The debate around the Sabyasachi Mukherjee-H&M line, Wanderlust, has rekindled the old question of traditional craftspersons’ agency over their design and aesthetic vocabulary.
The debate around the Sabyasachi Mukherjee-H&M line, Wanderlust, has rekindled the old question of traditional craftspersons’ agency over their design and aesthetic vocabulary. Even as a number of India’s handicraft and handweaving traditions enjoy protection under the geographical indicator (GI) framework, the enforceability of GI tags remains poor.
So, when one of India’s best-known designers collaborates with a global fast-fashion brand to launch a line of apparel mimicking the hoary aesthetic of Sanganeri block prints, the original block printers have little recourse against it. Craft organisations have come together to voice their protest against the appropriation of Sanganeri motifs for digitally printed clothes. Unfortunately, that is the furthest they have been able to go—at least for now.
The travails of Indian artisans are understandable. They have to work doubly hard to survive in a market flooded by cheap replicas that are becoming harder and harder for customers to distinguish from the real thing. It might be too much to expect them to legally challenge every offender flourishing at their expense.
Mukherjee’s response to the open letter by crafts organisations speaks of a ‘trickle-up’ effect, where the mass-market consumers of today could evolve into buyers of hand-crafted luxury over time. The sophistry of this argument lies in the fact that it is applied to purchasing power, and not to taste. It is disingenuous to say that a consumer who can afford apparel priced at Rs 9,999 needs to evolve in some way to be able to buy a hand-printed saree for Rs 2,200. The irony is especially stark at a time when the Wanderlust line sells out within minutes of its launch, while the Sanganeri printer has to deal with haggling customers over WhatsApp just to sell some yardage going at Rs 250 per metre. The pandemic has disrupted the craft exhibition calendar, and craftspersons are having to look for buyers through other channels.
Unscrupulous designers and unsuspecting consumers are two reasons behind the sorry state of craft livelihoods. Another is the apathy of the government to the grievances of India’s artisans. The powerloom lobby is strong and, in 2015, there was a buzz about the government scrapping the Handloom Reservation Act, which prohibits the use of handloom motifs in machine-made copycats. The Act was saved, thanks to a spirited speech in Parliament by MP Kirron Kher, who pegged the number of handloom artisans at 4.3 million. However, almost every Indian weave is today replicated on powerlooms, and the Act remains only on paper.
In July 2020, the government dismantled the All India Handloom Board that was, with 88 artisan members from across the country, the only mechanism for direct dialogue between craftspersons and the government. The reason given was that the board had become inefficient and was riddled with middlemen. If true, that could only have been an opportunity to rejuvenate the board by bringing in the real stakeholders. The Wanderlust collection simply exemplifies the abandoning of craftspersons by the state and the market. There is time for course correction. We could begin with a survey to build a definitive registry of traditional craftspersons. At least, there should be a census to determine how many Indian individuals work with crafts, right down to the last woman who spins yarn and the last man who tans leather for Kolhapuris.