Reclaiming the dignity of artisans step by step

Game Changers

While we live in a time where capitalism and commercialization are at its peak, there are a handful of people who still take pride in being social advocates for old-school arts and craftsmanship. When we met Anar Patel (founder of Craftroots and Gramshree), she floored us with her simplicity and impeccable knowledge of Indian arts and crafts.

A self-proclaimed “passionate social worker” and a dedicated handloom supporter, Anar has spent almost two decades in reviving some of the finest crafts of Gujarat through her initiatives. While she spoke extensively about her work with the artisans, we couldn’t help but wonder how does the daughter of Gujarat’s former CM, Anandiben Patel, still manages to stay rooted without getting affected by her powerful political background. The credit goes to her mother’s strict upbringing she tells us, and recalls, “My mother used to teach in a school when my brother and I were young, we had a much-disciplined childhood. In class eight, my mother asked me to teach slum kids and learn about the difficulties they face. That changed my outlook completely and I decided to do something for the marginalized strata of the society. I decided to be a social worker because I am a firm believer of Gandhiji and Vinoba Bhave’s philosophy of life. Through my work, I want to empower the artisans and craftsmen of our country so they get the dignity and respect for their exceptional talent.”   

As one would assume that with so much support from the local community and coming from a renowned political family she might have political ambitions for future, but Anar dispels all the rumors and says, “My family is an advantage since I always got respect wherever I went. I got to meet all kinds of people through my background, and people were willing to work with me without asking too many questions. I recently organised the Sabarmati festival and everyone assumed I will contest at the election. Honestly, I don’t have any political ambitions. If someone offers me a ticket I might think about it, but on my own, I will never go for it. My brother and I we don’t want to get into politics. Politics is very tricky, there are a lot of games that people play; more than opposition there are fictions from within the party and I don’t have that bent of mind so I would like to stay away from it.”    

Anar feels that now that she has laid a solid foundation for craftsmen, the next level in her plan is to initiate a Crafts University in India to solidify the ecosystem. “In our country, we have so many kinds of crafts but there is no way to impart that knowledge to the next generation. There is no craft university or dedicated course to promote handwork anywhere in the world; and, since we are country with a rich heritage, we should create something like that to bridge the gap between traditional crafts and technology. If we’ll have well-equipped labs, a research center and students who want to learn more about these things – the industry will grow. For example, we worked with natural dyes extensively and it used to leave colour and we took it to the lab and got a technology to work with it. Similarly, in our state farmers started growing Kala cotton again and we revived it in just two years after we introduced the long-staple variety. Unlike BT cotton it doesn’t destroy the land, so it was a win-win for all. We need more places where we can look into such matters and innovate. There should be mandatory craft courses in all design and fashion colleges to promote it.”

As she works now works artisans from states like Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharastra, and other places, her wardrobe is a treat for handloom lovers. She mentions that she loves to collect Patola saris, handwoven Tangaliya shawls, and Shibori saris. “The best thing about a handloom product is that you cannot create identical products, so every piece is unique. In India, I like designers who are connected to crafts. I like Ritu Kumar’s block printing, Bandej by Archana, Raw Mango, Anita Dongre, Anju Modi and labels that promote Indian crafts. For me, the handwork by an artisan is as good as a couture piece. In India, we still call it heritage, but if we get glamorous ambassadors to promote the crafts it will soon be falling in couture category. I think we need to talk about these things and put the names of the artisans so their work gets recognised.”

Her dedication towards artisans and the native crafts of India stems from her deep-rooted respect for handwork, and she believes that the work of skilled craftsmen should get credit where credit’s due. Her organization presently works in eight states of India, and she calls herself a lifetime volunteer towards the cause. Speaking about her contribution in changing the mindset and uplifting the craftspeople, she says, “One of the most important things we have been trying to do is to change the mindset of the people towards artisans. They are not ‘bechare’. They are artists who spend hours on handloom to weave beautiful textiles and we shouldn’t bargain with them for petty deals. Earlier, Govt. only invited them for promotional platforms, and it did not help them in any way. When I started working with them, the first thing that I wanted to change was the attitude of sustainability instead of relief. We wanted to enable them to start their own business and the biggest challenge was to change the mind of the artisan because they were very apprehensive to work with new material. For example, Patola sari is a heritage product but it doesn’t sell throughout the year because it is costly. We asked to make borders or dupattas instead of sari so more people could afford it, but most of them refused. We spent a lot of time convincing them and so many of our initial workshops were failures and nobody showed up. It took us a long time to bring the change among the weavers and the farmers, who have now understood the importance of self-sustenance instead of looking for government help.”

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