Home Professions in India
In the Early XX Century
“Is the liking for outside ornaments-for pictures, or statues, or furniture, or architectures moral quality? Yes, most surely, if a rightly set liking. Taste for any pictures or statues is not a moral quality, but taste for good ones is. . . . To teach taste is inevitably to form character.”-Ruskin.
Among the callings open now to women in India, scarcely any are entirely under feminine control. The result is that woman, as a rule, seldom gets a chance to show her business capacity. Men are at the head of all branches of industry which employ women, and therefore, if even a small proportion of the 160,000,000 women in India are to earn a livelihood, which is to be anything more than a mere pittance, the key to success will lie in taking energetic measures to qualify Indian women, so as to enable them to co-operate with their fathers, brothers, and husbands. As long as man has the monopoly of the direction of every concern, it is only natural that woman’s interests should not receive as much attention as they ought. But there is no reason why women should always be unable to cooperate with men. There are several branches of employment which would seem peculiarly their work. Their aim, then, should be to seek out those callings for which by nature and training they feel themselves best adapted, so that by combination and organization with men they may, in time, be so qualified as to be at least co-directors with them.
Why, for example, should the many branches of work connected with the home rest so largely in the hands of men? It was not always thus, for in primitive migratory times it was woman’s task to carry the tent from place to place, and, later on, to build the hut in which the family dwelt. It seems a strange thing that nowadays only when the house is finished, when the architect has designed the plan, when the builders and workmen have done their part, when an army of upholsterers and other operatives have had their say, and the house is fully equipped from floor to ceiling, does woman step in and do her best to render it habitable. Granted that a man must build the house, but it is only the deft touch of a woman that can make that house a home. “Taste,” says W. R. Lowell, “ is the next gift to genius.” We may go even farther and say that in many women it amounts to genius.” Why, then, when her ingenuity and artistic skill in such domestic matters have been always admittedly superior to man’s, should she not endeavour to push her way in this direction, and make an effort to get at least the decoration and furnishing of the home under her control? To promote such a scheme on a large scale would require considerable organization and capital. The technical and scientific knowledge possessed by Indian women would have to undergo a vast improvement, but the field affords great scope for their artistic and practical talent, and an almost unlimited outlet for labour of feminine brain and hand.
To start at the very beginning-the profession of DOMESTIC ARCHITECT is itself exceedingly interesting, and one which Indian women might, in part, very well take up. The oversight of the workmen would have to be left to men, nor could women very well climb the scaffolding to superintend the progress of the building, but the drawing of the plans and the details could easily be done by our women if they made it the subject of a course of professional study. There is, however, no need for women to undertake the entire architecture of the house. There is ample room for their talent in designing portions of the interior-such as useful wall-cupboards, mouldings, friezes, ornamental designs for doors and windows, and the general decorative details of construction. Such training as the architectural profession affords would also be invaluable to them in the decoration of public buildings – a department which might be left to a great extent in their hands. It is highly improbable that women will for a long time enjoy the public confidence sufficiently to succeed as architects, but there would seem to be no reason whatever to prevent them from prospering in some of the sections of this most interesting profession. In buildings devoted to charitable purposes, round Hindu temples and Moslem mosques, there is ample scope for women’s talent. The artistic decoration of temples during great fairs is a business which in India would employ thousands of women.
In the trade of HOUSE DECORATING and FURNISHING a number of women should unite, each taking up a separate section. This is absolutely necessary to insure thoroughness, as the scope is so vast that no one woman could possibly master all its branches. Here, as in most other callings, specialization is the secret of success. The head of such an enterprise must be a person possessed of thorough business principles in combination with a knowledge and love of art. It is no easy thing to deal with the countless array of work- people whose services are necessary to equip the “House Beautiful,” nor is it a simple matter to please the idiosyncrasies of the clients, who in affairs relating to household furnishing are notoriously hard to manage. A woman, “to be excellent in this way, requires a great knowledge of character, with that exquisite tact which feels unerringly the right moment when to act.” The possession of such tact, however, has always been one of woman’s chief assets, therefore this side of business ought to prove one in which she will be facile princeps.
The next general requisite, after business principles, is a training in the theoretical part of the work, in the history of architecture, and of furniture and design. For this there should be classes and lectures as well as private study. An artistic training in the various branches of textile design is in itself a separate career, and would employ thousands of women. When one looks at the infinite variety of design required for carpets, rugs, tapestries, linen, and house furnishings of all kinds, it is easy to recognize the vast field open to those women who are possessed of artistic talent and originality. Even in England the greater part of this work is at present executed by men; in India woman’s share leaves much room for improvement.
Furniture-designing and carving is a trade in which there is a good opening for the skilled woman-worker. It is one in which both brain and hand are kept busy; and those who have a love of art will find it a most congenial employment. Much carving is of course done now by machinery, but hand-work is still highly prized, and, as an artistic product, is naturally far superior. The practical part of the upholstery trade is also highly suitable for women’s fingers.
House-decorating is by no means an easy trade. There are many things to be learnt before even the elements of the business can be carried through successfully, but it is an occupation which has the charm of infinite variety, and one in which business capacity has wonderful room for exercise. Customers require good work as well as economical work; therefore the woman who can combine sharp commercial instincts with an artistic sense and the power of managing operatives is the one to prosper in house-decoration.
