SAIIER 2020:Endangered Craft Mela
Many of the traditional Indian crafts are endangered by current industrial development and consumption patterns; more and more traditional tools, artifacts and arts are being replaced by ‘fast’ throw-away and, often cheaper products, and traditional art forms are losing space to more generic and globalised forms of entertainment. With this replacement, we are losing know-how, skills and (potential) tools as well as art forms that express local uniqueness and resourcefulness, which we so much need and require to shape a more sustainable and creative form of living.
This craft week aims to to provide a lived experience to children – that they can develop this intelligence in their hands and that they can feel empowered to make and create sustainable, useful and beautiful artisanal products themselves. This is a huge gap in most of our current education; children are largely alienated from this experience, in schools and at home. Equally important, we would like to give recognition to the importance, capacity and place that artisanal work has in working towards a sustainable future.
Description of project:
Participants in the Endangered Craft Mela (ECM) were a team of more than 20 Aurovilians and volunteers, over 215 children from Auroville and the bioregion, as well as a group of adolescents from an artisan school in Gujarat who had heard of the Mela and asked to join us, and ~ 45 craftspeople mostly from Tamil Nadu (including Auroville), but also from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
The Endangered Craft Mela took place from the 24th to the 29th of February, 2020 at the Youth Centre in Auroville. A group of 15 Aurovilians with the help of over a dozen dedicated volunteers set up workspaces for craftspeople and children to work together, exchange knowledge and culture, share food and laughter as well as listen and dance to music together for 6 consecutive days.
During this week, the craftspeople had the chance to teach their skills to hundreds of children, to experience appreciation for their crafts and to feel empowered in the role of being a teacher. It also gave them the opportunity to leave their own village behind for one week and to live with other craftspeople in a different surrounding at the edge of Auroville's green belt.
The children had the privilege of trying their hand at a multitude of crafts and to choose a few skills that they were able to perfect during the craftsweek, learning to stay focused and to work in a concentrated manner, but also acquiring confidence that they are capable of creating beautiful and useful things with their own hands.
This year's Endangered Craft Mela offered a similar programme to its participants – craftspeople and children – as during the ECM in 2019, with the addition of more focused sharing circles with the craftspeople and a more developed evening programme, that we would have taken even further, if we had had the necessary funds for it.
The first day of the craft week, the 24th of February, was an introductory day where the children discovered all the different crafts in order to decide which crafts they were most interested in and wanted to focus on during the following days. Most of the craftspeople and children who were not from Auroville or its surrounding villages had already arrived the day before and were staying in TLC Base Camp, which we had transformed into their home for the week. They were welcomed to the Youth Centre on the first morning, like all the following mornings, with a hearty breakfast, followed by the daily assembly where all of the participants, the organising team and volunteers, craftspeople and children would share a moment of silence together before discovering the day's schedule. Most of the craft workshops were held every day, but the occasional special guests like for example Dariya who was only able to join us on one of the days to make kolams with the children, or Lourdes who joined us with a team of puppet makers for a two-day workshop, or Shruti who not only contributed to the evening programme by singing beautiful Kabir songs but also offered a one-day singing workshop with the kids, all those exceptional workshops would be announced during the morning assembly alongside some guidelines for the smooth running of the week.
Except from the first day, where the children were encouraged to explore all the crafts on offer before choosing a few that they would stick with over the next few days, the daily programme remained more or less the same. After the assembly, the children would join the craft workshops of their choice and work in a concentrated manner for about two and a half hours until lunch time, with a little juice & tea break in between. Some children would engage in only one craft in the morning session, others would do a couple of shorter workshops and play around as well.
By 12.30pm, lunch would be ready for all 300 people and some would even have the luxury of a short break until 2pm. Some children however, were so keen to return to their workshops, that the craftspeople would not have the heart to turn them away and would continue working with them straight after lunch. Officially though, the afternoon work session was only starting again at 2pm for another two and a half hours, with another break in between for juice and snacks.
At 4.30pm, the local children went home, while the children who were staying in TLC Base Camp were offered to do different activities, like horse riding, frisbee, martial arts or football, for the second time in the day, since they also had some activities in the morning before breakfast.
