Channapatna, can it be saved?

Channapatna craft has been around since the 18th century. While it has had some glorious years, it seems to be losing its sparkle. It’s not just the glory of Channapatna that is fading! Several other crafts, embroideries and traditional skills appear to be on their way to extinction. This is primarily due to the artisans’ children leaving their family craft- traditions for pastures anew. However, in a parallel universe, there is a growing urban community wanting to save these crafts too. You wonder why? Well, Mr. Mehta (founder of Indian Institute of Crafts and Design) puts it beautifully. He says,

As we get more rootless, we crave more to discover our roots. Crafts, in many ways connect us to our roots. As we become more nomadic due to globalisation, cultural products and practices will become more and more important in our lives.” 

I can relate to this completely. For now, the question is:  Channapatna, can it be saved?

Learnings from The Arts & Craft movement in the 1800s

An arts & craft movement took shape in Britain in the late 1800s simply as a reaction to the de-humanising of industrialisation practices of the time. William Morris, a celebrated and influential designer was one of the architects of this ‘Arts & craft movement’.  His approach to unify art and craft, started in Britain and spread across to Europe, America and all the way to Japan, where the Japanese began their very own craft movement, called the ‘Mingei’.  Morris was inspired by the ideas of the Victorian era’s leading art critic John Ruskin, who argued that the act of designing should not be separated from that of making. While Morris was not against the use of machines, he valued the act of hand-making products hugely. 

History is reminding us that whenever systems stagnated or when love for the handmade fell, a coming together of sorts by the crafts community was needed to give the handmade and hand crafted products the much needed love and respect.

Promoting craftsmanship and respecting the artisan is needed today as much as it was during Morris’ lifetime. 

The need for a movement of sorts

Artisans working at grassroots level, especially in India are struggling to earn a respectable livelihood. As a result, most are leaving the craft, immigrating to cities to do menial jobs. This is leading to the loss of the traditional craft skills and the almost extinction of the communities, their lives and their culture.

A movement, a getting together of sorts, of all the artisans, designers, retailers, writers, film makers, historians, curators, anthropologists to harness their energies with a single objective; to ensure that traditional crafts don’t just survive but thrive with the best suited, sensitively-applied design intervention so that they can be enjoyed by the future generations. For now, let’s talk about Channapatna specifically…

The Issues

Channapatna’s community of artisans is struggling to survive.  A place that once earned a name for itself, creating phenomenal handmade wooden toys, today has artisans often churning out poor quality work. As a result, there is a lack of orders, resulting in several lathes running empty.

Modern day slavery aka artisans tied to working with master craftsmen (or private businesses) because of their constantly increasing debts is a common occurrence.  Lack of knowledge about the traditional craft itself, shops selling China-made ‘Channapatna‘ lookalikes within Channapatna, are factors threatening the survival of this craft.

The downfall 

In the 60s-70s, India began export of napkin rings made using Channapatna wood. The western buyer insisted for an uniform finish, being totally unaware of the traditional  lacquering requirements of tonal gradation. The Channapatna artisan was unable to explain why this was an incorrect requirement. As a result, napkin rings with uniform finish were sent across the world. They were easily replicated by factories in China  to churn out duplicates at fairly low prices. You can now guess as to what happened next? The craft began its downfall as the authentic finish was compromised.  Additionally, competing with China-made goods on price was almost impossible.

Atul Johri’s farm and studio in Channapatna

We spoke to Atul Johri , a designer -maker who moved to Channapatna about fourteen odd years ago. He set up a farm and a design innovations and experience  studio in Channapatna, with the intention to keep all the lathes working in this town (still work in progress).  His goal is to bring the ‘real’ Channapatna work to the world whilst giving the artisans the respect and economical benefits they deserve.

Atul explains that there are  approximately two hundred lathes in Channapatna that have been shut down. If revived, they have the potential to employ at least 1000-1200 artisans! This would also be hugely instrumental in stopping the migration of skilled artisans to over-crowded cities for doing menial jobs.

See Also

We have been learning and writing about this craft since the last four years (another of our posts is here) and have spoken to several artisans and designers since. As you will read in our earlier posts, companies like Varnam and Maya Organics are doing positive work to keep the craft alive and have been successful in bringing about a mindset change. They need more visibility for their products and their relentless efforts.

Before we go further, have a peep into some of Atul’s Channapatna work:

channapatna, wood, sustainable, organic, india, handmade
A box for lip balm created using Channapatna wood
wood, home accessories, handmade, atul johri, india
Storage jars created using vegetable dyes…The Channapatna colours

‘A society without beauty is soulless’, said George Orwell in his book, ‘1984’. It’s true that craftsmanship adds to the beauty and richness of the society, so we need to ensure that it stays alive.

I urge you to join us in this campaign; write to us…each one of us has the power to make a difference. Buy less but when buying, do insist on handmade and superior craftsmanship; Be Notjustashopper!


All Pics: Courtesy Atul Johri

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