Traditional craft in the urban conservation agenda


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THE Delhi Declaration preambles with the line, ‘Acknowledging that heritage constitutes a key resource in enhancing quality of life and social cohesion, fostering economic development in a fast-changing global environment.’ This is not the first time that heritage is being considered as a driver for development. Also, community inclusiveness is at the heart of the theme of heritage and democracy.

Craft, being one of the most intrinsic components of local community, assert the dictum, ‘of all the people, by all the people and for all the people’. This is important since craft, like other intangible heritage components, cannot be mummified for posterity. Over centuries crafts have constantly evolved and it is this evolving nature that is their greatest attribute. Traditional livelihoods including crafts that are associated with cultural forms and local practices and whose skills and knowledge are passed on from generation to generation, play a critical role in the sustainable development agenda. However, these traditional livelihoods, especially in urban areas, face a high risk of disappearing due to pressures of globalization and development.

While there is an increasing focus on the physical fabric, the present urban conservation processes especially in India place relatively less emphasis on the intangible component that is also an inherent part of the communities and whose sustainability most often rests on traditional skill based livelihoods, including craft. All heritage is contingent, contested and difficult, the issues multiply manifold with respect to craft. Hence, they need a distinct outlook other than the one for the tangible to address it in the urban conservation processes today.

As Jaya Jaitley reminds us, the life of Indian craft is like the mighty rivers such as the Ganges or the Brahmaputra. They originate from sacred sources located in an ancient past. Also they travel, always in forward motion, though at varied paces and with changing vigour. Even as we revere them, worship them and are dependant on them, they are polluted and require to be cleansed. Their only unchanging reality is that they never cease to exist.1


Craft consists of products made by highly skilled artisans with the help of simple tools using raw materials, mostly derived from nature. Before the advent of the industrial revolution, almost everything that humans used was made this way – ships, textiles, clothes, furniture, jewellery, carts and chariots, artefacts, including the tools themselves.

Globally there is no agreed definition for craft. UNESCO has considered it synonymous with ‘handicraft’:

‘Handicrafts can be defined as products which are produced either completely by hand or with the help of tools. Mechanical tools may be used as long as the direct manual contribution of the artisan remains the most substantial component of the finished product. Handicrafts are made from raw materials and cannot be produced in unlimited numbers. Such products can be utilitarian, aesthetic, artistic, creative, culturally attached, decorative, functional, traditional, religiously and socially symbolic and significant.’2

In India, the 12th five year plan defined handicrafts as items made by hand with the use of simple tools, generally artistic and/or traditional in nature, which are used for decorative purposes, including as gifts and souvenirs as well as for utility purposes. The ambiguity of this definition is also reflected in the Indian government’s economic policies and development agendas since there is no recognized category of crafts based income.

According to international policy trends, ‘Craft’ may be located within the larger rubric of Creative Industries and Cultural Industries. According to UNESCO, cultural industries combine creation, production and commercialization of creative cultural and intangible components. These cultural expressions result from the creativity of individuals, groups and societies as per the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions 2005.

Historically, craft largely depended on the patronage of kings, noblemen, chieftains and even churches and temples. Traditional marketplaces in pre-industrial agrarian societies provided avenue for trade and barter. Although once an integral element in the political, spiritual and economic life of the community, craft was marginalized by the processes of industrialization. The industrial revolution brought about the possibility of making things at a faster pace and in larger numbers. This led to traditional crafts being considered crude and hence marginalized, confined to a few who still wanted to practice them.

The last three centuries of mechanized processes have pushed artisans into abandoning their traditional livelihoods and work in agriculture or as menial labour. This is somewhat ironic considering that it was a combination of capital and technology, along with artisanal skills and knowledge, that made the industrial revolution possible.3 Despite this marginalization, traditional crafts continue to struggle to survive across the developing world.


The term traditional is strongly linked to ‘crafts’ when discussed in the context of heritage. Discussing the larger umbrella of traditional systems, the root issue of the way crafts are considered or not considered in the larger rubric of heritage lies in the categorization of it as ‘traditional’. When there is a comparative discussion on the modern and traditional, what and where will we locate the dividing line? The history of architecture for instance is always studied on a time-line, so do we follow the same statute for developing an understanding of the ‘traditionality’ of heritage? The Oxford definition of traditional is ‘the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way, a doctrine belie.’ This means that traditions are part of a long established custom, practice or belief, and they are ongoing and do not have a deadline. Hence, their compartmentalization can be highly debatable.4

Romila Thapar defines a historical tradition as created from the intellectual and social assumptions of a society. She adds that an attempt to understand tradition must begin by relating it to its social function, to ask the question: ‘What purpose was served by creating and preserving this tradition?’ And, flowing from this, to see how a changing society made use of the tradition.5


