FIRST CUT IS THE HARDEST
Up until a couple of years ago, Dorji Khandu’s world was his little garden of vegetables in the village of Kengkhar in Monggar, in eastern Bhutan. And the odd mask or two that he carved. An artisan, Dorji was spending more time tending to vegetables than the craft he was gifted with – the art of carving out Buddhist masks in the Himalayan Buddhist tradition. His life was confined to his village, and outside his province, he’d never been anywhere, let alone the burgeoning towns of the kingdom and the neighboring Indian States of West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. All that changed with the intervention of Tarayana Foundation (TF) and its marketing of Khengkhar’s traditional wood carving – a skill inherent in the people of Dorji’s province, where – for centuries – Khengkhar was the hotbed for wood crafting, renowned for its quality and aesthetic designs.Today, Dorji is a frequent traveler showcasing his craft. The breakthrough was provided by TF’s study, involvement, introduction and formation of Self-Help Groups– enabling the villagers to manufacture and market the goods profitability.
“We know our products are good. Now we want to make them better – the best – so we can sell our products even in the west, by competing with the best”, says Dorji, now a model for the Mask Group. “Earlier, it was just a matter of survival, but today, we want to progress and prosper”. Out of a total of about 30,000 people that make up his province, roughly one-third of the population, particularly men, are gifted with artistic hands. But the artisans’ first obstacle was the government’s policy of regulating the forest cover to a minimum 72 percent, rendering it hard to obtain permission from the Department of Forest to extract timber, their essential raw material. Marketing the products was another stumbling block, discouraging the craftsmen; forcing them to live off an unreliable land, unpredictable weather and a scarcity of water sources.
The resultant acceptance was a sense of resignation leading to a negligence of their inherited artwork.
Their earning capacity decreased. But help arrived in the person of Passang Tobgay, TF’s field officer, who, together with the community, formed the first Self-Help group; comprising of 11 different sections in various wood works, under the aegis of Tarayana Foundation’s livelihood project. This was funded by the Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation Bhutan.
Since its inception, the group has been steadily increasing its production and sale, as the orders continue to come in. Members of the various groups are now able to pay 10 to 15 percent extra wages to their co-members, and the profits distributed amongst themselves. The livelihood program, especially income generation, was started as an experiment to see if such a venture could help alleviate the poverty. Not only has it not been a success but the programme has also empowered the men to engage their wives in the trade, and has empowered them to make their own decisions.
The artisans are also exposed to Tarayana Foundation’s Annual Fair to collaborate with other artisans and consumers and interact, enhancing their knowledge. The community understands that working together is far more beneficial than working as an individual. They also see the importance of diversification as most of the products (wine containers, traditional masks and altars) have a limited market; hence the branching out to products such as tables, chairs, cupboards and beds amongst many others.
‘The 14th Tarayana Annual Fair was an eye-opener’ says Kezang Dorji. ‘We learnt it was important to go beyond making a good product and understanding the dynamics of the branding and marketing. We realized that if we wanted to cater to a bigger market we’d have to go beyond the traditional needs, and cater to what’s contemporary’.
Another member, Takchung, said it was more about self-sufficiency than earning an extra income. ‘More than the money, it’s the sense of independence we cherish. The fact that we’re doing what we’re adept at has boosted our morale’, he said. ‘Today, I’ve become far more confident, mindful and appreciative about our heirloom. It makes me proud to be able to pass down a skill that’s been part of our region for centuries’.
The first cut, indeed, is the hardest, and the people of Khengkhar are doing better; they’ve already carved out a niche.