Initially the craftsmen would only make leather water canteens and shoes as these were the basic needs of the local people. But after the 'Rural University Initiative', the horizon of the leather craft products has widened to include various types of leather bags, purses, accessories such as belts, key chains, file folders and other storage products. Of these, the leather bags have proved to be the most successful products and have become symbolic to the craft.
The Jawaja project has brought about a new lease of life and self-dependency to the village. It has been able to slowly break the caste divide and form an environment of mutual respect for the professions. The most visible interaction has been of traditional skill with modernity, the meeting of two worlds. This has proven to be an inspiration to many movements thereafter, with self-empowerment and reliance as their goals. The Jawaja village was thus crafted in a way that the people itself became its reliable resource.
In the words of Prof. Ashok Chatterjee (NID) from an interview conducted in 20 October 1997 by Carolyn Jongeward,
"15 to 20 years ago the artisans of Jawaja had no ability to deal with the external market. There was no capacity to understand the needs of buyers far removed from them physically, socially, emotionally and psychologically. That gap was huge. They felt inadequate and that they needed to wait until someone told them what to do. In those days they couldn't enter the Taj Hotel in Bombay to have direct contact with a buyer. Now they are no longer thrown out of the Taj Hotel. They are travelled widely and have developed street smartness to cope. Now their products have gained an international reputation, not just occasional local exposure. OXFAM, just one of their international buyers, has sold their crafts for almost 15 years. This is a huge accomplishment for this community...
Myths & Legends
In 1975, a small collective of people from the 'Indian Institute of Management', Ahmedabad, conducted an experiment in rural education and development. It was initiated by then director of IIM, Ahmedabad Prof. Ravi Mathai. The initiative was called 'The Rural University' and the 'National Institute of Design', Ahmedabad, was invited to collaborate under the guidance of Prof. Ashok Chatterjee.
With an aim to actively collaborate with the rural communities and to catalyze local solutions to problems of poverty and self-reliance, the volunteers, teachers and students from both these institutions worked together with the people of the Jawaja village.
Jawaja, an erstwhile derelict village of Rajasthan that had been written off by the government as a resource-less and underdeveloped region, was given a new lease of life.
A team of designers headed by product designer Ms. Helena Peerhenthupa and textile designer Ms. Neelam Iyer worked with the lowest caste of occupational groups - the 'Raigar' families of leather-workers and the relatively better off 'Bunkar' families or the weavers. The team had to deal with an initial opposition and skepticism from the doubting villagers and village elite.
Of the few tools the villagers were equipped with, the loom was a prominent one. The 'Bunkars' or the 'weavers' used it to weave woolen shawls, 'Odhnis' and other locally worn textiles. They would use it for themselves, barter it for food and other supplies or sell them in the local market for cash.
The 'Raigar' communities, on the other hand, were leather workers. They made objects like camel harnesses, footwear and other adornments. In the 1940's and 1960's, the work of this community was facing a major setback because of the banning of flaying, tanning and shoe repair by their community heads to raise their social standing. By the 1970's, the leather workers had to purchase leather at high market rates making the craft highly disadvantageous. With the advent of electric pumps and motors, the leather bags or 'Chaaras' made by them to draw water from the wells also became obsolete. The local markets were ruled by the higher castes and the money lenders.
The 'Rural University' team helped the villagers overcome these obstacles to a large extent and worked with the rural craftsmen to develop contemporary products which could be sold in the national market. Many other organizations were consulted for refining the techniques and making the processes more speedy and efficient. The craftsmen were taught modern marketing skills and contemporary design interpretations, in a manner that now they have become artisan designers in their own right. Presently the processes of management, innovation and marketing are completely run by the artisans themselves.
The design elements were worked out by the craftsmen in collaboration with the designers from the reputed design institutes of the country to obtain the most out of the material. A few commonly followed design elements are:
- The surface finish is either kept buffed or plain.
- Pockets are a common feature on the leather bags.
- Flaps are provided on the top of the leather bags.
- Braiding is a characteristic feature. It is done either on the shoulder strap or as decoration. This has various advantages as leather has to be cut into thin strips. Even stiff leather is more pliable in thin strips and does not show much defects of the skin. Once the basic braiding principle is learnt, any number of variations can be achieved.
Every step in the leather craft, from processing to finishing, is done without the use of any machines. While environmental pollution continues to be an important issue, the younger generation may be losing interest in this traditional craft. Many now have salaried jobs in nearby towns.
The biggest challenge for Jawaja craftsmen has been marketing their work in western markets due to stiff competition and a language barrier. According to a few craftsmen they are not able to explain their work well because of this. They do not know what the customers understand and what they don't. The customer's understanding determines the monetary value they give for the craftsmen's work.
The buyers of the Jawaja products are located in places far away from the village. The means of transport and accessibility are very less for the craftsmen. This has led to almost no direct interaction with the buyers. Only middlemen have direct interactions and the artisans only know what they tell them. Even though they have a website, there have been no or very few direct sales.