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Handy Crafts Are Here

All across India craftspeople are waking up to the needs of modern consumers, giving their goods a funky, practical twist on tradition, writes Bhairavi Jhaveri.

brunch Updated: Sep 14, 2013 17:26 IST
Bhairavi Jhaveri
Bhairavi Jhaveri
Hindustan Times

Bihar’s Madhubani art is jumping off the village walls on to tussar silk saris, with help from Delhi’s Dastakar. Chirpy Gond motifs aren’t quite staying within the lines at rural Madhya Pradesh homes. They’re covering shoe racks and other furniture pieces at Mumbai’s Baaya Design store. Black stone Longpi pottery is breaking out of Manipur’s kitchens to find urban homes in the form of Sahil & Sarthak’s sophisticated lamps and wall pockets. Tradition just turned a corner. Many of India’s 2,000-plus crafts are getting a makeover for a new generation of buyers. And the goods aren’t pulling at just your heartstrings anymore; they’re firmly aiming for your purse strings too.

Old is the new new
Up until a few years ago, there was a pretty set way to buy handloom and handicraft products. Artisans and craftsmen sold their wares in local markets, at cultural fairs or through state-run emporiums where nothing had changed in decades. Sure the stuff was authentic and exquisite. But questions hung in the air: how many Patachitra paintings can you buy for your living room; how many leather puppets can hang by the door; and how many Kalamkari saris can you keep in your wardrobe? It’s the question young designers like Gaurang Shah, Sahil & Sarthak, Ritu Kumar of O Layla are asking; a thought echoed by store owners like Shibani Jain of Baaya Design, Neha Gandhi of Matsya Crafts and Aradhana Nagpal of Dhoop; and organisations such as Dastkar, Paramparik Karigar, Kala Raksha and WomenWeave. They realise that Indian crafts don’t just need to be preserved, they need to flourish and keep pace with contemporary demands. And each of them is meeting that goal differently.

Invest in this exquisite Katran ‘Love’ chair by Sahil & Sarthak

Practical magic
“Those who want to keep craftspeople in their same old slots, making boring, tacky bric-à-brac that floods our state emporia and footpaths, are doing Indian crafts no favour,” argues Laila Tyabji, chairperson of Dastkar, which promotes the survival of regional traditional crafts. “Tradition should be a springboard, not a cage.” Her springboard allows old crafts more leeway, even combing two styles – say brass Dhokra and Warli art – into a single product. The colours, materials and even the application are all tweaked to create product with a specific use. No ornamental boxes you’ll never use, no showpieces that will collect dust, no weaves too heavy for the workplace of 2013.

Ritu Kumar, who owns O Layla, the Delhi store that glamorously combines village crafts with contemporary outfits offers examples of Gujarati Mashru weaves, a textile that’s on the verge of extinction. But under the Kutch organisation, Khamir, the fabric is not made from pure silk, so more people can afford it, and this keeps the artisans in business. “If this ensures that the weaving craft lives on, then great!” says Kumar who is also incorporating the weave extensively in a collection of jackets and other items for winter.

O Layla also lets you not only own but wear your Kalamkari too. Instead of heavy saris, they work the weave into kaftans and dresses.

For fashion designer Gaurang Shah, preserving tradition at the cost of the artisan’s livelihood makes no sense either. That’s why he now incorporates Andhra Pradesh’s jamdani muslin in his designer saris. It ensures that weavers, who would previously work without electricity for eight hours straight, earn a regular income, command a good price and make an urban fashionista’s closet pop too.

Gond motifs have moved away from just cloth to walls, tables etc

Intelligent design
As design school graduates from NID, Ahmedabad, and Srishti, Bangalore, enter the handicraft and handloom sector, they seem to have taken over (and redefined) the job of the middleman. They’re respecting traditional processes, keeping crafts connected to today’s reality and are making sure your purchases are not because of one-time guilt but everyday habit.

“Our first designer, Neha Lad, was fresh out of NID and spent two years with us. She set up the ‘design bank and texture bank’ from which we still draw heavily today,” says Sally Holkar, founder-CEO of WomenWeave. Lad’s task was to pick basic textures that were suitable for yardage, scarves and stoles, and coordinate proportion and palette so artisans could draw from what was already ready for the market. No wonder WomenWeave products are steady best sellers.

You can find this Patachitra bottle at Delhi store, O Layla

Designer Swagata Ghosh, who heads the product development department at the non-profit Sasha World, is involved with several craft groups. “The women know embroidery, but sometimes there are qualitative issues in finishing touches,” she explains. She helps them come up with new motifs, new colours, new dyes, and shows them how to balance smaller, fast-selling products with more time-consuming ones.

Apart from empowering artisans with new knowledge, designers are also helping them improve the quality of input and managing capital investment. Arushi Chowdhury Khanna, manager of the Enterprise Support Program at the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (which runs Craftmark) is one of them. “The craft sector is seeing a lot of funding right now,” she points out. “We must invest it in specialised management and work towards making the artisan the designer.”

The new canvas
Gond artist, Hiraman Urweti of Bhopal, who works with Baaya Design, is comfortable with the new language of tradition. “First I painted on canvas, now I paint on furniture. Nothing else has changed,” he says. Master potter, Abhay Pandit, son of award-winning pottery artist BR Pandit, believes that a balance between creating products for the urban market and exhibiting limited-edition pieces in their original form is the key to artistic survival. “Working with designers and stores is great, but the artisan should not become dependent on the designer,” he believes. “He must learn from him but eventually become self-reliant.” A few years ago, Judy Frater, project director of Kutch-based Kala Raksha Trust launched the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya to help traditional artists keep up with market changes. “The young alumni have been producing extraordinary pieces of contemporary craft and textiles, deeply embedded in the design traditions and techniques of their ancestors,” says Tyabji. “They are reaching urban and international markets without intervention from designers.”

From HT Brunch, September 15

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First Published: Sep 13, 2013 16:41 IST