Sikkim souvenirs and the Herculean craftsmanship

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In Pic: Norlha corn husk handmade flowers by Sonam Choden Bhutia

“Get me a bottle of Shangri-La as a souvenir from your place,” demanded one of my friends in college many years ago. It didn’t sound strange at all for he had only heard about two things that he believed Sikkim famously produced- liquor and tea. The latter, he hardly wanted to drink and the former, he always wished to drink. After the Dusshera holidays, I appeared before him with the bottle of the said liquor, in return, he gifted me a beautiful little cane container handcrafted by the local artisans of his state.

Such instance occurred later in my life as well when I was gifted a handwoven scarf with traditional motifs and I, in exchange gifted her a bottle of the local beer. A bottle of an alcoholic beverage for a souvenir proved feasible for my ‘student’ pocket as compared to the locally handcrafted items.

We, as a state are culturally colourful and traditionally rich. With three ethnic communities residing in harmony with each other, Sikkim itself is a mini example of unity in diversity. However, for a person like me, who wishes to gift something local without making a dent in the pocket, it’s hard to get a locally made souvenir which is beautiful and feasible.

We don’t have dearth of local products and artisans, but what we lack is the feasibility for both, the buyer and the seller. The Directorate of Handloom and Handicrafts (DHH) produces and sells an array of handcrafted products. But sadly, most of whose prices don’t fit our pockets. As a tourist even if one has enough money, it’s hard for her/him to carry handwoven carpets, choksi tables, carved wooden showpieces, Thangka paintings and other such bulky items. A tourist searches for something which is convenient for both buying and carrying. Hence, the easiest option for them is the ‘Made in China’ tokens whose eye-catching gold and red decorate the stretch towards Lal Bazaar and the gift shops at MG Marg.

In one of such shops I visited lately, I came across a fridge magnet made out of fibre wherein the scenic Tsomgo Lake was carved with Sikkim written on it. Excitedly, I asked who made them and where did it come from. The busy shopkeeper without an inch of emotion in his face answered, “Chinese maal ho yo” (This is a Chinese product). Tourists thronged the shop and at times a situation of commotion would arise when they got confused about which items to choose because they were in variety, weighed less and could be bought at a price as low as Rs. 100 and on a discounted price as well when bought in bulk.

China has been infamous for capitalism and cheap labour which are a result of low wages and high productivity. Though there have been reports of the wages being risen and the production of the goods not being cheap anymore, one cannot deny our markets being flooded with their products sold at low prices. Obviously, we cannot compare the Chinese workforce and their way of approach towards work against ours.

Our locally handcrafted products are expensive. Yet considering the time-consuming process and the hard labour behind it, they are legitimate to be costly. But, it is high time that we start working on easy craftsmanship that proves feasible for all- the makers, sellers and buyers.

The DHH produces cheaper souvenirs in the form of soft toys, all tourists wouldn’t want to purchase them. They say such toys are common and also any grown-up wouldn’t want a toy for a memento.

Temi Tea, large cardamom and dalle (cherry pepper) pickle are few products that have performed well as local souvenirs through these years. Again, everyone wouldn’t want edibles. Many want something locally made which could stay forever.

With the sudden rise of entrepreneurship in the state, many locals have come up with their brands that make and sell handcrafted items or products that have been contemporarily designed with a local touch. And the best part is, the products are affordable; Sikkimis, Tapestree, Maato, Norlha, to name a few local brands. Apart from these brands which produce fashion and lifestyle products, there are brands like Tastebud, Namchi Designer Candles, Beautiful Earth, etc. who make handcrafted items which are a blend of the local and the global. These brands have their own share of struggles to reach where they are now. And mind you, none of them ever depended on the government for their success sagas. Nonetheless, it becomes imperative of the government and the concerned department(s) to look through them and help them whether in terms of finances, promotion, marketing, place to sell or whatever needs they require for their growth, for these are the makers that are playing a part of their own in making a name for the state as a whole in the global market.

Having a space to sell at MG Marg, which is considered as the heart of the town is another major issue faced. The skyrocketing rent prices add woe to the worry. There is a dire need for space at MG Marg where these local brands can sell their products. A one-stop-shop for everything local.

Nevertheless, the recent efforts of the state’s Commerce and Industries Department of promoting and assisting the local artisans and their artworks are highly commendable. Clusters are being formed and helpful information is being shared by the said department. Also, steps are being taken to provide a space for all to sell. Amid all these efforts, the solution for easy craftsmanship should be majorly looked upon. Production will be higher if only making of the products won’t be a Herculean task and subsequently, the prices too will turn feasible. Otherwise, our dream of replacing the Made in China with Made in Sikkim will only remain as a mere dream and only alcohol will continue being the much sought after souvenir.

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