Nila Births Craftila

Along Kerala’s river Nila, brand Craftila targets lifting ingenious rural artisans above extinction.

By Sujata Devadas, January 20, 2018

Alerted by folk songs

Arangottukara village youth’s Vayali club made the effort to organise ‘Naadan Paattu

Sangams’ or folk music shows close to their homes. 9 musicians from the village

asked bell metal worker Sivanarayanan and bamboo craft artisans to make specific

musical instruments for them to play at these events. Attired in regional costumes,

these shows became so vibrant, invitations poured in from the rest of India to

perform in another city, another town.

Jump-starting a resolution

But Vayali hid a sorrow. Their amazingly skilled traditional artisans led destitute lives.

Determined to lift them out of poverty, Vayali set up an eco-bazaar division to devise ways of

helping artisans along the Bharathapuzha or ‘Nila' river to veer away from extinction.

Its pilot project took up bell metal, bamboo, pottery, Muthanga grass (Cyperus

rotundus), coconut shell, palm leaves, khadi weaving crafts. The benefits touched

- Coconut shell craftsmen,

- Gopalan and his pottery,

- Padmavati's Kora (Muthangagrass mat weavers cooperative society,

Bamboo craft

- Moosari Sivanarayanan, bell metal worker,

- women weavers from a Khadi Production Centre

- bamboo craft homes, several family members.

living in Arangottukara and the neighbouring villages of Cheruthuruthy,  Deshamangalam and Killimangalam.

The bottom rung

In an unremarkable building in a neighbouring village, 13 women weave khadi cloth

everyday from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM. Throughout Kerala, such weaving centres employ

women who stopped school education in their teens to begin earning, because of

stringent circumstances at home.

Vayali brings tourists to this Khadi Production Centre. Curiosity impels some visitors

to try weaving themselves. Enchanting but laborious, it requires both arms and both

legs to coordinate. If the thread breaks, frustration is expressed quite graphically.

Because rethreading the loom to resume weaving takes roughly 15 minutes. When

they leave, visitors sometimes tip the weavers out of admiration or buy a khadi

souvenir. No bargaining, no haggling. Prices are fixed by a central khadi board.

Ironically, this Khadi Centre’s manager, Subhash, knows nothing about weaving. His

office is elsewhere. He is not available or qualified to fix any problem. If a loom fails,

60-year-old Vasantha banks on her 35 years weaving experience to fix the loom or

any other work-related problem.

The dying Moosari craft

Idols, figurines, vessels, crockery, jewellery… in Deshamangalam village, 9 families

rested their hope on bell metal work to live. Today, Sivanarayanan is the only

‘Moosari’ (bell metal worker) in Deshamangalam. While others left this occupation

to pursue a better income, he is adamant about the craft and value of bell metal

objects.

First a mould of river clay, then wax is poured over, followed by a third mould of river clay. The wax creates the gap in the desired form. When it is melted and poured out, the

wax is replaced with liquid bell metal, the hard metal alloy. 78% copper combined

with 22% tin and traces of white lead, bell metal solidifies inside the cast. The clay

casts are broken to reveal the finished bell metal item. These casts, naturally, cannot

be used again. Each item takes days of diligent work. Bell metal objects do not

oxidise easily.

Disheartening situations

Over a century, Moosaris were acclaimed artisans in Kerala. Yet, today this state has

no legislation allowing Moosaris to use river clay, hitting right at the occupation’s

foundation, crippling its survival.

Moosari Sivanarayanan freelances, making objects to order. “It is illogical to infer

‘new’ means better quality.” he says. “Yoghurt stored in an aluminium vessel brings a

light blue coat to the surface, unhealthy to consume. This lining does not surface in

vessels made by Moosari craftsmen.”

“Bell metal work is my singular talent, my one source of income.” he continues,

“People need to understand how the capitalistic market works. Earlier, I used to take

my bell metal creations to shops for sale. Even before I leave, the shop salesman

adds about Rs.1000/- or so to my specified cost to make their profit before

displaying these objects for sale. It becomes funny when customers ask for the price

of the same item at my workplace. If I state the shop’s cost, they turn away, stating

confidently, they will get it cheaper ‘in a shop’. Mistaken views, customers who delay

payment or fail to pick up their specified order, are a grim portent for the Moosari’s

extinction.”

Invisible, despite support

To generate local employment for artisans and raise their economic calibre, Kerala State Artisans Corporation has industrial offices in each district with sub-centres in each block.

Until Vayali brought it up in conversation, Nila artisans did not know about Kerala Tourism’s ‘Craft village’ at Iringol (near Kozhikode) set up to exhibit traditional craftsmanship to tourists; nor did they know about several other exhibitions and

workshops held by this department spotlighting local craft throughout the year.

A total lack of connectivity with design institutes, slim financial resources,

haphazard marketing skills, confusion about filling forms and submitting

documents make traditional artisans’ invisible.

Brand name and strategies

Craftila superseded Vayali’s eco-bazaar division this year. “The distinctive brand name ‘Craftila’, short for ‘Crafts of Nila’, is a better profile of the artisans working with us” says the head of Vayali’s Craftila wing, Krishnadas.

Craftila has a database of Nila artisans “making it easier to involve them in

various schemes and promotional ventures. We are also building an e-commerce

database of government & private online marketing sites for Craftila products so

that benefits reach our artisans.” says Krishnadas.

'Naattu Chanda', the village bazaar

Craftila is looking for options to collaborate with art & design schools. Vayali borrowed Naattu Chanda (the village bazaar) from Kerala’s past rural way of life twice - in December 2016 and February 2017 - to offer a platform for public-private partnership meetings. It was attended by Craftila products’ buyers and sellers, micro-finance agents like Muthoot, ESAF and SRI, exporters, marketing executives from reputed e-commerce portals like www.rareitis.com and itshandmade.com to exchange economically sustainable ideas.

One hundred young Vayali members help their own rural community under the able leadership of Vayali's Executive Director, Vinod Nambiar. It has magnetised many to contribute their efforts to this winning way of pushing for success. 

Craftila bamboo souvenir

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