“The corona epidemic has broken our back,” says the cheerful Aarti Patra, who is part of a group of sabai-grass baskets in the village of Odisha. Rajkumari Joshi, a craftsman from SADHANA, a women’s cooperative organization working with us in Rajasthan agrees. “All the women here are feeling completely helpless and needy. We do not have work. Other artisans tell Dastkar that they wonder what will eliminate them first – virus or hunger.
“All our orders have been cancelled,” Vimal Kumar, a young Rajasthani potter, explains. “Even if we try our best, we will not be able to clear this stock for two years at least. This will cause not only debt, but a decrease in production. Craftspeople will be out of jobs for a long time,” he adds.
Lessons in resilience
Though many fear the impact of COVID 19 may be the end of craftspeople, still reeling from demonetisation and the unplanned imposition of GST, it is their creativity and resilience that could save them.
I remember what Ajrakh master craftsperson Ismail Bhai Khatri said after the 2001 Kutch earthquake, standing in the ruins of his devastated home, “All we want is the means to stand on our feet again, and we will rebuild our own lives ourselves.”
Sitting at our makeshift work-stations, answering appeals from craftspeople all over India, Dastkar is moved by that same resolute spirit. Women used to making fine embroidery or bandhani are turning their hands to mask-making. Urmul Seemant in Bajju made 5,000 masks in the first two weeks, Rangsutra has distributed 26,000.
Craftspeople, not content to sit lamenting, realising that art is communication, are using it to create awareness — much needed in rural areas with little access to news or medicare. Bhilwara in Rajasthan had numerous early fatalities. Kalyan Joshi, a local traditional phad painter, created a series of colourful posters, inspired by WHO health directives. Bhilwara is now free of infection.