One of the penalties Western tourists suffer by booking packaged tours (and there's no other way of sensibly and safely exploring the maelstrom that is India) is the dreaded but inescapable 'visit to the craft shop'. You never ask for these to be put on your tour schedule, but they always appear on it. One of our ever-so-friendly-hope-I-get-a-ridiculous-tip guide even cancelled some temple visit or other (mercifully perhaps) to make sure we had enough time to be assailed by his commission-paying chum in the decorated marble plate / carpet / pashmina / carved elephant / sari / jewellery or whatever flavour of 'souvenir' that particular town had decided to specialise in flogging the walking-goldmines they call tourists. It works something like this:
- You never request to go to these places, but somehow you always arrive.
- You are met by humble bowing smiling welcoming middle-aged suited businessmen who offer you sofas and tea. Always tea.
- These days they sometimes dispense with the personally related tale of their craft, and assail you with a video instead. To be fair, this often teaches you things you didn't know about materials, processes etc.
- They then wheel in, or escort you to see staged and rather bored looking lads who demo an aspect of their craft. Stone grinding, weaving, carpet trimming etc. The chances that these chaps actually ever produce a finished item are small. There's never any sign of raw material stockpiles or rows of semi-finished objects. They are all part of the show.
- Then you get the pressure sell. And I mean PRESSURE. Remember you really weren't interested in buying anything before you arrived. So now they've got to turn your polite attention and feigned wonderment at their craft, into cash. The 'indicative' prices they mention during their introductory ramble bear no relation to the asking prices on the backs of their wares. Woe-betide you if you show the slightest interest in any item. Their pitch is "our objective is to preserve the crafts which are dying out in rural India/Thailand/Kenya...". Of course you don't want to be rude, so you say things like 'beautiful', 'wonderful', 'look at the workmanship in that' etc. Gotcha! "For you sir I'm prepared to give you a special price". But I didn't say I wanted it... No matter. Out comes the desktop calculator. Mad tapping and seconds later a number emerges. 5 or 10% less than the asking price. You start feeling you're winning, forgetting that you never wanted the bloody thing in the first place. Hours grind by. More tea. Alternative carpets/plates/rings etc magically appear. You've started the negotiation process, now you either summons up all courage and walk out (smiling nervously and apologetically) or you finally cave in and hand over vastly more than anyone in their right mind should ever pay on eBay, for something which you know will hide in a cupboard or store room forever for fear of visitors to your house spotting you caved in to holiday sales pressure.
- Is it wrong to employ children to make these things? Even the salesman admits kids start very young (even though it's against the law in India for a child under 15 to work in a factory).
- Are the dealers excessively exploiting the artisans by keeping nearly all the sale price?
- Will the art and craftsmanship survive without pressure selling to tourists?
One point that did emerge from the video is that it's probably not a bad idea to look out for the RugMark label (assuming it's not been forged) - unless you agree that kids should be allowed to make carpets... but then how does one know if they're also receiving schooling. Tricky. There is also the issue that genuine rugs without that mark are therefore not to be trusted - which hurts the craftsmen who made it. Accreditation is either universally applied and policed or it's potentially unfair.
Then there's the incentive for those guides and shops to be open for business at all. Without them, there's no sale, and they're all in competition with each other, so theoretically it's a buyer's market - even though the sales techniques are very pushy and you're never encouraged or assisted to shop around. Indeed who would go to a website to buy a carpet? Quite apart from needing to see one in the 'flesh', I very much doubt many of us wake up one morning and decide to buy a persian/kashmir silk carpet of a particular design and knot density. Pressure selling to high-jacked tourists must account for the vast majority of sales.
There's no question that extraordinary skill and creativity is invested in every handmade carpet, necklace and piece of decorative porcelain etc. And tourists will forever face the assault courses they unwittingly sign-up to when they take package holidays to such places. It's all part of the fun of the holiday. But if kids are going to grow up in Kashmir factories painstakingly manufacturing carpets for pressure salesmen in Delhi and Agra to flog to tourists who don't really want them, then I have a problem with the 'it will die out if we don't support it' argument. Give those kids a childhood and a future by ensuring money finds it way from tourists into education projects, not sweat shops that perpetuate the lifestyles of tourist trap operators.