Medhavi Gandhi from the foundation Happy Hands talks about the need to develop creative potential among craftspersons, particularly to connect to new urban markets.
What made you interested in craft?
At first, I did not even know how many types of crafts or arts our country could boast of – but as an intern for UNESCO, when I started to interact with artisans to document their works, I realized how much work goes into the making of a beautiful object. That’s when I started to look at other traditional art forms – and then I couldn’t resist their beauty. I like to believe I have always been a creative person – but traditional arts was a different world altogether. The works spoke of stories, of customs and rituals, and sadly, year in and year out, they spoke of the same episode of the Ramayana/Mahabharata.
In a handmade product, I could see simplicity and grace, a story waiting to be explained, and an art dying to be appreciated. I saw opportunity for artists – and I saw a market for their crafts. I knew there was a very large audience which was waiting to hear the stories, and experience the traditions. This got me interested in craft, and it is this, that will forever keep me bonded with the roots of our country.
What do you think are the challenges and opportunities facing the craft sector in India?
The biggest challenge begins at the grassroots level, where artisans are skilled, understand their art, but lack the knack of designing their own product/motif. It is largely about copying the process, and repeating it. There is hardly any scope for innovation. The other challenge is the market. Artists need to be aware of the market they cater to – and thus participate in fairs/melas accordingly. The other angle of the market – consumers who need to understand that there is a huge difference between handmade and manufactured products. There needs to be recognition for the value of handmade. A lot of times people bargain for Rs.50/- with an artist which is very humiliating for the art itself! Three and a half years ago, when we started Happy Hands, the market was opening up to the concept of handmade and traditional art. Today, there is a plethora of this stuff. So opportunities are galore, especially in India. As more and more people are supporting this revolution, there are enough spaces opening up to back artists up – in the form of design studios, retail stores, and residencies! There is a lot happening on the installations front – and we as an organization have been happy to explore such opportunities for our artists. Also, technology is a major player in the field of opportunities. With better access, artists are being able to work around emails, connect with potential clients, and even sell their wares online.
What critical difference do you see Happy Hands making in the craft sector?
Making a difference in the craft sector, for a long time, has been synonymous to craft-selling. Happy Hands has always had its focus on artisan empowerment. And this does not necessarily mean increased finances for them, but the power to take their art ahead, nationally or internationally. Our interventions are directed towards artisan education – and we have seen a considerable growth in artisans designing new products and coming up with their own ideas. Our first residency project also saw support from the public in terms of commissioning projects/buying art. Education programs also revolve around pricing, packaging, marketing, retail and basic skills such as maintaining invoice-records.
Apart from skill and process development, we are trying to change the way crafts have been perceived for all this while. To make them more appealing to a universal audience, especially the younger crowd, we have introduced innovative products and games, workshops which artists host in schools, colleges, and interactive installation art events at public spots such as malls. Also, our collaborations with brands such as Pepsi, Coke and Greenlam have helped us bring arts to the corporate world. We have been able to provide our artisans a broad retail scope and connected them to urban markets; our artists have even worked on interior projects. From being considered as ‘karigars’ we have tried to give them a platform where they can explore equal opportunities as ‘collaborators’. Happy Hands is currently working on consolidating and creating portfolios for artists which will enable them to get more projects to work on. In short, we have made a humble effort in making education most important for artists so their art can be sustained. The People’s Project Store is also our initiative to brand craft products so consumers trust the quality, and refrain from bargaining.
Hindi may be the national language, but given we were going to work all across India, we needed a name that would be easy for everyone. In the south for instance – in regions like Andhra and Karnataka, Hindi names are sometimes a challenge. Artists in south India understand names such as Craft Council better than a Hindi/Sanskrit based name. Also, the organization was to have several programs run under its name – it was more important for our target groups to identify with the programs they were a part of. Our core belief is to empower the artists such that they take pride in their work, rather than it being their only option/part-time work. Hence the term, happy ‘hands’.
What would you say to an artisan who said they would prefer to have an office job than do manual labour?
I would definitely probe into his desire. What was driving him to the office job – medical securities, a stable earning – what? It has happened earlier, when the son of a leather craftsman, also a skilled artist asked if there were opportunities in the city. For a few minutes I was at a loss of words – but more into the conversation I realized his need was children’s education, and more money. The lack of a market, and the huge line of middlemen hardly left him with anything. My response to him was less verbal. We worked on new designs, created more products, and with market support from us, he saw hope for himself, in his village. An artist would always remain an artist, no matter what he did and where he went. And it is in his art that he must find happiness, money shouldn’t be the first consideration. If they needed an office job, they’d need education. And if they could be open to that, education would help them rise in their art-profession.
Are there problems that might arise from foreign designers working in India, developing product for overseas markets?
Designers from overseas usually bring with them, bulk orders and brilliant designs. Indian artists therefore get very excited about working with foreign designers. Somewhere, they correlate this with more money or international exhibits. Collaboration now, is a good word, but only if it benefits both parties. So a lot of things need to be considered before making a statement on whether foreign designers working in India is a good idea and how much artisans benefit from such initiatives. Is the wage fair? Are the traditional elements of the art or craft preserved while developing new products? What is the understanding that the artist achieves about the overseas market through the collaboration? Do designers bring with them more work or associations? The last two aspects, are most important, as is the consideration of artistic sensibilities.
Design is one of the best ways perhaps to understand different cultures, and at the same time, is a platform for two or more cultures to merge. Encouraging collaborations hence is great, but at the grassroots level, it needs to streamlined, and monitored. There are artists who charge more when they see a foreign designer, and then there are those who are underpaid and exploited. So to protect the rights of both collaborators, there needs to be a formal understanding of the process, time taken, materials used (in the designers mind) and about fair wages, market needs, supply chain, etc., that the artist should be aware of.
Do you intend to develop a label? If so, how will you manage the production side of things?
It’s only been three years since we started Happy Hands. We have initiated the brand by the name of The People’s Project. This brand represents a design studio, which handles all product designs. Products designed are in-house as well as outsourced. We usually develop a sample during a residency project or during our village skill-development workshops. The artists are then commissioned to make a larger number of items. We do explain branding to them, as well as pricing, and regular quality checks are done during the production process.
Our label has been retailing through multiple outlets in India and online on www.shopo.inthe name of, The People’s Project. This brand Represents a design studio, which handles all product designs. Products designed are in-house as well as outsourced. We usually develop a sample during a residency project or during our village skill development workshops. The artists are then commissioned to make a larger number of items. We do explain branding to them, as well as pricing, and regular quality checks are done during the production process.
The Happy Hands website is www.happyhands.in.