Breaking Barrier: Redefining gender roles in the handicraft industry

Breaking Barrier: Redefining gender roles in the handicraft industry

Creativity has no boundaries, and it most certainly does not restrict itself to one gender. Yet, gender norms have defined the roles of men and women in such a manner that they are not given the opportunities to experiment with their creativity. Where creativity is something that comes inherent to the artist, the cultural traditions and historical events in India have fostered the idea that certain art forms are to be practised by men and certain by women. For instance, art forms, as old as Warli Paintings, were started by women who spent most of their day in their abodes while the men were away hunting. However, when this art began getting traction and respect that it deserved, it was the men who were at the receiving end, there are other examples wherein even though the art was practised by women, it was the men who introduced it to the world and even commercialised it. Women, on the other hand, were constrained to the four walls. However, this discrimination was not just limited to women. Many art forms such as stitching were seen as a women's job, and when performed by men, were neither acknowledged nor appreciated.

With time, men have been able to fight against this discrimination to carve a space for themselves in the artisan sector, demanding the respect and status that suits their exceptional talent and intricate skills. They got the opportunities to take up these art forms as a profession and further derive prosperity out of the same, which is why art forms that have a rich history and culture attached to them are predominantly dominated by men. Be it the painting of walls of the royal palaces or the engraving of scriptures on famous monuments, any and every such opportunity was capitalised on by men. However, unlike men, women were neither accepted as apprentices by master artisans nor provided any financial or moral encouragement from their families. So, while men were reaching new heights inthe world of art, women had parallelly carved a niche for themselves in the art forms that they had been restricted to. They mastered the art of painting, stitching and other such arts that were either overlapping with their household chores or were practised on a large scale in their localities. Even if women excelled at art, they were rarely considered for the role of assisting the men, let alone learning and practising it on their own. It was for these reasons that it took a longer time for women to be able to break free from these stereotypes and showcase their artistic skills on a commercial scale. The lack of resources and encouragement to pursue a seeming man's art is still very less for women. A man taking up a women’s job is now increasingly being accepted by society, but vice versa is disregarded and frowned upon.


Today, India is home to 7 million artisans as per government records. However, data from unofficial sources indicate that the cumulative strength of artisans is as high as 200 million. The wide nature of this range and disparity in the number can be attributed to the very informal and unorganised nature of this sector. This can be proven through the fact that even after the presence of more than 200 million artisans, only 3.5 million artisans are recognised through the artisan cards due to the utter lack of knowledge about the same among the artisans. Therefore, the large Indian handicraft industry is actually based out of the small, unrecognised parts of India where illiteracy, traditional mindset and unawareness plague the societal system. Further aggravating the problem is the fact that 56% of the 193 million unrecognised artisans are women, indicating how women have not been given due acclaim and how they are more likely to be dissuaded from practising the art forms beyond their traditional roles. 

Because of these very reasons, it becomes essential that we as a society recognize and celebrate the creative and artistic expressions of individuals regardless of their gender. We need to encourage them to explore their creative interests and give them equal opportunities to pursue their passions. Further, as the next generation, it becomes our responsibility to work towards breaking down gender stereotypes and fostering an environment where creativity knows no bounds. Owing up to this task, we at Project Virasat, a student-run organisation, disregard gender preconceptions and instead place more emphasis on the skills and aptitudes of our artisans as unique individuals. We not only support the declaration of individual expression but also the diffusion of these art forms to everyone. 

Project Virasat understands the importance and relevance of the traditional art forms and therefore, through its various workshops and sessions, promotes wider comprehension of the intricate art forms and further attracts respect for anyone and everyone who practises them irrespective of their gender. Usta, an art form predominantly performed by men, was encouraged amongst the common people regardless of their gender through our Usta workshops. These workshops, organised in collaboration with Zwende, were taken by our artisans who taught the art to over 200 attendees. In fact, a girl from the audience was so intrigued by the art that she later on went to Bikaner to learn the art from our artisans who willingly supported her in her endeavours. Therefore through these workshops, we saw a growing interest in women in this delicate art. 

In another such instance in our recent visit to Chapera in Nuh, Mewat, we met up with the very inspirational Manju Ji of Saksham SHG. Being one of the many  women working in bag stitching in the area, she shared with us that she had taken training for 13 days, after which she started stitching bags. She also informed us that the community has shrunk over the months to only 4-5 women actively practising the activity due to very low demand for these bags because of which her husband too does not actively support her work. Despite all of this, she still manages to stitch 6-7 bags daily and when asked in an interview, whether she would also stop stitching bags, she proudly stated "I will never stop my work, I stand firmly and will continue alone if I have to". At Virasat, we continuously look forward to empowering artisans that exude such passion towards their art and try to uplift them through platforms that they otherwise did not have access to.

In conclusion, gender norms have limited the opportunities for both men and women to experiment with their creativity, leading to a disparity in the recognition and acknowledgement of the artisan sector. However, with the changing times, men have been able to make a dominant difference in their conditions while women have been restricted to the minimal opportunities that they have had forever. And that is exactly what we wish to address as well as spread awareness about through our article. Being an artisan is an exceptionally demanding profession that should get the recognition it deserves and therefore the platform it requires, irrespective of gender. As famously said, art in itself exists to challenge one to think, provoke, to even disturb, in a constant search for justice. Following similar lines, if an artist dares to fight for the masses, it becomes the masses’ responsibility to fight for them and their acceptance.