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Monday, Oct 21, 2019

Crafty ways to make rural art hip again!

Jewellery designer Gina Joseph is turning indigenous Indian crafts into modern statement pieces

brunch Updated: Sep 21, 2019 22:45 IST
Lubna Salim
Lubna Salim
Hindustan Times
Hand-painted leather puppetry bird necklace from Andhra Pradesh
Hand-painted leather puppetry bird necklace from Andhra Pradesh

“At an exhibition, a lady asked me to add Swarovski crystals to my Dokra brass choker. I smiled and politely declined,” says Gina Joseph. The 36-year-old Chennai-based jewellery designer specialises in creating statement pieces based on indigenous rural crafts, and travels to villages across the country, where she works with artisans to create necklaces, earrings, bracelets and the like.

A Kerala mural art bamboo necklace that’s been hand painted
A Kerala mural art bamboo necklace that’s been hand painted

Made with materials like leather, brass, copper, wood, textile, glass, and seeds, Gina’s work comprises trinkets with Dokra and Pattachitra art from Orissa, Toda embroidery from Tamil Nadu, wall mural art and Aranmula mirror work from Kerala, leather puppetry and lac turnery from Andhra Pradesh, Bidri work from Karnataka and bead embroidery from Gujarat. No precious metals and gems are used: her jewellery is valued for its background of Indian art, craft, and culture, not its cost.

Beyond the craft

“When I design, it’s about creating wearable art/craft that will make a statement, yet stay true to its roots,” says Gina. Before conducting any design intervention workshops with fourth and fifth generation artisans across different craft clusters in India, she invests years into research about the craft, material and the regions where the artisans are located. After that, design ideas are discussed with the artisan groups she plans the workshops with. And then, she goes to the villages. Under her brand Zola India, Gina designs all the jewellery herself.

Gina instructs artisans during a workshop
Gina instructs artisans during a workshop

With each craft, village and artisan she works with, Gina says she learns something new. A leather puppetry workshop taught her about colour gradations on leather and how it is different from working on paper. “At the Aranmula workshop, for the first time I saw bell metal being converted to a shiny reflective mirror surface. And at the Bidri workshop, it was almost magical to see the metal inlay work come to life after going through a seven-step process,” says an excited Gina.

Passion, not professional training, led Gina down this path. A visual communications graduate with experience in advertising and journalism, Gina was introduced to art appreciation and history when she took a sabbatical and enrolled for an Arts Management programme in 2013. “It was my appreciation of art that caused this hidden passion to surface at the right time in my life,” says Gina.

A crystal and Dhokra bead choker newly put together at the workshop
A crystal and Dhokra bead choker newly put together at the workshop

“As part of my Indian art project, I created my first three pieces of jewellery,” she says. “I was fascinated by the temple women in Indian sculpture, that is, the salabhanjikas (tree huggers), madanikas and yakshis.”

She had these jewellery pieces carved in wood and put them together with semi-precious stones. “The concept was to wear a piece of history,” she explains.

Get, set, go

Gina’s “aha” moment, so to speak, happened quite by chance four years ago when she visited the chairperson of the Crafts Council Of India (CCI), Gita Ram, and happened to be wearing one of the necklaces she’d designed for her project. Gita liked it very much, and when, during their meeting, she learned that an international designer who was due to visit Bhubaneshwar to conduct a Dokra design workshop with rural artisans had to cancel, she immediately asked Gina if she would do it.

“When I design, it’s about creating wearable art and craft that will make a statement, yet stay true to its roots” —Gina Joseph

“I told her I had no prior experience in designing jewellery, but she said ‘just go, let’s see what comes out of it, I think you can do a good job.’ And it was this trust in me and my work that was the stepping stone for my brand Zola,” says Gina.

Gina was nervous during this workshop. To add to that, there was a language barrier, but within hours of meeting the 10 women artisans she had to work with, she relaxed. “Things just flowed naturally and we created about 70 new designs of earrings, necklaces, chokers and anklets in five days,” says Gina. “That’s when I realised that this is what I was meant to do. No other job in the past had given me so much satisfaction and fulfillment.”

A Dhokra metal choker that can be used as a head accessory
A Dhokra metal choker that can be used as a head accessory ( Arjun Mark )

That was Gina’s first workshop. Since then she has conducted 20 design workshops with over 300 artisans across rural India, and worked with eight crafts of India.

What’s so special?

So what is it that makes her designs unique? “When I design a collection, I consciously work only with motifs, techniques and colours that the craft originally used over the years. Only the form changes to necklaces, earrings, neck collars, waistbands etc,” says Gina. She believes it’s essential to keep the craft intact. So much so that each piece of jewelley reflects anythings between 500 and 5,000 years of India’s rich art and craft heritage.

A leather collar being designed at the workshop
A leather collar being designed at the workshop

For instance, the Toda embroidery done by the Toda tribes of the Nilgiris is inspired by their body tattoos and is done only with black and red threads. Each geometric motif represents elements of nature and there is no recorded evidence of the embroidery, which makes each piece exclusive for the customer.

Gina’s roots are in Kerala, but she grew up in Delhi and Chennai, and was always drawn to stories about people, food, customs, traditions, festivities and colours.

“My love for everything Indian grew with me each day but it was limited to shopping for Indian handicrafts, art and anything unique for myself and my home,” she says. After starting Zola India, Gina got the opportunity to be part of a certificated programme in Crafting Luxury and Lifestyle Businesses at IIM Ahmedabad.

A pen made of bamboo is used to paint on leather (goat hide) by the artists
A pen made of bamboo is used to paint on leather (goat hide) by the artists

She doesn’t have a dedicated store but retails online and showcases her creations at exhibitions across the globe and at niche stores in India, USA, Kenya and Singapore.

Different pieces appeal to age groups ranging from seven to 70! While the leather puppetry earrings and Dokra anklets/armbands are a big hit with youngsters because of their vibrant colours and light weight, women who love to experiment, tend to go for the Toda necklace or leather puppetry neck collars.

Going forward, Gina wants to expand the availability of her designs in the American and European markets, and explore many more crafts across the country. “Right now I have visits and workshops scheduled in Odisha and Jharkand,” she says.

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From HT Brunch, September 22, 2019

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First Published: Sep 21, 2019 22:45 IST

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