NEW DELHI – “Sanjhi,” the ancient Indian art of paper-cutting using nature-inspired motifs, is how Ram Soni puts food on the table. It's also a carefully preserved skill passed down through generations in his family.
Using special scissors given to him by his parents, who taught him the craft at an early age, he patiently carves out intricate pieces from folded paper to create complex stencils that stand out against contrasting colored paper.
Soni’s sales dipped to zero as India went into a prolonged lockdown earlier this year to try to contain the coronavirus pandemic.
The 49-year-old Soni is just the sort of artisan New Delhi-based designer Sheela Lunkad and her architect husband, Rajeev Lunkad, aim to help with their “Shilp se Swavlamban," or “Empowerment through Craft," campaign to provide craftspeople an online platform for collaboration, displaying and selling their works.
The Lunkads set up a company called Direct Create in 2015, aiming to bring down exorbitant prices for traditional Indian handicrafts by connecting artisans with buyers, cutting out middlemen and swanky retailers.
Most artisans live in far-flung parts of vast India. With markets and exhibitions closed by the pandemic, many had no way to reach customers. Now they can register on the Direct Create platform to showcase their work. They can also collaborate to custom-design products for their clients.
The new online platform now features works by more than 2,500 artisans.
“Because of Direct Create, we have been able to give them a whole lot of marketing outreach and discoverability,” Sheela said. “People have reached out to them asking for various kinds of things which they have loved and appreciated during this time.”
Collaborations can lead to fusions across cultures, like a traditional, colorful Rajasthani storytelling-box, or “Kavad,” depicting a Romanian folk story that was made to order by a local artisan for a German storyteller and teacher.
Direct Create does not profit from sales on its platform, though 4-5% of the income from each sale goes toward packaging, shipping and providing online payment gateways to craftsmen who usually are not adept at arranging online payments.
It's been a lifeline for papercutting artisan Soni, who initially had to lay off all his workers and even considered giving up his art. He now lists his paper cutting craft on the online platform and says it has helped him work on a collaborative design project.
“The thought behind Direct Create is very good for new artists,” said Soni, whose work has won him a national award and recognition from UNESCO. “We get to earn money, but we also earn respect.”
Sanjay Chitara, an expert of “Mata Ni Pachedi,” or block and hand-painted pieces of cloth that usually depict stories of Hindu gods and goddesses, says Direct Create enabled him to restart his business after he shut down during the pandemic.
“After I started displaying my work on the websites, a lot of my old clients could view my current work,” said Chitara, who lives in the western state of Gujarat. “It is beneficial because if they like our work, clients contact the artists directly.”
There's another indirect benefit from the initiative.
The shift toward shopping online to limit possible exposure to the coronavirus has made people more curious and careful about what they are buying and whether it is made sustainably, Sheela said.
“Industrial products had flooded the market,” she said. “The pandemic and the digital space has now allowed people to actually view products on their desktops and phones. They can make a discerning choice today. ‘Do I buy this industrial product from maybe Amazon or a couple of others, or do I look at picking up small, interesting things which actually make a difference to the livelihood and equitability of the craftsmen?’”