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Millennium Post

Weaving back art and craft of NE

The hazy focus on developing and marketing lesser-known crafts and textiles of India's northeastern region - as well as the associated cultural heritage - has put several traditions on the backburner.

The government-aided regional promotion and marketing platforms assigned the job of keeping them alive have failed to devise an effective delivery apparatus to carry the crafts traditions and their ambient cultures to mainstream India. Handicrafts is a state subject in the Indian constitution, but the task of integrating ethnic crafts-based textile traditions into the mainstream rests with the union textile ministry.

'A large amount of inputs have been given to the Northeastern Handicrafts and Handloom Development Corporation by the government in the form of grants and exchanges with countries like Malaysia and the Phillipines for marketing. I think we have gone in the wrong direction by focussing on exports,' veteran crafts activist Jaya Jaitley told IANS.

Jaitley said exports demands were difficult to cater to in the crafts sector because of the 'large quantity involved, standardisation and limited supply. There are no buyers for Indian crafts in Europe now with the ongoing recession', added Jaitley, the president of rural crafts organisation Dastkari Haat Samiti and one of the conceptual architects of the Dilli Haat.

An example of neglect is the large body of ethnic textiles from Arunachal Pradesh. The colourful handwoven textiles briefly occupied the limelight in the capital at the launch of the autobiography of former Indian Army chief General J J Singh, who is now the governor of Arunachal Pradesh. The general, who was attired in an Arunchali jacket, honoured his guests with woven drapes from the state, emphasising their lineage and saying: 'They are rare, traditional and woven by hand'.

The history of textiles in Arunachal Pradesh is linked to its ethnic mythology. Historical records say the people of Arunachal learnt the art of weaving in a dream that a tribal goddess Podi Barbi showed her followers.

Bamboo crafts from Manipur and Tripura and traditional crafts from Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram face similar constraints. They rarely make their way out of the states, barring at government-run outlets or expositions.

A document, Northeastern Region Vision 2020, says an 'important factor constraining economic progress in the region is the poor capacity of both public and market institutions'. The document argues that responsive governance requires capacity building right from the village level, where handicrafts, rural textiles and traditional cottage food procesing are the non-farm economic lifelines, mostly among the women of the northeast.

According to Sandeep Salam, head coordinator of the umbrella Indigenous People's Welfare Organisation, 'ethnic crafts people from the northeast do not get much exposure to showcase their talent'.

A lot of planning has gone into the funding of the handicrafts commission, but 'it has benefited only a small group of people', says noted author and commentator Sanjoy Hazarika, the managing trustee of the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research.

The overall marketing skills of the crafts people of the northeast are poor because 'they are used to making things for themselves'. 'They don't understand the market economy because the transition from the barter and local economy to the market economy is taking place here. Cheap goods from China and Taiwan are flooding the villages. They are more accessible,' Hazarika told IANS.

That's part of the problem. Some local people have done very well in the northeast and outside the country, but they are only a handful, Hazarika said. The prices of the traditional northeastern crafts and textiles were marked up several times when they reached the metropolitan centres, he added.

Jaitley observed that 'the handicrafts and textiles sector should have concentrated on the middle class, among whom sales have been consistently rising. Small crafts from remote corners of the country bring great appreciation, but the promoters do not put their hearts and souls to connect to the welfare of the crafts people and their families. It is a difficult sector to manage,' Jaitley said.

Two months ago, the crafts activist submitted to the union culture ministry a proposal to set up a Hastakala Akademi on the model of the Sangeet Natak Akademi and Lalit Kala Akademi during the 12th Five Year Plan (2012-17) to document, showcase and research traditional Indian crafts and related cultures.

This is under consideration, she said.

By Madhusree Chatterjee, courtesy IANS.
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