Traditional occupations or livelihoods are those that are practiced by successive generations and are rooted in customs and practices. These occupations include agriculture and crafts where the latter would include traditional weaving, embroidery and building craft as well. Traditional craft coming under the umbrella of intangible heritage are part of the cultural and creative set-up that uses endogenous community knowledge and can add to economic empowerment. Other than the heritage significance of craft, they also contribute towards tourism, rural and urban economies and towards the sustainability and well-being of the society with a sense of identity.6


The need to consider traditional craft as an economic driver has been advocated by various organizations and doctrines. UNESCO in its creative economy report propagates the importance of creativity as an economic driver and traditional craft being one of its subsets. UN reports have established that there is a sizable and strong economic sector based upon creative activities. Tradition, culture, arts and commerce make up a strong intertwined ecosystem in most Indian historic cores and they are strongly supported by beliefs, skills and aspirations leading to creation, production, transaction and fulfilment.7

In India, the dominant perspective has been to emphasize the intangible and the cultural aspects of urban heritage but its economic valuation is missing. The need for evaluating its economic components stems from the very same reason that the cultural attributes too need to be quantified in terms of the economic and employment benefits generated. The organizational form with micro-enterprises more commonly associated with creative economy is what differentiates it from other sectors, especially in developing countries.

The traditional craft based industries are predominantly made up of family businesses that have continued through generations. Since a major part of the Indian economy is based on local businesses and the vast heritage of artisanal skills is still prevalent, creative economy does not remain a matter of choice in India. Also, the scale of informality – an essential characteristic of traditional economy, both in terms of enterprises and employment or occupations – is very significant in India. According to the UNESCO report, the informal economy is estimated to occupy as much as half of total GDP, with the ratio of informal employment being far higher.8

In the global economy today, the creative and cultural industries have a growth rate of 17.6% in Middle East, 13.9% in Africa, 9.7% in Asia and 11.9% in Latin America.9 Citing the example of Morocco, the crafts production there forms 19% of its GDP (including exports estimated at US$ 63 million). In Thailand, the population of craft workers is estimated to be two million with almost a half working full time.10 These industries can provide employment and entrepreneurship through capacities that build on inherent skills and knowledge. In particular, these industries can offer livelihood to all including women and marginalized groups.


International doctrines and concepts do discuss the issue of community-centric heritage conservation and management. Some of the recent initiatives in this area include the historic urban landscape approach adopted by UNESCO, living heritage sites programme and people centred approach by ICCROM and a call for engaging communities and traditional knowledge systems by the world heritage convention. All these initiatives advocate community participation as a means for sustainability of historic areas. The historic urban landscape approach propagates that urban heritage with its intangible and tangible components in their natural context are a key resource to enhance the livability of urban areas by encouraging economic growth and social cohesion of the related community.11


In 1998, UNESCO adopted the Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The idea behind this was to sensitize and mobilize opinion in favour of the oral and intangible heritage. This led to the listing of such heritage from individual countries. The inscription is based on the notion of outstanding value ‘from a historical, artistic, ethnological, sociological, anthropological, linguistic or literary point of view’ (1998, UNESCO Criteria).

This was followed by the convention for Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage, 2003, which accentuates the ‘intangible’ processes and functions, but also include the physical attributes to the notion of the ‘intangible cultural heritage’:

The ‘intangible cultural heritage’ means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.


In the context of the World Heritage Convention, Japan had organized a meeting of experts in Nara in 1994 to discuss the issue of authenticity. Understanding that truthfulness of information sources should be a fundamental prerequisite for the definition of authenticity, the Nara Document on Authenticity (1994) underlines cultural diversity as an irreplaceable source of spiritual and intellectual richness. The necessity is to evaluate cultural heritage within the cultural contexts of its belonging.

In the debate that followed the latter, people in favour of the intangible heritage argued the idea of authenticity as defined in the Nara Document. According to them, intangible heritage is constantly recreated and should therefore not be seen only in the context of historical authenticity, which was understood as ‘static’. The livingness component is an inherent attribute of intangible cultural heritage.

An art form that originated as a utility entity for the peasant might over time grow into an elite art from the royal court or perhaps into a common skill to ultimately making craft items into decorative tourist goods. What then is ‘authentic’ and what is to be safeguarded?12 There must be a distinction when judging the authenticity of a physical structure vis a vis traditional practice, though this may not necessarily lead to understanding the basic notion of authenticity.


The fundamental questions – ‘who decides what heritage is?’ and ‘why and for whom is the heritage created?’ – become important when justifying crafts as a heritage. As mentioned earlier, craft is continually reinvented and reinvested in by the artisans who also improvise on the experience of the previous generations. This has led to craft at times being understood as mundane. The divide between intangible from tangible heritage also adds to our concerns. For example, any craft product of the highest aesthetics, such as the elaborate Lithuanian cross are tangible, but the knowledge and skills that create them are intangible. This leads to a very complex issue of safeguarding since the preservation of the tangible and intangible are intimately conjoined.13

To add to this complexity, there is an additional issue of World Intellectual Property rights for the intangible heritage. Under conventional IP law, the copyright of any documentation belongs to the author of the content, which in the case of historic areas is the professional or researcher. This creates a situation where the rights are owned by the outsider and not the traditional holders of cultural expressions (WIPO 2). When we look at the carriers of heritage, the issue gets contested with respect to the authorship – who is the author and beneficiary? Can it be attributed to an individual, community, tribe or will it be to the region or country?

