Reviving Indian cultural goods and making them commercially viable will boost jobs and entrepreneurship
India has thrived on its creative economy since time immemorial, only to lose it all, in a space of the last 150 years. If we take an example of just the textile industry, we had a share of about 30 per cent in the global trade until late 19th century. This is now down to less than 5 per cent. The place of pride we once held is now just visible in museums, whether it is the 3,500 years old terracotta handspine at Lothal in Gujarat or the legendary transparency of the Indian muslin housed at London’s V&A museum.
The question facing us as Indians today is will we continue to play the cost game with generic products? Will we remain a factory to the world? Or can we hope to make a significant difference in the lives of our citizens, especially the most creative at the bottom of the pyramid. If that hope is real, we would need to restore and leverage our unique creative advantages and build value added business propositions.
In order to do that, we need to look into and learn from our past, trace back the journey and take the faster, more sustainable route to the future. Let us take examples of two plants that Indian textile trade rested on, Cotton and Indigo.
The cotton example
At the time of independence, 98 per cent of the cotton grown in India was the desi variety. Today, it is less than 2 per cent. As the industrial spinning mills in India emerged to help meet the needs of a large population, they needed more production-friendly cotton with longer staple lengths that desi varieties could not provide.
However, this transition happened without paying attention to our unique local semi-industrial ecosystem and we lost our ability to produce yarns and fabrics that nobody else in the world could or can. Up until the late 19th century, we were producing very fine hand spun and hand woven fabrics from the same short staple desicotton varieties. But instead of simultaneously developing technology to support desi cotton, our industry and research institutes (even post-independence) chose to abandon that direction to focus entirely on hybrid and BT cotton.
The indigo story
The second example is of the Indigo dye. Such was our claim to its provenance, that even the term ‘Indigo’ itself is derived from its Indian roots that meant “Indian” or “Indian Ink”. No surprise then that we had near monopoly in the world. We, however, lost our place to the German chemical version, which was much cheaper and the natural medicinal properties of Indigo that permitted miners to live in their jeans for days, was lost to the world.
While these are references from the past, clues on how we could turn these two crops back into a strong and scalable competitive advantage, also reside in our economic history. History has a habit of repeating itself. But only the bad things repeat themselves on their own. Good things, if relevant to current times, need to be cajoled back.
It is in our interest to think of ways how we can revive and accelerate the creative economy, more for commercial reasons than patriotic ones. A strong creative economy will not only provide a strong sense of identity to the future generations, but also generate employment at the grassroots level. But such a revival requires young entrepreneurs to come forward and reclaim the lost traditions and re-establish some of these missing links. There are multiple ways this can be achieved.
For example, we need to invest in finding innovative ways to mechanise post-harvest processes to enable spinning of the very short staple desi cotton. Once the link between the farmer growing desi cotton and the handloom weaver is re-established, the economic value chain will be active again. The small and marginal farmers have natural proclivity towards desi cotton due to their hardiness and low cost.
An assured market would be the only incentive they would need. Such incentives will lead to production of desi cotton on large scale, resulting in yarns that are uniquely Indian and can only be woven on the gentleness of a handloom. This would also render redundant, the questions around the relevance of handlooms in current times.
Likewise, natural indigo is like wine. Production of indigo relies on the characteristics of the soil, micro-climate in the region, skills of the farmer to extract dye, the local water quality and the dyeing techniques. No two lots dye the same, no two regions or tracts of land produce same quality, depth or shades of the colour. Just how wines from different regions have different “tastes”. So while dyers using synthetic indigo will produce a standard product, natural indigo users could produce fine wine like Chateau Margaux!
A combination of fabric made from desi cotton and dyed with natural indigo can recreate the magic of Indianness that is lost in time. Imagine a beautifully textured canvas in the hands of skillful and creative indigo artists. Where else in the world could this happen?
It is time that the current generation of creative entrepreneurs, many with the finest of design education in the world, exposure to global markets and a strong desire to work with Indian artisanal heritage find their own expressions with these two magic crops, to drive not just ‘Make in India’ but also ‘Create in India’.
Some brands like ‘Pero’, ‘11.11’ and ‘Maku’ have made exciting beginnings. Likes of Probiotics in Auroville, who have even created a unique anti-septic, anti-oxidant bath bar from the indigo plant provide an inspiration for many others to follow in their steps. We also have numerous organisations spearheading efforts in support. Malkha, Selco Foundation, Asal and Khamir are coming forward to finding real solutions to building the broken desi cotton value chain.
A beginning has been made, but there are miles to go. This requires a collective effort not only from the ecosystem partners and government, but also from customers. A first step could be recognising the beauty and relevance of Indian cultural goods in contemporary times. Ask not just what the world has to bring to us but what we have to bring to the world.
Anchal is an advisor, teacher and mentor specialising in creative and cultural industries, and an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad. Amit Karna is Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at IIM Ahmedabad. They together offer the creative and cultural businesses programme for entrepreneurs and industry at IIM-A.