading the full interview in POOL 41.