Saving our traditional crafts | Sunday Observer

Saving our traditional crafts

“Should we just bid goodbye to traditional skills such as, weaving and basketry? Or should we fight to protect them?” I asked this decades-old question from a big businessman in Sri Lanka who is an importer of Chinese handicrafts.

He admitted that he’s “caught somewhere between nostalgia and pragmatism. Reviving handmade goods when cheaper machine-made versions are available is hard, and the question is how we should (or whether we should) engineer a demand for such products if the market can’t do so freely.”

Simple ingenuity

What is alarming is that as a society, we seem to be progressively discarding our traditional handicraft. We are beginning to value them less than the imported ones. On a recent visit to a village fair in an up-country town, my granddaughter came back with a hand-made, hand-painted wooden toy, remarkable by virtue of the care and craft that had gone into its making.

Brightly coloured carved birds were arranged on a circular wooden platform, below which a bob connected to their necks by strings could swing freely.

As you moved the platform, the bob swung in a circle below it, pulling the strings in succession as it moved, bringing down the beaks of the birds in a delightful rattling sound depicting them feeding.

The simple ingenuity of its design testified to a craftsmanship honed by years of tradition. A tradition of quality, but unfortunately one that is dying, unable to compete with the mass-produced, battery-operated toys that flood our markets today.


When we refuse to rescue it, or for instance, and unthinkingly drape our homes in Chinese lights at our festivals in preference to the earthenware pahan, we snuff out the ways and means of livelihood that, more often than not, embody quality because they are rooted in skills passed down centuries and generations.

When we judge something to be economically not viable, and hence dispensable, we must ensure that before we let it die a natural death, we have factored in the opportunity cost of quality correctly.

Every generation passes on a clutch of values to the next one. Respect for and recognition of quality must be at the core of this legacy.

This is because in one form or another, it breathes life into and resides in all the other values that we hold dear.

When we as consumers, educators, parents, a society or a race, embrace the trashy or the superficial, the unsustainable or the expedient, we end up submerging islands of genuine quality in the process.

Perhaps more importantly, we run the risk that when a future generation stretches out their hands in expectation for the baton of values that we have cherished, nurtured, and added to, they may find their fingers closing in on thin air.

In a growing technology-run and industrialised world, people are increasingly forgetting the traditional crafts and moving towards new innovation. Due to this, artisans are moving to alternative income generation methods, for instance - daily wage labour and farming; while art is losing its grip.

Preserving and protecting the skills and knowledge of traditional crafts is a growing challenge. So, it is high time that art forms are revived and awareness spread about them in urban space.

Let’s move towards a world where handcrafted items are given due respect and the artisans get the recognition they deserve for their skills.

Here are a few ways to protect the dying handicraft industry:

1. Understand the global market

To keep the traditional craft alive, it is important for artisans to understand how trade fairs work and participate in them with an all-round understanding of the profit and loss and pros and cons involved in the global market.

2. Increase interaction with consumers

Artisans need to interact with the consumers and tell them all about their work and the meaning behind it. This inspires the customers and establishes a connection between art and buyer. This also helps artisans to know what the consumers want.

3. Recognise it as a source of supplementary income

Since the craft sector is a large employer in rural Sri Lanka, it is a source of supplementary income for seasonal agricultural workers, with limited alternative employment opportunities in the village. Also, most handicraft industries are large arenas of women’s employment

4. Bring back the mixture of old and new designs

Craftsmen these days are bringing in a mixture of old and new designs to strike a balance between the avant-garde and the traditional. Through this mixture, the traditional handicraft industry has more hope for shining.

5. Understand promotional strategies

To bring back art and handicrafts into the market, craftsmen and artisans need to understand the modern market and its promotional strategies. They have to understand their space in the global market and then fix the price for their products.

6. Conduct more workshops

At both, rural and urban levels, workshops should be organised that enhance the skills and the knowledge of the people.

Skill showcase, design education, creative and product development workshops could be followed up with pricing, marketing, branding, micro-finance, etc.

These workshops could help artisans eradicate the communication gap between the two representations of society and bring in a better understanding of demand and supply. It also initiates traditional art awareness.

7. Initiate collaborations between artisans and professional designers

These awareness programs would also initiate collaborations between the artisan and the urban designer and brands to explore the opportunities together.

Through these initiatives and activities, we can save our crafts and promote our traditional craft to find a place in the dynamic art culture of the world. These initiatives would bring out the traditional craft and introduce hidden talents in Sri Lanka.

The Government also has a major role to play. An independent authority with necessary power to conduct research, guidance, fund and find markets is the need of the day.