In the meantime, the craftspeople had a varied afternoon programme with different talks about their crafts and their livelihood, and more specifically, sharing circles about the Endangered Craft Mela to give us feedback in order to improve the quality of the work and everyone's well being with small things that could be immediately implemented, or things that would be taken into account for the following years. To lighten up the intensity of their work and the talks about their place in the current world, the crafts people went on a trip to The Tree House Community at Abri and to Pitchandikulam to see another part of Auroville connecting to craft, livelihood and sustainability.
At 6.30pm, we would all gather again at the Youth Centre, which had been transformed into a concert or dance venue for the evening by our amazing team of volunteers. Everyone was welcome to join us, all the participants of the craftsweek as well as their families and friends, fellow residents of Auroville and guests from Auroville to Pondicherry. Initially, we had hoped to offer an evening programme based on Indian culture, matching the framework of the Endangered Craft Mela. However, not being able to raise the necessary funds for it on time, we relied yet again, like for many different aspects of the ECM, on the generosity of fellow Aurovilians, guests and friends, willing to perform for free, except for the donations they would get after a hat was passed around the audience at the end of their performance, which some of them even declined to take. Then, they would join the team and volunteers as well as the TLC Base Camp dwellers for the evening meal at around 8pm and after that, everyone would retreat to their permanent or impermanent homes, happily exhausted.
To close the day, the work-a-holic team and volunteers would gather around a fire to share some feedback or new ideas and sometimes, unable to stop after the whirlwind of energy we were still caught in, some of us would take out some instruments and share a song or two, before letting the fire die out for the day...
That became our routine for the craftsweek, with a few changes the last couple of days.
Friday was dedicated to finishing up the last details of the children's work and to prepare for the open Mela day. While the children were mostly focused on the crafts they had made and how they would display their work the following day, the craftspeople were free to try out the crafts that were offered by their fellow craftspeople. We had not introduced a set formula for how to do so, but most of the craftspeople – maybe out of shyness or because of the loose format – continued with their own work and also prepared for the Mela day. This new feature didn't really work out the way we had imagined it, and we definitely need to rethink it for the following years.
The 6th and last day, the craftsweek came to an end with a celebration of the children's work which we displayed per school or group, and the exhibition of the craftspeople's work. This day gathered all the people who had already been part of the whole craftsweek in a form or another, but also to the people who had not been able to take part in it because of the limited number of participants we were able to admit for lack of means and funds. So on this last day, everyone was able to get a little feeling of what had happened during the week and the craftspeople were able to sell some of their products before returning home to their families.
We created an environment where craftspeople felt empowered and valued in the role of teachers, and where children learned not only new skills but also how to work in a concentrated manner.
The craftspeople, who are often struggling for recognition and for the survival of their crafts, were at the centre of this craftsweek, along with the children, and they had the time and space to share not only their skills, but also their thoughts about their craft and their future, to meet fellow craftspeople and to widen their connections. The ties with the Endangered Craft Mela team also got strengthened and we are hoping to further this relationship and to support them transforming their crafts from simply being a practical item or beautiful ornament, into a piece of art – this is just one of the ideas shared during one of the meetings on crafts and livelihood, but it is the one that seemed the most widespread.
For many children, it was their first time outside their village or district, and they got to interact with children from different backgrounds, if not cultures. The children from the Auroville outreach schools got to tighten their links to Auroville, participating in a programme in the Youth Centre, which they will hopefully remember and come back to after this introduction. The children from Auroville schools, who don't get to interact with children from local villages very often, also made new encounters that are highly valuable in widening their connections and horizons. Apart from the human and social benefits the children gained, they also learned practical skills and confidence to work with their hands and to create a finished product, planting a seed of the awareness inside of them, that they can do whatever they need and want to with their own hands.
Before embarking on the second ECM, we had set ourselves expected outcomes, against which our experienced outcomes and feedback from the children, facilitators and crafts people are described below. (We conducted feedback interviews with 43 children and 8 facilitators from the 13 invited schools.)
1) Children learn to work with their hands, which is particularly important in our society that is digitising and getting further dis-empowered in creating ourselves.
- Both children and facilitators confirmed in different ways the importance of working with the hands. Facilitators gave this an average of 8.5 on a scale of 0-10. Some of the things children answered when asked what they had learned: “I wasn't going to come, it would be boring, but it was much fun.” “I could be much more talented.” “I never liked crafts before until I came here. Got excited about what I was learning.”
2) To bring in a balance that is often lacking in our schools nowadays, by emphasising in this week the skill and precision in handwork for a round development of the child.
