Iti Tyagi, Founder of Craft Village, is revamping the lives of thousands of Indian artisans

Home » Iti Tyagi, Founder of Craft Village, is revamping the lives of thousands of Indian artisans

In an Abir Pothi Exclusive, Craft Village Founder Iti Tyagi delves deep into the foundation’s core philosophy, its achievements and its goals, and how the initiative has transformed the lives of thousands of artisans across the country. 

You are an alumna of The National Institute of Fashion Technology and have worked with top international brands like Pottery Barn and Ikea. How did you decide to make a shift and establish Craft Village in 2015?

When I was working with International Brands, I used to work with exporters from Delhi NCR, and most of the work would happen at various clusters for production. But unfortunately, the artisans became Craft Labours in an industry scenario, where the designs are driven by international buyers, and there was no scope of co-creation, meaning the artisanal creativity has no role. It also created an assembly for products, and in the process the artisan’s creativity, they own original ideas were getting lost. So, I thought of creating an ecosystem where the artisans can have their work appreciated by end buyer and they value their creative side as well and try and see a balance where while retaining authentic heritage, new products can be developed, this is how both the artisans, and the brands can add value to ‘the value chain.’

The other agenda was also to create them as part of the business and not just back-end support or manufacturing system, and through such a strategic change the whole outlook can be changed, and artisans in all the remote areas, and villages can get benefitted many folds.

Perhaps, that was the reason I started Craft Village in 2015, where I wanted them to make a strategic shift from back-end unsung heroes to front-end makers and brands. That’s how they get better dignity of life, earnings and it would also inspire their family members to join their work and crafts, and through all this process we save valuable skills and heritage acquired over thousands of years.

Craft Village was established for the ‘Training and Promotion’ in the Craft Sector. As per UNDP, since 1990’s the 40% of Craftsperson have left this Sector in absence of adequate opportunity/demand of indigenous products and migrated to an alternate means of employment or have become daily wage labour. Craft Village was founded in 2015 to revive the interest in craft & cultural products especially to Modern Consumers and in Urban Centres, to bridge the gap between rural & urban communities so that the Migration of Villagers, Skills, Community can stop immediately, and in long-term these people and community can find better employment opportunities in what they do for generations while it helps in retaining Timeless Crafts & Culture.

When it comes to traditional arts and crafts forms, the challenge is to sustain their economic viability for posterity. Craft Village has many initiatives for the same. Can you share some initiatives that have revived dying traditions in particular? 

In last six years Craft Village has successfully helped in preserving Crafts and Heritage of India, avoiding loss of rare skill sets and reviving lost skills, providing employment to thousands of families dependent on the Craft Sector, reducing migration from villages to Urban Centres,  fetching better value to the rural artisans and craftsperson engaged in this sector, and creating sustainable and ethical products.

Craft Village as a Social Innovation has addressed the concerns/issues of the Craft Sector in 360-degree manner. Crafts were always considered ‘Low key impact’ segment, and hence, never got attention from relevant stakeholders.Craft Village helped build this ‘High Key Impact’ segment, engaging craftspeople as entrepreneurs, industry as partners, and consumers as serious buyers by building a Formal Business Ecosystem. Moreover, the Organizations & NGOs were always working back-end (Supply Side), resulting in net loss of Demand, as Crafts got disconnected from mainstream urban and consumer markets. Craft Village helped in bridging the Strategic Gap of Demand & Supply by working Front End, creating awareness programs, innovative promotional –platforms and initiatives like ICW to increase demand for Craft & Cultural products amongst Modern and Global/Urban Consumers/Centres. Additionally, crafts were carrying the Rural Imagery, due to which the average ticket size of products sold in Mela, Haat and Bazaar were INR 500-750, not leading to enough income/ROI. Craft Village helped build Contemporary Imagery of Crafts through Design & Brand intervention and made it ‘Aspirational’. This helped in increasing the average ticket size of products sold to INR 5000-6000 plus large-scale orders. Since Artisans have been able to fetch 10-times the value they were getting earlier. It created better ROI and inspired their Gen-Next, Family to continue this tradition. 

