Judy Frater
Ashoka Fellow since 2003   |   India

Judy Frater

Somaiya Kala Vidya
Judy Frater believes that the traditional craftsperson is the best designer to make the work of the craftsperson economically viable to consumers and a larger market. Through practical and relevant…
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Judy Frater is Founder Director of Somaiya Kala Vidya (http://www.somaiya-kalavidya.org/), an institute of education for artisans. She has lived in Kutch, working with artisans, for 25 years. During this time she Co-founded and operated Kala Raksha Trust. She established the Kala Raksha Textile Museum, and founded Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, the first design school for traditional artisans. For this concept, Ms. Frater was awarded an Ashoka Fellowship for social entrepreneurship in 2003. Under her eight-year tenure as Director, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya received international recognition for its unique and successful approach to education of artisans. Frater received the Sir Misha Black Medal for Distinguished Services to Design Education in 2009, the Crafts Council of India Kamla award in 2010, and the George B. Walter’36 Service to Society Award from Lawrence University in 2014. In 2014 she joined Somaiya group to found Somaiya Kala Vidya, to take design for artisans from a program to an institute and reach its full potential. Ms. Frater is author of Threads of Identity: Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris, awarded the Costume Society of America’s Milla Davenport award. Before residing in India, she was Associate Curator of Eastern Hemisphere Collections at the Textile Museum, in Washington, DC.

This description of Judy Frater's work was prepared when Judy Frater was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003.


Judy Frater believes that the traditional craftsperson is the best designer to make the work of the craftsperson economically viable to consumers and a larger market. Through practical and relevant education on technology and marketing, Judy is building the expertise of the craftsperson to make a significant contribution to the sustainability of the craft tradition.

The New Idea

In the last few decades, the traditional crafts sector in India has changed dramatically. Craftspeople are compelled to find new markets as local villagers seek mass-produced functional clothing. Fortunately, at the same time sophisticated urban markets have welcomed the concept of traditional crafts. However, these crafts must be adapted to their new clientele. To facilitate this shift, three broad areas must be addressed and interlinked: thorough understanding of traditional crafts, contemporary design input, and marketing. Previously, the craftspeople themselves managed all of these areas.

With the shift in the market, the necessity of design intervention to ensure the survival of craft has been recognized. Conventionally, it is assumed that such intervention takes place in the form of trained designers giving new designs to craftspeople. Intervention of this type implies that designers have knowledge and skills that enable them to conceive of aesthetically appropriate products and that craftspeople have the skills to produce such designs. In essence, the craftsperson becomes a laborer. The separation of designer and craftsperson thus simultaneously elevates the status of the former and lowers that of the latter, effectively disempowering the craftsperson.

But, if one recognizes the creative capability of craftspeople in terms of cost efficiency and feasibility, it is more practical to think of training traditional craftspeople in design principles than to train designers in craft traditions. Further, in terms of the survival of craft traditions it is far more sustainable. Judy is working both to address these issues and to meet the various needs of the craft sector.

A decade ago, Judy established a grassroots community museum managed by a trust, comprising of mainly locals, to preserve and protect traditional arts and to provide opportunities for the direct sale of contemporary arts through local participation. Craftsperson-driven, Kala Raksha (protection of art) lets craftspeople set their own wages. Thirty percent of the price of Kala Raksha products goes directly to these village women. These artisans today travel across the globe and the country, selling their Kala Raksha products and interacting with consumers. With her experience working with the crafts artisans and studying market trends, Judy is now focusing on the need to institutionalize the crafts, educate and prepare the craft communities to help them adapt to the changing times, establish them as the best designers for their products, and adapt their traditional skills to new products and markets. She is doing this primarily by means of a curriculum she has designed–one that can function as a model for different craft sectors across the country.

The Problem

The separation of design and execution of craft is based on the norms of an industrialized society. However, if craft tries to compete with the industry, it will inevitably fall short in terms of manufacture and pricing. The personal character, the intimacy, and the handmade quality are what enable craft to survive in an industrial world. The strength of handcraft is that it expresses a whole world.

Craft implies skill, a hobby, or practical profession; art implies creativity, imagination, and expression; while design implies mediation. Craft has always been design-based because it relies on a consumer. Craft, like design, is founded more on satisfying the user's aesthetic needs, than on purely expressing feelings. Thus, traditional craft was traditional art, too, in that the artisan managed concept as well as execution. Depending on the level of professionalization, laborers would then be employed. As a craftsperson puts it, "All craftspeople are designers. But all designers are not craftspeople."

