Madras Craft Foundation (MCF) was a boon to the poverty-stricken artisans of Tamil Nadu. After 26 long years of struggle and success, MCF’s founder, Deborah Thiagarajan, was satisﬁed with her social venture’s achievements and was eager to move on to the next phase of her life. Was it time to hand over the reins, and if so, to whom? Sonia Mehrotra, Professor, Centre of Excellence for Case Development at Welingkar Institute of Management Development and Research, Bangalore, under the supervision of Oana Branzei, Associate Professor, General Management at Richard Ivey School of Business.
American-born Deborah Thiagarajan spent her 67th birthday reviewing the past 26 years and contemplating the future of Madras Craft Foundation (MCF) and its offshoot Dakshina Chitra, a cross-cultural living museum of art, architecture, lifestyles, crafts and performing arts of a India. Established in 1984, MCF was a non-proﬁt organisation that showcased South India’s cultural and economic heritage and generated revenues from tourism, performances and cultural activities. As she reﬂected on MCF’s evolution, what made Thiagarajan particularly proud was that the social venture had been self-sufﬁcient for three years, generating enough revenues each year to cover its operating expenses. It was this self-sufﬁciency that ﬁnally gave Thiagarajan pause to think about succession. Now that her ﬂedgling social venture had grown enough to stand entirely on its own strength, could or should she turn her attention to other pursuits? She had at least three alternatives in mind: to directly mentor and promote artisans from other Indian states; run train-the-trainer programmes to facilitate the replication of MCF’s successful Dakshina Chitra model among other Indian artisans; or globalise some of the features of the MCF model.
Madras Craft Foundation (MCF): A Journey from Hobby to Passion
Deborah Thiagarajan, an American from Pittsburgh, moved to Chennai, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, with her husband, Raj Thiagarajan in 1970. With a Masters in International and Development Education, she soon developed an interest in the society, structures, and culture of her newly adopted hometown. She became particularly enthralled with vernacular1 architecture and traditional artisans. During her volunteering days with different non- governmental organisations (NGOs) in Tamil Nadu, she soon found that despite its cultural richness, rural India struggled with social marginalisation and persistent poverty. She found that many artisans could barely feed their families as they rarely had customers for their art, with the result that they were giving up their traditional livelihoods and lifestyles altogether. Unable to ignore the poverty in Tamil Nadu that threatened its traditional art forms, she decided to give vent to her deep appreciation for local arts and crafts. This marked the early beginnings of the Madras Craft Foundation (MCF), a space where South India’s rich history and diverse cultural traditions would get a chance to come alive for the entire world to enjoy and steward.
Many artisans could barely feed their families as they rarely had customers for their art, with the result that they were giving up their traditional livelihoods and lifestyles altogether.
The journey to realise this dream had been neither easy nor quick. Thiagarajan initially had to rely on the support of her family, friends and small grants. The three-year US$ 50,000 grant from the Ford Foundation in 1987 and a 10-acre piece of land overlooking the beautiful Bay of Bengal from the Tamil Nadu government in 1991 helped Thiagarajan streamline the activities of MCF. She focused on building a team which gradually brought her original idea to life by creating an inter woven set of activities, including daily offerings of education and outreach programmes, workshops, special events, music and performing arts, and an art gallery. By 2009, moving on from the external funding based model, MCF started generating revenues from selling crafts in its crafts bazaar, contributions by Indian and foreign visitors (through gate donations, cultural tourism, educational programmes, a restaurant and guest house), and from special projects (including performances and special events, both in India and abroad).
Under the careful eye of Baker’s former student, engineer and conservation architect Benny Kuriakose, the 18th, 19th and early 20th century homes of the four southern states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, were identiﬁed, dismantled and reconstructed at Dakshina Chitra.
As convener of the Chennai chapter of INTACH2, Thiagarajan met famous Indian cultural activists such as Pupul Jayakar, Martand Singh, B K Tharpar, and V R Devika. With small grants from INTACH in 1985 and 1986, MCF initiated several research and training projects to study different South Indian folk and performing arts. In 1987, the Craft Museum of the government of India awarded MCF small grants to document the vernacular architecture of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. During this project, Thiagarajan became acquainted with Laurie Baker3, a brilliant architect. This auspicious encounter gave Thiagarajan new impetus for raising the funds she needed for Dakshina Chitra, the best known of MCF’s offerings.
Dakshina Chitra: A Dream Come True
Over the next ﬁve years, friends, money and land had ﬁnally come together to give birth to Dakshina Chitra.