We also noticed there was a lack of Collaborative network, for e.g., all the Craftsperson, Designers were working independently, and Industry had no participation. Craft Village created a collaborative network through India Craft Week, where the Craftsperson, Designer, Brands, and the Industry works together on innovation & products. Hybrid Skills, meaning leaving the authentic know how and adapting industrialized system leading to net loss of authentic skills. We ensured Re-Skilling, Up-Skilling, and New-Skilling of Artisans without changing the core language of Crafts and key skill sets.There was non-existence of Educational Framework on Crafts, in Schools, Colleges & other educational institutions/bodies. Craft Village initiated the largest Education and Training (E&T) modules through Hands On workshops and training programs for schools, colleges & education institutions. It helps in building greater cultural understanding in formative years, nation building, social inclusion & sustainable culture. Craft Village helped organize Craft Sector through proper guidance on organizational set-up, IPR, and other essential compliance, business, and legal knowledge in association with World Craft Council, Asia Pacific Region. 

Crafts have been mostly passed on through Oral Tradition only, and the existing documentations are mostly similar. We engaged in Knowledge Management through Craft films, articles and research papers/publications preserving the know-how, and bringing holistic perspectives. The core idea is to preserve the skills and knowledge in existence for thousands of years, and bringing the diverse application of Crafts in Science, Engineering, Technology, Design, Architecture, etc.

Besides the above it fulfils most of the criteria of United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals through Craft Sector such as responsible Consumption and Production, Crafts are mostly sustainable in nature, and doesn’t damage mother earth; it also comes with a great value and context that people consume it responsibly coming from the GI (Geographical Indications), reduced Inequalities, all kind of communities, religion, caste, and gender are engaged in Craft Sector, a better value and demand has henceforth brought community together to work and create together, and gender equality as Crafts are practiced in Majority by Women and is the greatest example of Women ‘Self Help’ and ‘Empowerment’.

Through the Craft Week, you have successfully enabled Indian artisans to reach out to a rich national and international client base. What are the highlights of the event and can you share some anecdotes as to how local artisans benefitted?

India’s official and World’s 2nd largest Craft Week. It is the only platform bringing Artisan, Designer & Luxury Brand on a single platform. Artisans were never exposed to the upper segment of market directly, ICW has given opportunity to hundreds of Artisans (Free of Cost, where Craft Village doesn’t charge a single rupee commission on sale & orders).

ICW has helped Artisan & Brands income grow from INR 13.32 Million in 2018 to INR 25.61 Million in 2019, and in 2021 INR 100.54 Million during the pandemic. In terms of its participation, it has grown from 45 in 2018 to 200 in 2021. The visitor count has increased from 4986 in 2018 to 10118 in 2019. In 2020, 1.04 million visitors participated virtually during the India Craft Week-Digital Preview and despite CoVid-19 restrictions over 6352 visitors attended its physical chapter in 2021.

Despite the pandemic it was the only show that happened in hybrid mode. The artisans have benefited manifold, they have not only got urban and global customers, but also sustained business and growth. The ICW has helped artisans and industry collaborate on various projects, and grow together.

Tell you more about your contribution during Covid, the innovative PPE kits in particular.

We developed CoVest during the pandemic, an experiment where Craft has been combined with technology. The CoVest and CoVer were developed to offer better protection than just a surface finish. CoVest is a SMART Jacket with inbuilt technology that helps in prevention from CoVid-19 and allows the wearer to follow all the required guidelines prescribed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and ICMR. CoVest has ViroBan nano finish; it gives additional protection from air-borne bacteria & viruses, and the inside has fragrance finish to de-stress the wearer. Made in Ajrakh Printed fabric, Crafts has been integrated for the first time in a SMART wear.

