Craft is Cultural Heritage, It Is Not Industry: Judy Frater

Judy Frater lived in Kutch for 30 years, during which she co-founded and operated Kala Raksha Trust, a cooperative for women embroiderers, established the Kala Raksha Textile Museum, and founded Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the first design school for traditional artisans. In 2014, to expand the design education program to an institute, Frater joined the K.J. Somaiya Gujarat Trust to begin Somaiya Kala Vidya.  From 2014-2020, as Founder Director she initiated a graduate business and management course, Outreach to other regions, co-design programs, and a course in craft traditions for non-artisans.

In 2018, her institution did some soul searching, and began to ask what defined the success of an education programme for artisans. So she asked the question - "what is success?  And what do you think contributes to success?" Here's an excerpt from her blog:

One artisan graduate Dayabhai said: “Success is achieving goals; you need a goal.  You need to know your capacity, what is good for you.” 

“Success is decision making power,” Purshottambhai agreed. “You have to be clear and capable of decision making- and targeting your market,” he said.

“Success is using your creativity,” Prakashbbhai said.

“We now confidently know good design,” Rajeshbbhai added.

Dayabhai elaborated on this. “We now have our own concepts and identity,” he explained.  “We know how to take feedback.”

To this Pachanbhai added, “Everyone’s work is unique.  Besides knowing your USP, you have to be able to articulate it.  Success is having a voice.”

Puroshottambhai echoed, “And success is being able to take responsibility.”

Strikingly, not one artisan spoke of success in terms of money."

Judy Frater is a social entrepreneur steeped in the world of contemporary textile artisans of Kutch, India. Prior to her residence in India, she was Associate Curator of the Eastern Hemisphere Collections at the Textile Museum, in Washington, DC. Judy Frater will be speaking at CSP's Namaste 2021 on the session on Textiles on Sunday at 6.30 am IST.

Twenty five years is a long time to spend in one place.  What attracted you to the Kutch region given that you first learnt jewellery design in Pune?

First, I lived in Kutch for 30 years- from 1990- 2020.  Somewhere on the internet something was posted 5 years ago and people always assume that information is current.

I went to Kutch first in 1970 when I was on a study abroad program.  I was interested in the traditional embroidery and wanted to learn more about the cultural aspects of embroidery styles.  I was also interested in traditional design so I learned jewellery making from a goldsmith in Pune. In the next 20 years I returned to India every year and a half or so and I finished my BA and 2 master’s degrees in South Asian studies, anthropology and museum studies.

You have done single handedly what governments do: give dignity to artisans by showcasing their work in a museum and more, creating a syllabus for design relevant to their art, set up an educational institution. What are the things you focused on in order to create this ecosystem of support?

I have to say that I think governments don’t really do that much to increase the value of crafts.  That’s why NGOs are formed.  I started with respect, and some understanding of the cultural heritage that craft expresses, gained through my studies and field work.  I observed and listened to artisans to understand their strengths, the gaps, and most important their values and desires. I appreciated their creative capacity.  And I involved artisans in developing the work I did.  Otherwise it would not have been relevant.

Hand spinning,  the rich colour palette   the diversity of fabric are some of the things non-Indians mention as their attraction to Indian textiles. What would you say is the most unique feature of the art and craft of the people of this region that you wished to preserve?

The most important thing is agency.  Craft traditions are genuine when artisans create them.  That includes concept and design as well as fabrication. When artisans create their own work, it has perceptible life.  If it is just produced to someone’s order, it is flat, lifeless.

Arts and crafts do not exist in isolation but are part of a social and political milleu. You have accommodated the needs of the artisan community where they are engaged in other work too like agriculture. How did the artists respond to your sensitivity and your initiatives?

Craft is cultural heritage.  It is not industry.  So I worked with communities rather than techniques. I made programs accessible to people simply by understanding how they live.  For the design education program, I thought about the length of time that people could possibly be away from their work, the cost they could afford, the language in which they could comfortably operate, and the atmosphere in which they would be comfortable.  Artisans love to learn and, like everyone, they want to be appreciated.  So they loved an institute that was designed to be appropriate for them.

Modern design schools don't look at the artist as the source of creativity.  You have brought the attention back to them. How is the product influenced by who makes artistic decisions including the use of local motifs and techniques?

Yes, because the concept of design as separate from creation is itself a part of industry, the teaching of most design schools is geared toward industry.  In this context, artisans are mostly understood as skilled technicians rather than creative artists.  There is a difference between craft traditions and hand made.  Again, if artisans are merely crafting other people’s designs, the products lack the life and dimension of cultural heritage.  They are just hand made products.

How have you facilitated these artists taking their work to global markets while still retaining for themselves the best of their work. 

As an educator I was not involved in commercial dealings.  As with any educational institute, the goal was to teach- to provide access to knowledge and guidance in making good decisions.  The rest is up to the individual graduates.  Happily, most graduates have been able to connect to better markets.  We did emphasize domestic markets because those are sustainable.  Artisans need to have direct access to their clients in order to create appropriate work.  That enables essential innovation.  The better the connection between maker and consumer, the more vibrant the work.

What are the areas in which you think India can bolster her softpower in the area of textiles and indigenous artistic creativity.

Artisans should have access to appropriate education.  A weaver does not usually need to be taught to weave.  Instead, he or she needs to be able to learn in complementary areas-to design, to run a business.  Consumers also need to be educated to appreciate craft traditions so that they do not see them as cheap manufacturing but affordable luxuries.  I also think there is a need for regulation of quality of raw materials so that, for example, artisans can access pure wool with assurance if they want it, rather than being duped with synthetic blends marketed as wool.  And artisans need reasonable access to loans so that they can grow an enterprise.

Do you have any anecdotes you can share with our readers on your interactions with the artists, among your favorites.

There are too many.  I hope readers can access my blog http://threadsofidentity.wordpress.com and my writings!(

(Ms Judy Frater founded Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the first design school for traditional artisans. For this concept, Ms. Frater was awarded an Ashoka Fellowship for social entrepreneurship in 2003. Under her eight- year tenure as Director of the school, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya received international recognition for its unique approach to education of artisans.  Frater received the Sir Misha Black Medal for Distinguished Services to Design Education in 2009, the Crafts Council of India Kamla award in 2010, the George B. Walter’36 Service to Society Award from Lawrence University in 2014 and the New Delhi Rotary Distinguished Service Award in 2020.

In 2014, to expand the design education program to an institute, Frater joined the K.J. Somaiya Gujarat Trust to begin Somaiya Kala Vidya.  From 2014-2020, as Founder Director she initiated a graduate business and management course, Outreach to other regions, co-design programs, and a course in craft traditions for non-artisans.

Ms. Frater’s Threads of Identity: Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris received the Costume Society of America’s Milla Davenport award. Prior to her residence in India, she was Associate Curator of the Eastern Hemisphere Collections at the Textile Museum, in Washington, DC.)