A revival of the traditional Indian animal bone craft would serve not only to provide skilled artisans with fair-wage jobs, but also to utilize an abundant by-product of India's vast agricultural industry, allowing for a product whose life-cycle is 100% environmentally sustainable. When ivory was made illegal, the artisans that worked with this material began to use animal bones as a substitute in order to keep the traditions of this craft alive. Today, there is a relatively small industry of bone products that attempt to replicate products that were originally made from ivory. However, due to the nature of the hollow structure of bones, these products are not carved out of bone in the way that ivory products were, but instead the bone is used as cladding. By using the bone as cladding, the material is not being taken advantage of to its full potential, but instead is being modified to replicate another material (ivory). By staying true to the material by designing products that are small and therefore require small pieces, one can truly exploit the material’s potential. The frame under the cladding is most commonly made from mango or sheesham wood, which is procured from forests in northern India that are harvested in a sustainable manner. The bone that is used for these products are buffalo bones that are collected from slaughterhouses in Muslim communities in eastern India and from buffalo in the farming industry that die a natural death. They are collected and then sent to government-run treatment plants where they are cleaned, sterilized, and cut into smaller pieces for the artisans to buy and work with.
There are no negative impacts on the environment from working with bone, but the powder that is created when sanding and polishing bones may be harmful to pregnant women. I need to research this concern further to confirm it. I also need to look into the adhesives that are used for cladding as well as the finishes because they may be made from toxic chemicals. I feel that one can really take advantage of this environmentally sustainable material, which is in abundance in India and will go to waste if there is no use for it. Also, it requires no energy to be extracted. By using it in conjunction with leather taken from the same buffalo that the bones are being taken from, very little waste is created.
After speaking to manufacturers of bone products, I found that the monetary value of bones has increased in the past 15-20 years due to the margin for waste that is added to the price of the bone. This margin is created by the designers who are very selective about the quality of the bones, refusing to use pieces that appear to be flawed. Also, the cost of glue and the petroleum that is used for the machinery to work the bone, increase the price of the products. By designing products that can use even the smallest bones and can work around the flaws in the bones, there will be minimal wastage. I also think it is important for me to work with the artisans to design products that can be worked on with hand tools and do not require machinery. This will allow the artisans to work from home (where they often do not have access to electricity) at their own pace as long as they meet deadlines. This will help reduce petroleum and electricity costs as well. The current market of bone products caters to India, as well as to Europe and the United States. The products include a plethora of categories from kitchenware to furniture to jewelry. Although this industry already exists, I feel that there is room to create a new market because the aesthetic and forms have either remained the same for centuries, or have been modified to the extent that there are no remnants of the cultural heritage left in them. When speaking to current manufacturers and organizations that work with artisans, I repetitively heard that there is a need for designers to contemporize traditional Indian handicrafts in order to cater to a larger market to keep these crafts alive, but at the same time maintain the cultural heritage. I would like to address this issue by working directly with the artisans to get their input so that the products have a balance of both a contemporary aesthetic as well as a traditional one. I also feel that it is important to introduce the artisans to products that are timeless, and that do not follow trends in order to prevent them from losing jobs when trends change.
I want to target the luxury goods market in order to help sustain the artisans, as opposed to mass-producing items that are cheaply made and will probably not generate an income that will pay the artisans more than the minimum wage. I also feel that by avoiding targeting a regional market and instead targeting a global market, there will be a larger consumer group, which will generate more income for the artisans. Depending on the product, I have to be aware of and sensitive to cultural and ethical hesitations people may have about buying products made from bone. For instance, individuals in India may not be willing to buy and wear bone jewelry, but would not hesitate to buy boxes and furniture made from bone. This would also depend on the age group that I am targeting, which at the moment are people ranging in age from twenty-five to forty. In order to get a better sense of what would sell, I would like to do a survey to understand people’s feelings about products made from bone. Another crucial step would be to have focus group studies with a prototype to find out how much people would actually be willing to pay for these products.
I feel that the artisans are currently exploited to make cheap, mass-produced items that do not utilize their full set of skills; they earn the minimum wage to make products that do not represent them. I want to change this, and this is where my non-profit organizations come in.
I have established contact with two out of the three non-profit organizations that I would like to work with. Each of the three organizations provides different types of information that I need in order to implement my thesis. I have spoken to Aid to Artisans that have put me in touch with the organization that they work with in India so that I can speak to them to figure out how to set up a community of artisans that will be paid fair wages to produce my proposed designs. I also spoke to the Institute of International Social Development that does similar work to what I would like to do, but cover a wider range of issues such as providing artisan communities in an eastern state of India access to micro credit, health insurance, education, and life insurance. I am hoping that they will be able to assist me in eventually setting up a system so that I can address all these important issues as well, and not just focus on providing jobs to the artisans. The third non-profit organization, Dastkar, which is based in India, still has not responded to my emails. The organization works with artisans to help them sell their products, but does not intervene in their product development. Because they have a huge network of artisans that they work with, I am hoping that they will be able to connect me with artisans who work with bone. The problem that I am having is that the two organizations that I did establish contact with do not work with independent designers due to insufficient funds and the lack of time. So although they are willing to answer questions, they cannot assist me further. I am hoping that this will not be the case with Dastkar.
In terms of packaging, I want to use a material that is just as environmentally sustainable as bones, and at the same time is helping a community to sustain themselves. I am thinking about using paper made from water hyacinths, which is made by a small community in a village in India.