Weaving becomes a form of participation in social practice through defined and hierarchised roles based on gender, caste, age, and family. It emerges out of everyday socio-economic interactions where authorship, skill, labour, aspirations, and history are negotiated.
Figure 1: Translating from the digital- Kota-Doria weavers in Kethun
Weaving new approaches
While weavers have skills, they are not viewed as having the knowledge to make ‘effective use’ of the skills. The mediation between traditional and modern itself entails a division of manual vs. mental labor and informal vs. formal labour (Wilkinson-Weber and DeNicola, 2016). Expert designers with capital often emerge as the ‘thinkers’ in the equation, and artisans put a preconceived plan into operation with their skill, with little or no intellectual and cognitive input. There is an erasure of the artisan as a manager and strategist with design capacity. The artisan training programmes have aimed to restore the confidence of the weaver by creating enabling spaces for innovation and entrepreneurship that connect them directly with growing markets for authentic, ethical, and high-quality craft (Clifford, 2018). The aim is to imbibe 21st-century skills among weavers so that they find equitable sources of livelihood and develop a shift in the ways they imagine and think of their work, design, and artifacts for survival and growth. At the core of these programmes, there is an objective of constituting weavers as the rightful custodians of rich heritage and culture. The understanding is that this can be attained by ensuring that weavers are able to sustain their livelihoods by optimising market opportunities and earn equitable livelihoods, in the absence of their traditional patrons (Clifford, 2018). A massive exodus from handloom weaving will be prevented if it emerges as a lucrative, sustainable, and desirable profession where the artisan regains izzat or pride and honour for their craft.
The success of these schools is measured in terms of the rise in income and the ability to market the products as independent clusters run by weavers as entrepreneurs. The training programmes offer design support, multidisciplinary training, access to networks and also use of digital technology to enhance their work (Antaran Artisan Connect, n.d.). The entrepreneurial mindset that includes design thinking, communication, and business orientation is key to ensuring that weavers emerge as independent professionals who innovate, improvise and adapt to changing times. The pedagogic principle requires weavers to unlearn and consolidate new aesthetics and language. Training programmes like Antaran have constructed new identities of the ‘weaver-entrepreneur’ and situated the weaver and their products in a commercial landscape where the weaver learns to perform narratives about their fabrics by adopting new vocabulary from the sustainable fashion repertoire (Moorhouse, 2018). The camera occupies an interesting presence in their weaving process and crafting of the self. The visual documenting of the process gives the audience access to the making of the product, and the entire movement, instead of static images of the final finished product; it is an embodied form of marketing where the weaver and their woven fabric are not separate from each other.
Craft narratives and alternative approaches
The crisis in the handloom sector and the pandemic raised hopes that digital technology and e-commerce would add vitality to the craft. However, not all weavers share the same enthusiasm and trust in the virtual platforms and ‘skill’ enhancement training. In my field study with women weavers a key finding was that for most women, leaving the household for day-long training sessions at a community center located in town was challenging because it meant losing out on time to weave at home and for their household chores and domestic responsibilities, unless there were additional incentives like a stipend. The training conducted by Antaran in Assam has been cognizant of this and by shifting to home-based training instead of operating from a training center, they have been able to sustain the participation of more women in the region who would otherwise find it harder to commute. Local trainers who spoke the language and were more familiar with the way of life often gained the long-term trust of weavers than ‘experts’ from outside.
Figure 2: Antaran training sessions in Kamrup conducted in artisan’s homes to enable more women to join.
On the other hand for the Kota-Doria weavers from the Ansari community in Kethun, access to schemes and training is another way of reinforcing inequalities and hierarchies, where those who have social capital control the circulation of resources as well as information. The resistance to use design and digital technology also draws attention to other issues like lack of access, capital, and cultural stigma. Among the Ansari weavers there is a gender-based stigma around the use of social media by women and having profiles on any virtual space. Women are skilled weavers in Kethun who have perfected the craft by working with their mothers from a young age at home but do not have the opportunity to step out of the village to seek further training or education due to the social control over their bodies and labour. Men control the business of weaving while the women weave, and the social norms ensure this self-regulating and organised system perpetuates in each generation. The unique socio-cultural fabric calls for an informed approach and set model of training programme does not fit all contexts. Building comparative frameworks through a study of these rich learning contexts and apprenticeships are necessary to add dimensions to our understanding of informality and make sense of the challenges in the implementation of educational programmes (Basole, 2014).
The efforts to narrow the gap between a traditional craft and the demands of a modern market highlight issues that seek more reflective development discourse and practice. The success of the artisan training programmes rests not only on how far artisans access, assimilate and learn but also on the extent to which the programmes nurture advocates from the communities, adapt to the social-cultural fabric of the region, the unique work ethic, their relationship to time, and mould the pedagogic principles to build a relationship of trust with the communities. In this regard, craft narratives can help structure new models of learning and address the critical question of what kind of education is right and for whom.
- Antaran Artisan Connect. n.d. Artisan Knowledge Center. [available at: https://www.antaranartisanconnect.in/footer/artisans-knowledge-center, last accessed 5 January 2023]
- Basole, A. (2018). The Skilled and The Schooled: India’s Struggles over What Counts as Knowledge. The Caravan: A Journal of Politics and Culture, [Available at: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/reviews-essays/india-struggle-knowledge/2, accessed on 10th January 2021]
- Basole, A. (2014). The informal sector from a knowledge perspective. Yojana, 58, 8-13.
- Bhandari, V., & Kalra, J. (2018). Design practice and craftsmanship: Reimagining the craft sector in India. Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, 17(1), 61-72
Clifford, R. (2018). Learning to weave for the luxury Indian and global fashion industries: The Handloom School, Maheshwar. Clothing Cultures, 5(1), 111-130.
- Moorhouse, D. (2018). Sustainability in the fashion industry. Clothing Cultures, 5(1), 3-5.
- Venkatesan, S. (2009). Craft Matters: Artisans, Development, and the Indian Nation. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan
- Wilkinson-Weber, C., & DeNicola, A. (2016). Critical Craft: Technology, globalization, and capitalism. London: Bloomsbury.
Author Information: Abismrita Chakravarty is pursuing a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Her research interests are in the areas of informal learning, skills, and livelihood with a focus on craft-based knowledge practices
Suggested Citation: Abismrita Chakravarty. 2023. ‘Artisan education and craft practice- Interwoven models of learning‘, Think Pieces Series No. 31. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.com).