On an idyllic tree-shaded campus in the remote seaside village of Tunda Vandh in northwest India, a cluster of traditional artisans studies fashion trend forecasts.
The artisans are students of Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, a one-year design education program that aims to empower traditional artisans by providing them with the tools to create products that appeal to larger marketplaces. Now in its seventh year, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya works primarily with men and women in the Kutch region of Gujarat, India, most of whom are already trained in crafts like weaving, embroidery, block printing, and bandhani (tie dye).
The problem for many of these artisans, says project director Judy Frater, is finding a market for their finished products. The traditional solution is what Frater calls “design intervention” – when a professional designer from outside the community steps in to provide new concepts for new markets. But in many cases, that approach can be detrimental, diluting the craft and reducing the artisans to common laborers.
“The artisans we are talking about … never worked for commercial purpose," said Frater. "No one drew for them, no one chose the colors … They would never dream of copying anything exactly. It would be a waste of effort and creativity - labor without the joy of creativity.”
Rather than provide designs, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya provides the foundation upon which artists can design their own products. The one-year program consists of six classes teaching everything from color sourcing to market orientation to concept development and communication. The program culminates in the creation of a final portfolio, which encompasses not just new designs but also brand identity and marketing. These portfolios are then digitized and placed online, in order to expose student talent to people outside the community.
Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya was created by Frater in 2005 as a program of the arts preservation non-profit Kala Raksha, with the help of a prestigious Ashoka Foundation Fellowship. In addition to helping artisans produce more viable products, Vidhyalaya also introduces them to the transformative power of education. For rural artisans with little to no schooling, the experience can be life-changing.
“I had no clue we’d actually learn designing,” said Khimjibhai, a recent graduate. “I thought a designer would tell me what to do, and I’d do it. The first few days were hard… but I never imagined such a school!”
And often, the learning is a two-way street with the designers that Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya recruits to teach its courses.
“Over the years, craftspeople have become accustomed to (being) told by designers what to do so their response is, ‘You just tell us what has to be made and we will do it.’ Being a teacher helped me look at each craftsperson as an individual, in order to help them to build their potential,” said Aditi Prakash of Dastkari Kaat Samiti, a Delhi-based non-profit crafts association.
By encouraging individual artisans to find their voice and own their craft, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya also helps to upend the “poor artisan” paradigm that is often found in fair trade projects. But in a society influenced heavily by caste, religion, and gender, having the freedom to explore one’s creativity can be difficult. The Tunda Vandh campus helps, in part, by providing a safe space in which to learn and create, without the pressures of the outside world.
“We wanted the artisans to have protected time and space to find inspiration from nature and their own traditions, to explore and reflect,” says Frater. “The open atmosphere of our campus, its rural bucolic isolation, I believe encourages open minded thinking.”
Over the years, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya has been lauded for its innovative approach to opening markets for traditional artisans, with Frater picking up honors like the Sir Misha Black Medal for Distinguished Services to Design Education and the Crafts Council of India Kamala award for service to the field of crafts. More telling of the program’s success, however, are statements from the graduates themselves.
“After the second class graduated, we went to Delhi to participate in a seminar at UNDP,” said Frater. “When we introduced ourselves, one graduate, aged 21, said, ‘My name is Bhagvatiben, I am from Sumrasar village, and I am a designer.’ That's when I knew we were on the way to empowerment.”