Crafting a National Identity in an International Market

19 June 2024 -

Crafting a National Identity in an International Market: The Covid Effect

The outbreak of COVID-19 had monumental consequences on every industry of the world, the Indian furniture design and craft sectors were not spared. This crisis may have altered the future of the design and craft sectors, bringing the sustainability of both these industries into question. We do not know conclusively what the full impact has been, but research allowed for the gathering of some evidence of what has already happened. Designers and craftspeople were in a predicament. It was not just in India, but the global economy was predicted to contract by 3%. ‘Even as Italian fashion house Armani makes protective overalls, and Louis Vuitton turns out face masks instead of luxury luggage, craftspeople too will need to adapt to changing times. Craft is sadly not an essential; it is the first thing to be struck off consumer wish lists when purchasing power diminishes.'(1)

Designer Parth Parikh lamented the climate. He said that ‘COVID definitely affected our business. The market for designer products in India comes under a niche audience and in lockdown people restricted themselves to purchase anything exclusive. As transport was hit majorly raw materials like fabric and other essential things which we use for producing our design were not reaching to the vendor from whom we procure these items. Craftsmen were also restricting themselves by not stepping outside their homes during the lockdown.'(2)

Designers were saddled with a dual responsibility. They needed to sustain their own design practices by rethinking their strategies, and they also needed to help in revitalising the craft ecosphere. Designers’ knowledge may have undergone a paradigm shift with the unprecedented situation that the world went through for two years. Initially, furniture design work was on hold because of the lack of artisans and raw materials. I think that designers may have needed to adopt new models of networks and support systems to sustain craftsmanship in a variety of ways, and interestingly some designers did. For them, once the first set of restrictions were lifted, work started promptly.

Rooshad Shroff, a Mumbai based designer set up a design gallery (Figs. 01 & 02) in November 2020. This gallery was much needed as there are none dedicated to design. Shroff expects collaborations with other artists and designers to be showcased at this space.(3) He said:

We finally have a space where we can showcase some of our furniture pieces and have exhibitions through the year. The pandemic has allowed me to realise that things take time, and to honour a certain amount of lead time. Prior to the lockdown, the pressure to have work completed hurriedly – be it a furniture piece or site – took its toll on the team. Now, we understand the importance of slowing down and taking things easy.

Figs. 01 & 02 - The interiors of Rooshad Shroff’s gallery

While the initial logistical problems of the lockdown were still being sorted, some designers resumed their design work. This was a positive scenario for their artisans since most of them were otherwise out of work.

Since the lockdowns prevented travel, it meant that designers could not showcase their work at fairs and exhibitions (if any were even being held). Most events went online, for example the Pune Design Festival went online in 2021. However, the problem I see with showcasing furniture in the virtual world is the lack of tactility; unlike paintings or sculpture, if furniture is being bought to be used as furniture, then one would want to test for comfort and assess the materials and the craftsmanship in terms of sturdiness and suitability for use.

Indian designers began to use social media (especially Instagram) since the virus struck. They adopted it to showcase new work. Shroff especially put imagery of his artisans at work on his Instagram feed (Figs. 03 & 04). This demonstrated that he highlighted artisanship which is favourable for the makers. Online platforms being able to show the making of limited-edition furniture adds a new way of engaging for the consumer. This was normally not done. Photography allows the designer to show off the aspect of artisanship that they want and to their advantage.

Figs. 03 & 04 - Rooshad Shroff’s Instagram feed

However, with all the adverse effects of the pandemic, there were some positive outcomes too. Out of work craftspeople were using the time to educate their off-spring in their craft tradition, while others were rediscovering long-lost techniques. Mohan, a sanjhi paper cutter from Mathura, said that with schools closed, it was a great time to pass on his family tradition, ‘normally my son is busy with school and play. In this lockdown, he has thoroughly enjoyed learning the family skill, and I’m enjoying teaching it to him.'(5)

A Madhubani painting artist, Devendra Jha, has been using chemical colours for years. Unable to buy paints in the lockdown, he went back to making natural colours at home. Another craftsperson said, ‘On normal days, we are busy, be it a bazaar or fulfilling a big order, but the time is completely different now. Since we are at home, why don’t we refine our art and create something unique?'(6)

Artisans themselves were creating interesting imagery about the coronavirus (Fig. 05). There were stories about it that they painted, embroidered, and wove. The theme in what they made was often that good wins over evil. It was interesting how current topics manifested themselves through craft, even in desperate times. It was commendable and heartening to note the efforts made by people who continued to make a difference against all odds.(7)

Fig. 05 - A Kalighat painting by Bhaskar Chitrakar

Parikh said that people started spending more time on social media platforms in search for something unique and affordable, so it became a better market in a sense. However, people were also bargaining more as the budgets became tighter for them and costs became a critical aspect.(8) Ajay Shah remarked that the savings that people are making plus the realisation that homes need to become a place of comfort has led to more spending.(9) Aakriti Kumar corroborated and said that people are taking more pride in their homes and spaces where they are spending most time so doing them up has become more important now than it was before.

While the virtual platforms have their disadvantages too, the advantages possibly outweigh them; the most important one being the savings on overhead costs. However, a country such as India that has such a large low income working class group needs regular employment. Online activities would only benefit a small section. It is physical events such as exhibitions and fairs that would provide work for builders, contractors, carpenters, electricians and the like.

It was during then pandemic that craft activists and supporters in India and abroad realised the need to help the craft communities. This was one of the most positive results to have come out of all the despair. It made people from the design sectors come together and have conversations, create forums for dialogues, and collaborations.

(1) Laila Tyabji, ‘Stand up for craftspeople: how to support India’s artisan community during the COVID-19 crisis.’ The Hindu newspaper, April 24, 2020.
(2) Message exchange with Parth Parikh
(3) Megha Mahindru, ‘First look: Rooshad Shroff’s new gallery space in Mumbai.’ Vogue India Magazine, November 11, 2020.
(4) Barry Rodgers, ‘Grazia Cool List 2021: Rooshad Shroff.’, May 28, 2021.
(5) Laila Tyabji, ‘Stand up for craftspeople: how to support India’s artisan community during the COVID-19 crisis.’ The Hindu newspaper. Sanjhi is the ancient art of paper stencilling practised across Mathura and Vrindavan in North India. It was traditionally used to make ritualistic and ceremonial floor patterns in temples dedicated to Lord Krishna
(6) Laila Tyabji, ‘Stand up for craftspeople: how to support India’s artisan community during the COVID-19 crisis.’ The Hindu newspaper
(7) Shiny Varghese, ‘For the first time since the pandemic, craftspeople have reason to celebrate.’ The Indian Express Newspaper
(8) Email exchange with Parth Parikh
(9) Email exchange with Ajay Shah


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