Time to talk about India’s new breed of hobby-tech and culture-tech platforms


India’s folk artists have turned online to teach art forms such as Kalamakari, Kavad, Phad or Madhubani paintings. We chat with artists as well as platforms MeMeraki, Zwendedesign, Madcap Workshops and Bitclass

Krishna Tashi Palmo explains the significance of certain elements in Tibetan ‘Thangka’ painting. She waits patiently as the class catches up with her, the ‘students’ are part of a two-day online workshop organised by MeMeraki, a culture-tech platform.

Palmo, a Thangka artist and teacher, is based in Seobagh, a village in Himachal Pradesh. Over four hours spread over the two days, the class is introduced to the history and cultural significance of Thangka painting.

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Despite the occasionally spotty Internet connection, learning art does not get more comfortable than this. You are in your house, a representative of the company ensures that everything proceeds smoothly during the workshop. Palmo is one among many artists who collaborate with platforms such as MeMeraki, to conduct art classes remotely.

Read More | How Indian traditional and folk artistes are adapting online to survive the pandemic

Like Palmo, Kalyan Joshi, an award-winning Phad artist from Bhilwara, Rajasthan, travelled across the country and abroad to participate in exhibitions and conduct workshops. Travelling to showcase folk art, which is a form of religious scroll painting practised over generations, was the source of Joshi’s livelihood till last year’s lockdown.

Similarly, in Darbhanga, Bihar, Madhubani artist Pratima Bharti travelled for workshops and exhibitions and commissioned work to provide for her family. “This is our trade, with lockdown’s restrictions our livelihoods have been hit,” she says over the phone.

Throughout the past year-and-half of the pandemic, practitioners of traditional art forms such as Kavad, Phad, Madhubani, Gond, Pichwai, Lippan and others are facing a hard time due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel, cancelled exhibitions and workshops.

Chitrakathi artist Chetan Gangwane

Chitrakathi artist Chetan Gangwane
 
| Photo Credit: MeMeraki

Attempting to help them are e-learning and hobby-tech platforms that facilitate online workshops. “We are somehow managing. In such a situation, online workshops such as those conducted by MeMeraki are helpful,” Bharti says. Joshi also teaches Phad virtually with Zwendedesign, a Bengaluru-based ‘hobby-tech’ portal.

Before lockdown, Australia-based Yosha Gupta’s brand MeMeraki (@me_meraki on Instagram), headquartered in Gurugram, made hand-painted, artisanal fashion accessories such as bags, scarves, and garments. Her work involved working closely with traditional artisans across the country.

Read More | MeMeraki’s folk art classes triumph through the lockdowns

“When the pandemic hit, while our revenues plummeted and we struggled as a business, we saw that all the artists who worked with us were struggling even more as there has been no tourism and no exhibitions. We thought we needed to do something to create newer work and revenue streams for them and later ourselves. That is how we started experimenting with online workshops a year ago,” Yosha describes. Artists like Pattachitra expert Apindra Swain and Chitrakathi artist Chetan Gangwane have found a new audience/students for their work; these artforms would otherwise have been limited to exhibitions and workshops.

Pattachitra artist Apindra Swain

Pattachitra artist Apindra Swain
 
| Photo Credit: MeMeraki

Pre-pandemic Zwende (@zwendedesign) had also been working with folk artists to manufacture customised home decor and accessories besides offline hobby workshops in Bengaluru. Zwende, like MeMeraki, works with a network of artisans spread across the country. For them too it was a question of supporting craftspeople when opportunities dried up. “Our focus has been on empowering artists, helping them reach a wider audience,” says founder, S Sujay.

Of moving to the e-learning space, he recalls, “Last year, while trying to figure out ways of liquidating inventory, when the pandemic hit us, we thought ‘why only sell? Why not showcase traditional art forms?’”

Yosha, who sees the situation as an opportunity to empower and accelerate the ‘artisan creator’ economy, continues, “We call ourselves a ‘culture-tech’ platform, being a designer working with crafts and artisans is a part of that. We think of ourselves as the first ‘culture-tech’ platform to use technology with a mission to digitise heritage art and crafts of India to create sustainable livelihoods for artisans while unlocking human potential globally.”