- Out of the 43 children, 18 said that they do not do any crafts at home. Some children commented on their own capacity when asked what they had learned: “I was actually a really good carver,” “It's more fun to make crafts than to watch,” “How much I enjoy using my time instead of being bored at home.” And “You can make new thIngs and I improved compared to last year.”
3) Recognition of crafts as a legitimate form of education.
- Craftspeople shared how much they enjoy teaching and specifically to work with children. For most of them this is an experience that only takes place during this week. They also expressed that they feel appreciated and well taken care of. The fact that many of them leave home for a week – especially for the women to leave their families behind – is another indication of how much they enjoy to be part of the craft week.
However, we did not include this as a specific question in our questionnaire and therefore only received verbal feedback, generally on how much they all enjoyed it and how important they feel it is to learn to work with your hands.
4) Full immersion in crafts and skill development through creating an atmosphere for children to work in a concentrated manner.
- “If I really want I can concentrate quite well,” and “I did not know I was patient. That felt good.” “Kalami Kari, I liked to paint. Stopped thinking and just drew, it made me happy.”
One facilitator expressed frustration that some children gave their work to the craftsperson to finish, and this indicates that together with the craftspeople we have to learn how to facilitate the learning better – that letting them do, encouraging the child to do things in his own capacity is very important. For the organising team, this means more support in facilitation to the craftspeople who find this difficult.
5) Exposure of children to a wide variety of skills of the different craftspeople.
- This year we increased the number of crafts compared to last year. New crafts included blacksmithing (which was in high demand!), Kabir singing, bamboo basket weaving and wood carving. All in all there were 29 crafts to choose from.
6) Learning from local craftsmen and -women, and through working together, creating respect for the skill that is still kept alive by them so preciously.
- The children were asked to score the craftspeople and their skill 1-10 and gave 8.8 average. The largest difficulties were with availability and of some of the craftspeople, e.g. we had 3 blacksmiths, but as the work is largely one-on-one, children could not work there as much as they would have liked. Also facilitation in terms of language and ability to teach was difficult in a few cases, such as the Telugu speaking Kalamkari artists. They are extremely skilled in their own work, but how to offer this to children without continuous support from a translator was difficult for the children who were keen to learn this work.
7) Offering a chance for children from different backgrounds – international, local, and from the bio-region – to be together and mingle through working together, irrespective of their background and culture.
- Out of 43 children that participated in the feedback interviews, 19 commented that they made new friends and/or scored the week between 7-10. We realise that it is relatively easy for children to ‘stay together’ in their own social group and that building deeper relationships in a week's time with others is challenging. For new relationships to form, we will need to address this in different ways in which children are required to actively interact. One of the ideas brought forward by the children is to have more children participate in the sports activities after the craft sessions. One of the children replied to the question whether she would like to come back next year: “Yes, because I like the things we do here. And to meet new people...new countries.” And another said: “Yes, because it was wonderful. I need more kids in my community, there are not enough kids.”
8) Building bridges between the different crafts people – who too feel encouraged by each other.
- On the 5th day the craftspeople were given the time to visit each other's workshop and practice another craft, while children were also putting their last hand to crafts work. The thought was appreciated but the execution was more difficult. It was proposed that for next year we could have a sports afternoon for the children mid-week and in this time the craftspeople will be entirely free to learn from one another.
On the Wednesday evening, an intensive workshop was held with the ECM craftspeople and invited craftspeople from Auroville to exchange on ‘the future of craft’. The workshop was executed in small break-out groups in which people shared the difficulties as well as the livelihood potential of craft for the future generations. Seven additional volunteers had prepared for this workshop, to facilitate and translate in the small groups. Facilitators as well as participants afterwards expressed that they appreciated the conversations and discussions they had together.
Further, we organised a visit for the craftspeople to Pitchandikulam and the Tree House Community workshop in Abri to see and stimulate conversation and introspection around the crafts and their importance and role in supporting sustainable practices.
9) Creating learning opportunities for crafts people: becoming involved in teaching and inspired by working with children.
- See earlier mentioned experiences…
Last year, many craftspeople faced problems in the number of children they had to support. Therefore, we introduced a token system this year; we asked each craftsperson how many children he/she could have at the same time and would give them that number of tokens. Children could join the workshop if there was a token available. This system worked well with a few limitations. Some crafts are not size-sensitive (e.g. silambam, embroidery) and some artisans did not have the heart to turn children away. The majority of craftspeople very much appreciated the change and felt work was more relaxed this year because of it. The children felt sometimes frustrated with it, waiting to get a turn.
