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Traditional arts, digitalisation, and role of education in rural India

Badarinath Gella is an aspiring entrepreneur and yoga teacher among many other things. After studying and working in Europe he went back to India to help solve pressing problems there and explore the opportunities his home country presents. Lisa Bomash talked to Badarinath about digitalisation and arts in the rural areas of India, entrepreneurship, and education.

art of hand weaving in India
The dying art of hand-weaving in India. Image provided by the interviewee

LB: Please tell me a bit about your background and what are you doing at the moment?

BG: My background is in civil engineering. I graduated from the University of Bologna in Italy, later did a short-term research contract at the University of Bradford, UK, then I moved to Helsinki, Finland to do my internship at Bionova Oy. While abroad, I have been thinking about how to use my knowledge back in India, to make the lives of fellow citizens better. These thoughts drove me back home. Despite an opportunity to work as a project manager in Malta after my internship was over, I came back to India to be a part of the Smart Village project, an NGO located in Meghalaya, in the Northeast of the country.

LB: What is the Smart Village project and what is your role in it?

BG: Smart Village acts as a bridge between the government, academia, corporate partners, andlocal communities at the grassroots level. Berkley University is our research partner, the government provides funds and local connections, and corporate partners contribute their technology that can help with problems in the rural areas. So, India is divided into states and we are working with the State Government across several verticals. I lead projects related to the household vertical which include affordable housing, sanitation, energy, connectivity, transportation, and water access. Previously I was working in South India with a focus on rural development, agriculture, and education. 

The key concept of Smart Village is bringing digital tools and solutions to the villages. We partner with digital companies, take them to the rural markets and show them what are the needs there. Currently in India, 70% of people are living in rural areas, not in urban areas. However, most of the products are designed for urban areas, so why not to explore the rural markets where 70% of the population are? So, we help the companies to understand the market they are entering and design the products according to the rural market’s requirements.

LB: How does the Smart Village project help local artists?

BG: Currently we work with several artist and artisan communities across India. Many arts are at the stage of disappearance. I will take one example of Mori village. They have a strong tradition of hand-weaving there. There were once 500 weaving families in that village that has now reduced to 50, and no new generation of artists to keep the tradition. It is hard to compete with power looms that only take about five minutes to weave a garment, when it takes an artist almost a day to weave the same garment by hand. Secondly, even if there is an interest somewhere in the world in the hand-made items, how can one find them? The local artists in rural areas do not know how to sell. Of course, there is Amazon and many other eCommerce portals, but artists don’t know how to reach these platforms. The Smart Village showed them how to use digital technologies, how to use a mobile phone, and sell their art across the world. Also, previously there was one artist here and another over there, so we created a society for them to empower each other and share knowledge. We call these societies self-help groups in India. We created a similar group for kalamkari artists.

We also work with the children of the artists, who are going to schools and universities, encouraging them to empower their parents. The education system in India, I don’t know in which way it is going, but people are forgetting the problems within their homes and thinking about global warming and other things. Of course, I agree that global warming is a problem and an important one, but one can’t just think about global problems while leaving the problems in one’s own home without attention.

Smart Village also involves students from local institutions to help artists with practical things like selling across the global markets or exploring how to add value to what they are doing. Once we partnered with the National Institute of Fashion Technology, India’s famous fashion school, and asked students to come up with innovative products, new designs. This way the artists can explore what else they can create in addition to the more traditional saris or prints. These creations are much more sustainable too, both in terms of production and environmental impact.

Another thing we are doing is creating a story behind every artist and product. For example, if you take kalamkari, there is a story behind it. It was not born 50 years ago, but hundreds of years ago, it has a long history. So, whoever buys the product can learn about it and also who they are empowering through the purchase. How are we communicating these stories? We connected with some start-ups in India that provide blockchain technology and traceability solution for local artists. It is a practice innovation lab, where artists take photos of raw materials and record steps taken during the process in a special application that at the end generates a QR code sticker. If, for example, I send an item to you, Lisa, you scan the QR code and will know things like which weaver has made it, what are the steps in the process of creating it, what raw materials the weaver used, and what are the carbon emissions associated with making this product.

Kalamkari print. Image provided by the interviewee
Kalamkari print. Image provided by the interviewee

LB: You mentioned quite a few technological innovations. How do you see the role of digitalisation in securing equality and empowering people in rural areas of India?

BG: We have done many pilots and the biggest problem is the adaptability of technology so it can be easily used in rural areas by people who are not accustomed to using technological products. Network coverage is good in India, but we have to come up with some models to educate people. From 100 people we approach maybe 10 can adopt the new technology. Another problem is the cost – accessing technology or upgrading the equipment is hard as the income is usually very low. Recently the government of India came up with some interest-free loan schemes, but very few people are aware of these schemes. Someone needs to be there, on the ground, to do hand-holding and help to bring the traditions and arts forward. 

One idea that I have is engaging students in empowering local artists. Also, students should be motivated to do it. There is no educational programme at the moment designed around the real pain points of the villages. We cannot develop such a programme within the Smart Village movement, but I see the potential there, as I told you previously. 

LB: Let’s talk about your aspiration to become an entrepreneur!

