The word ‘handicraft’ has been exploited and misused in our countryBorn and raised around Patan Durbar Square, Pravin Chitrakar was always surrounded by centuries of culture and heritage. As he grew older, his sense of wonder at the intricacy and beauty of his architectural heritage never ceased. Upon completing his civil engineering degree from Nagpur in 1992, Chitrakar returned to Kathmandu and began helping out his family, who was involved with Patan Handicrafts.
Born and raised around Patan Durbar Square, Pravin Chitrakar was always surrounded by centuries of culture and heritage. As he grew older, his sense of wonder at the intricacy and beauty of his architectural heritage never ceased. Upon completing his civil engineering degree from Nagpur in 1992, Chitrakar returned to Kathmandu and began helping out his family, who was involved with Patan Handicrafts. Always interested in the arts, he joined Patan Handicrafts and worked to export Nepal-made handicrafts all over the world. In 2000, Chitrakar left for Hawaii to complete his MBA and returned to Kathmandu with a number of new ideas. His love for the arts, heritage and culture all came together when he founded Yala Mandala in 2012. Yala Mandala is a conglomeration of four different companies—Patan Handicrafts, Yala Craft, Craft Yala and Yala Traditions—that manufacture products by more than 100 artisans. In order to showcase these products, Yala Mandala also started a gallery-cum-restaurant in Kwalkhu, Patan. In this interview with the Post’s Alisha Sijapati, Chitrakar talks about his desire to create an artisan village and some of his future plans. Excerpts:
How did you get into the handicraft business?
Having been brought up in Patan, I was always interested to learn more about the artworks and crafts that the residents of Patan were into. Most of these artisans’ were underrated and exploited. So I started a network consisting of artisans who normally worked at home, and gathered them to work with us, based our workstation in an open abandoned courtyard in Patan itself. This is how Patan Handicraft started. The core idea of starting an open workspace came from a vision to give due credit to artists and observe their strengths and weaknesses and most importantly, raise the value of their artworks. Everything needs to be transparent. If Italy is known for its bags, France is known for its perfumes, why can’t Nepal be renowned for its crafts? I believe that the word ‘handicraft’ has been exploited and misused in our country. Many handicrafts that are available in the Nepali market aren’t necessarily hand-crafted; it’s just a facade. People from different parts of the world come to our country and make us realise what is valuable, but we ourselves are losing touch with our culture and heritage.
How have you blended heritage and culture with business and art for Yala Mandala?
My vision was always to start an artisan village and build a strong artisan network but, unfortunately that idea never saw light. Things are getting more expensive by the day. I have always had a desire to promote the art and skills of our artisans and explore how we could diversify their work. Our ancestor built everything for us, from paatis to dharas and beautiful houses. But we have ruined all that. Without trying to understand the nuance of heritage, people have ruthlessly erected ‘modern’ buildings. I wanted to brand Yala Mandala in such a way that it would reach a global scale. Therefore, Yala Mandala’s journey started in 2012, when we found that the centuries-old Rajbhandari House was vacant. Yala Mandala comprises of a gallery, cafe, art studio, and a retail concept studio. Through this, we want to help promote our heritage and let foreigners know that Nepal has more to offer than mountains.
Your speciality is in art. How did the idea of starting a restaurant come about?
Yala Mandala is like a small artisan village where we promote our art, craft and culture. But today, everyone is into converting their homes into bed-and-breakfasts, but I always aspired to go beyond. We are trying to justify the use of heritage spaces. So, through that process, we thought what else can be done to make this place more relevant. So we came out with a small restaurant. Honestly speaking, I am not a restaurateur; I am just a man who is passionate about arts and crafts. This restaurant has changed the way people perceive us. You can come drink coffee with us and even look around for products to buy. It has turned into a win-win situation for all of us.
How many artisans are involved with Yala and how do you gather them to work together?
When we started Patan Handicraft in the 90s, we had about 20 to 25 artisans working with us. In the beginning, it was very challenging to persuade them to work with us because they had a preconceived notion that we would exploit their work and pay them little. However, their perception changed as we started paying them on a monthly salary basis and gave them extra allowances for meals. This helped build trust and encouraged them to do better. Currently, we have over 100 artisans whereas there was a time when we had more than 300 artisans working with us. After I returned from Hawaii, I thought of starting flexible hours and a flat-hiring process but that didn’t work. People here have a very laid-back attitude and it backfired. Now, we have artisans from various parts of the country—some work from home, some work from our head office and others work according to pieces.
Yala Mandala is a conglomerate of four different companies. How do you manage to multitask?
If you are living in Nepal, you need to learn to multitask. I can’t do everything by myself. I have a dream team. In all our four companies, I have partners who work endlessly towards developing amazing products. I may be the driving force but credit for all the hard work goes to the team.
What are your future plans?
As I said before, I always had a dream of starting an artisan village. Hopefully, someday, that wish will be fulfilled. Second, I want our brand to gain global recognition. We’ll have our products available in many countries in the future.