A logical step

While for these two companies, the transition was a shift from their model of functioning, for others such as Chennai-based Madcap Workshops it was a question of taking online what they had been doing offline. Madcap Workshops has been conducting offline art workshops since 2018. With more than 500 offline workshops in cities such as Chennai, Bengaluru, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Pune, and Delhi, moving online was the logical step.

“With lockdown, there has been a spike in interest in art. Pre-pandemic the profile of participants was in the 25 to 40 age group, but now there are younger people and the over 55 year-olds. Since they have time at hand, people are exploring art forms which they might not have earlier,” says GK Gokulraj, founder and CEO. The art forms taught in Madcap Workshops has been a mix of modern and traditional art forms, mostly taught by independent artists.

Kavad

It was trial and error when these platforms introduced traditional arts workshops. The classes are designed keeping in mind the interests of those seeking an introduction to traditional art and also others who seek in-depth sessions.

Bitclass, a platform that ‘teaches’ a range of subjects — from art, cooking and martial arts to blogging, stock trading and cryptocurrency, offers the option of introductory workshops. “It is essentially a ‘try and buy’, so that they (participants) get a fair sense of what they will learn and if that is what they are looking for. The workshop would introduce them to a subject (or art form), and they can then decide if they want to do it,” comments Gunjan Kejriwal, one of the founders.

The pros of online

Reena George, an architect in Bengaluru, recently attended a four-day online Madhubani workshop conducted by Zwendedesign. She had earlier attended offline workshops. Lockdown allowed her to try new things, “I never had the opportunity to do a lot of things, because there was always something else to do. I have no connection with folk art, Madhubani looked interesting so I chose it. Not only do you learn something new, but it also broadens your horizon,” she says.

She does not find a difference between online and offline learning but finds the former ‘five percent better’ since she gets to attend the classes from the comfort of her home.

Yosha states, “Close to 10,000 people would have attended these classes over the past year from across the world. Some have attended more than 40-50 of our workshops and we have crossed 400 workshops since we launched them last year.”

Art materials are delivered depending on the ease of availability, in case of delivery restrictions the list is provided in advance. With forms such as Tanjore art, Kantha, phulkari, and Sujani, ‘art kits’ are put together with help from the teacher-artists. Course packages include access to recordings/replays, downloadables and interactive sessions with artists to clear doubts.

The workshops are live, they start with an orientation session where the artist explains the art form before guiding participants into the session. The fees start at ₹99 depending on the art form, duration of workshops (amateur or master class) and material cost. Longer workshops are spread over four days or two weekends, depending on the art form.

New opportunities for growth

Artisans are also willing to adapt and reinvent. “This is an opportunity to showcase our work differently. Besides taking our art to a wider audience, we have access to an online market and space,” points out Joshi.

The transition to the online space has not been easy but the artists, many in far-flung parts of the country, have embraced it. They are discovering the potential of this new ‘space’.

“The artists are tech-savvy and have learnt how to use Zoom and teach the workshops. Our team spends time training the artists; we have created training videos for how to set up the camera, lighting and even softer aspects of storytelling and breaking down classes into easier sessions,” says Yosha.

Remuneration is a part of the deal, but recognition for the artist and the art form is a motivator. Gond artist from Bhopal, Venkat Shyam explains, “It is a good experience. More than that, I see this as an opportunity to take Gond art to more people, explain what it is and its history. Since the audience is bigger, the reach is more.” Shyam hails from a family of Gond artists, he has been one for 40 years. These artists work across platforms and often introduce new artists to the facilitators.

While online workshops offer new opportunities, for many of these artists, they do not translate to work like before. Some of the artists such as Joshi have been able to leverage the medium to his advantage, while others such as Pratima are still testing waters. “Our entire family is involved in this (Madhubani painting). It goes without saying that we have been hit. The workshops are not fixed or regular, unless there is a sale it will be difficult. I think it will be like this till the situation changes,” opines Pratima.



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