Product Design Features:

With Unlocks & opening up of activities (increasing relaxation and interaction), the major areas of concerns remained unaddressed; How does one know whether they are well or unwell? How do one maintain a distance of 2-meters or 6-feet? How to isolate masks, so that it doesn’t infect other belongings (and not use & throw). And how do one sanitize all belongings so that they don’t become the carriers of infection. These protocols would help in breaking the CoVid-19 chain of infection and help people with low immunity survive. The design features that helps in the above protocols are:

Fabric: CoVest has ViroBan nano finish; it gives additional protection from air-borne bacteria & viruses, and the inside has fragrance finish to de-stress the wearer. Made in Ajrakh Printed fabric, Crafts has been integrated for the first time in a SMART wear.

Convertible Masks: Many times the mask is forgotten on the table and other places, and in case it gets infected where to keep them? Most of the people have also been penalised for not wearing the masks, but the genuine issue is that the wearer forgets them, as they are not accustomed to such add ons, making it difficult to adopt. CoVest has convertible collars that can become Mask. Even though it gets infected, it is away from the rest of your belongings! You can even detach them to wash and reuse them. Made from high density polyester it has dimensional stability, to be reused and is sustainable.

Proximity Alert: 99% of the medical research has shown, if you maintain a social distance of 2-meters, you would have very less chance of getting infected! But how does one measure a distance of 6-feet visually? Every common person is not trained to measure such distance visually. CoVest has SD sensors that guide you to maintain this ‘Laxman Rekha’ of 2-meters. A 360-degree sensor raises alarm/shows signal if this distance is intruded.

In-Built Thermometer: How do people know they are well or unwell? CoVest helps in measuring body temperature to keep a health check. The inbuilt analogue thermometer measures exact body temperature as against infrared thermometers where the body temperature changes with distance! Again, a continuous health check-up; would help timely intervention in saving lives.

Magic Pockets: The UV pockets help in sanitizing all the personal belongings be it Watch, Sunglasses, Wallets, Car keys, Handkerchiefs, and everything that you carry handy! Making one hassle-free and away from infections. Such habits reduce use of gaseous or liquid sterilizing that could damage personal belongings and also make it impossible to clean every groove or area in the personal belongings.

Representatives from various organizations visited the Craft Week to scout for artifacts. Who are other prominent clients and how do you reach out to the end user? 

India Craft Week was world’s fifth and India’s first official Craft Week, it was to bring in focus “Good Stories-Untold”. India Craft Week (ICW) was an endeavour for “One World, One Craft”, that transcends beyond boundaries to one destination New Delhi to bring timeless tradition. The India Craft Week showcased evolving trends encompassing regional and folk styles, material culture & narratives from rest of India. The idea was to begin trickle-up theory (trends) from non-urban centers/rural India.

India Craft Week was designed to position Crafts from just being mediocre, ‘to aspirational or desired’, by bringing International communities who value them, and to present a new imagery to the world of exotic & rare hand-crafted forms. ICW balances Tradition with Modernity.

Leading National and International Buyers such as Fab-India, William Sanoma, Restoration and Hardware, Good Earth, GMR Airports division, Michael Arams, IKEA, Buying Federation of India, and almost all the leading buyers in Handicrafts & Luxury space were present.

Sooner after India Craft Week achieved its global success, London Craft Week had invited us to do a preview of “India Craft Week” in London between 8-10th May 2019. This is a great honour for Indian Craftsperson to share an international platform with prestigious brands like Dunhill, Bugatti, Purdey, Rolls Royce, Mont Blanc, Ermenegildo Zegna, Burberry amongst many others.  London Craft Week is world’s most prestigious Craft Week, with participation from over 350+ Topmost Luxury Brands/Makers and more than 50 nations showcasing crafts & culture, with over 100000+visitors witnessing these timeless Luxury & Craftmanship. India Craft Week Preview by Craft Village represented India’s showcase on timeless Crafts & Culture. This opportunity not only helped promote rare Indian Crafts but built a global connect & perception of Indian Crafts in Luxury League. It was a great trade opportunity for all the Craftsperson as well as most of the retailers and buying houses from across like Selfridges, Harrods, Debenhams, Tesco and many other premium retailers visit London Craft Week to buy high-end craftmanship.

Tell us more about the Creating Reason for Appreciation of Traditional and Sustainable Crafts Model. 

