Mudra Foundation interview – 2

The state of Odisha – the craft tradition of brass art, Dhokra.
Both the craft and the designers who collaborate with the artisans are undergoing a transformation in the process.

I heard in detail about the project that took up the brass craft of Dhokra from Mr. Manas and Mrs. Masako Ono, chairpersons of the Mudra Foundation. Mr. Manas is originally from Odisha. He is a photographer and a stage lighting designer, and Masako’s husband.

Collaborations between overseas designers and the artisans of the indigenous villages in the mountain region.

India isn’t just about curry. In Odisha, there is a rich culture that surrounds the entire region. “Everyone who comes to Odisha for the first time is surprised. In addition to the Odissi dance, I thought there were many other fine (highly artistic) things here that I want to know about”, said Masako.

In the beginning, Mudra Foundation expanded their activities by widening the network of artists across the world that Masako had connected with through her dancing. Last year, they planned a photo book, where they tested out collaborations between overseas designers and artists and artisans practising the traditional art of Dhokra. Securing the support of Tata Trusts, Canon India and the Odisha state government, they published the photo book “LOST into Art : DHOKRA” in March 2017.

The brass craft of Dhokra is one of many traditional crafts. I was shown a book just off the press. Inside it, while displaying the manufacturing process of the artisans in detail, along with beautiful pictures of the village, they are exploring new possibilities that traditionally crafted products must cross over into.

Process of collaboration

The time it took to publish the Dokhra photo book, including the research, was a year and three months. By what kind of process did the collaboration between designers and artisans go forward?
“It as a process that gave birth to something new during the mutual exchange of knowledge”, Mr. Manas explained.
“Going to the village where the artisan lives, the designer first prepares a design after understanding the manufacturing process, and creates a prototype (sample). Then the designer will make a request to the artisan, and even if the artisan says it’s not possible, they discuss it anyway, and what’s called trial-and-error will occur. From that, original things can be made”, said Manas.

Although new designs are a first for the artisans, their ideas about manufacturing change as they work with the designers, and likewise for the latter. In this photo book, three designers from Japan and Europe are first testing out their ideas in collaboration with the artisans.

Photo by Mudra Foundation
Photo by Mudra Foundation

Manas says again, “It is becoming important to manufacture with designers who have market linkages, and after making samples, to search for places that will sell them in collaboration with the designers.”

Although this is something that can be said in general, no matter how talented the designer, he or she cannot sell their creations without a market, and even what they create taking great pains turns to dust.

Usually, with items produced using traditional crafts, the technique may be magnificent but the problem of their being unsellable occurs because of the lack of variation due to the classical nature of their designs. There, artisans must start by breaking this wall and perhaps abandon something to acquire something new in order to break the deadlock.
Actually, the level of the artistic technique of the Dhokra village involved in the project was certainly raised, even if it only went through a short-term trial of creating the prototypes.

The book is not the end

The book on Dhokra was the first book designed by the Mudra Foundation. Of course, I’d like to see several other handicrafts projects as well, but their plan is to first sell and recover the cost of their new book and connect it to their next project.

In other words, having made the book is not the end. The collaborations inside the photo book are things that saw potential, and are harbingers to the end. Mudra Foundation will start a 3-year project related to the brass craft of Dhokra. Again, soliciting the support of funds, it will call together designers and marketers in Odisha. While coordinating with artisans to utilise these funds for experimentation, they are said to be thinking of applying them to the final product after repeated reviews and marketing.

Photo by Mudra Foundation
Feed profits back to the village in a proper model

While talking about social businesses and fair-trade, I asked what kind of model would be the best according to them based on the trading of goods. In this example, how do they return the money of the people who bought Dhokra to the village?

As far as the Dhokra artisans are concerned, it’s a fact that over the last 20 years, lifestyles have not improved at all.
“Even we don’t have a clear answer yet” says Masako, and on top of that, says that they are thinking, “Let us stop simply donating to the villages.”

“If you ask why, it’s because the sad reality exists that if they suddenly receive some money, the people of the village will soon end up using it for things like alcohol. In the lifestyle of the village, because mothers cook food that is good for the body, meals aren’t that much of an issue. When it comes to education, the skill level of the teachers isn’t high but there are schools that one can go to for free.”

When they asked what the biggest problem in the villages was, they were told, “When we get sick there are no doctors.” “As Mudra Foundation, we think it is important to dispatch doctors at present. Nevertheless, even when you say the word ‘doctor’, the general notion of ‘medicine’ seems to be different. There is also wisdom among these people living in nature. It is also wrong to impose western medicine as it is, there are diseases that you can’t do anything about without things like western medical equipment. It’s difficult, isn’t it? There, I want to cooperate with institutions such as NGOs which dispatch doctors and feed profits back in a proper model”, said Masako.

(Reference) The pictures below are of Dhokra brassware being marketed in the Tribal World shop in Bhubaneswar. They are being made in multiple villages in the mountainous regions. The colour of the metal differs slightly for each village, and each face is different even if the motif is the same because all of it is manually done.

I want to share another effort by Mudra foundation of using art as a means of returning profits to to the region. I heard the story of the Odisha Biennale, which holds and important position in this regard.

Text : Yoko Kobayashi (translated by Aumurto)

Mudra Foundation Interview 3

This post is also available in Japanese.