Crafting a National Identity in an International Market

16 May 2024 -

Crafting a National Identity in an International Market: Craft as Power

This article examines the entwined relationship between designers and artisans in the Indian design market as this is one of the key relationships in the design world. The dominance of either or both links to the sustainability of both as well. It also aims to understand where the control lies in the designer-craftsperson relationship. So, what quantifies and defines this relationship? Is there a play of power between the designer and the artisan? However, there may not be a definitive answer as it is a complex collaboration where there is considerable interdependency. It is important to investigate this since designers and artisans work in tandem to create the unique objects that they do and while they work as a team, it can be said that designers have more control on a macro level. Without their conceptualisation of the objects there would be no work for the craftspeople. This power is discussed as it has the ability to become hegemonic in a society that is already divided by social class.

Contemporary design stays rooted in Indian craft traditions because much of India’s cultural identity comes from this classical heritage which does not necessarily translate into a Western, predominantly modernist concept of design (1). Indian designers are making a significant contribution to the visual culture of the future by changing the attitudes to craftsmanship, production, and hence, design. Craft needs to be positioned in a way that introduces objects that are meaningful and can help to sustain traditional craft. Indian designers understand this, and it is showcased in their work.

The power that design wields in the globalised world is a dominant one because design can be leveraged to shape our understanding of the world and our experience within it. The context for design itself is therefore constantly changing. Consequently, this makes designers authoritative figures because their work defines them as people who have the ability to use their skills to improve lives, create opportunities, and make cultural changes.

In objects 1 and 2, the craftsmanship is visible to the eye, whether in the weaving of upholstery and the woodworking in the Piano Ottoman (Fig. 01), or the ceramic work in Krishna Murthy’s Centre Table (Fig. 02). The cultural meaning and values ascribed to these products is primarily achieved through artisanal skills. This means that no matter how creative the designer’s thinking, the end result can only be accomplished by craftspeople. These objects also demand the value they do because they are handcrafted.

Fig. 01 - Piano Ottoman by Anjali Mody, 2015 Image: Anjali Mody
Fig. 02 - Centre Table by Krishna Murthy, 2016 Image: Krishna Murthy

Lucy Donkins comments, ‘craft is not only an important source of livelihood; it is often connected to socio-cultural traditions, and elemental to the preservation of cultural diversity and identity.’(2) She describes the relationship between craft and culture by stating that ‘crafts are not simply a particular way of making objects, but are inextricably bound up with the structures, values, history and identity of the communities in which they are practiced.’(3)

Jonathan Levien and Nipa Doshi celebrate a cultural hybrid and explore the synthesis between technology, storytelling, industrial design, and craftsmanship in their designs. Their work is an assimilation of fine Indian craftsmanship and the best of Italian production. Principessa, a day-bed which is a combination of Doshi’s love of craft and narrative and Levien’s industrial precision, is manufactured by Moroso in Italy (Fig. 03). The textile work is done in a factory in India using traditional weaving methods. Each mattress is signed in thread by the artisan who made it (Fig. 04). The embroidery of craftswomen’s names not only reveals their identity to the consumer but, more fundamentally, it confers a sense of authorship and value to their work.

Fig. 03 - Principessa Daybed for Moroso - Doshi Levien, 2008
Fig. 04 - Close-up of Principessa Daybed Mattresses showing the embroidered name of the artisan Images:

Designer Rooshad Shroff shared some intriguing facts about artisanship. He was fascinated to find that craftspeople who carve highly intricate objects were not amenable or skilled enough to making a seemingly simple object like a cube. They had to be motivated and convinced to do what Shroff wanted. He says that the craftsmen are so trained in terms of doing the same thing again and again for generations, that to move away from that, there is a resistance. When they work with geometry, there is a different kind of precision that they are not trained to do.(4) This indicates the control that the artisans possess. While this can be seen as a form of subaltern ‘resistance’, perhaps a better interpretation would be to see it as an outcome of the artisan’s confidence in their own praxis and imaginations that are already sensitive and responsive to external determinants.

One of the elements that sets Shroff’s objects apart is the embroidery on the wood (Fig. 05). This has been made possible by the proficiency of the craftspeople. They are assimilators of centuries of traditions. Without their skills, designs would not come to fruition.

Fig. 05 - The Embroidered Bench - Rooshad Shroff, 2017, Image: Rooshad Shroff

Cultural history regards the unsustainability of craft from various perspectives. It views the emergence and coherence of its existence paradoxical. It is a sector that is proliferated with an almost cacophonic array of claims, disclaimers, and concerns ranging across artisans and markets. Craft is in a permanent state of conflict between two opposites, change and constancy. On the one hand, there is a need to reach for new ideas and forms, and on the other, to hold onto the past. Craft carries, even in its most artistic and extravagant forms, traces of nostalgia.

It is clear that artisanal talents far outweigh the general misplaced narratives of modernisation in which craft is characterised as unproductive, pre-modern, and unsustainable manual labour. Hence, it can be said that Indian craftspeople occupy an undefined position. This is by virtue of their co-existence with industrial cultures. They carry cultural capital within art and craft design ethnology and are thus highly prized. However, their standing is inferior in the design landscape that values productivity and efficiency of time. Regardless of this difference of perception, the contemporary design tryst with craft is trying to produce a culture of design that is distinctive, and the success of Indian design is a result of this engagement. Through the processes of designing, making, and marketing, the work being done by design studios is embedded with cultural meaning and engages with issues of locality, sustainability, aesthetics, and identity.


(1) Justin McGuirk,

(2) Lucy Donkins, ‘Crafts and Conservation’. Synthesis Report for ICCROM. June 2001

(3) Lucy Donkins, ‘Crafts and Conservation’. Synthesis Report for ICCROM. June 2001

(4) Interview with Rooshad Shroff


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