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Ashoke Chatterjee: An Exclusive Talk

Ashoke Chatterjee, the former executive director of National Institute of Design (NID) is leading a busy schedule even in this retirement life. He along with late Prof Ravi Matthai triggered the much acclaimed ‘Jawaja Project’, and it gave new hopes and lives for many people in Rajasthan. As per Ashoke, handicrafts industry is the second largest source of employment in India, but it remains miles away from the limelight. In a recent interview with All Lights Film Magazine, Ashoke expressed his views on Indian Handicraft Industry, and he also shared his experiences as a jury member at the ‘Heritage Film Festival, 2014.  

Question 01: You are such an unquestionable name in the craft development sector, and you have immense experience in this arena. Tell us some unforgettable experiences in this journey blended with Indian arts and crafts.

Answer : There have been many, and to choose is difficult. These include the journey of the Artisans Alliance of Jawaja through 4 decades, the amazing achievements of Kala Raksha under the leadership of Judy Frater and Prakash Biwani and of the Khatri family in Kutch, and the wonderful outpouring of work by young artisans through efforts of the Crafts Council of India and others. The contributions by NID and other young designers has been enormous, and over many barriers and challenges. 

Question 02: You along with the late Prof Ravi Matthai started the Jawaja project, and it gave a new life for the 300 year old leather craft in Rajasthan. Would you mind sharing some experiences on this regard? 

Answer : Initially, the Jawaja project was not intended as a ‘craft’ project but rather as an experiment in self-reliance with a deprived community in a devastated environment. It was an effort by Prof Matthai to test if the ‘new’ disciplines of management and design could be of service to those in India most in need of change and opportunity. Craft became the means for this effort in meaningful education, as handskills were the most important potential within this community for livelihood and joint learning. Not only leather, the Jawaja effort also included woven products.

Question 03: The fame of Jawaja leather has now crossed the geographical barriers, and it is renowned all across the globe. What were the lessons you learned while executing this project? Also, share some of the hardships you came across during those times. 

Answer : The most important lesson was the capacities within the poor for creating change when given the opportunity,, and the failure of so many official schemes and projects to reach those for whom they are intended. Another lesson was the ability of artisans and designers to work together to create products from inherited tradition that can address the contemporary market, and succeed within  highly competitive contexts at home and abroad. The hardships were many, including caste discrimination, official apathy, challenges to group cohesion and unity, and the disrespect which our great artisans so often encounter. Not just in India. Not long ago, the artisans of Jawaja were refused visas to attend a global conference in Canada to which they had been invited to share their experiences with craftspersons from all over the world! 


Question 04: You were one among the jury members in the Heritage Film Festival 2013.  Please share us some of your experiences from this corner.

Answer : The wealth of documentation of a high standard was a revelation, and it suggested the great need to continue to bring these resources to national attention. 

Question 05: How vital is the role of Heritage Film Festival in proclaiming the rich artistic heritage of the country in front of the Global Public? 

Answer : Documentation and access to documentation are indispensable to awakening public awareness about craft quality. Without this awareness, all other efforts at craft revival are likely to fail. 

Question 06: What are your future plans to uplift the condition of craft industry in India?  

Answer : Two current efforts include working with the Government of India to establish a sound data base for the industry that can encourage attention and investment in what is India’s second largest industry yet one for which no reliable data exists and which therefore continues to be dismissed as lacking priority. This situation exists despite all the hype and rhetoric about our great craft heritage and the scale of this industry, with millions of Indians dependent on their hands for survival. Another effort concerns the need to address the handloom crisis, representing the needs of weavers who are the largest single segment of the craft population now faced with huge challenges despite making what many consider the world’s greatest fabric with a huge unmet demand for it. The seeds of  this crisis exist is within the very institutions and schemes that were established to protect and enhance the Indian artisan.



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