10) Offering a place for Aurovilians to come together in a space where the Auroville spirit is lived intensely, be it in the preparation and or in the implementation of the craft week.
- The main organising team has been coming together since July 2019 for organizing this event. This year, much time and energy went into fundraising: an infotainment (dinner, slideshow and discussions on fundraising) about ECM at TLC Base Camp, a fundraising dinner at the Visitor's Centre, presentations to Auroville International and the Foundation for World Education and many other small presentations and fundraising meetings.
Many of the Aurovilians and volunteers involved do not normally work together. Again, this year the atmosphere was one of good collaboration, flexibility, willingness to push ourselves to work very long days and make it work for all participants as well as we could.
We experimented this year with letting visitors in to see the mela. In the first year we were hesitant as we felt it might disturb the concentration of the children too much. This year we took the visitors on tour to give an explanation of why and what we do, minimising potential disturbance. This was a very intensive and time-consuming approach, but allowed us to have more exposure to and sharing with the larger community.
11) Presenting the Youth Centre as a place in Auroville for all children, – especially the children from the outreach schools – to feel welcome and to explore Auroville.
- The Youth Centre was again very welcoming to the ECM – it allowed us a flexible use of the space to set up the large number of workshops, have evening programmes that also brought many ‘non participants’ to the ECM. Many children and craftspeople from outside Auroville enjoyed ‘being with the trees’ (this was mentioned often in our verbal feedback meetings) so much. Out of the 39 children asked whether they would come back only one said “yes, probably,” the others all with exclamation marks and hopes of being able to join again.
The valuing of the craftspeople and supporting them in their quest for perspectives for their future, as well as the exposure of the children to these different cultural aspects of the Indian craft world while learning to work with their hands are at the core of the Endangered Craft Mela.
In this second edition, we managed to emphasize the cultural aspect with the introduction of local traditions like Kalaripayattu or Therukoothu, and we would like to further develop this cultural immersion with a more extensive evening programme.
The busy schedule with hardly a moment in between the different activities turned out to be a bit stressful for the craftspeople and for the children staying in TLC Base Camp, who did not want to miss out on any of it. So the challenge for next year will be to manage offering the same amount of activities, but with more time in between to catch a breath. Some suggestion was to stretch the craftsweek to 10 days in order to give the participants more time to take all of this in without feeling under time pressure, but not all the team members agree on that, and it would also imply having the budget for it.
Most other challenges were also linked to the financial aspect of the organisation. Not enough funds had been raised on time to pay all the craftspeople, performers and suppliers their usual dues and we had to rely on people's generosity or on their trust that they would get paid if more money would come. That was mostly the case for Aurovilian craftspeople, performers and suppliers, but even people from outside Tamil Nadu, like Kabir singer Shruti mentioned above, who gave a performance and a workshop for the love of her friends in Fertile and Auroville. The lack of funds however, did not present us with problems alone. It also brought the community together and made us feel supported from many angles, either through the individuals mentioned above who worked for free or nearly, but also through food and material donations we received from Auroville Units.
All in all, it was felt by many that the organisation of the ECM was so much smoother and better this year, building on our first experience of ECM 2019.
Despite the financial shortages we hosted a much larger group, especially of children. We had estimated our capacity to be 150 children but instead had 215- 235 children coming every day, just because we felt we could not say no to children coming on their own (those who wanted to participate but were not enrolled via their school).
A much stronger sharing on the ECM within the Auroville community happened this year for which we also received moral and some financial support in return.
This year we also started with a more rigorous documentation for our internal learning and for sharing with the wider world:
- Verbal feedback sessions with crafts people
- Questionnaire-based feedback with facilitators
- Questionnaire-based feedback with children
- Footage made of the general mela
- Footage of 5 different crafts, to document how the craft is made from start to end. This footage is being developed into a general video and tutorials of how to make the artifact.
- In depth discussions between crafts people from Auroville and the Mela on the future of craft.
For the coming year, the ECM team will prepare for the next Craft week for children in February 2021, with fundraising, preparing a programme that will strengthen the week itself based on the feedback we collected and our own learning. Further, we are exploring the idea of a craft village and/or possibilities for youth to learn in a more intensive, immersive manner to work with their hands.