Painting a way out of the pandemic induced economic glut

WASEP artisans at work. Photo Credit: UNDP India

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the India state of Maharashtra. There have been a huge number of infections and several thousand deaths. The economic fallout has left many jobless.

Women artisans in Mumbai, and nearby Thane have seen a massive drop in sales. Their financial burdens have mounted as their family members lost jobs.

The women artisans living in the northern outskirts and western parts of Mumbai, famous for their folk paintings, found a way out by manufacturing aesthetically designed ‘Warli’ masks.

Warli is an indigenous tribal art practiced for hundreds of years by the Warli tribe, and is one of the oldest forms of art. It is often used to embellish the walls of village houses. The Warli paintings are different from typical rural art. They do not illustrate mythological characters or deities, but mostly depict social life.

With a little bit of training on top of their Warli skills the women artisans were able to quickly meet the rising demand for masks. They successfully met the request for the order of over 1,000 masks from Mahila Arthik Vikas Mahamandal (MAVIM), a Government of Maharashtra initiative focused on social services.

The Indian multinational conglomerate Larsen and Toubro Infotech (LTI) put an order for 400 masks for their leadership team. The women artisans produced intricately designed, thoroughly sanitized and quality-checked packages, which were shipped to London and New Jersey.

Artisans at work. Photo Credit: UNDP India

In 2017, UNDP India and Larsen and Toubro Infotech (LTI) entered a strategic partnership to create Women Artisans Skills Enhancement Project (WASEP). The project trains women from the Mumbai and Thane districts of Maharashtra. These women are mostly homemakers and first generation Warli learners.

The project so far trained 2,200 artisans in Warli craft, building and managing enterprises and helped them to get linked with markets to sell their products.

After COVID-19 hit, many other women of Thane and Mumbai turned to Warli art to revive their incomes. The project is now in its fifth year, and enables women to work from the comfort of their homes.

Warli art used to make high quality face masks. Photo Credit: UNDP India

In 2020–2021, the average earning of the artisans was INR 1200 per month. Some artisans even earned between INR 10K-12K depending upon the order. The women artisans use their incomes for education, healthcare, groceries, and jewelry. In addition to the tangible outcomes, there has been a significant change in terms of their self-confidence.

Warli Art is beginning to open new avenues for several households on the outskirts of Mumbai. It is not just about the money. By bringing opportunities to their doorstep, the project has also empowered them to take greater ownership of their own life.

Group of Artisans wearing their own creation — Warli masks. Photo Credit: UNDP India

Pooja Aadesh Patel feels that WASEP not only helped her in being financially independent, but she was able to earn respect of her household members.

Pooja Aadesh Patel at work making Warli art face masks. Photo Credit: UNDP India

Prajiti Pramod Patel started her WASEP journey as one of the trainees and is now promoted as a trainer.

Prajiti Pramod Patel at work making Warli art face masks. Photo Credit: UNDP India

Desna Dabhade has diligently facilitated online training on Warli Art for 70+ volunteers.

“I took the local train without my husband for the first time in my life. You can learn so much more when you are out on your own,” says Anita Khandagale of Aarey Colony who also participated in various exhibitions netting Rs.10,000 ($134) in a single day. That’s an impressive feat when you consider the fact that the average annual income of an Indian was estimated at Rs.127,768 ($1,713) in 2020–21.

Radhika Zaprekar makes Warli Art based face masks which are quite popular. Photo Credit: UNDP India

Radhika Zaprekar who joined WASEP says, “My husband mainly earned his income by changing seat covers of cars and buses, but that modest income stopped soon after the pandemic struck. The workshop was shut down and he lost his job. It was then we realised that one person cannot do it all, and that dual income was necessary to run a household.”

Vaishali Gaikar, who lost her job due to the pandemic decided to combine her tailoring and Warli painting skills to create her own set of masks. At 22, she is on the way to becoming an entrepreneur. “How much can you expect from your parents? I want to earn my own money now”, she says.

Vaishali Gaikar at work making Warli art face masks. Photo Credit: UNDP India

WASEP has continued its training sessions with the artisans, only now they are virtual. Digital modules were created, and systems were set in place. Over the past year, artisans have not only learned about themes like mandala art, pointillism, but also how to amalgamate two crafts and create new products.

At present, the products made by these women entrepreneurs can also be purchased on https://dishakruti.com — a website created as a result of the project establishing linkages with buyers online in partnership with Tisser Artisans Trust.

The project aims to create a Warli Academy, where amateur artisans can get professionally trained, exchange knowledge and exhibit their products for commercial sustainability. Artisans would also be trained as mentors and managers, women who will eventually run and manage the Warli Academy.

According to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) India study, the female labour-force participation in India has declined from 34 percent in 2006 to 24.8 percent in 2020.

Estimates from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a crippling effect on lower income households. More than 22 million jobs were lost in April and June 2021 alone, of which daily wage-earners were the worst hit.

Interventions like the WASEP project are one way of getting more women to contribute to the economy, which will improve financial conditions of individual households but also add to the country’s Gross Domestic Product. The UNGC study says raising women’s participation in the labour force to the same level as men, can boost India’s GDP by 27 percent.

“When I started the ATD course, I had no source of income. So, when I got to know about Warli painting I joined in and started getting work within five days. My dream of earning independently and becoming self-reliant came true due to WASEP. The payments I received from my work made me feel that I am self-reliant. My mother and the rest of the family also feel good about my learning Warli painting and honing my skills in art,” says Karina Chand Nishad, who is pursuing an Art Teacher Diploma (ATD) from Vasai Vikasin College of Visual Arts.

Karina Chand Nishad, a Warli artisan studying to be an art teacher. Photo Credit: UNDP India

“The free training conducted by LTI and UNDP is benefitting many women such as me. I truly appreciate WASEP and hope it reaches many more villages and many more women as it promotes both the country’s art and provides a good source of income.”

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