Craft Workshops has been our major thrust as we have always believed that “Craft Trading can be limited to a generation, but training would empower many generations”. And hence begun this trend of building a direct interface with Craftsperson with end consumers and Industry. We have successfully trained 40,000 plus people in last six years, and to quote an interesting incident, we have this kid Parnika from Pathways School Gurgaon, so she attended Patachitra Painting workshop of Orissa. Later she must have visited Suraj Kund Mela with her mother, and her mother tend to bargain from the Craftsperson who was selling Patachitra there, interestingly, this kid Parnika, resisted and told her mother, “I have attended the workshop and learnt Patachitra, it takes do much of time and effort mother, you just can’t bargain for the hard work and skills these Craftsperson are putting all their lives, kindly pay what he is asking for as he truly deserves it”. I think this was enough for me to understand what my workshops are doing for Craftsperson; they have started to get the true value of their products and without any bargaining. 

This is what I wanted to achieve, and secondly a school child if understands the value of our Crafts and Culture, in future this orientation would drive them to integrate Crafts in whatever they do as a profession. The same child has now taken a major project in her school to create an ecosystem for “Branding and Marketing” crafts by creating Animation Films that can go viral on social media and share our folklores with the world. Small interaction of 2-days workshops changed the way a young kind thinks now, same revolution can be bringing by having an interface with plenty of young school and college goers and there are many examples we have, but just shared one!

Similarly, teams from Fab India, ITC etc build direct connections with master’s and started project discussions. The urban and global consumers started building know-how and importance of indigenous crafts, and through such interactions and hands-on learning they built a great appreciation for crafts and craftsperson.

Share with us the details of the specialised and rare craft workshops you hold.

These workshops started to build Rural-Urban connect, and sensitized urban & global population on ‘Crafts of India’ through regular training and orientation. In the last 6-years Craft Village has trained more than 40,000 people physically and virtually.  These programs have helped ‘Crafts to connect better with schools, colleges, Industry, Government and Consumers, increasing value perception of Craft Products and reduced negotiations with the Artisan Community.

It also enabled them to integrate crafts in the mainstream industry, and even in policy development. So, the impact has been manifolds.

You indulge in responsible community development and even empower women and children through your initiatives. Is there a specific strategy to promote this particular segment? 

Women and children are the most vulnerable part of our society, and studies show that more than 50% of women population is engaged with the craft sector. Which means there is a great potential for gender equality and women empowerment through crafts. Also, since Craft being a family unit, and the man of the family being involved in agriculture or manufacturing, a high physical labour-intensive work, women of the family due to their high creative potential got engaged in making creative products. Through such a cooperation within the family, the income levels increased, and that’s how the role of women in craft sector became significant.

In many cases such know-how also started to percolate down from grandmothers to mothers and then daughters, creating a chain of exclusive knowledge that was needed to create their own products, and start preparing for marriages. So in general women in the family played a major role in retaining and uplifting Craft heritage, similarly, children in the house get grown into such a set-up have also acquired skills and know-how, and started to contribute in work post their schools etc. Interestingly, in India it was a family unit, and never a child labour, unfortunately, when these children were dragged to factories, doing dirty and dangerous work, that’s how the uproar started. But, the Craft Sector is never known for such things, everyone in the family would do their work to help create final products that were made and sold.

Since the majority of craft production remains unorganised, its full market potential is untapped. There is also a corresponding issue of declining skills in upcoming generations. Could you share your views on this? 

Craft is an unorganized sector, as all the stakeholders have no or very less interaction and dialogue. It has also no status of an industry despite 45 million directly and 250 million indirectly involved. The Govt has never thought of establishing a ‘Ministry of Creative Economy’ to organize this creative sector, so when the policy makers have no opinion of this segment as an industry, where is the question that industry would take interest into this.  

While there are many challenges and opportunity Craft Sector has going forward, one of the major thrusts would be to build and strengthen India’s ‘Craft Ecosystem”, that not only integrates with each other but also creates a unique model for the world to emulate. It would help build a comprehensive Craft Ecosystem that can bring all the stakeholders together, to work & share, and grow & contribute to the Crafts of India. Such disruptive ideas are the need of hour, and hence redefining the role of all the stakeholders in such a case.

