Not a child’s play

Designer Atul Johri urges the concerned authorities to get their act together before the craft of Channapatna disappears for good

Channapatna craft may seem to be on its way to revival but Atul Johr begs to differ. The Channapatna-based architect-turned-designer who has been engaged with the craft for the last 15 years, brings to the us its ground realities. With demonetisation bringing the problems out in the open, Atul, who has temporarily joined the Karnataka Knowledge Commission as an expert member on the panel of wooden handicrafts and handmade design, discusses some grave issues facing the age-old craft.

What is the current state of the craft of Channapatna? It seems to be witnessing a revival.

The interest of consumers in Channapatna products has certainly increased but it’s not ready to satisfy the expectations and demands of the consumers due to quality issues related to synthetic colours used. A few individuals like us have put in extra efforts to address these issues and create a product line which is at par with any global product. The industry is at the threshold of revival but we have to collectively support this craft community before it loses its sheen again.

Are there bigger issues facing this craft today?

Ninety nine per cent artisans are in long-term debt that they cannot repay due to exploitation or a lack of support from the Government, and it has become a disease now. Those who are still working are either attached with individual designers or with production facilities owned by individuals, but at the cost of being exploited.

Most of them are working on mass-produced products sold by traders or shopkeepers but due to quality issues, craftsmen are not making profits. Majority of them don’t even consistently make Rs.200-300 a day. As told by the artisans, there is no dearth of work for experienced craftsmen but they are paid only about 20 per cent of the selling price.

The biggest challenge is they don’t have direct access to the market and design innovation is almost negligible. Also, they are not very proactive about changes or new ideas. Though they are aware that old designs don’t sell, they think they can’t do quality products and can’t afford to buy seasoned raw materials to work with.

Some of them, like Yusuf Ali Khan, whose father started his work 40 years back, try to retain good artisans. He has seen growth but it was always an external source or individuals, who give them a chance to work. Yusuf also feels that he doesn’t get his due. Most of the craftsmen have already migrated to Bengaluru for odd jobs or quit the craft due to financial instability and exploitation.

What is the solution?

The Government allocates funds for the development of the craft year after year but somehow it doesn’t translate into benefits for the craftsmen. Most of them I spoke to said the only thing they got from the Government is H and Y cards (identity cards given to the artisans by the government) and no financial or any other help. The beneficiaries are those who have access to lacquerware facility centres or the officials.

Channapatna Crafts Park (set up by the Government) has a seasoning plant but it’s impractical for small-time groups or individuals like us. People like Yusuf for example, who don’t have the capacity to buy wood in bulk, end up using wood which is not seasoned well, which results in bad quality work. A few artisans have candidly told me that the Channapatna craft may not live beyond five-six years.

Cauvery Emporium and Crafts Park should give more transparent and easy access to artisans to let this craft grow. Government agencies should provide the infrastructure and let the individuals become entrepreneurs. We can also create a sustainable parallel economy by involving designers and entrepreneurs along with master craftsmen to come together and stop this exploitation.

Where is the maximum demand coming from? Has the domestic market picked up or is it still seen as a souvenir for visiting NRIs and international tourists?

The domestic market now is quite receptive due to awareness of cheap plastic products and interest in handmade products but the gap between the supply and demand for ethically made quality handmade products is quite significant. It is just 10 per cent of the market share due to individual enterprises and designers involved.

International tourists and buyers are still sceptical about quality so export will take a while to grow unless Government of Karnataka and Cauvery take interest in supporting the craft.

Currently how many artisans are practising this craft and how many units are there?

There is no specific data available as it is mostly unorganised but I was told that Cauvery has a list of 900 registered artisans. Out of 900 registered artisans, only a fraction get benefits, probably 50 per cent at the most, again and again. As for the units, I think there used to be 2000 units at least but now only 10 per cent of them are functional and these too are very small like 4-6 lathes set-ups.

(Atul Johri runs his own brand of Channapatna inspired designs called ‘Tulsi’.)


Article from The Hindu