Saving the artisans of Nepal (and beyond)

October 6, 2008 at 9:16 am 2 comments

On my recent visit to Kathmandu, I was lucky enough to strike a conversation with a seller of traditional handmade metal products. Some of the things he has been selling for years are:

Bodhistavas and sculptures of other deities

Karuwas of all shapes, sizes and designs
Brass jugs and pots of all shapes, sizes and designs

Puja accessories for special occassions

Traditionally the best metal for these products come from Palpa district. The metal is then hand carved by artisans. Some of the prominent artisans reside in Patan area within the Kathmandu Valley. There are also many artisans who live in other parts of the country.

During my conversation with the seller he expressed concern over the recent surge of Chinese traders who had figured out a way to mass produce similar products at a low cost and sell it for a lower price to retail/wholesale outlets in the developed worlds as well as developing nations like India & China and under-developed ones like Nepal & Vietnam. The trend has seriously hampered not just his livelihood but also those of the artisans who have relied on their skills for generations.

He mentioned that if the trend continued, he would have to resort to buying the goods from the Chinese traders while buying from the artisans only on a order-by-order basis. There are still a few families in Kathmandu who specifially ask for pots, jugs and karuwas made from the Palpa brass for special religious ceremonies.

He also mentioned that the products that come from factories are usually tainted. A closer look would reveal flaws such as incomplete eyes, crooked nose, assymetrical jugs etc. The depth in detail is non-existent in these factory made replicas. The metal used by the manufacturers is also of a lower quality though it looks ‘shinier’ and feels ‘smoother’. So a buyer who is not well versed in the difference between the metals (Palpali vs. Others) will not be able to tell the difference.

As Friedman put it, this is a flat world. Globalisation has forced everyone to change and adapt to new ways. I mentioned in an earlier post, I am very much pro-globalisation. But if loss of an art is the price we have to pay then we need to reign in the globalisation wave and devise a way to save the art while reaping the benefits of globalisation.

Earlier this year I volunteered with Handcrafting Justice (HCJ), a fair trade partnership working with women struggling for economic justice and independence in developing countries. The specific project I was working on involved marketing of Huichol Art – beaded sculputres & yarn paintings. My take-away from the experience was that in order to ensure these artisans the rightful reward for their gorgeous work, we need to start looking at these handmade creations as ‘works of art’ and not just a product/commodity sold at stalls in Union Square.

The same approach needs to be taken with sale and marketing of handmade products in Nepal – be it metal products or Tibetan Thanka Paintings. If there is someone somewhere who can mass-produce a similar work at a lower cost then it is inevitable that the artisans will lose out sooner or later. Instead of fighting the inevitable, it is better (at least in my opinion) that the artisans essentially reposition themselves as makers of premium artwork worthy of sale to museums, galleries and collectors. That is the only way these artisans are going to survive (and more likely increase income levels and standard of living as well).

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Entry filed under: On Development. Tags: , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. J. Kaifala  |  October 23, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    Hey Freddo!
    These are very beautiful products! I see you are keeping it real.

  • 2. Freddie  |  October 24, 2008 at 1:39 pm

    Joseph! where on earth are you and what are you up to? Email me at freddie.benjamin@gmail.com or let me know what ur email address is.

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