Artisans & Craftsmen – Back to the Guilds!

By Mash Bonigala

‘Craft’ is the skill or ability in making something. In the past people made things by hand, using very crude and limited number of tools. Utensils, cutlery, baskets, clothes, wooden or metal implements, weapons, tools and artefacts like decoration items, trinkets, etc., were all made by artisans or craftsmen. Over the centuries, craft became usable art. The people who chose to live by making things by hand, normally as family occupation and skills being passed from one generation to another, were called craftsmen (craftswomen & craftspeople). They were the practitioners of trade. Craftsmen enjoyed great respect and were held high in the society.


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In fact, the most expensive saree ($100,000) in the world, worn at a wedding recently by Mrs Nita Ambani, the beautiful wife of the richest man in India, Mukesh Ambani, is handmade in a remote place in South India, and the most expensive blouse worn by an Indian woman is handmade, too. The most expensive jewelry anywhere in the world is handmade. A wooden chair bought at a furniture shop is much cheaper than the one with carved legs made by a master carpenter.

We ascribe great value to the items made by hand, and there’s been a growing tendency in the elite section of the society to go the extra mile to own things made by hand because they look exclusive and are certainly more durable than the mass produced ones from the factories.

When Mrs Nita Ambani wore that expensive saree, it was not news because everybody around the world knew that she could buy a large part of India if it were offered for sale. However, the richness of the saree grew more when people came to know that it was handwoven! Only then the media and the viewers noticed the famous paintings on the saree, woven, not printed, and the intricacies involved in creating such a marvel by hand, and especially, by those uneducated, local weavers (craftspeople) who go to bed on their empty bellies most nights.


A factory-made gold or silver ornament is priced on the quality of the material and the weight of the metal used, but a hand-made ornament is priced, besides the quality and weight, on the time taken to make it and the craftsmanship that are put into making it. And though a certain amount of money is fixed as its price, the hand-made item is always priceless. Craftsmanship is synonymous with quality and durability.

Why, when you buy a ready-to-wear shirt even from a famous Brand, you pay a certain amount and when you wear a designer shirt from the same Brand, you certainly pay much more, and when you get a shirt made of the cloth you choose and get it stitched by a master tailor, the amount you pay, or have to pay, is certainly several folds more than the other shirts.

That’s the charm of hand-made articles. And that’s the reason why those artisans and craftsmen who made weapons, ornaments, tools and other things were given a comfortable position and status in the society.

However, as the time passed, the methods of producing things have changed, and more and more people got into the trade depending on the demand, and consequently, the quality of the goods had come down. Sensing this down turn, those wise craftsmen in the past formed into Guilds to protect their trades from going into the wrong hands, much like the present day unions, associations and societies.


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The main purpose of forming Guilds was to sanctify their tools and products from falling into the wrong hands and also to guard the quality and secrets of trade. The rulers, understanding the need for such guilds, supported these guilds and guild members by sanctioning permits, lands and, in some cases, financial support in order to maintain quality and prices, banning certain goods to be produced or used by commoners or those who were not members of those guilds.

The word ‘guild’ comes from the gold deposited by the guild members in order to meet any unforeseen emergencies, and to aid any particular guild members who needed financial support, or in more recent usage, the money paid to get membership in a guild.

Guilds had enjoyed comfortable existence for more than 5 centuries until 13 and 14 centuries A.D. However, as the political systems began to take a new turn and several systems of governments began to appear, the guild societies lost their importance and gradually faded away, and, consequently, the master craftsmen were brought down to the level of mere labor working in the foundries.

Advancement in science and technology did not help the craftsmen in anyway, either; on the contrary, industrial revolutions made their lives even more miserable because the society did not need those ‘specially talented’ artists any more. You did not need a skilled craftsman to make a knife or comb or hoe for you; you could buy one from an array of models, shapes, sizes and price, on the market, freshly made from the factories mushrooming all around you.

Sadly, the quality is gone and the feel of the craftsmen’s skill and passion is lost. A knife is just any knife you buy, use and throw away when it is damaged, no story or tag is attached to it… no soul that made it over a period of time hovers over it. It is a mere product from somewhere with just a mark or name on it, which you do not know of or do not want to know of.

However, in recent days, handmade things are once again getting recognition in the society. Those who have gone far enough with the crowd and want to show themselves up and stand apart from the crowd need something special because the run-of-the-mill items make them one of those but not the best of those. They want something different, something that has some “story” to tell about, like the saree of Mrs Nita Ambani wore. Something that can make people talk — a table made in the 15th century used by a lovely princess, a gun hand-made by a master gunsmith in the 17th century, a pair of cuff-links worn by Charlton Heston. Anything that has some interesting story behind it. The antiques, those rare, old and collectable items, have been sold like hot cakes for some decades, and the number of collectors who spend huge amounts to own such items is on the rise, but those items are so very rare and expensive.


So, what do you plan do? Get something specially made for you? Right. And who can make such a something special? The craftsmen! So, history repeats and people are getting back to the things that are hand-made, and, in turn, giving new breath of life to the ardent craftsmen who hung on to the traditional crafts and values.

Once you believe in this phenomenon and start to do some research, you will be surprised to learn that there are a number of people who still like to make things using traditional methods and tools. Pottery has been here with us all through these centuries, weaving baskets and cloth still lives on, at least in some parts of the world, there are Japanese and Chinese who still use the ancient methods in making swords and some other artefacts.

The modern day governments have realised the importance of keeping one’s history and culture live and pass on to the next generation and have included crafts and craft courses in their education systems. There are now university level courses that teach craft courses and train interested students in commercial crafts, even offering scholarships, and master craftsmen and craftswomen are appointed with handsome grants to set up workshops and conduct project works. Some countries have special budget allocations in their tourism sector to promote crafts and cultural programmes.

In one of my earlier articles, ‘Logo Design History‘, I mentioned about the present day graphic designers as being the descendants of the ancient craftsmen. The text goes like this: “A Logo Designer of the contemporary designing is not just a commercial artist taking aid of a sophisticated computer but a direct descendant of the craftsmen, the scribes and the sculptors of the advanced ancient and medieval civilizations.” I am confident that you totally agree with me.As the ancient and medieval craftsmen needed guilds, we, the present day graphic designers, need a guild to protect our standards. We have seen in the recent days how logo and web designing has become so cheap and how incidences of trademark violation issues have become so common. There are news items about an online ‘company’ which makes a logo priced as low as a dollar, and there is another company from nowhere which makes a logo + website priced as low as a dime, all in the name of “heavy competition”! (I almost fell into that ‘attractive mire’ but realised and acted in time to stay off it, with only a little dirt smeared.)

So, I strongly feel that there is an urgent need for some sort of ‘guilds’ that safe-guard all the computer graphic designers from their falling standards, unhealthy cut-throat competition and disgrace.