Exploiting the Wooden Artist: A looming demise of one more traditional art
How much is enough for a family of four to live well and save enough for haydays ? This is a thought I left with every weekend when I settle wages for daily-wagers working with me. Their monthly income hardly cross Rs 15000 per month in a good month, and this is when I pay 25% more than standard daily rate. These are largely illiterate people who have inherited and are keepers of beautiful wooden art, which is amalgamation of Portuguese, French and Mughal design and architecture. This has evolved over time and become unique to our country and its tradition. In a way, a wooden art and architecture can tell you what a society stand for in its artistic sensuality, their taste and finesse. Our old unkempt, withering erstwhile palaces, building and temples paint a canvas of an amazing architectural taste our ancestors had, and legacy they left behind. And what have we done to lay waste to all that.
These daily workers are an artist’s par excellence. I have never ceased to wonder as their perseverance and discipline at slowly tucking on the wood, and design something so amazing out of it. They carve a beautiful soul out of something so souless as wood. While world marvel about Italian, Egyptian or Indonesian furniture, these artists never got an opportunity to showcase their unique talent, which is no lesser than any of their foreign peers. It’s just that they are the one who are not celebrated, and paid for their handiwork. Like everything Indian, we discount them, disparage and disrespect them and their work, downgrade them and pay them pittance. And the fruits of their labour gets stolen by contractors, middleman and businesses who employ them.
I had once done a pricing comparison of Antique wood furniture from India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Egypt. And with baseline of quality same for everyone, guess who won that Pricing game, it’s India. And for those wondering why China is not in this list. China doesn’t make wooden Antique furniture, yes you read it right. Most of that beautiful Chinese furniture is fiber commonly known as MDF or its brothers and sisters in some other form, factory made and finished nicely, with large enough scale to drastically cut pricing and be globally competitive. But today is not an article on Chinese furniture.
With no protection of minimum wages, our wooden artists are in dwindling spiral. Being employed by monopolistic capitalist businesses, who don’t believe in paying them their due, is driving them away from this woodworking art in pursuit of other well paying avenues. With every artist moving away, traditional art of our country dies one more bit. And this is the art, which should be displayed, celebrated and exported in big way. Which every Indian should be proud off. It’s a dying waning art, waiting for revival by government or big business working for its cause.
It’s not an exaggeration, it’s a simple mathematics. A nice 5- seater handmade teakwood Sofa made for Rs 25000 goes on to sell in Mumbai showroom for more than Rs 100000. While artist earn Rs 500 per day daily wage, it’s the middle-men and business, who earn lion’ share on that. In a process, a simple sofa becomes unaffordable for most, leading to myth that teak wood furniture is costly. This is a loss-loss scenario for customer and wooden artist both. Top that with 18% tax, which our government wants to earn from this handicraft products, this becomes a case for business survival, where whole genre of art stands to threatened by their supposed protectors.
While our country has never hidden its apathy towards its inheritance, at stake is this wooden craft and thousands of artisans, and lacs of direct and indirect jobs. And soon, we will be a Chinese colony of fibre based goods on display. While demise is not imminent, having started with mass furniture, we are almost 50% there.
There are host of issues to be addressed. However, what it requires is a government will and attitude to make that happen. A bit of capital infused in this industry to make it organized will ensure that it survives and thrives. It’s not too late, for it to be a global opportunity, for “made in India” furniture.