The Business of Art: Ritu Kumar and Himanshu Wardhan in conversation with Supriya Dravid
In a conversation imbued with creativity, this session of #JLFBraveNewWorld saw author Supriya Dravid shed light on the journeys of the talented fashion-designer, Ritu Kumar and the managing-director of Etsy India, Himanshu Wardhan, in the ever-evolving world of fashion and textiles. She spoke to them about the changing dynamics of the industry, especially during the times of corona.
“The whole thing happened by accident!” quipped Kumar when she was asked about how she found her way into the domain of textiles and fashion. Kumar added that she aspired to become an art historian and had actually studied Western art. However, during her stay in Kolkata, she did a museology course, which took her to the village of Serampore where, around 150 years ago, the largest export of silk-printed goods occurred from the banks of the river to Europe. “I was very curious because nothing remotely like that was available then, we were importing stuff from Britain.” It’s there where her hunger to know more about textiles began and she wanted to explore whether it was possible to ‘turn the clock back’.
For Wardhan, his first textile memory goes back to the school days. Each season-change called for a change in school uniforms and that’s where Wardhan got a sense of what textiles were all about. After having set up a branch of Etsy in India, Wardhan has just further progressed his portfolio. He claimed how in his role, he gets to “interact with these creative entrepreneurs who are making these products at home and designing them at home!”
One of the most fascinating bits of the conversation was Kumar’s take on how craftsmanship is literally passed down from generation to generation. “This is not a small craft; these are guilds that have come down from generations across thousands of years, and it is in the DNA of the people…the textile business is the second largest after agriculture and the handicraft itself employs 16 million people” commented Kumar. “You need to be a mathematical genius to even weave a sari!” This understanding of yarns and colours is something that other countries haven’t been able to ape very well and this is why we have to empower our artisans and their textile skills to let them become successful entrepreneurs.
But the question is, how do we connect artisans with the buyers? The source of a number of handcrafted materials kept in our own homes comes from a huge number of anonymous craftworkers. As Wardhan explained, Etsy was founded keeping this exact thought in mind, and with the philosophy to connect the buyer of the product with the creator of it. “It has reached a stage where we have a buyer and a seller in every country with over 2.8 million sellers…out of which almost 83% are women and 95% are home-based entrepreneurs.” Dialing back to India, Etsy has been effectively mobilising the urban audience, which can easily operate online. However, in the last couple of years, Etsy has been trying to connect with rural society as well. “In Varanasi, we have a person who is helping these artisans and has gotten about 400 weavers on the platform, without any middleman,” stated Wardhan. And while Etsy India has begun conducting this exercise in smaller pockets, to make a successful impact, they need to give it enough time.
To help artisans set their businesses online, the next-generation, who don’t have too many gainful employment opportunities at the moment, are helping the older generation run their brands online. “As the younger generation also understands the potential of the technology platforms to directly connect with buyers across the world, they are also starting to get interested, “ said Wardhan as he pointed out that once the online-journey starts and the brand-presence gets built, after 3-4 times, these rural entrepreneurs realise their potential and become independent.
To help weavers not lose their livelihood, Ritu Kumar claimed that the drudgery needs to be taken out of the job and that the younger generation needs to get into the grind. “If you see a weaver, you would not want your child to be a weaver, “ Kumar commented. “I am really hoping that we can use the DNA of our craftspeople, not really the very inconvenient circumstances under which they work.”
If there is a way of selling their products, there needs to be no issue with the same embroidery being done on machine since that is the future of the world and with that, we see the handicraft workers progressing and not regressing.
Life during the times of corona has reminded humanity of the sharp line which exists between the haves and the have nots, accessibility to the ‘smallest’ of things is a mark of privilege. Across the pandemic, the plight of the weavers has been at the forefront. There are some people who have had the opportunity to work from home by setting up an online presence. Wardhan talked about Etsy disallowing large sellers from joining the platform since they only wanted to showcase small entrepreneurs crafting their own materials. “In the recent times, a lot of people have been impacted…it has definitely pushed a lot of people to go online and I believe this trend is only going to continue over the period of time.”
When Indian weavers begin to give life to their creation, not only are they sculpting a beautifully designed cloth, they are also, passionately, weaving the story of an age-old tradition, which may not capture the popular imagination of many but is slowly and steadily brewing on the verge of revival. The alluring textiles of India have the potential to become popular in the mainstream once people begin to alter their perspective and realise that each piece of work, no matter how mundane it may seem to the eyes has a fascinating history behind it and an equally intriguing story to tell.