Amritsar and Patiala, were both home to a number of craft which have faced increased challenge of sustainability over the years. In both places the continued production and development of traditional craft is threatened by the disappearance of traditional skills. In this world of global connections and internet usage the traditional cultures do undergo a change. The introduction to new ideas and belief systems; options of new resources; the availability of new raw materials and at times the disappearance of the old; new employment and education opportunities – all contribute to this change. Also, the influence of political networks and their agendas only add to the concerns.

The chuddi (bangles) industry in Amritsar shows the replacement of ivory with plastic, in addition to the availability of bangles from Jaipur. The availability of replicated and craft products at far lower prices than the original has also hit craftspersons hard. With a cheaper machine made version of the original Punjabi phulkari work available from Bengal, the local artisans face strong competition. The major tourism infrastructure development in recent years portrays a conflicting picture to the deteriorating urban fabric around this development.


With socio-cultural changes over time, festivals and rituals that once required elaborate craft also face change, resulting in fewer opportunities for artisans. As seen in Amritsar and Patiala, young people today find the lengthy apprenticeship with lower economic benefits too demanding and prefer working in factories or find other means of earning a living where the pay is better. Many craft traditions involve ‘trade secrets’ not shared with others and with family members deviating from this work, the knowledge could well disappear. Amritsar revealed many craftsmen where they were the only surviving generation who continue in the craft as their children have shifted to other occupations.

To add to the above are the political agendas and resulting physical manifestations – the emphasis on infrastructure development that is directed towards the tourists for better display of craft products but with little direct connection between the artisans and tourists. As the demand for the products of jewellers and metal workers has considerably reduced, many of those who worked in tourism related craft have moved out of the city. Only those involved in food related craft still see their work prospering in the city core due to popularity among the locals and tourists.

Traditional craftsmanship is without doubt the most tangible manifestation of intangible cultural heritage. The UNESCO 2003 Convention on Intangible Heritage discusses its concern for the skills and knowledge involved in craftsmanship rather than the craft products themselves. An attempt must be made to safeguard traditional knowledge and skills, and not so much on the craft product itself. This would encourage the artisans to continue their practices and to pass on their skills and knowledge to others, particularly within their own communities.

Although the discussion on intangible heritage and traditional knowledge systems continues, it is critical to connect this discussion to economic policies for sustainability of the communities that hold this knowledge. Making the knowledge system a driver for development will go a long way in assuring its continuity. With respect to target 11.4 of the SDG goals, it will be critical to adopt policies that will accept the role of local institutions and traditional knowledge systems and integrate heritage protection and their associated values into inclusive socio-economic development for the local communities to mutually benefit both the community and the heritage fabric.14.



1. J. Jaitley, ‘Access, Livelihood and Development – Inclusive Marketing: Empowering the Crafts Sector’, Context 6(2), 2009, p. 21-28.

2. UNESCO, Creative Economy Report: Widening Local Development Pathways (special edition). United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), New York, 2013.

3. K. Green, ‘A Rough Trade: How Artisan Ironworkers Mediated Architectural Modernism – A Case Study of Early Steel-Framed Architecture, the 1897 Wesleyan Church, Darwin’. Paper presented at the Additions to Architectural History, XIXth Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, 2002.

4. N. Sengupta (ed.), ‘Introduction’, in Economic Studies of Indigenous and Traditional Knowledge. Academic Foundation, Delhi, 2007, pp. 21-29.

5. R. Thapar, The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2013.

6. H. Jennings, Towards a Definition of Heritage Craft. National Skills Academy, UK, 2012.

7. Navin Piplani (ed.), Asia-Europe Network of Urban Heritage for Sustainable Creative Economies. INTACH, Delhi, 2015.

8. UNESCO, 2013, op. cit.

9. The UNESCO Culture for Development Indicators: Methodology Manual, UNESCO Publication, 2014, p. 22.

10. The UNESCO World Report on Cultural Diversity, UNESCO Publication, 2009.

11. Francesco Bandarin and Ron Van Oers, Reconnecting the City; The Historic Urban Landscape Approach and the Future of Urban Heritage. Wiley Blackwell, UK, 2015.

12. R. Kurin, ‘Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the 2003 UNESCO Convention: A Critical Appraisal’, Museum International 56, 2004.

13. Ibid.

14. J. Hosagrahar, ‘Urban Heritage and Sustainable Development in South Asia: A Plea for a Heritage-Aware Approach’, in Marie-Theres Albert (ed.), Perceptions of Sustainability in Heritage Studies. Walter De Gruyter, Berlin and Boston, 2015.