BG: Exactly, exactly! I want to become a social entrepreneur. There are so many things that need to be done. When I came back to India after spending time in Italy and Finland, my perspective had changed completely. That’s the reason why I joined the Smart Village project, even though I’m getting 1/4 of the salary I was getting in Finland. Here I can explore the opportunities by working at the grassroots level across different areas. 

I am interested in education as it is an area where a greater impact can be achieved. In a project I mentioned previously, when I talked about working with the students, one of the things I want is to sensitise the students and show them the opportunities available here. One of India’s problems is the population; however, India’s strength is also our population. So, reminding people about the problems and opportunities here and teaching them relevant skills, and making them think empathetically can be turned into a great strength for our country, my country. But when people are jobless and only think about money and can’t care about society, that is the weakness of the country.  

My idea is to help local students to see the opportunities, as the majority of the students nowadays in India do not know what they want to be because they don’t know what is happening. The majority just want to become Indian administration service officers, a traditional role that offers stability. Why are they not thinking about their passions, or wanting to solve the actual problems, or about creating something? Why are the only career paths considered to be civil servants, engineers or doctors? I hope when they go and see the real problems and opportunities available in the world then it will be easier for them to find their passion, their mindset will change, they will understand why they’re studying.

That’s why I hope to engage students to work with the problems on the ground level and at least make some impact and change their thought process. That is the major reason why I want to become an entrepreneur. 

LB: With your entrepreneurial idea, how do you see your next steps?

BG: I want to design and run an education programme, a 100-120 hours, 6-month course for the students on 21st-century skills, where they need to work on the rural pain points, solving the challenges in various areas from arts to agriculture. 

Currently, I have good enough knowledge of the grassroots level and an idea for a business model. So, what I want to do is to work with students from abroad as well as students from India. We set a challenge to solve a real problem that the local and international students can work on, bringing different perspectives to the process. The students would be able to search for solutions, execute their thoughts together, and learn how to solve the problems in developing countries. This promotes internationalisation and also teaches the shared responsibility for the problems our world is facing and how to solve them together.

LB: What are the main challenges for becoming an entrepreneur in India?

BG: That is a very important question for me. For example, I have this idea, but I’m still not clear how to realise it and am still looking for a mentor. It’s very difficult for aspiring entrepreneurs to find handholding support. There are things I don’t know, but it is not impossible to learn. However, the lack of confidence and lack of mentorship are the things that are challenging.

LB: Tell a bit more about India and what foreign artists, or anyone really, who wants to work in India or collaborate with Indian partners needs to be mindful of?

BG: Well, India is a very culturally diverse country, there are many religions and we are proud of that and we celebrate all the festivals together, like Farsi, Christian, everyone is celebrating. The problem here is politicising the particular communities. For example, in India, something happens and the media will tag the religion to it. Also, when one belongs to a minority community, they can get a good reservation for the government jobs or anything, so people take advantage and change their religion for this. NGOs, supporting various communities, struggle as now the Government of India has stopped taking foreign funds in the form of donations to NGOs. It is very complicated! Foreigners won’t be affected by local politics and tensions, but they need to understand the history of the world. 

What would I tell artists or cultural professionals who want to collaborate with India? Just look at the currently dying arts which will disappear in the next 10 years, collaborate with artists working with traditional art forms, while it is still possible to research, learn the skills and then teach them, pass it on. Those are very, very important, although I’m not saying that to promote India or anything. They’re real traditions in our country and need to be saved for tomorrow in their live form, not just becoming one more museum artefact, like a video of what it’s been like or a hand weaving tool on display. 

One also needs to know where to find the real information, I suggest going through the state government portals, like Van Dhan Yojana, to see the artisans enrolled with them. Every state has different traditional art forms in India. One can reach out directly to the state governments in case you want to Collaborate directly with the artisans belonging to associations. There are some associations and societies, for example for kalamkari. Another way is to go through the NGOs.

Hand-weaving.  Image provided by the interviewee
The art of hand-weaving. Image provided by the interviewee

LB: When you’re working with Indian and European partners is there a difference or is it pretty much the same?

BG: Well. In Europe people usually don’t work weekends and don’t work after office hours but in India, it’s not like that. It’s something about the flexibility that Indians have, I don’t know how to describe it. Also, scheduling appointments with people in Europe might take a long time. For example, I’m working with some European partners and it sometimes takes months to find a suitable time for a meeting. In India, it’s not like that. People try to adjust and it’s easy to reach out to people. For example, if you want to work with someone, even if they only can do Saturday or Sunday, you still can contact them and it can be arranged. Time is flexible too. Like today we agreed to meet at 18:00, I was on time, but sometimes in India, not everyone will be on time, maybe we’re not as structured as Europeans, we are more easy-going. 

At the end, I asked Badarinath if he has any books by Indian writers he could recommend, and mentioned Sadhguru who I find inspiring. 

BG: I mostly read articles and project documentation at the moment, and Sadhguru, well, I don’t like recommending any specific gurus. It’s up to a person to find who they feel connected to because whatever he says looks good to me and seems like a real truth to me so I connected with him, but for anyone else, it might be not so. Some people feel that they are meaning well but they’re trying to push whatever they’re doing to others and I don’t like to do that, I don’t want to push someone to follow what I’m following.

But I recommend doing yoga because it is mainly about bringing harmony to life. 

The AM Times

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This blog is a space for current arts management topics featuring students’ opinion pieces and reflections, interviews with field professionals from around the world, and occasional guest posts.

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