With increasing urbanization and dependency on low-cost, durable, large-scale produced goods, the traditional market for crafts has witnessed a change. As local villagers sought cheaper, mass-produced functional wares made of durable material like plastic and aluminum, the craftspeople lost this market, too. Fortunately, this coincided with a new demand as sophisticated, urban markets welcomed the concept of traditional crafts. The objects and artifacts that traditionally stayed within the family for social exchange within the communities on occasion became products of personalized, close-knit village markets first; now they have assumed the status of marketable artistic commodity purchased for their craft value and ethnic quality by a large portion of the urban community. This development has also given craft a new economic angle: families can now augment their incomes by producing on popular demand, using their inherited crafts skill and sense of traditional beauty.

Since the new market is no longer local, and crafts are not necessarily produced for utilitarian purpose, the functional basis that drove innovation has altered. Today, traditional work is often not saleable because the object itself–its color, style, or prices–are not appropriate to the current market trends. Thus, with the growing market, innovations must now be faster and less subtle. The crafts must adapt to these new clients. A different consciousness is also essential for craft to succeed in this market. It demands that craft communities–the craftspeople–reinvent themselves in this new role and be prepared to meet the emerging demands. They need to benefit from their skills yet preserve the traditions they have inherited–all without submitting to the modern world pressures of consumerism and commercialism. The craftspeople need to be aware and strengthen themselves so that they do not lose their freedom of expression and so that crafts retain their ethnic charm.

With these major changes in the market for handmade products, it has been recognized that new design is needed to make craft sustainable. Craftspeople are typically asked to execute the ideas of others, rather than work from their own sense of aesthetics. This separation of art or design from craft or labor is profoundly disempowering for the craftspeople, reducing them to the status of laborer and reinforcing the low social status of craft. Today artisans across the Indian subcontinent struggle to earn wages that may not even equal those of manual labor. The socioeconomic status of the artisan thus remains low. Chronically low levels of education and the perceived irrelevance of the available formal education system further exacerbate the situation.

The Strategy

Judy's strategies are aimed at instilling confidence in the craftspeople that they can be the best designers for their products, requiring no outside help from so-called experts to thrive in today's consumerist society.

To develop a curriculum for adults, she is working with a master craftsperson with a vast existing body of traditional knowledge. This curriculum will address the issue of craft design, i.e., texture, color, and techniques of dyeing. The new component of her organization will be known as Kala Raksha Vidyalaya (KRV). KRV will thus address both issues and self-confidence, while building the capacity to design for new markets. Kala Raksha already addresses health and education issues among its artisans. They have education programs based on the concept of "learning for earning." Also, since many of the artisans had health problems, Judy started medical examination camps every week which then attracted the artisans to the lectures on health and hygiene.

Self-confidence in the ability to solve problems is the most important and enduring benefit of education. Contemporary design–the major course of KRV–will focus on a conscious approach to design principles and problem-solving. Craftspeople will acquire knowledge and learn skills relating to design, all of which they will apply in authentic situations in their respective media. In a concerted effort to bridge the digital divide, new technology will be an important component of the craftsperson-designed school. Using new technology as an extension of existing knowledge will enable quick acceptance of the medium itself, encouraging artisans to think in new ways and helping them access new markets.

To facilitate the shift of markets and their relationship to the new market, KRV will address and interlink three broad areas: thorough understanding of traditional crafts, contemporary design inputs, and access to markets. Traditional artisans possess incomparable wealth in the deep knowledge and hereditary skills of their craft. Absorbed from childhood as an inextricable part of a way of life, the knowledge and skills are acquired with seldom any conscious thought being given to them. KRV will guide craftspeople to examine their own traditions and that of others. Study and reflection will enable them to effectively access their body of existing knowledge. Drawing on experiences from the Kala Raksha Folk Art Museum and Resource Center, the course will include documentation, presentation, and study of traditions. Craftspersons will learn to observe, record, use, and, above all, appreciate their known traditions in a conscious way.

Judy's strategy to draw artisans to her curriculum relies on showing them the direct link between increased earnings and development of design skills. For this, access to new markets is the critical issue and exposure to target markets, an essential strategy. Exposure to markets will be ensured in two-way interactions: craftspeople will go out and clients will come in. Professionalism will be encouraged to facilitate the interaction. To bridge the existing cultural gap, craftspeople will also learn to access resources so that they can solve future problems. For this, information technology offers great potential to craftspeople as a means of overcoming social and physical barriers to markets that can appreciate and afford their work at fair prices.

