Celebrating Nepali Handicraft

With Our focus on the Future

We must celebrate the achievements of the past fifty years; but we must have our sight on the future. Recent events like the pandemic and the COP26 meeting in Glasgow as well as changes happening closer to home need to be internalized if we are to continue to celebrate Nepali handicraft. Supply chains, income levels, values, the way people display their wealth and identity are all changing here and globally. The future will favour the prepared mind. Building on the experiences of the past, we must move into the future. We need to work together for a bright future for artists.

All about people, young people

The future will depend on our ability to engage the young generation in a meaningful and gainful manner. If the young people are not coming into the handcraft business, there is no future. The young are creative, they are exposed to the global media, they know how markets work, they are proud of who they are and of their history and culture. They understand technology and the power of technology to enable competition and quality products. The younger are better educated, they love to travel, and they like new challenges and like to be challenged.  Innovation and change does not scare them, they like change. This young generation needs to understand why learning about history, culture, and geometry are critical for their success. They need to attend business classes and run successful enterprises.

Pricing and creating value

As wealth increases across Asia and the Gulf countries, we need to understand that price may become less important than the need to create value. Once people have money they will seek something of value. Pricing has to become a science and must be based on specific parameters. The value of a piece of art cannot be based on just the materials used or the number of hours an artist spent creating the piece. Throughout the history of art, we read about how many artists died in destitute while the buyers, patrons and collectors enriched themselves. Another challenge has been the reference to masterpieces being “priceless” until they get stolen and once sold in the black market, we get a sense of what the price is. As stolen art and craft is coming back to Nepal, we will understand pricing much better.

Life time experience

The potential client who travels to Nepal has a unique chance to understand what goes on behind the scene while producing a piece of craft or art. This opportunity is often missed because we do not have spaces and the people to demonstrate first-hand the process, tools and techniques used in hand craft making. At Patan Museum, for example, there is one display that shows how repousse art is created. We need many more and also for a potential client to try their hand at working with artists. When Prince Harry visited Patan and had a chance to chisel a piece of wood that was part of the restoration process, we easily saw the mark it left in him. If was a lifetime experience and we need venues, we need artists and we need story tellers for this purpose.

Telling the story well

There is beautiful story behind every piece of handcraft that has not been told well. Why was it crafted, what is the story of the family, what are the tools involved, what materials are used and the challenge of sourcing them? What are the meanings of the symbols, colors, icons used in the piece of handcraft? What does it mean and why it has been with us for so many centuries? How do local people value it and why it is a good purchase? All these need to become part of the story we tell of each and every piece. People will buy the story and retell it to many others. We need to create the story as we create the handcraft. The two cannot be separated. It should appear on the label and the packaging, we need to document these stories based on written texts and the oral tradition we have.

Product to ecosystem

Those who love handcraft and buy and collect them are increasingly aware of its impact on the larger ecosystem. They want to know how materials are sourced, how people who craft them are treated and where does the money (profit) go. History teaches us that the reason why Tibetans paid a good price for our art and craft was because they knew the money was going to build and maintain a beautiful city with many monuments dedicated to higher values and a humble way of life. I would not want to support an artist who perpetuates domestic violence, does not educate their children, is an alcoholic, or disposes of waste into our fragile environment. In the post COP26 world we must reduce the use of carbon in the process because climate change is here to stay with us. Handcraft must be de- carbonized.

Aspirational and functional

Just like a good piece of poetry or well written literature, handcraft should inspire people. The well-crafted image of the Jataka story has inspired people for over 2000 years. It could be in stone, wood or precious metal, but it needs to inspire. The story of the Bhagwat Gita, carved and serialized in stone on the Krishna Mandir in Patan inspires us all. The pauba we use to perform rituals at home continue to inspire us. The second aspect of hand craft is its functionality. People simply do not want ‘things’ that stay on a shelf and gather dust. The cheap replicas that are often presented as a “token of love” are not really functional. They are cheap and can be replicated with ease but do not inspire nor are they functional. Give a sukunda or a butter lamp which have a function.

Short supply chains

Many of our handcraft products are made from materials that come from far and near. We see precious stones from Latin America. We are told that the clay craft now depends on clay from Janakpur and Lumbini. The hard wood that we are using could be from the Burmese or Malaysian forest. Stone artists are often heard complaining about the difficulty in getting stones for their needs. In the world that we live in which is being adversely affected by the pandemic, supply chain is a major issue and will continue to be a problem. This is the time to be creative and look for local materials and viable alternatives. It is not enough to sit back and wish for things to become “normal” again. It may be a long wait. We need creativity at all levels.

Authenticity: non-negotiable

When we claim that a piece of hand craft has been made from silver it has to be good silver, not bad silver, not cadmium. When we say we have used natural color, we cannot use chemicals or cheap substitutes. Gold is gold and hand crafted is not machine made or 3D printed. This is a non-negotiable. The story has to be authentic and the sources of the stories have to be authentic. This requires a bit of effort and dedication but will be worth it. The market has a unique way of separating genuine from fake. The next decade looks very promising for artists, art, craft and the sector as a whole. Let us move ahead together.