Handicraft melas and haats are common during the festive season, but the pandemic has necessitated that we reconsider the practice this year. In dismal times like these, virtual handicraft bazaars have come as a ray of hope and have set the mood for the season
In February this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Hunar Haat in Delhi to relish litti-chokha and kulhad chai soon after chairing a cabinet meeting took everyone by surprise. Sharing pictures on social media from his visit to the haat, where he spent time interacting with artisans, Modi urged residents to visit the exhibition showing the “colours and diversity of India” for “the best of products including handicrafts, carpets, textiles and delicious food! The participation of people from all across India makes #HunarHaat a vibrant place.”
Fairs and exhibitions like Hunar Haat are inherent traditions of the country, showcasing its crafts, cuisines and culture. The pandemic has, however, necessitated that we reconsider the practice this year. But if you thought that festive shopping in the pandemic era has halted, think again, as virtual handicraft bazaars have set the mood for the season. From fine chikankari prints, karigari demonstration and letterpress artworks to exquisite jewellery, woodwork, carpets and contemporary paintings, all are up for grabs this year, but through the online medium.
Hunar Haat, an initiative by the ministry of minority affairs, made a comeback in October in Jaipur and is scheduled to be held in different cities—Chandigarh, Indore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Lucknow, Delhi, Ranchi, Kota and Surat/Ahmedabad—across India over the next few months. The ministry will organise the fair in different states with more than 30% stalls for artisans who prepare indigenous toys. But that’s not all. Craft loyalists can now buy Hunar Haat products online too. The ministry has started the process to register artisans and their indigenous products on GeM (Government e-Marketplace). Several export promotion councils have also shown interest in providing handmade indigenous products of these artisans and craftsmen to international markets at a large scale.
“Hunar Haat will generate employment for master artisans with the theme of ‘local to global’ and focus on indigenous Indian toys. It has provided employment opportunities to more than five lakh Indian artisans, craftsmen, culinary experts and other people associated with them in the last five years, and has become a credible brand of rare exquisite indigenous handmade products,” minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said in a statement.
Over the years, exhibitions and melas have been the primary avenues through which karigars have been able to reach customers. In October, giant e-tailer Amazon organised a handicrafts mela with over eight lakh artisans and weavers from 22 states, including 17 government emporiums such as Tantuja, Harit Khadi, Tribes India, and national-level artisan organisations like Craftmark and Dastkari Haat Samiti. “As onground events have been brought to a grinding halt, the online marketplace has emerged as an avenue that these sellers can leverage to reach customers across the country during the festive season. We aim to generate consumer demand for arts and crafts that reflect the cultural heritage… we are optimistic about the positive impact of the mela in the lives of artisans and weavers,” said Pranav Bhasin, director, MSME and seller experience at Amazon India.
Amazon has also launched three new emporiums—Gramin from West Bengal Khadi and Village Industries Board, Kabira and Vindhya Valley from Khadi and Village Industries Board (Bhopal), and Manjusha from West Bengal Handicrafts Development Corporation—to benefit over 40,000 artisans and weavers hailing from Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. Products like khadi jackets and saris, dupattas, file folders, jute handbags, jewellery boxes, home decor and homemade dry masalas will be available.
Reflecting India’s atmanirbhar policy, the startup Direct Create recently launched Shilp se Swavalamban (Empowerment through Craft), a web platform to provide an online market space to craftsmen and weavers across India, giving them direct access to buyers. Under this initiative, products will be available for buyers and entrepreneurs, and the majority share of the transaction will go as financial relief to the craftsperson. Sheela Lunkad, founder, Direct Create, believes everyone has a claim to art and prices need not be exorbitant. “In the whole chain of middlemen, retailers and buyers, craftsmen, despite being the creators, are the least paid. They sell quality crafts at almost throwaway prices and it is either the middlemen or the owners of showrooms that profit,” she says, adding, “Webinars help and guide neo-entrepreneurs and craftsmen in small towns and villages through NGOs and government collaborations. This will help run business operations built around handcrafted products.”
Opting for online over offline, organisers have succumbed to the new-age shopping experience. In the process, they are also successfully bypassing all the challenges due to travel restrictions. Take, for instance, the ongoing Indian Handicrafts and Gift Fair (IHGF). Organised by the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH), an apex organisation representing handicraft manufacturers and exporters in India, the IHGF’s 50th edition is taking place virtually. “The online medium serves as a democratic platform with good exposure to brands and artisans. This time, we have 25 virtual halls featuring home, lifestyle, fashion, textiles and over 1,500 exhibitors,” says Rakesh Kumar, director general, EPCH, adding that the show will be an engaging on-site experience. “It’s a hybrid version, as we will open a small theme display for viewers with new features like video call and chat function to send messages to exhibitors besides Google street view of stores, virtual halls, live demonstrations, knowledge webinars throughout to browse and source from a preferred location.”
Then there is Dastkar. Badly affected by the economic crisis, it intends to help and support artisans through the ongoing Dastkar Nature Bazaar’s Festival of Lights at Andheria Modh, Delhi. “We hope to welcome craft lovers back to the venue and provide an immersive experience while following all government-issued precautions, and create spaces for craftspeople to sell goods… some of them haven’t been able to find buyers for months,” the spokesperson says. The bazaar won’t allow more than 50-70 customers at a time. Wearing masks and social distancing will be compulsory, frequent hand sanitising will be encouraged and there will be mandatory temperature checks and sanitisation on entry.
Real vs virtual
Organising a virtual fair is cost-effective, as there is no real estate space required and no time constraint as well. EPCH’s Kumar, however, feels there are still apprehensions about holding virtual exhibitions, as buyers and exhibitors are not clear on the mode of meeting. “Such fairs are not experiential… there is no face-to-face interaction,” he says, adding, “Despite all this, we expect to have 20% additional exhibitors and registration of 25% new buyers from the previous editions (at the Indian Handicrafts and Gift Fair).”
Social media campaigns are excellent for promoting crafts if they are personal positive experiences, feels Jaya Jaitly, founder-president, Dastkari Haat Samiti, a national association of craftspeople with members from all states of India. For instance, reusable, multiple-layered cotton masks in tightly woven cotton are a huge hit online for Dastkari Haat Samiti. They, in fact, launched a mask catalogue online that reveals a collection of varied art forms by artists— Madhubani masks by Remant Kumar Mishra, Pattachitra masks by Apindra Swain, Gamcha masks by Rangila Dhaga, Kalamkari masks by Ramji Devraj and Kantha embroidery masks by Rajesh Roy.
“The personalised and embellished art form in the mask is exquisite. The mask catalogue, posted via Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp and email distribution to buyers in the US, Singapore and the UK, has brought a sale of `5 lakh in the past two months. Paintings were also sold for `2-`3 lakh. This would have never happened on e-commerce,” says Jaitly, who is still ideating about her annual January fair, which is held at Dilli Haat in Delhi. “The beauty of the e-commerce sector is diverse and variable. It should not be neglected, as it constantly helps in giving a value-add. However, handicrafts need a constant human factor. As most big institutions have cancelled annual fairs, there are barely 40 stalls operating in Dilli Haat. Therefore, online is a great medium. We receive orders from the online store India Craft House, but we haven’t ventured into money handling, as it needs a lot of capital investment. At the same time, the sentiments of craftsmen who are desperate to come out and sell their artefacts make it more difficult for them to manipulate and register online. E-commerce is very spontaneous and single-unit selling. We have tried to register our karigars in a collaborative arrangement, but the process is exhausting, besides having minimal sales as compared to direct messaging or offline,” she adds.