In the face of increasing pressure from development and globalisation, crafts today receive poor attention, threatening the very culture that is unique to the country.
Formed in 2005, Handicrafts Association of Bhutan (HAB) is struggling to compete with other imported products.
Executive Director Chorten Dorji said that the organisation represents the handicrafts sector and tries to tackle issues through policy interventions.
He said that in contrast with the products that are made using local materials such as wood and bamboo, people prefer global products. “The flourishing of imported crafts is a challenge. As more people choose imported products over hand-made ones, it becomes difficult.”
The sector also contributes to rural livelihood through craft development. “If we look at craft producers today, most people come from poor family backgrounds.”
He said that stocks in the craft shops are products of rural craftsmen and the artisans units that have less access to market. “It enables equitable economic gains for the underprivileged groups.”
He added that there is no proper value chain and that craftsmen tend to do everything.
The organisation creates market accessibility through a network of national and international market to ensure employment.
“Potential products are identified and refined. Attractive packaging solutions are also made to suit global market,” Chorten Dorji said.
Apart from market linkage, the organisation strives to brand and promote crafts. However, Chorten Dorji said that crafts are made in almost all organisations. “There is a need to come together and prevent replicating products. Reproduction will affect people from generation to generation as they produce and depend on it.”
He said that patenting products could solve the issue as huge market opportunities await the sector, especially in the export market.
The organisation is solely dependent on tourist market, he said. “The sector is driven by how guides want to help us.” He said that if guides earned more commission for imported crafts, then some sold these imported crafts as Bhutanese products.
Capacity development and improving product innovation and designing could help develop the sector.
In collaboration with craftsmen and relevant agencies, HAB will develop assessment and certification system to help establish the value of products in national and international markets.
Exhibitions and trade fairs are conducted to enable artisans and craftsmen to test markets for their products, increase public awareness, and understand market situation.
There are about 185 craft shops registered with the organisation today.
Chorten Dorji said that there is lack of awareness, funding and support from the government. “I feel that it is because the government and people are unaware of the status of craftsmen and the industry.”
He said that HAB has a drop-in centre where anyone could visit anytime and get trained. “We make it very accessible and convenient here. We don’t really stick to 9 to 5 time.”
The organisation at present focuses on textile and knitting.
Through Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, HAB has been trying to exempt tax for authentic Bhutanese crafts and is also trying to lobby with the guides in identifying authentic products.
Chorten Dorji said that the organisation provides services of all 13 arts and crafts. “We embrace the spirit of product innovation and development by using locally available materials, motifs, specialised techniques and technologies.”
Designer’s consortium is also formed among the HAB’s members. This, Chorten Dorji said, is to ensure that the work of the craftsmen do not get stagnated in market.
Chorten Dorji said that traditional Bhutanese handicrafts are unique as it is a part of our tangible living culture and heritage.
He said that HAB in collaboration with relevant stakeholders provide forum involving craftsmen, local people, tour operators, guides, entrepreneurs, and experts to discuss about the importance of traditional crafts and its development.”
The space is created to provide market information and educating general public about values of traditional crafts.
Recognising youth as an important partner to help preserve and promote traditional craftwork, activities are also encouraged for youth.
Programmes like guaranteed buy back activities are arranged so that youths can earn while learning the skills of the trade.
Chorten Dorji said that the organisation has plans to conduct a nation-wide survey on arts and crafts as not many people seem to know the status of arts and crafts.
Currently, there are about 2,500 registered members with the organisation.