When tradition meets the market

The Barefoot College, registered as the Social Work Research Centre (SWRC) has been working in partnership with rural communities in India to improve the quality of life of the rural poor. Established in 1972, the SWRC – Barefoot College is a community-based organisation that has been providing basic services and solutions to problems in rural communities, with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable. These ‘Barefoot solutions’ can be broadly categorised into solar energy, water, education, health care, rural handicrafts, people’s action, communication, women’s empowerment and wasteland development. Readmore about Barefoot College here

Photo taken by renowned photographer Sunil Gupta.

The concept of a ‘bazaar’

The SWRC-Barefoot College started working with crafts in 1974. The craft section of Barefoot College later became Hatheli Sansthan, an independent registered non-profit society in 1992. The story began when the first Tilonia Bazaar was exhibited in Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi in 1975 encouraged by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Pupul Jayakar, Shona Ray and many others. Tilonia Bazaar was one of the first concepts through which rural crafts found a way to connect to the urban India and the market. The Bazaar helped in establishing craft as an integral part of people’s development. Now the ‘Bazaar’/haat is a popular concept, enabling lakhs of crafts persons to find alternative markets in India.

Tilonia Bazaar at Triveni Kala Sangam 1975, New Delhi. Photo by renowned photographer Sunil Gupta

Jatin Das, the well-known painter drew a poster for Tilonia Bazaar.

Income generation through crafts

In 1975, the under-employment in the villages in Rajasthan forced much of the rural population to migrate to the cities as construction workers. While largely an agricultural area,Tilonia’s hinterland in Ajmer District has number of artisans engaged in various crafts. But due to a flagging local market, these skills were dying. The Barefoot College began promoting rural handicrafts in 1975, to both prevent the craft from dying and for the survival of craftspeople. It was difficult for craftspersons (dastakars), who mainly belong to Dalit and minority communities,to address both their social and economic problems. Working with them was a priority for Tilonia.

Identifying traditional leather workers, weavers, and handicrafts began a long journey. While leather and weaving involved upgrading and diversifying existing skills, handicrafts involved training women’s groups in different skills. Traditional craftspersons were freed from bondage (lending by traditional money lenders) and breaking traditions by using institutional finance. While weaving lost its caste taboos with the entrance of the handloom, new market relationships involved experimenting with technology and design.

Leather-tanning in Harmara village. Photo by renowned photographer Sunil Gupta

With leather, the stench from bag tanning was used as rationalization for continuing with untouchability.The “Regars”, traditional leather workers, finally settled for buying EI tanned hide from Ajmer, Agra, Kanpur and Ahmedabad. Designs were changed. A whole range of designers came and went, building the archives with the rural craftspersons.

Older designs of Harmara leather products

They learnt both about the process of design and catering to a new market. This new aesthetic proved marketable and was sustained by the enthusiasm of the urban buyer and later by young people wanting to learn about their traditions and contribute to the common heritage. The leather workers, now independent producers, have found their markets and, like the Harmara leather workers, have an abundance of orders. Their work and finish has reached market standards.

New designs of Harmara leather products

Hatheli crafts in Tiloniais women centric. Appliqué, Handicrafts Garments and sewing are acquired skills: traditional tailoring was restricted to a caste. The beautiful block prints, appliqué, thread work, bandhej(tie and dye) and now hand woven fabric from our in-house looms and also from other co-operatives have become the basic material for women’s, men’s and children’s garments.

Tilonia appliqué bed cover production in campus

We are connected with 5 districts and 48 villages of Rajasthan with a diverse group of artisans across community lines employing 250 artisans out of which around 235 are women who have been trained in various crafts.The number of craftspersons working now with Tilonia does not reflect all those trained or those who have benefited from the process.

There is a distinct and palpable change for the better, in the lives of the craftpersons who continue to use combination of design, finance and marketing. Women however continue to be unskilled in marketing. They come either from working class or Dalit groups where no handicraft skill exists, or from socially oppressed groups in purdah like the Rajputs and the Muslims. In associating with Tilonia’s craft work, the women have acquired craft skills, enough to earn supplementary incomes. They have been encouraged to understand banks deposits, acquire a minimum functional literary, the functioning of their local panchayats and understanding issues of health.

Photo by renowned photographer Sunil Gupta

Hatheli is an independent registered society and has managed to invest its resources in building an economic stability for the craftspersons and women. It has a reputation for working with worker management and expertise on the job, carrying the barefoot approach into the production and marketing of handicrafts. The income from its sales is reinvested into capital for the continuation of the process and also for supporting some activities on campus.

Bangalore exhibition at Safina Plaza, 2013

Tilonia Bazaar is the blend of tradition and modernity. In a manner in which the core values of traditional crafts is sought to be kept alive while catering to demands of contemporary life. We have two outlets/shops, one in the Barefoot New Campus and the other at Patan, on the Jaipur- Ajmer NH8 highway.