Monday, September 09, 2013

The Artisans' Champion

The work of their hands was once an intrinsic part of our heritage and tradition. Their handiwork enriched the fabric of our culture and made it a tapestry, at once complex, colourful and vibrant. Trade routes to and from India bustled with activity in ancient times, a success to which their forefathers contributed no mean part. 

But things are different now.

The artisan, once feted by royalty, languishes in poverty, forced to watch his nation whiz by at a breathtaking speed, leaving him far behind. The India of today has no time or attention to devote to the glories and treasures of the past. Caught in the confines of faster, quicker, cheaper, it fails to appreciate the world of ancient Indian arts and crafts whose creation involved a laborious process to which the labourer gave his all.

While there are a few NGOs and the odd corporate that is striving to revive and rejuvenate India’s ancient crafts and traditions, the efforts are nothing in the face of the massive need. While most of us would limit our charitableness to the writing of a rare cheque, and the giving away of an old wardrobe, Neha Gandhi, a Mumbai-based artist, conceived of a means to restore dignity to the artisans by finding them a market and helping them get the right price for their labour.

It all started during the earthquake that hit the Kutch region of Gujarat in 2001. Neha had volunteered with the Behavioural Science Centre, an Ahmedabad based NGO, to assist the relief effort. During her time there, she was struck by the wealth of handicrafts that she saw around and the unfortunate conditions of the creators of that priceless art. It was also the time when she came to know of the other side of public patronage, the one that is characterised by the greed of the middleman, unfair working conditions and earnings that could be best described as too little-too late.

Over the years, the graduate of Fine Arts in Ceramics from the prestigious Sir JJ School of Arts, Mumbai, has donned a number of hats, including one as faculty at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. She could have chosen to live life as a well known designer. But the conditions of the artisans appealed to her sensitive nature and she decided to do something to make them better.

And so Matsya, Sanskrit for fish, was born in 2009. Determined to resuscitate rural arts and crafts in a manner that was ethical and served to give the labourers their just wages, Neha founded Matsya Crafts. Her initial investment was Rs 10,000 from her own savings. But beyond that meager amount, Neha was willing to put on the line her potentially successful career in the art scene in Mumbai.

Her enthusiasm for the cause was infectious and while she worked alone, unable to even afford the services of a peon, she was able to appeal, from time to time, to marketers and design enthusiasts with whose support she walked on. With every little success, she walked closer towards her goal of helping to connect the rural artisan with the discerning urban customer whose surplus disposable income enabled him/her to be a connoisseur of art.

Today Matsya works with nearly 2000 women in 112 villages, helping them to earn their livelihood without losing sight of the tradition that they have inherited over the ages. The women display their talents in embroidery, appliqué work, painting, sewing etc. These arts were once honoured by the royalty and found their place in the wardrobes of the nobility. And yet in recent times, their talents have barely enabled them to keep body and soul together.

Products such as home furnishings, studio pottery, the tribal wall art range, fridge magnets, finger puppets, pencil tops, embroidered bags and jholas, leather, copper art and other accessories, including a wide range of gift items, all designed to be of high utility value while being attractive and contemporary, were made available online. Ethnic is ‘in’, and Matsya’s founder had the foresight to see that in popularising ancient Indian arts and crafts, she would be able to help the impoverished artisans in ways that did not insult their dignity.

Matsya is much more than an online marketplace. By pushing ahead the boundaries of the marketplace, Matsya also offers to re-design hotels, homes and corporate offices, to develop and design products, and to assist other groups that wish to work with artisans. Neha’s organisation undertakes craft documentation, in an effort to keep the history and tradition alive. Currently, it is working towards gaining Fair Trade certification.

If Matsya’s aim were merely to introduce the buyer to the maker, it would have run its course soon enough. The organisation has tried to enhance the skills of the artisans through training programmes, designed to teach them modern production standards and contemporary design aesthetics. The idea is to create within the artisans a level of confidence that will equip them for the task of reclaiming their destiny.

Matsya also conducts craft tours for individuals and groups, enabling discerning travelers to talk to India’s traditional craftsmen and see the often humble environs in which great art takes shape. These tours, customised to the travellers’ interests and budgets, have so far been conducted only in Gujarat, but there are plans to take it further to Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

Neha has the satisfaction of knowing that her efforts and her fledgling enterprise have made such a difference to the lives of so many women, and their families. While much has been achieved, much more remains to be done.

The young entrepreneur knows that there are others waiting out there, unsung and unappreciated, who could benefit from her unceasing efforts to be the bridge between them and their potential customers.

For the nearly 23 million artisans in India, these efforts spell the difference between the complete extinction of their traditions and their empowerment as skilled and talented artisans whose work regains its significance in the fabric of India’s culture.

Written for the Indiblogeshwaris Ladies Independence Special Contest in association with


  1. I went through the video for Matsya and was very impressed with the work and devotion of Neha in highlighting craft and in the process giving the artisans their right. Very nice.

  2. Thank you, Kajal, I too was very impressed by all the efforts she has put in and how she has expanded the venture. The handicrafts industry needs our support to earn the glory that it once had.

  3. There's something so different about a handmade item. So much love and care goes into it that a machine cut thing just does not have. Hats off to Neha what a great cause. thanks for sharing her story.



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