Judy proposes to extend her curriculum to include all the crafts in its ambit for imparting training and education. These include embroidery and mirror work, weaving, tie and dye, dyeing and printing, leatherwork, woodwork, bell metal work, and pottery. Judy believes that the KRV has the potential to benefit (at a conservative estimate): 7 million artisans in Kutch, 20 million in Gujarat, and 41 million in India.

Judy is working with three organizations in the states of Karnataka, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh to help them set up the community museum. Through her work with these people, she plans to advocate her idea of curriculum for the traditional artisans. Her work in these three states is being done through the Development Commissioner, Handicrafts–the one-stop government body for all handicrafts and handloom-related work in the country. Judy wields impressive clout with them to influence others in her idea. She has already spoken with the Gujarat government; its representation invited her to talk with them during a planning session examining the viability of setting up a craft bazaar in four districts that make up a large area in Gujarat. Judy plans to work with the government in setting up the bazaar in Kutch and has plans to start her curriculum training there.

The other important factor in Judy's spread strategy is to link up with the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), a premier institute on design in the country. She will work to spread her idea through the satellite institutes that NIFT has all over India. She also intends to partner with international organizations like Aid to Artisans and the World Craft Council. The America India Foundation is already supporting her.

Judy plans for KRV to be self-sustaining. There will be NGO and other organization-sponsored artisans. Scholarships or partial scholarships will cover course fees for others. Funds for the first two scholarships have already been received. Graduates of the school will be encouraged to contribute toward the establishment of scholarships for future students. KRV will host and teach exchange groups of design students or specialized tourists on a fee basis. The students will be able to learn craft processes for a quarter or interim period. Tourists will be able to experience rural and artisan life. So far, Kala Raksha has hosted three such Israeli tour groups. They paid to learn mud relief work, embroidery, and doll making from craftspeople. In another outreach program, Kala Raksha craftspeople were paid to teach students at the American Embassy school about their crafts as part of their life style.

The Person

Judy, an American by birth, first went to India in the 1970s as a college student on an India studies program. In Pune she studied with a goldsmith, learning as much about philosophy and culture as about metal craft. She was also given the key of a private museum–Raja Kelkar Museum–and was personally trained by the owner to be the next curator. It was here that she came across Kuchhi (western part of Gujarat) and other tribal embroidery. She focused her work on the different embroidery styles of Kutch and Saurashtra. Back in her university, she volunteered for the student-designed-and-initiated learning called "Scholar of the University." She convinced the faculty that it would be most appropriate–since all the material was visual –to make the final presentation an exhibition of all the items that she had collected instead of a written paper.

Since then, for the last three decades she has lived in tribal villages in Maharashtra, in Rabari villages in Gujarat, not only learning their language but also adopting their lifestyle. In January 1975, she mounted an exhibition of photography, text, textiles, and replicas of jewelry that she had made in Rabari villages. She toured with this show in the United States, installing it in each venue and giving lectures. In the meantime, she also started a small enterprise of her own along with a friend. They sold Rabari artifacts in New York with an information kit that gave the origin and history of the piece, thereby making the buyers familiar with the product and the people who made it.

In 1981 she completed her postgraduate work in South Asian studies, with a thesis that examined the propensity for adaptation and maintenance for cultural identity among nomadic people. Then, in 1983, she used all her savings to return to India to spend a year with the Rabaris of Gujarat and Rajasthan. In 1987 she completed a second stint of postgraduate work in museology with a focus on anthropology. During this time she also worked as a researcher in the Henry Art Gallery Textile Collections and studied Hindi. Judy also worked in natural food co-ops to support herself. In 1989 she joined the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., as the associate curator, Eastern Hemisphere collections. This provided her with valuable administration experience. While working at the museum, she was also able to rewrite her master's degree thesis as a book on Rabari textiles. Published in 1995 as Threads of Identity, the book won her the Costume Society of America's annual Milia Davenport Award in 1997.

In the meantime, she received a Fulbright grant to do further study in India. This time, she realized that crafts had become commercialized. She wanted to focus her study on embroideries of immigrants from Sindh. When one of the daughters of the house where she had gone to see the embroidery confronted her with a question–"Why are you studying us, why don't you help us?"–she started thinking. She realized that she needed to do something to preserve the traditional craft rather than only study it. She received a grant from Aid to Artisans to build a collection of traditional pieces to be kept as a resource base for artisans. Along with Dastkar, an Indian organization working with craftspeople, she started the Dastkar Kutch project with a grant from the Ford Foundation.

In 1993 with the experience that Dastkar had provided, she, together with the local embroiders, formed Kala Raksha Trust. Kala Raksha has been a great success story both at home and around the world, weaving the principles of craftspeople initiative and craftspeople participation.

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