Crafted for a cause

Paramparik Karigar has been an invaluable source of support for rural artisans seeking to express themselves through skills beyond the ordinary

When I joined Paramparik Karigar — the association of craftspeople — way back in 1997, the biggest challenges were finding a venue and the funding to hold exhibitions. Sponsors were in short supply and we could not get corporate houses to support us. We were operating out of the residence of Roshan Kalapesi, the founder of Paramparik Karigar, at that point and we needed help.

That was when Russi Lala, the late chronicler of the house of Tatas, stepped in with his experience and expertise. Mr Lala encouraged us to approach the Tata Trusts for funds to establish and run an office for a period of three years. He was confident that with a proper setup and infrastructure we would be able to function professionally and, down the line, become financially independent.

Ratna Krishnakumar

Ratna Krishnakumar has been deeply involved with the NGOs Paramparik Karigar and Srishti and has, for more than two decades, worked to support and promote Indian handicrafts and handlooms.

Mr Lala was right. Paramparik Karigar soon established itself as a brand and it was backing from the Trusts that turned the tide for us. The member-karigars started securing a regular income and their standard of living improved. The karigars then came forward to donate 8% of their sale proceeds to the organisation. This became an important source of money for Paramparik Karigar and it continues to be so to this day (over time, with increasing sales and improved incomes, the karigars increased their donation amount to 10%).

Paramparik Karigar could not have come into existence without the vision and commitment of Roshan Kalapesi. It was Roshan who came up with the idea of holding an exhibition of crafts and textiles at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai. Sponsored by the Aditya Birla group, this was the first time that crafts were exhibited at a national gallery. The show was a tremendous success.

Roshan encouraged our sculptors to make large pieces and these were well-received at an auction — another first — conducted by Bowrings at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. Unfortunately, Roshan passed away before the auction was held. But that did not stop Paramparik Karigar from finding its place in the sun. The auction provided a terrific boost to our karigars, who were emboldened to create bigger and better works of art.

Catching the public eye

The karigars began to prosper and the shows they attended taught them how to interact with the public and learn the nuances and importance of design interventions and colour combinations. We were able to reach out to karigars across India and this elicited a very good response. Being invited to a Paramparik Karigar exhibition was, and continues to be, a matter of honour for craftspeople all over India.

Our membership numbers began to rise and we now have more than 100 craftspeople as members. Our karigars, having learned the ropes, are thriving. Kapilo Mahanto is an example. A tribal weaver from Kotpad in Odisha, Kapilo came to his first show with a cloth bundle full of saris. And he did not know how he would get back home if his saris did not sell. Kapilo went back smiling. We have many success stories like that of Kapilo, who now lives in a two-storied house built with earnings from his craft skills.

Working and interacting with the karigars has been a fulfilling experience for all of us who have been involved in the programme. We are close to them and their families and they share the important events of their lives, sad or happy, with us.

There’s more to Paramparik Karigar than supporting craftspeople and their art. We have a medical and education fund to help those in need, like the family of a young Pattachitra (cloth-based scroll painting) artist who succumbed to Covid, leaving behind a wife and two small children (the organisation has taken on the responsibility of educating them).

For those of us with our hearts in it, sustaining rural artisans has been a passion. To help handloom weavers going through dire straits, we convinced the Taj group of hotels to have them create exquisite saris for front-office personnel. We reached out to weavers in Varanasi for this and a village, Sarai Mohana, was targeted. The saris, designed by Jai Ramrakhiani, were so gorgeous that guests would touch and feel them.

Once the saris were woven and delivered, the weavers requested us for photographs. On a subsequent visit to the village, we were amazed to see these images displayed in the little homes of weavers alongside those of the gods and deities they prayed to.

Village awakening

Besides backing the weavers in their work, we got into social development mode with them. We adopted Sarai Mohana, provided weaver families with potable water facilities and, with the help of Tata Solar, got solar lights for them. We facilitated education for the children of weavers through the Tata Trusts, while also arranging for midday meals, uniforms and books.

The J Krishnamurthy school in the neighbourhood was roped in for this. The only condition laid down was that weaving should be part of the curriculum, since the state government of the time was imposing fines on weavers who were teaching the craft to their children at home without sending them to school. This condition enabled the kids to learn weaving without breaking any law.

The difference all of this made to the lives of the weavers was a joy to behold. It’s a matter of pride for me, personally, that girls benefitted the most from the school initiative. We used to get a lot of requests from young girls who would come and tell us, “Mujhe padna hai” (we want to be educated).

Srishti, a corporate social responsibility initiative of the company now called Tata Consumer Products (TCPL), shares a helping philosophy similar to that of Paramparik Karigar, though the cause is very different. Here the intent is to enable physically and mentally challenged children and young adults and at its core is DARE, a school that caters exclusively to their requirements.

On reaching the age of 18, students passing out from DARE have a clutch of options. They can move to Aranya Natural (a natural-dye unit), Athulya Paper Studio (which manufactures paper products), DELI (a bakery and confectionery), Nisarga (producers of jams and fruit preserves), Vatika (a farm where vegetables are grown organically) or Disha (where hand-embroidered dresses for children are crafted).

A time to flower

With 142 associates, as of now, Srishti is growing and spreading its wings internationally as well. Thanks to support from TCPL and the Tata Trusts, Srishti’s associates have flowered beyond expectations. Given free rein to experiment, they have managed to reinvent many ideas. One such is a new technique of shibori, the Japanese dyeing method to create different patterns on fabric.

Yoshiko Wada, president of the World Shibori Forum, was so surprised and pleased to see the work of our associates that she promptly named it Arushibori (after Arumugam, the Srishti associate who fashioned it). These young men and women have no background in textiles or crafts, yet their inputs have been extraordinarily artistic.

The greatest reward has been to watch these youngsters blossom into productive adults and settle down into well-adjusted family lives. This has been true across every project and venture I have been involved with. The love and affection we receive from our associates and their families has enriched our lives in countless ways. 

Ratna Krishnakumar spoke to Maya Sharma Sriram, a writer and poet based in Chennai

Workers at Aranya Natural, the natural-dye unit that operates under the Srishti umbrella