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India Handicraft Fair Unites Traditional and Digital Entrepreneurs

While many of India's traditional crafts are clearly flourishing, given their widespread representation at the recent Handicrafts and Gifts Fair in New Delhi, export markets are increasingly being found through digital channels.

Photo: Reflecting on the past: Wood-carved mirrors from Suhag Impex.
Reflecting on the past: Wood-carved mirrors from Suhag Impex.
Photo: Reflecting on the past: Wood-carved mirrors from Suhag Impex.
Reflecting on the past: Wood-carved mirrors from Suhag Impex.

The India Handicrafts and Gifts Fair brought together a number of India's leading manufacturers and exporters across a variety of sectors, including furniture, carpets and gifts. Organised by India's state-run Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH), the fair has emerged as one of the premier showcases for the country's entrepreneurs and innovators.

One old hand at the event was HNS Homes. Based in the northern city of Benares, the company has been manufacturing and exporting rugs for over half a century. According to Sayyada Ansari, a Partner in the family-owned business, it is currently supplying a number of the major US retail chains, including JC Penny. Its carpets are all hand-knotted and come in both traditional and modern variants. Typically, it takes around 90 days for two workers to complete the work on one rug.

As well as long-standing, traditional crafts-based companies, the show also attracted a number of digital entrepreneurs, many of them looking to exploring ecommerce opportunities related to the handicrafts sector. One such firm was Amazing Hind, a Kashmir-based carpet manufacturer and exporter.

In 2012, the company was co-founded by Aatish Ambardar, a former consultant with the Accenture a management consultancy. In just four years, the company has already struck export deals in Germany and Italy, as well as with a number of Southeast Asian territories, including Taiwan and Singapore.

Ambardar says the company's mission statement is to revive the forgotten art of producing Kashmiri chain-stitched rugs. These traditional floor-coverings are solely produced by a community of 17 families in Srinagar and now provide job opportunities for many of the local people, including the more elderly.

Overall, products with a distinct sustainability message were well represented at the show, with several companies showcasing lighting and home products fashioned from entirely environmental-friendly materials. One such company was Mumbai's Sylvn Studio, founded by Aman Jain. She believes there is now a growing trend towards eco-friendly products, something her company, which produces bags, home accessories and furniture, is now looking to capitalise on.

Photo: Light fittings from the Moradabad metalware cluster.
Light fittings from the Moradabad metalware cluster.
Photo: Light fittings from the Moradabad metalware cluster.
Light fittings from the Moradabad metalware cluster.
Photo: Rug-making: A traditional industry restored.
Rug-making: A traditional industry restored.
Photo: Rug-making: A traditional industry restored.
Rug-making: A traditional industry restored.

While mass production has become the norm, a number of entrepreneurial exhibitors maintained that many of their customers had more bespoke requirements. According to Pranav Pahwa, a Senior Manager with Surya Exports, a New Delhi-based textile exporter, this demand for individuality has seen customisation become extremely important. In line with this, buyers have been become increasingly picky, constantly demanding distinctive products, inevitably leading to an increased workload for manufacturers and exporters.

He also said that India is now witnessing a notable consolidation in its trade show sector. This, he believes, is the inevitable consequence of the increasing number of online transactions, though he still sees face-to-face meetings as a vital part of the mix.

Among the more striking exhibitors at this year's show was a group of producers from the North Indian city of Moradabad's metalware cluster. This traditional sector was said to have originated as a producer of arms during the time of the Mughal Empire (AD1526-1857). Rather than weaponry, the contemporary inheritors of the craft were keen to promote their range of copper bathtubs, light fittings and lamps.

Featuring alongside them was a cluster of home décor and furniture manufacturers from Jodhpur, with a range of products all reflecting the distinctive style of this north-western city. Home products were also on offer from Suhag Impex, a Northern Indian company that had previously showcased its range of wooden-carved mirrors and tables at the Hong Kong Houseware Fair.

This year, the fair also featured a government-sponsored zone dedicated to promoting a range of artistic products from Northeast India, including the states of Manipur, Assam, Nagaland, Megyalaya, Tripura, Mizoram, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. These regions are all blessed with abundant raw materials – cane, bamboo, timber, silk, clay and natural fibre – something that has shaped the output of their many craftsmen.

This is the fourth time show has been home to such a zone, a sign of the region's success in a number of overseas markets, notably Mexico, France and the Czech Republic. According to Shruti Baruah, a Project Coordinator with the Indian Institute of Entrepreneurs (IIE), the popularity of these Northeast handicrafts could lead to enhanced export prospects over the next 12 months.

One north-eastern company already meeting with considerable overseas success was Manipur-based Kouna Craft. Founded by N.G. Choushim, the company specialises in home utility baskets, picnic baskets, mattresses and cushions.

Chanu Creations, another Manipur-based business, meanwhile was showcasing its exotic collection of handloom-made fabrics. The company has manufacturing and dyeing units in Manipur and Delhi and primarily employs female workers.

According to the Export Promotion Council for Handicrafts (EPCH), the government body responsible for organising the zone, the Northeast Indian region remains a largely untapped area with enormous potential for growth. The EPCH now aims to boost the region's output by supporting local entrepreneurship and innovation through both skills-based training and investment.

Alongside the exhibition proper, a number of seminars and presentations were also on offer, including sessions dedicated to the handicraft sector, clean technology for the metal industries in Moradabad, social media, risk management in the export business and development export opportunities via digital media.

According to the organisers, a substantial number of buyers from across the world attended this year's event, including representatives from the USA, the UK, Australia, Italy, CIS, Hong Kong, Japan, the Nordic regions, African, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Photo: Sustainable homeware from Sylvn Studio.
Sustainable homeware from Sylvn Studio.
Photo: Sustainable homeware from Sylvn Studio.
Sustainable homeware from Sylvn Studio.

The India Handicrafts and Gifts Fair 2016 was held at New Delhi's India Expo Centre and Mart from 20-23 February, with some 2,750 exhibitors in attendance.

Tsering Namgyal, Special Correspondent, New Delhi

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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