As regards the sale of upholstery and furniture, it is a branch eminently adapted to women, and one which, like house-decoration, requires considerable experience before proficiency can be attained. The different styles and periods of furniture must all be familiar, and, as has been said before, a knowledge of the history of architecture is necessary to carry out high class work. Connected with this section there is the trade in antique furniture, which might very well be added to the list of the woman- furnisher’s enterprises. There is a rising demand, not for the brand-new products of the modern workshop, but for objects that have been mellowed by the hand of time. To make money in this line one must be able to recognize a genuine article when one sees it, and must have the faculty of striking a good bargain. Thus, many valuable old pieces of carving, silver, furniture, prints, coins, lace, crockery, intaglios, bronzes, engravings, etc., may be secured and sold at a handsome profit. The restoring and renovating of antique furniture is a very paying side of the trade, but great care should be taken not to encourage in any way the too prevalent practice of “faking.” To start a business in antiques, a woman would do best to take up one or two special lines only, which would teach her the details of the trade, the methods of treating with both seller and customer, and the policy of disposing quickly of the goods purchased. In this way, by gradually adding other classes of goods to the list, she might become an expert in art-dealing- a business in which large fortunes are to be gained. A peculiar temperament is necessary for such work, and a training not of one, two, or even three years, but constant, unceasing study of art-values in the particular branch which she may elect to take up. Here, again, specialization is recommended, though, of course, several branches may be combined. A woman art- dealer might work in several ways. She might buy generally to sell at a profit, or she might sell the work of artists on commission; or, having formed a connection among purchasers, she might obtain for them to order articles to suit their individual requirements. It is readily comprehensible that a keen critical faculty is absolutely indispensable in this profession; but, given the true collector’s temperament, the occupation is most congenial and indeed, often of enthralling interest. Like most things connected with the artistic side of the home, it requires a hard business head as well as a love of the beautiful. Capital, of course, is a sine qua non, but to make a living a large business house is not necessary. A small establishment can be made to realize handsome profits. It is a pursuit which may be taken up as a hobby, and continued to great pecuniary advantage.
To descend from the decoration of the home to the less artistic sphere of culinary matters, there is one most striking fact which confronts us-that whereas it is woman who spends the greater part of her life in the kitchen, yet man, who is ignorant of most of the processes and occupations of that domain of housekeeping, is the very one who has to design the appliances for carrying out her work. The fault must have lain with woman her-self. She has not hitherto shown much inventive faculty. But it is a subject well worth her consideration. The man who first thought of inserting a small piece of indiarubber at the end of a tin case round a lead-pencil amassed a fortune. There is a golden harvest awaiting the clever housewife who can invent little labour-saving contrivances for the household, which may look so simple, yet have never before been put into practice.
Furniture-removing might also be undertaken as a department of the trade of house-furnishing, and other branches might be incorporated, as experience showed their suitability. If women combined to run an establishment such as this providing all things connected with the equipment of the home, they might either work it as a private concern, or it might be turned into a large co-operative store, similar to the English Societies registered on the Co-operative Union, in which the shares bear a fixed rate of interest, and the net profits, with a few reservations for bonuses to employees, contributions to reserve funds, etc., are divided among members and customers in proportion to the amount of goods purchased at the store.
Yet another pursuit may be included with all the foregoing-that of HOUSE and ESTATE AGENT. This is a calling which, though scarcely touched as yet by women, even in England, affords great possibilities for the exercise of the tact and talent of Indian women, and is certainly one in which their intimate knowledge of the working of the home will stand them in good stead. The first branch, in which a woman must enlist masculine co-operation, in order to gain experience, is that of rent-collecting. She must see that rents are collected regularly every month, choose new tenants, dismiss the old, keep houses in repair, pay rates and taxes for the landlord, and look after the entire interests of the property. To complete these duties efficiently, she must have a considerable knowledge of valuations, of book-keeping, of the laws referring to house-property, especially such as to deal with the sale of estates, leases of houses and ground, agreements between landlord and tenant, etc. She must be able to keep a register of houses and estates, must be acquainted with the work of building and decorating, that she may be able to keep a businesslike eye upon the repairs which may be necessary, and she must also know the value of furniture and fittings. This latter qualification is necessary in case of the letting of furnished houses, when she would have to estimate the value of the damage, if any, done by the temporary tenant.
In the work of rent-collecting the educated woman has a great opportunity of introducing improvements in housing and hygiene. If she has the entire control of a large property, she will find ample room to exercise her scientific knowledge of sanitation; and in her intercourse with the tenants, when these are of the poorer classes, she can do much to instil into them the principles of hygiene. To this end a course of study in sanitation is most helpful, and there is abundant information to be had nowadays in books and pamphlets on sanitary appliances.
The occupation is one that has the manifest advantage of requiring little capital for a start. Business initiative and tact in dealing with clients are the main requisites. There are dozens of Indian lady graduates who cannot possibly all expect to find posts as teachers and companions. In a country of purda our University women might with great advantage try their abilities in this direction. The illiterate Ghataki (female negotiator of Hindu marriages) has fairly ousted her male rival (Ghatak) by taking advantage of the purda system at Calcutta. The Ghataki now brings about more Hindu matrimonial alliances at the Indian capital than the Ghatak, who, until twenty years ago, had held for centuries the monopoly as agent of Cupid. If this proves anything, it shows that there is ample room for all sorts of women-workers behind the purda.
Source: The Position of Women in Indian Life (1912)