Anil Chitrakar

Artists and craftsmen and women are in a unique position to change the way humans live on plant earth and ensure prosperity, not only for the present generation but also for the future. We need to collectively and individually take care of the only planet we have. We need to make sure that nothing goes to the landfill site at the end of the product life, we need to allow for the planet to heal from all the damage we have done to it. Climate change is just one of the ways our earth is talking to us to change our ways. Art and craft can help by bringing us and our planet together for this purpose. It is easy to make art and craft that the market demands.

There is, however, also a need to educate. raise awareness and create demand for art and craft that may not have a ready market. This is where tax payer money comes in.  We may have to support the trainings and provide initial capital investments. This is the stage where academic institutions have a role. In Nepal it is really encouraging to see agencies like FHAN, KU, NAFA, British Council and so many more joining hands for this very purpose. Markets may demand cheap, markets may demand fake, markets may demand that we close our eyes to the exploitation of people and the planet. In the long run everyone will lose from this. Let us not let the market set our values.

The future is not mass-produced

People like to buy, use and gift beautiful art and craft that are individually made. A world where everyone has the same products would be really boring and there would be no excitement or enthusiasm to travel to different places around the world because they would all look the same. It is diversity that makes the whole world so beautiful. There is truth in the old wisdom that variety is the spice of life. Nepalis know this and as more of us travel to different parts of the country we appreciate the diversity in food, clothes, jewellery, pots and pans, drinks, building materials and techniques, and definitely the locally handmade art and craft. We do not want the future to be mass produced.

A uniquely crafted piece has value and people are willing to pay a bit more for this. Artists who take great pleasure in creating masterpieces will often refuse of make a replica. In a village where a group of people are weaving baskets or making special pottery for the upcoming festivals, all will take great pride in displaying their knowledge, skills and techniques as they produce limited pieces for the local market. The buyer who sees the variations will often pay more for the nicer pieces. This is how things should be. The skilled ones set new standards for all to follow. Creating value is not just about economics but also taking pride is what our craft represents and being aware of all the efforts and inputs that go into the process. This is what we need to appreciate and preserve.

Towards a shared value

There is a general understanding across society that local handicrafts need to be produced, promoted and preserved. We take pride in the identity created by these unique art and craft pieces that help us to distinguish ourselves and our communities. We all aspire for economic prosperity though our efforts and creativity. These are the themes that bring us all together. We must make an effort to understand the people who are going to use our art and craft. We need to know about their cultural calendar, the times of the year when they will have money to spare and times when they may be in debt, especially when it comes to farmers. We may then also understand the adverse impact of the climate change and ways in which people are coping and adapting to these changes.

This shared value must also appreciate nature and its ability to produce and reproduce the materials that we need to sustain our craft culture. The ability for nature to regenerate often depends on the location, temperature and rainfall. Again as climate changes, we need to be mindful about what we harvest and how much. We must all stay within the ability of nature to regenerate. We cannot pollute the sources of the materials we need. We should keep burning to the minimum so that we reduce emission of carbon dioxide into the already stressed atmosphere. We need to keep the carbon in the plants and in the soil where they belong. Conservation and management principles must be used to preserve nature that gives us so much and enables us all to enjoy our healthy and prosperous life on earth, the only planet we have. 

Only if young people are engaged

Into the future, the real critical factor that will ensure the sustained use of, production and preservation of our art and craft tradition will depend on how we engage the young generation. How do we explain this heritage to the young, so that they understand and take pride in them, will be the true test of success. Young people live in a very different world from the one we had decades ago. There is a need to reset the way we understand and appreciate art and craft. Many are very keen and appreciate the global debate around identity while others may be indifferent in a world where consumption and growth at any cost has become the norm and way of life. We need to have an engaging conversation with young people so that we can sustain our art and craft heritage.

The expectation is that young people will bring new energy, creativity, innovation and even a new narrative. This combined with the experience of the old may be exactly what we need to lift art and craft to where it needs to be. When we observe the participation of young people in the various chariot festivals in the Kathmandu valley, we feel comfortable that these are not going to stop any time soon. We do not know if being able to post photos on the social media has helped. Many masked dances that had stopped their performances have been revived due to young people’s participation. The increase in the number of galleries and exhibitions of art and craft are also a good indication that things are going in the right direction. We must always keep young people in mind as we move ahead.

Seeking nature-based solutions

The blacksmiths of Baglung built bridges, the Khukuri and copper pots that we have at home were mined with almost zero impact on nature. The wood for charcoal making was harvested without damaging the forests. The Bote made dugout canoes and wove nets to catch fish and helped people cross the rivers across Nepal. The Khukuri from Pyuthan and Bhojpur are still legendary, made famous by the Gurkhas. The Nepali cap, Bhadgaule and Dhaka Topi were once compulsory at all government offices as was handmade Lokta paper. Bamboo craft and clay utensils are still an integral part of our lives to this day. Nepal’s cultural calendar has helped preserve some of these beautiful art and craft.

All the above examples have a few underlying features that make them unique, worth preserving and helps us to understand what we mean by natural-based solutions to address both our aspiration and also our responsibility to take care of our planet. Each of the above art and craft are inspired and supported by nature and its ability to regenerate. Nothing went to a landfill site, at the end of the natural life of each product, they went back to the maker for repair and came back as good as new. Further, each was crafted in the most efficient and cost-effective methods ensuring it met local demand and also the price points of the user. And this provided the craftsmen and women the benefits they needed to do what they did.