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Ram Soni, a paper-cutting artist, works at his home in Alwar, Rajasthan, India. An Indian designer and architect couple launched a campaign called “Empowerment through Craft” to help traditional artisans restart sales and trade via an online platform. Photo: AP

His paper-art sales fell to zero. Then he found online shop window for Indian crafts, founded as a non-profit by couple in Delhi

  • A non-profit founded by a Delhi-based designer and her architect husband to connect Indian artisans with handicrafts buyers came into its own in the pandemic
  • It only gave paper cutters and cloth painters sales, but exposed their work to potential customers new to online shopping and who sought sustainably made goods

Sanjhi, the ancient Indian art of paper-cutting using nature-inspired motifs, is how Ram Soni puts food on the table. It’s also a carefully preserved skill passed down through generations in his family.

Using special scissors given to him by his parents, who taught him the craft at an early age, he patiently carves out intricate pieces from folded paper to create complex stencils that stand out against contrasting coloured paper.

Soni’s sales dipped to zero as India went into a prolonged lockdown earlier this year to try to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

The 49-year-old Soni is just the sort of artisan New Delhi-based designer Sheela Lunkad and her architect husband, Rajeev Lunkad, aim to help with their Empowerment through Craft campaign to provide craftspeople an online platform for collaboration, and to display and sell their works.

Soni works at his home in Alwar, Rajasthan. Sanjhi, the ancient Indian art of paper-cutting using nature-inspired motifs, is how he earns a living. Photo: AP

The Lunkads set up a company called Direct Create in 2015, aiming to bring down exorbitant prices for traditional Indian handicrafts by connecting artisans with buyers, cutting out middlemen and swanky retailers.

Most artisans live in far-flung parts of India. With markets and exhibitions closed by the pandemic, many had no way to reach customers. Now they can register on the Direct Create platform to showcase their work. They can also collaborate to custom-design products for their clients. The online platform features works by more than 2,500 artisans.

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“Because of Direct Create, we have been able to give them a whole lot of marketing outreach and discoverability,” Sheela said. “People have reached out to them asking for various kinds of things, which they have loved and appreciated during this time.”

Collaborations can lead to fusions across cultures, like a traditional, colourful Rajasthani storytelling-box, or kavad, depicting a Romanian folk story that was made to order by a local artisan for a German storyteller and teacher.

Direct Create does not profit from sales on its platform; four to five per cent of the income from each sale goes towards packaging, shipping and providing online payment gateways to craftsmen who usually are not adept at arranging online payments.

Paper cutting artist Soni rolls out his work with the help of his son at his home in Alwar. Photo: AP

It’s been a lifeline for paper-cutting artisan Soni, who initially had to lay off all his workers and even considered giving up his art. He now lists his paper cutting craft on the online platform and says it has helped him work on a collaborative design project.

“The thought behind Direct Create is very good for new artists,” said Soni, whose work has won him a national award and recognition from Unesco. “We get to earn money, but we also earn respect.”

Sanjay Chitara, an expert in block- and hand-painted pieces of cloth that usually depict stories of Hindu gods and goddesses, says Direct Create enabled him to restart his business after he shut down during the pandemic.

“After I started displaying my work on the websites, a lot of my old clients could view my current work,” said Chitara, who lives in the western state of Gujarat. “It is beneficial because if they like our work, clients contact the artists directly.”

Soni shows a section of his work at home. Photo: AP

There’s another indirect benefit from the initiative. The shift towards shopping online to limit possible exposure to the coronavirus has made people more curious and careful about what they are buying and whether it is made sustainably, Sheela said.

“Industrial products had flooded the market,” she said. “The pandemic and the digital space has now allowed people to actually view products on their desktops and phones. They can make a discerning choice today. ‘Do I buy this industrial product from maybe Amazon or a couple of others, or do I look at picking up small, interesting things which actually make a difference to the livelihood and equitability of the craftsmen?’”