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Social Entrepreneurship in Creative Industries

By Sayalee Karkare
June 11th 2012



Creative industries can be found in the most unlikely places, according to Sayalee Karkare. In this post Sayalee takes us deep into the villages of Rajasthan, showcasing some of the wonderful work undertaken by Sharon Rajan in supporting local artists and entrepreneurs.

The Indian state of Rajasthan is arguably one of the most tourist-friendly states in the country. Part of the Golden Triangle between Delhi and Agra, it receives a record number of foreign tourists per year. In contrast, for the average city-dwelling Indian, Rajasthan exists largely as a long stretch of desert with nothing of particular interest, aside from a handful of royal palaces placed at intervals across the barren landscape. In recent years, however, cultural events such as the Jaipur Literature Festival and theRajasthan International Folk Festival (RIFF), both of which attract writers, musicians and artists of national and international repute, have begun to reshape the popular urban imagination. So when Sharon Rajan, a true-blue Mumbaikar moved to Rajasthan to work for the Jaipur Virasat Foundation  (JVF), the organization responsible for spawning both of these wildly successful festivals, she expected to be steeped in all things artistic and cultural. But just how much of a role they would eventually come to play in her life, would become clear only much later.

Sharon assisting girls during a clay workshop. Photo: Sajil Ray

Like most other Indian states, Rajasthan is a state rich in traditional art, craft, and cultural resources, but unlike other Indian states, Rajasthan has succeeded in exhibiting its cultural heritage to the outside world. This is largely due to the concerted efforts made by the Rajasthani royalty, the government as well as the NGO sector. Already, back in 2005, Rajasthan had hosted a Senior Expert Symposium organized by the UNESCO in cooperation with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. This Symposium produced the “Jodhpur Consensus”, a comprehensive conceptual framework for promoting local cultural/creative industries as a strategy for socio-economic development.

The idea of leveraging culture for economic gains is a fairly recent one. It was only in 2001 that the UK’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) hazarded the first definition of creative industries as “those industries which have their origin in individual creativity, skill and talent and which have a potential for wealth and job creation through the generation and exploitation of intellectual property.” The latest UN definitions expand the scope of creative industries as comprising a set of knowledge-based activities that produce tangible goods and intangible intellectual or artistic services with creative content, economic value and market objectives. Given that creativity and intellectual capital are the primary input in these industries, putting in place a strong legal framework for the protection of intellectual property is of prime importance. Unfortunately, it is often the very thing lacking in developing countries.

Many cultural products imported from developing regions become enormously successful in the west without any significant benefits accruing to the originating communities. There are many examples of tangible as well as intangible indigenous cultural goods, such the pashmina shawl or yoga, which have become hugely popular in niche markets in the west. In many cases, ancient, cultural art and practices are often the only resources available in a developing region. If these are correctly marketed, they could become a significant source of income for the developing communities, particularly in those regions where industrialization efforts have not succeeded in providing substantial dividends. Given the soaring demand for unique, ethnic products in high-end markets across the world, developing communities need to capitalise on their cultural heritage for the production of cultural goods, be they in the realm of performing arts such as film, music and dance, or tangible goods such as handicrafts, in order to harness the capacity of their creative sectors for developmental gains.

The Jaipur Virasat Foundation literally the Jaipur “Heritage” Foundation, is one such NGO that “works with and for traditional artists in Rajasthan… for the conservation of tangible and intangible heritage, and preservation of cultural diversity”. As part of her work with JVF, Sharon travelled extensively in the villages of Rajasthan and interacted with many local artists and musicians. Despite the gains made in the creative sector in Rajasthan, there are still some hurdles to be overcome, before satisfactory linkages are established between the rural suppliers of cultural goods and the demands of the urban markets. As Sharon explains, “The problem in lots of creative economies, particularly in the developing world, is that unless a particular sector, such as, say music or films, has been completely commercialised, the artists are often not very highly paid.” Consequently, many traditional artists, be it those involved in miniature painting or local music, give up their art and take up menial jobs that, at the very least, guarantee a steady income.  To address this situation, one of the things that organizations like JVF does, is provide “pensions” to old, retired artists who cannot work anymore, so that they can live with dignity and respect.  Sharon, however, found herself turning to market-based solutions to conserve culture and provide livelihood opportunities to the artists.

Traditional Woodblock Printing
    Traditional Woodblock Printing. Photo: Sajil Ray

Through the course of her work, Sharon met Govind Singh Bhati, a local from the city of Jodhpur who had worked extensively with the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, and Sajil Ray, an architect based in Jaipur. The three of them, while passionate about music, art and cultural heritage preservation, were also keen that a sustainable solution would be one that shakes “the invisible hand” of the market, instead of turning away from it. To that end, they did a recce visit to Jodhpur, Barmer, Jaisalmer and Pushkar. They met proprietors of numerous Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) operating in traditional designs and handicrafts such as tie-and-dye and woodblock printing techniques, paper mache art, lac (resin) bangles and cane furniture. Despite their unique designs and hand-made nature, most of these family-owned businesses were finding it difficult to keep up with market developments. For instance, Abdul Rehman from Jodhpur mentioned that the woodblock printing technique is a dying art, being replaced by faster printing technologies such as screen printing. Moreover, most of the products being made were a bit too traditional and bulky and would not be very popular in urban markets in their current form. It was here that the trio felt that their intervention could provide some much needed value-addition.

To begin with, through her work with JVF, Sharon is familiar with the local artists, talents and the various skills they have to offer, at the same time, she is equally conversant with the urban demand and taste for all things ethnic. Govind Singh Bhati, as a local, has insider knowledge of the indigenous communities and Sajil Ray, through his Studio Purple Cow, can re-design ethnic products to make them desirable to the conscious urban consumer. In this way, the trio hopes to forge long lasting linkages between the suppliers of traditional products in rural Rajasthan with the developed markets in Delhi and Mumbai.

Evidence of such profitable cultural exchanges can already be seen in other parts of the country. For example, take the case of the Chhau dance from the eastern region of India, which is an ancient Indian martial-dance form that mimics the gaits and flights of wild animals and birds. To prevent many traditional Chhau dancers from abandoning its practice in search of more secure forms of livelihood, Lakshika Pandey, herself a dancer, brings traditional Chhau dancers to large urban centres like Mumbai where they holdworkshops for the culturally-curious urban communities. In this way, she succeeds in preserving an ancient art form, provides livelihood opportunities for its practitioners and at the same time, satisfies the urban demand for ethnic, cultural goods.

In a similar vein, Sharon, Govind and Sajil too could be the perfect social entrepreneurs, mediating between the artistic communities in rural areas and the sophisticated demands of the urban market for tangible and intangible cultural goods.  As Sharon puts it, “In life, I always wanted to be someone who made change possible. And here I’ve found the perfect opportunity to work with people and culture, which in the case of Rajasthan, is so rich and untouched in many ways. It is a privilege for me to meet all these artists and help in whatever small way possible for their art to reach a wider audience. I never thought that moving to Rajasthan from Bombay would be such a fulfilling experience, when in fact the reverse is true for so many people.” The three of them are the proverbial “three kids in a garage”, poised to make the next innovation in development, “by starting small, learning from failures, and taking risks nobody is willing to take.” Their experiments show that the oft-overlooked creative industries are one of the most dynamic sectors of the world economy with the potential to generate income and jobs, while addressing social inclusion, cultural diversity and human development.

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