Ethic-ettes is a series I write about the problems small businesses have when moving towards ethics and sustainability. Sometimes the problems are small, sometimes they're systemic; the solutions, though, are never easy or clear, but they are worth discussing and recognising, that's a start.
Those of us who operate in the space of exemplifying India's heritage ornamental and decorative crafts, often tout our contribution to the alleviation of rural poverty and to the provision of much-needed exposure to grassroots artisans.
It is a worthy practice, and can be truly rewarding, especially when we are greeted with warmth and hospitality on our visits to artists... And yet for all the good branding and marketing it makes for, across the internet and on our socials, we ask a question we had not asked before: when we give platforms to artisans, exactly which traditions are we exemplifying? Which ones are we perpetuating?
Perhaps it is a question you should ask too.
In a society like ours, fragmented into socio-economic stratas, we exist worlds apart, yet conversely in the same mohalla's and gali's; it is only natural our voices are as different as our stations and that the privilege afforded to us segregates us from the impoverished many. When survival is struggle, it is hardly a stretch of the imagination that one could begin to reach back to traditions, even archaic ones, for support, for an ideological stability in place of a fiscal one.
My mother recently undertook a trip to Kutch, in search of inspiration and artistry, and as she regaled me with her accounts of rich embroidery and leathercraft, my attention snagged on a smaller detail, the artisan who's house she went to didn't allow his daughters to go to school.
Living in cosmopolitan Mumbai, where the winds of change and technology run-asunder akin to monsoon typhoons, it can be disorienting to see how quickly those winds of change ebb past urban borders.
He didn't allow his daughters to go to school. How can a man who can create magic with bits of thread and beads and mirror and fabric also be a perpetrator of something as egregiously wrong as misogyny.
And it seems perhaps, for a time, these craftisans have been given a free-pass; a tacit understanding seems to be that the independence of these girls is a small price to pay for the continuance of India's craft culture, indeed this artisan (and others in Rajasthan) have told us, "If we educate them, they won't want to do this (the crafts) anymore".
But why such antipathy to artistry as a career, (other than the engineer-doctor mentality), if I can study design in New York and see for myself a viable, vibrant future, why despite so huge a market, flooded with a multitude of retailers, is the rural youth of India so dejected by a crafting future? Why is it that I vow to return to India because of its dynamic economy, whilst those brought up in a dearth of privilege see nought?
My hypothesis is rooted in the systemic misogyny and ever-increasing wealth gap. Crafts have most definitely been commodified and commercialised, but the benefit has not made its way down the supply chain, most definitely not to the women who toil for the sales their husbands and fathers and uncles encash.
And it would be easy to say, "Hey, perhaps brands should make less profit!", and that most definitely holds true, especially for the largest ones who can afford to dictate prices, who can maintain lower costs and better margins. And yet that would increase a cashflow that would still never end up in the sole control of the unpaid, working woman.
A reckoning must be brought about, as brands we must make our raw material purchases conditional on the education of those who make them (regardless of gender), and whilst we aren't big enough to have any suppliers left if we impose these rules today, this is where we will one day get, and there are those large enough already that can set a new market-wide standard like the flip of a switch.
We must make heritage crafts a viable livelihood of the future, we must ensure that education allows for the development of crafts and not their abandonment , we must ensure that no one pays for your next saree with a lifetime of regrets, and we must, as a community of creatives- buyers and sellers and makers- demand more from each other, even if the solution takes time, even if the process has no end, even if it is more expensive.
Much has been done, but much is still left:
"The girls can't go to school because they have to make their wedding trousseaus," the artisan states,
"How old are they?" my mom asks,
As a 20 year about to get paid work for the first time, I lament for those who will never be given that opportunity.
THIS IS NOT OKAY.