The evolution of Somaiya Kala Vidya, an institute for artisans in Kutch, addresses the value of creativity, taking education for artisans to the Next Phase.
Establishing a Foundation
Somaiya Kala Vidya begins with the question, "Who are artisans?"
Most people today perceive artisans as workers. However, if we understand them as key guardians of cultural heritage a new approach emerges.
Craft traditions embody rich knowledge, but the worth of artisans' knowledge and communication has diminished as their creative capacity is squandered on production work. Activating creativity can rejuvenate the valuable dimension of meaning.
Experiments in Creativity
My path to artisan education began in 1993, when I co-founded Kala Raksha with Prakash Bhanani. Over a decade, I experienced that creativity was as critical to empowerment as income. I also observed young designers struggling to learn craft traditions. I thought artisans could learn design as quickly.
The First Design Course for Artisans
In 2003, I received an Ashoka fellowship to develop a curriculum for a new educational form-- a design school for artisans. The concept was to provide "specialized, higher" education directly to those who can use it. I believed that if artisans design their own work, this will raise their value, insure cultural integrity, and sustain traditions.
In 2005, I founded Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the first design program for artisans. Participants were working traditional artisans of Kutch. Classes utilized local language and culture. The year-long course was organized to accommodate artisan lifestyle.
The program guided artisans to define and appreciate their traditions, and then to vary them, to create new tradition-based design collections. The content was similar to that of urban design institutes; the creative challenge was to adapt the material for artisan students.
I directed Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya for eight years, graduating 124 women and men. Nearly all dramatically increased their confidence, capacity and income. Many went from job workers to beginning their own businesses. The inevitable competition between artisans was tempered with diversification of products. More diversity meant more sales. Value for creative work emerged as a central issue.
The importance of this new approach to education was recognized internationally. In 2009 I was awarded the Sir Misha Black Medal for distinguished service in design education.
Despite Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya's success, the organization faced serious challenges. First the campus became surrounded by Asia's largest coal-fed thermal Power Plant (4,600 MW) and, immediately, a plant of equal size was built adjacent to it.
Second, the village-based Kala Raksha Trust, appropriate to its original intention of enabling local women artisans to earn fairly from their traditions, lacked the vision and experience needed to operate an educational institute of international importance.
Finally, the organization could not charge fees to economically weak artisans. So we had to raise funds for the entire budget each year.
Connecting to K.J. Somaiya Gujarat Trust
I envisioned expanding the design program. At the same time, the K.J. Somaiya Gujarat Trust was aiming to establish an educational institute on land they owned in Kutch. The Trust has been involved in education for over half a century, and through Somaiya Vidyavihar serves over 35,000 students.
Somaiya Kala Vidya: The Next Phase
In March 2014 we founded Somaiya Kala Vidya, an institute of education for artisans. This is the first institute within a plan for a range of innovative educational institutes.
In April 2014 we launched the BMA, a "post graduate" course in Business and Management for Artisans. This course addresses the observation that even with great design, many design graduates still struggle to get full economic benefit from their increased capacity.
Developed with support from Ashoka and the Institute for Rural Management Anand, The BMA takes forward the concepts of direct access to "specialized, higher" education and practical application.
Artisans learn to begin or increase their own businesses. At the same time, they design and produce new collections, and together produce an exhibition in Mumbai. To insure sustainability, following the course each graduate works with a high-level business mentor, in a co-design model, for ten months, culminating in a fashion show.
The sense of ownership, pride and success generated among artisan participants in the BMA course is remarkable. If creativity was critical to empowerment, recognition is key to confidence and success. Each graduate makes a brand identity. They rated selling in their own name as important as increased income.
This year, as we begin the core design course with twelve weavers and dyers, we infuse it with key elements identified in the BMA course. Now, it will focus on production friendliness and marketability and conclude with a real-time exhibition in Mumbai. A sister company Design Craft, opening in May, will promote artisan designer brands, and its profits will support the education programs.
Somaiya Kala Vidya empowers artisans to respond to their world. Traditions are sustained when they live, grow and reflect the contemporary environment-- and most of all, when the stewards of those traditions can remain vitally creative.
Judy Frater is the Founder Director of Somaiya Kala Vida based in Adipur Kutch, India. For more information, visit www.somaiya-kalavidya.org.