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 Today, there is a relatively small industry of bone products that attempt to replicate products that were originally made from ivory.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 staying true to the material by designing products that are small and therefore require small pieces, I hope to discover unexplored possibilities and techniques and truly take advantage of the material’s potential.
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 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 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. In addition, it is important to encourage the artisans to work with hand tools as this will allow them 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 eliminate electricity and petroleum costs.
There are no negative impacts on the environment from working with bone as no energy is needed to extract the virgin material; 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. However, the powder that is created when sanding and polishing bones may be harmful to pregnant women. I also need to look into the adhesives that are used for cladding as well as the finishes because they may be toxic. By using it in conjunction with leather taken from the same buffalo that the bones are being taken from, very little waste will be generated.
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.
I have established contact with all three of the non-profit organizations that I would like to work with; Aid to Artisans has put me in touch with the organization that they are affiliated with in India, the Institute of International Social Development has also put me in touch with their Indian counterpart, and I am in touch with an Indian organization called Dastkar. I am hoping that these organizations will help me connect with artisans, as well as assist me in setting up a community of artisans to work with on a consistent basis.