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DIY-ty work

Do try this at home

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At first the 80-year-old Mohammed Alam doesn't know what to make of the tablet he's being shown. "Teach me how to replicate this jacket" he is instructed, as he grips the iPad like Moses gripped his own tablets on Mount Sinai. The wizened tailor scrutinizes the online catalogue image from Zara - it's a cropped twill piece, easy enough to duplicate. "Sit, " he relents.

They huddle on a cane mat in her living room - Fiona Barros and the past master of a once legendary clothing store at Kala Ghoda called Smart and Hollywood, where Alam used to supervise a suite of dressmakers before the ready-to-wear renaissance of the 90s. Now Alam makes a living going house-to-house, and tailoring for people who still prefer cheap, bespoke clothing. He's been sewing for the Barroses for a year, and doesn't know if he can expect future business with them after the tutorials he started giving their 32-year-old daughter, a veterinarian. Perhaps the girl will tire of tailoring, or better still, be a disaster with the sewing machine. Fiona, in the meanwhile, fingers blue with tailor's chalk, promises she'll 'try or die'.

She's not the only one acquiring new skills. Cutting across professions and after-work diversions, more constituents of the middle and upper classes are subscribing to the Do-It-Yourself philosophy today, by setting out to assemble their own furniture, brew their own hooch, sew their own clothes, cobble together home accessories, bake their own bread, paint their walls and - in that ultimate sign of selfreliance - even repair their broken plumbing. To think Ikea isn't even home yet.

If middle-rung Indians (and Asians really) are not historically wired to fix or make stuff, it's not because they couldn't be bothered to learn, or were never gifted Mecanno sets as kids, but because they've never had reason to try. After all, no sooner has the need arisen than its solution - in the form of specialized labour - made itself available to oil and tend every turn of the technological wheel. Moreover, our society has historically been structured, class and caste-wise, to make sure there'll always be someone around to do the DIY-ty work. No wonder most of us can barely get through a user's manual.

Lately however, the self-starting vapours of the global DIY ethic have started to disseminate in the region, no doubt fanned by such subcultures as the global Maker movement and online Hackerspaces - where people convene to share ideas and skills to make and innovate. The reasons to join the 'maker movement' are many - tough economy;the desire to customise;unavailability of an object that meets their need;or simply to know the thrill of creation.

"I initially had Alam tailor my clothes because I wanted them unique and inexpensive. He charges Rs 200 for a lined jacket, " Fiona says. "Then I discovered the joy of assembly - of prospecting fabric markets for lamê or linen, browsing button stores, and picking out designs from magazines and online catalogues. To finally see the results of that labour gave me a high no High Street fashion sale could manage. " The khadi jackets and drainpipe trousers Alam stitched were roundly appreciated, and then Fiona decided to raise the stakes. "I decided to sew my own clothes. I didn't know how, but I was determined to learn. How hard could it be!" she thought, "My aunt and grandmother sew their clothes;moreover, we have a perfectly functional Singer at home. "
And so Fiona started taking sewing classes on the weekend. In not an unlike story, about a year ago 29-year-old Kusumika Rao, in Puducherry began to apprentice with a family friend who knew carpentry. He taught her to fashion simple articles like stools and coffee tables from scratch, after she decided she wanted to engage in some form of handiwork. "That I was using my hands and mind to create something useful, even beautiful made me feel more able, more accomplished, " the horticulturist explains. She considers it a spiritual outing to retreat to her workshop and saw at a plank of rosewood or hammer at a hardboard nail. "They have a certain raw, unrefined quality you'd expect from an amateur, and I'm not sure you'd want to buy the chest I made, but I value my pieces more than you perhaps would, " she reckons.

Behavioural economists have an expression for it - 'The Ikea Effect' - to describe the added value people assign to self-built objects over finished goods they may buy off a shelf. The term takes its name from the eponymous Swedish company that requires its customers to assemble furniture from a flatpack. No doubt, the sweat of one's brow contributes to the value differential. "Our research shows that labour enhances affection for its results. When people construct products themselves, from bookshelves to Build-a-Bears, they come to overvalue their (often poorly made) creations" writes Dan Ariely, a researcher on his blog. On the downside, if the labour is not fruitful (flashback to the volcano that stayed stubbornly dormant at your High School science fair), the Ikea Effect diminishes. And if it turns out to be a gem, you could even go out and make a sale.

Companies pitching the DIY line certainly are. The German engineering and tool company Bosch launched their Do-It-Yourself range of tools two years ago in India, and claim to have touched annual sales of Rs 40 crore in this division. Vijay Pandey, vice president, Bosch Power Tools, says they're eyeing the expanding middle class in urban markets as prospective purchasers. "Growing urbanisation compounded with rising costs, even the scarcity of handymen, prompted us to launch this line of home and garden tools, even though we know the Indian middle class will take some time to come around to the concept of self-reliance in domestic affairs, " he says. In fact, their poster girl is an efficient-seeming Prachi Desai, clearly hinting that tools are not only for the muscled, and certainly not just for men. To show people how to hammer in a nail or fix a broken door hinge or even to make objects from scratch Bosch has established a Doers Club in Bangalore and they're about to open DIY centres in Bangalore and other cities.

If Bosch doesn't come to a street near you, you can always turn to that free and easy university, the Internet. Here you have YouTube giving you the lowdown on everything - from fixing a broken faucet to building a chair with a single 2x4 block of wood, Wikihow showing you how to brew beer at home (among other lubricants), Etsy inspiring you to create and Scraphacker moving you to recreate.

The burgeoning micro-entrepreneurial segment is evidence of a growing subscription to the self-made school - autodidacts/designers/inventors who start off by fulfilling a felt need themselves, and then discover a market for the selfsame commodity or service.

But anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan maintains that India, as a culture of restriction and scarcity, has always had a notion of jugaad, of improvisation and of innovation using limited resources. He makes clear that "the language of jugaad is different from language of innovation chains which speak middle class dialects. Any slum is a bigger collection of innovation than any of our research laboratories. I am always puzzled that we have tutorial college books for Shakespeare but we have no mechanics illustrated to encourage innovation. Innovation is still not a part of middle class folklore, " he holds. He behoves us to differentiate between working class and white collar innovations, saying, "What you are talking about is middle class professional innovation which looks down at hand labour and almost refuses to tinker with machines. We are not talking of Sardarji welder. We are talking about a NIT graduate who is engaging in entrepreneurship and invention and enjoying it for the first time. "

Be that as it may, the fact remains that the NIT graduate is tinkering, even if for the first time, and enjoying it. Can such random auto-bodies succeed in furthering a culture of self-reliance, indeed of innovation? Perhaps. Although the numbers presently show nothing for it - India trailed at 64th place on the 2012 Global Innovation Index out of 71 countries ranked - the future could still be bright. Because, Indians are finally learning how to screw in a light bulb.

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