April 1, 2010: Nestled in the northeast plains of India, Bihar is one of the poorest states in the country. Its per capita income is just a fraction of that in other Indian states. Amidst the destitution, however, the story of two women stands out. It provides a beacon of hope for other impoverished artisans who can now use their artistic talents to fight the pernicious cycle of poverty.
A tale of two women
Sudha Devi, a mother of two, from Bihar’s Mahdubani district, used to paint intricate pictures that she sold to middlemen at a steep discount. Her earnings could barely help make ends meet, let alone finance the education of her two daughters.
In Central Bihar, Nikki Kumari, 22, from Muzaffarpur district, shared the same fate. Although she had given up her education to help her family, her fine Sujani embroidery was undervalued by the middlemen who normally bought from her village. Both women worked so hard but got so little.
Fortunately, everything started to change when they took part in an innovative program called JIYO – devised by the World Bank and the Asian Heritage Foundation to support vulnerable and landless communities in India whose lives depend on the traditional cultural industry. Funded by the Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF) under a $1.7 million grant managed by the World Bank, the program provides training, market access, and sustainable incomes to rural artisans.
Jiyo – or Live It – brings a ray of hope to impoverished rural artisans
In the two years since its inception, ‘JIYO’ – which means “Live It” in Hindi - has significantly improved the livelihoods of over 4,000 artisans across India. Recently, the World Bank’s Delhi Office showcased the work of these artisans at a three-day JIYO Exhibition and Bazaar. Buyers came in droves, armed with their checkbooks and big smiles.
Sudha Devi, a painter in the Madhubani style of Bihar said she learned how to combine her traditional skills with new techniques and designs more suitable for the modern market. Her artistic wall tiles adorned with Madhubani artwork are selling well, increasing her earnings dramatically.
The income is very welcome to her impoverished family. “The first thing I did was to send my two daughters back to school and give them nice clothes,” said a beaming Sudha Devi. “I am also able to spend on the family’s health.” She now wants others to have the same opportunity and is working to expand the program to include all the artisans in her village, and incorporate themselves as a company.
Nikki Kumari is now back in college. She has started her bachelors program in arts while continuing to work on her Sujani embroidery. “My art skills have really improved and my income has gone up. I am now able to finance my own education while working in this art that I love. There should be no end to creativity and learning,” she said.
Local crafts are transformed into global products
The program has been specifically designed to complement the efforts of the on-going rural livelihood projects in India, especially in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. It forges a unique partnership between traditional artisans and modern designers to transform local crafts into global products, enabling rural artisans to tap into the over US$ 1 billion market for cultural industries and related sectors. By doing so, it also hopes to save innumerable master craftsmen and women from a life of indignity working for paltry wages as day labor, or even committing suicide
“Nature is much more generous than human beings. Talent and creativity are distributed in ways that ignore man-made economic and social inequalities,” said Roberto Zagha, the World Bank Country Director in India. “This program is capitalizing on that very fact to empower poor rural artisan communities in India.”
“There are more than six million rural artisans in India. This program builds on their creative capital and aims to create a brand which will be owned by them. Cultural industries can be a big catalyst for poverty reduction and this initiative helps rural artisans build value chains for their products and increase their incomes,” said Parmesh Shah, Lead Rural Development Specialist and Task Leader of the JIYO Program in the World Bank.
A new life of dignity and prosperity
And the market seems to be bullish with the initiative. Puneet Nanda, Managing Director of Satya Paul --India’s most prominent fashion wear label-- was present at the JIYO Arts Exhibition and impressed at what he saw. “I deal with crafts and embroidery every day. So to see this effort makes my heart glow. I’ve never seen such a good initiative of such level of quality and craft in my life,” he said.
Said Rajeev Sethi, Executive Director of Asian Heritage Foundation, which conceived and implemented the program: “Cultural Industries need to be recognized in the planning process and rural artisans should be given due recognition. JIYO signifies the arrival of a Swadeshi (Indigenous) brand for the 21st Century.
"JIYO is building on tradition and creating a bridge between India's heritage and its future. This initiative represents a very real effort to rescue some of the magnificent cultural heritage of India by making it profitable and sustainable for traditional artists," said Isabel Guerrero, World Bank Vice President for the South Asia Region. "I'm impressed by how this initiative has improved the lives of rural artisans who now have a stable income to invest back to their family and their own development."
With that said, JIYO could well be the start of something big.