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We need festivals like ‘Golden Hands’ - every year
   By Sajad Bazaz

GOLDEN HANDS. These words are usually referred to skilled persons in their field of profession. In our state, ‘golden hands’ symbolize our craftsmen and artisans who by virtue of their unmatched skill have given a worldwide name and fame to our handicrafts. But the most tragic part of these golden hands has been the pathetic condition of these craftsmen, as their skill has failed to nourish them.
Our handicrafts industry is one of the oldest and biggest industries of the State providing direct or indirect employment to almost six lacs. If figures are to be believed, the turnover of Kashmiri handicrafts is more than Rs.2,000 crores annually. Unmatched skillful craftsmanship of Kashmiri artists and artisans has made Kashmiri handicrafts as prized possession over the years and has captured the hearts of people across the globe.

Even as various sectors of economy were adversely affected during the turbulent period in the State, amazingly the production of handicrafts continued unhindered. Their sales, however, were hit due to decline in tourist traffic, putting the small craftsmen and artisans to hardships. Over a period of time, these artisans carved out various means and ways to protect their own golden hands and the craft. But the 2008–global-recession severely hit this industry and the people associated with it have almost started facing starvation, as demand for their products has fallen considerably.

Since the economic slowdown has severely hit US, Europe and Middle East – the destinations where Kashmiri handicrafts are mostly exported – the exporters here have been unable to obtain fresh orders for their products. Even account receivables on account of past sales have trickled down to minimal levels. This slowdown has forced the exporters to stop procuring fresh stock from traders and manufacturers. Precisely, this has affected the working of entire chain from exporters down to basic craftsmen.

Inability of manufacturers to finance fresh production cycles through craftsmen associated with them has rendered most of the craftsmen jobless. Even in cases where manufacturers undertake new production, the wages given to the craftsmen are significantly lower to that earned even by the unskilled labourers. Consequently most of the craftsmen have shifted to other activities.
Over the past two decades, we came across a good number of disturbing stories in newspapers revealing that substantial number of skilled craftsmen and artisans has shifted to other jobs and remaining are ready to follow their path. ‘500 papier-mâché artisans go jobless’. ‘No export order since 2008’. These were some of other headlines, which suggested that all is not well in our handicrafts sector. Even the impact of global meltdown which trickled down in 2008 on the sector is still being felt by the people associated with this industry.

Even as tourism is considered as backbone of the state’s economy and key zone of employment in the state, the handicrafts sector is the spinal cord of this backbone. Over a period of time, our artisan community has not grown to a size (standard of living) which could have motivated them to entirely bank on their skill to carve out their livelihood.

In whatever the circumstances, the sufferings of our artisan community are directly attributed to the lack of their financial resources. We all know that it is the availability of adequate and timely financial resources which is one of the most important factors for the success of any economic activity. So it’s the flow of money from formal system to ours craftsmen and artisans which has not been smooth and it is here the exploitation of the artisan community at the hands of middlemen takes place.
In other words, the plight of the artisans is not a few years old but has been there for centuries as they lacked direct access to the financial resources. In the name of this financial support, the influential used to hijack the craft of the artisans for peanuts. In olden days, exporters and middlemen used to fleece the artisans by giving them small loans and in exchange taking their crafts at a very marginal price. They used to sell these pieces of arts in outside world at lucrative prices. Thus there was yearning gap between the people who used to produce it and those who used to sell it. The plight of the artisans was pathetic and they would hardly make two ends meet.

Today this situation has not changed much and the artisans continue to be exploited in the name of financial support and their dilemma continues. There is need to rejuvenate this sector and efforts should be to preserve, protect and propagate the craftsmen besides protecting and upgrading this specialty of the State. Multiple measures are to be taken to the overall development of the sector and the men associated with it.

To reduce the chance of exploiting poor artisans by middle man we need to devise an efficient method where the artisans are able to directly market their products at least across India. The artisans need to be encouraged to sell their products in outside markets by empowering them with required facilities so that the benefits percolate directly to poor artisans. Our focus should be on small and poor artisans who have suffered a lot during the past two decades.

What we need is not only to preserve our crafts, but also need to propagate this as a business and professionalize its production in terms of management, sales and branding. When we talk of branding vis-à-vis our handicrafts industry, it’s yet to be visible. We have not seen proper productisation. To make the smooth transition of all our handicrafts from common commodities to highly differentiated products is difficult one that needs intervention in terms of finance, technology and marketing. We also need to priortise technological intervention, be it in design and branding or physical infrastructure, in the sector. This can generate not only interest among artisans but can also improve efficiency.

Branding aspect is totally lacking in our handicrafts industry. The products produced are not presented in a packed form. For example, our manufacturers or dealers in handicrafts present a shawl costing more than 3 or 5 lacs to their customers simply wrapped in a paper or in an ordinary polythene bag. The point is that our men associated with the industry are casual in their approach and have hardly given any attention to this aspect which otherwise could have helped in establishing a brand image for the products.

Meanwhile, we can also explore the possibility of having a ‘Golden Hands’ festival annually in which our craftsmen can display their products and skill. The “Golden Hands” festival should aim to help keep traditional handicrafts alive. The festival will continue to remind us about our traditional handicrafts and shows them to those who don’t know about them, giving both groups the opportunity to support the artisans community. While the craftsmen display their work, they can also practice their arts at the same time, allow visitors to see how the goods are produced as well as the final products.
We have to strengthen the commercialization of our handicrafts regionally, nationally and internationally and leverage on technology to achieve this objective. Our goal should be to support artisans and craftsmen and help them to survive into the future. (Courtesy: greaterkashmir.com)




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