As far as artisans are concerned, like everyone they also needed to be evolved and grow into natural streams. However, they have evolved into ‘hybrid’ skills, and today lost touch with authentic knowledge of doing crafts, or their community lost interest due to this sector being both financially and emotionally rewarding, resulting in net loss of people practicing these crafts forms generation over generations. It is also that with changing world their tools, techniques, insights, market intelligence etc. could not evolve the way other sectors grew. As a result, we are losing many craft forms and artisans every year, if this practice continues in next 20-years most of the craft forms would be for sure history.

So if we don’t act timely, it would be another sunset sector.

Talk to us about the in-house residency facility for designers and artists from all across the world. When did you start this initiative, and why, and how many artists have been part of the residency so far. 

Craft Village is part of Res-Artis, Netherlands and Residency Unlimited, New York. Recently it has been recognized as the ‘National Entity’ by the World Crafts Council. So, the idea was to create a space that has residency facility, studios, and an environment that ignites creativity and material culture. We started this in 2015 with the launch of Craft Village.

In past we have had lots of artists and designers coming from across the world, and the idea was to have collaborative work with artisans to develop something new and disruptive. It has resulted in development of the world’s most unique products and ideas.

So far more than 20 residential artists have been selected from all over the world.

What are the main challenges in creating a platform for indigenous artisans?

The main challenge is if Art is premium, Craft is still low key. Artisans still have the same mind-set and are not working in tune with changing scenario. They have to adopt their skills in new context and also explore creative bent. Then there are all kinds of artisans, highly skilled, intermediate skilled and low skills. Their work and output also determine consumer perception.

Post CoVid there has been a major effect on the cost of raw material, which has become 25-50% expensive, whereas the products are not getting that kind of price escalation. Also, most of the craft items are not seen as necessary or aspirational, and hence in absence of such attributes the consumption is not the way there is an increase in other fashion and lifestyle goods.

Product innovation has been limited, as there is superficial design intervention, but disruptive ideas are yet to find a place. The low penetration of technology has been one of the major factors in reach. Besides that, PresentationCreating a spatial experience and ways for creating better installations, visual merchandising, and display systems are missing.

Sense of Packaging giving customers an unboxing experience, and product better imagery is also absent.

So challenges are manifold, and hence Empowering Craftspersons & Artisans to hone their creative skills on Material & Media, Design, Technology and Business Acumen for developing contemporary and market-relevant innovative craft products to fetch better value/ticket size. Better Communication & Presentation Skills for Digital platforms, Social Media (Online and Offline Market Access) for seamless outreach and brand imagery.

What remains to be done to bridge the gap between craftsmen and consumers? What is the way ahead?

The gaps have been increasing since the last three decades, as the consumer awareness of the forms are missing. The way forward we have to look at creating consumer awareness, creating more interfaces where customers buy the crafts, and frankly to build an ecosystem so that consumers can interact and interface with various stakeholders, who play an important role in elevating the craft sector.

World is filled with jargons like circular, sustainable, organic, which craft sector has been practising for long time, its time that we bring such examples from the Craft Sector to the world so that it can reach to right consumers and corporates who value and adopt them and can partner with craft sector to promote them.

Indian Handicraft Exports was around USD 3.39 Billion (less than 2% of the Global Handicraft World Trade) and the domestic market (Organized & Unorganised) at USD 7 Billion, post-pandemic this “Creative Industry” holds the largest potential to grow as there is a growing demand for sustainable, organic and slow objects. The way forward is to give it a definition of the Creative Industry so that it can tap the future potential of USD 5 Trillion, where Creative Goods are growing @14% and Services @18% per annum.  These sectors/industries are considered important sources of commercial and cultural nation-building, with an interface between Creativity, Culture, Economics, and Technology and have enough potential to generate income, jobs, and exports while promoting social inclusion, cultural diversity, and human development. I strongly believe that “Cultural Industries + Creative Industries = Creative Nation”