Crafting a Better Future: How Women's Handicrafts Promote Economic Growth and Gender Equality

The handicraft industry is India’s second-largest income-generating sector after agriculture. Despite the exponential multidecadal growth of handicraft exports in this creative economy, the industry primarily remains decentralized and informal. Thus, most artists and artisans engage with handicraft clusters from their homes and native regions. According to the Ministry of Textiles report in 2018, women constitute 70% of the workforce in this sector, predominantly participating in the various stages of craft production processes. Kumaoni weavers, Chikankari needlework, Kanyakumari bamboo baskets, Rajasthani Zari work, Meenakari, Madhubani wall paintings and Bhil paintings are all examples of art and crafts practiced by women homeworkers from their villages or local craft hubs for small-scale and large-scale enterprises. 

In the patriarchal society we live in, the freedom to work has been continually oppressed by the caste system and gendered division of labour. Women’s employment through the crafts sector does help in dismantling the shackles that rob them of their freedom to work. In that case, the handicraft industry can be claimed as an ongoing endeavour to strive for social equality in Indian society. Economically empowering women does not just help extendindividual agency but it also nurtures women’s education, healthcare, self-reliance, self-esteem, creative expression, and self-awareness about the current social climate. Additionally, the booming industry is a home-grown rural enterprise that contributes to social and economic stability in rural areas. It dissolves the frustration that comes with disguised unemployment in the agriculture sector and persistent unemployment augmented by India’s shift from the primary sector to secondary and tertiary sectors. The decentralization of income opportunities in agricultural-driven rural areas of India also reduces mass migrations to urban cities. It maintains the collective consciousness of artistic communities, which is fundamental for the continuity of traditional and tribal arts. Subsequently, this also prevents the cultural identity crisis of the traditional generational artists practicing folk and tribal philosophies outside mainstream religious beliefs. 

One such example of tribal craftspeople comes from the community of Johari Botiyas, who are tucked away in the Panchachuli mountain ranges along the Kumaon valley of the Himalayas. Historically, men of the Kumaon region thrived on the trans-Himalayan trade route, while the women wove beautiful handlooms in naturally dyed fabrics. The lost skill of hand-looming emerged again on the global map of handicrafts when the women weavers revived the traditional spinning looms and weaving of blankets, quilts, shawls, and mufflers through the ‘Panchachuli’ cooperative. Established in 1990, this collective women’s organization, constituting more than 30 villages, brings employment, income, and social autonomy to Kumaoni women. 

Similarly, the Mandana paintings adorning the walls and floors of mud houses in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh are also traditionally practiced by women. Native to the Hadoti region of Rajasthan, the mothers of the Meena community pass down the skills to develop complex symmetrical designs from limestone powder to their daughters. Due to the rising number of concrete houses in rural areas, famous Mandana painters like Koshilya Devi and Vidya Devi Soni have been reviving the declining art by preserving traditional designs and imparting vocational training in India and abroad to accelerate the economic opportunities for the Mandana artists.

Despite the vital role of women in the creative economy of India’s handicrafts, Indian textile art historian Jasleen Dhamijia, pointed out that there are specific crafts and skills like stone carvings, glass blowing, bronze casting that are discriminatory towards women and dominated by men. Even today, most women are only employed through “feminine crafts” associated within the domestic sphere– like stitching, embroidery, weaving, and basketry. Current state policies do not expand women’s presence in other craft skills. 

The societal concept of motherhood also shoves women artisans into the traditional domestic sphere, and they have the added responsibility to balance their personal and professional lives. The shortcomings of the handicraft industry as an unorganized sector leave women vulnerable to exploitation in terms of wages, working conditions, and shift schedules. In the competitive global boom of handicrafts, Indian women need financial and operational assistance in policy, training, production, and marketing. According to NCAER, more than half of the women employed in handicrafts belong to Scheduled Castes and Schedule Tribes, and thus, become doubly marginalized. Hence, achieving social equality in the sector is still an unaccomplished feat. 

However, organizations like Tribal Women Artists Cooperative work towards this problem by increasing the opportunities available for tribal women. Established by Bulu Imam, the cooperative promotes the ritual Khovar and Sohrai mural paintings found in Jharkhand. The initiative empowers over 5000 tribal women through managerial and welfare assistance and promoting their works in museums and galleries in India and abroad.

On the occasion of Women’s Day, the story of the Gond artist Durga Bai brings inspiring closure to understanding women’s role in the handicraft industry. The digna artist Durga Bai, recognized for her captivating Gond paintings, is a 2022 Padma Shri Awardee. In illustrating Tara Book’s Sultana’s Dream, a feminist novel written by Begum Rokeya critically acclaimed for questioning traditional practices of purdah and empowering women’s education – Durga Bai recounts her experience as a craftsperson. “Sultana’s Dream was a story written years ago but still remains a dream. When women decide, they take everyone and everything into account. They think of helping the environment and preserving nature as much as they think of work-life balance. They take everyone along, preserving the culture and carrying traditions along.” Her words indeed cement the interwoven threads that bind the interdependent roles of traditional art and women in the Indian handicraft industry.


Gaur, Suchi. “Durga Bai: Telling Women’s Stories with Gond Art”.

Dhamija, Jasleen. “Women and Handicrafts: Myth and Reality.” Population Council, 1981. 



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