True to Thaigarajan’s initial vision, the living museum honoured the traditional builders (stapathis) and ser ved as a reminder of past lifestyles and social histor y. The architectural design of Dakshina Chitra reﬂected Baker’s philosophy and style. Under the careful eye of Baker’s former student, engineer and conser vation architect Benny Kuriakose, the 18th, 19th and early 20th centur y homes of the four southern states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, were identiﬁed, dismantled and reconstructed at Dakshina Chitra. Each home represented a generic style popular in a region. However, at Dakshina Chitra, each house stood for much more than architecture. It became a home that embodied a particular community’s beliefs about life, nature and society.
By the time Dakshina Chitra opened its doors to the public in December 1996, MCF was organising diverse activities relating to the cultural traditions of South India. In 1997, MCF designed and hosted children’s education and cultural outreach programmes (CORP). The take-off of CORP also accelerated networking among cultural groups in Chennai and the region. To encourage artists, MCF instituted a Virudhhu award for lifetime achievement in folk performing arts. A well-equipped librar y with a rare collection of books on the arts of South India was also set up at Dakshina Chitra, which became a venue for international seminars on library studies. In 2005, MCF pioneered a one-year arts management course that instructed students on elements of the managerial processes involved in implementing arts projects. This course received funding of R 3.5 million from the JRD Tata Trust .
Economic activities included crafts workshops to assist artisans in identifying operational and technical problems as well as markets for their traditional products. Some of these resulted in exhibitions presented by MCF for museums in India and abroad. The crafts took a life of their own in 1997 when a “fair trade shop” was opened to sell artisan and NGO crafts directly to customers. Craftspeople from Bengal, Orissa and Gujarat came to Dakshina Chitra to take advantage of this direct selling opportunity. MCF also started conducting free experimental programmes dealing with production, accounting and credit, quality control, new tools, packaging, design and marketing for the beneﬁt of the craftspeople.
MCF’s portfolio of projects was grouped into four categories: education and programmes, craft merchandising and craft development, library and archiving, and special projects. It was hard to build a team willing to work 18 km away from Chennai. They outsourced certain functions such as public relations. MCF’s executive committee and advisor y committee brought together top talent with a deep commitment to India’s cultural and economic heritage and skills and connections that could sustain and strengthen MCF’s educational programmes. The marketing team at MCF was very active in ensuring that Dakshina Chitra was included in the itinerary of foreign tourists visiting India.
Dakshina Chitra was also marketed as an educational tourism destination for school children. Overall, it had taken Thiagarajan and her MCF team 12 years of preparation, documentation, school programmes, object collections, fundraising and building to establish the Dakshina Chitra centre. Visitors and revenues grew rapidly at Dakshina Chitra. In the latest ﬁnancial reporting period (the year ending March 31, 2010), Dakshina Chitra welcomed 132,311 visitors from India and abroad.
Thiagarajan wanted to change things and she was never short of ideas. Several alternatives looked particularly promising. Dakshina Chitra had accomplished so much, and Thiagarajan wanted to train artisans across India, who could then train others and bring similar prosperity to their own villages. There was much to do: she could display the arts and crafts that visitors so enjoyed at Dakshina Chitra to the world. She could also curate exhibitions that could tour the world and bring others back to Dakshina Chitra to encourage global exchanges and perhaps some cultural fusion. But she was concerned about something – as MCF grew, there was noticeable tension between the volunteers on the executive and advisor y committees and the staff. The volunteers had worked really hard for Dakshina Chitra and treated it like their own, but the staff had to be trained and mentored, which resulted in resentment and high employee attrition.
She would remember her 67th birthday as a milestone, a marker of her decision that her own path and that of her social venture had to fork. Yet she was unsure about what should come next for herself or for MCF. Well aware of the options and problems before her, Thiagarajan decided to work on a succession plan.
The case summary was written by Arohini Narain, Centre for Teaching, Learning and Case Development (CTLC) at the ISB.
1. Vernacular architecture uses locally available resources and traditions to address local needs and circumstances. It tends to evolve over time to reﬂect environmental, cultural and historical contexts in which a building exists.
2. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) was a non-proﬁt organisation set up in 1984 to involve its members in protecting and conserving India’s vast natural, built and cultural heritage.
3. Laurence Wilfred “Laurie” Baker was a British-born Indian architect and Padma Shri recipient, renowned for his initiatives in cost-effective, energy-efﬁcient, simple but beautiful architecture.