After hanging up the latest made-to-order designer acquisition, we don’t tend to think about the dozens (if not more) of hands that have touched and teased every inch of the fabric to transform it into the outfit that now rests in our wardrobe. ‘Artisanship reflects making what conforms to the potential, the contours and constraints of the human body. It is the maker’s immersion in the process, with its shades of dhyana and sadhana — what is now being called ‘flow’ — which is distinctive. This ‘immersiveness’ makes it human,’ explained art historian and die-hard revivalist Rahul Jain in an interview with a leading national newspaper.
If you look at international heritage brands such as Hermès for instance, each artisan’s mastery and contribution to the final product is acknowledged in some way. Meanwhile farther East, the Japanese philosophy of kaizen, the unerring pursuit of perfection, is woven, carved or sewn into each and every handmade product, adding to the country’s mystical allure. We hear about the generations of craftsmen who have perfected and passed down their skills one after the other, and we secretly rejoice in owning one such example of ‘perfect-in-its-imperfection’, sourced from the workshops of Milan, Paris or Tokyo. No one bats an eyelid when paying a hefty price in the name of craft.
When it comes to India however, we are still used to haggling our way around arguably modest prices for painstakingly handcrafted work. “Would you ever bargain in a Prada showroom? No. It’s unheard of, so why come here and bargain?” Gauri Wagenaar, co-founder of CDS (Craft+Design+Society) Art Foundation along with designer Asif Shaikh, explains that a re-education on the consumer as well as designer side is needed to change the existing environment.
Day 1 of Lakmé India Fashion Week Summer Resort included a show titled Walking Hand-in-Hand conceptualised in collaboration with Ahmedabad-based Craft+Design+Society. Established designers such as Rajesh Pratap Singh and Anupama Bose teamed up with a master craftsman to present collections that celebrated Indian textile traditions including chikankari, bandhni, Ajrakh and Benarasi weaves. Commenting on working with weaver Haseem Mohammad, Pratap Singh said, “I’ve worked with him ever since I started my own work. His experience, technical knowledge and his willingness to try something new every day is something that I admire and respect. He is also a man of extremely sound ethics.” At the end of the show, designers took their bows ‘hand-in-hand’ with artisans.
Collaborations such as these still tend to shine the spotlight on the former rather than the latter. But today there are pockets of communities all over the country who can be called ‘artisans’ in the purest sense of the word as Jain describes it. Over the years they have become artists and entrepreneurs in their own right by innovating traditional techniques and styles into forms of self-expression that no college-taught designer could arrive at. Thanks to the contributions of Radhi Parekh of Artisans’ gallery (Mumbai), it was possible to get a few names together.
Earlier this year, brand agency Border&Fall published their much-discussed Incomplete Manifesto, signed by some of the most established designers in the country. One of the 11 points calls for a shift in the dynamic between designer and karigar, who they contend need to be recognised ‘as partners, collaborators and equals. Facilitate bank accounts, healthcare, paid training. Identify potential craft entrepreneurs and help them network. They should be given the option to mark or sign their work.’ Recently, a few local brands have started putting this into action, such as Korra Jeans and menswear label Kardo. Online store Indelust teamed up with global organisation Nest for the #FashionRevolution campaign where they featured people who make products that are sold on the site.
Designer Swati Kalsi says, “Some young girls in my group have really pushed the limits of their skills, although they live and work under circumstances where sustenance is the principle need. It’s a pity that almost all of them stop working as soon as they get married. I hope that over the next few years at least a couple of them will think of growing through their skills independently. Innovation will probably follow naturally.”
An alarming aspect to consider is that if Indian designers were to start paying their karigars equitable, 21st-century wages, their creations might be rendered completely unaffordable. Malika Kashyap, founder of Border&Fall, talks about the them-versus-us mentality that continues to prevail among stakeholders, be it designer, craftsman or consumer. She emphasises the need for transparent business models where the proceeds from sales directly reflect on wages and working conditions.
Institutions such as the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya and Somaiya Kala Vidya, as well as organisations such as Shrujan and WomenWeave have provided karigars with exposure and business acumen to build a brand of their own. These craftsmen are invited to exhibit at international museums, travel to fairs and are often commissioned to create original works all over the world. With all this exposure through travel, media and the internet, their creative influences are as varied as any trained designer and their role in creating an exquisite piece of art, wearable or not, cannot be ignored. To quote Incomplete Manifesto, ‘Imagine India’s handmade garments to be synonymous with acknowledging multiple makers.’
Let’s imagine indeed.
Hat Tip To The Innovators
The Khatri community based around Dhamadka and Ajrakhpur in Gujarat are masters of the centuries-old style of geometric block-printing. The workshop of Dr Ismail Mohammad Khatri (succeeded by his sons Sufiyan and Junaid) are among the preferred artisans owing to their high standards and willingness to experiment; collaborating on a collection with 11.11/eleven eleven, among others. Irfan Khatri on the other hand, has reinterpreted the style by introducing masking in the process, creating diamond and scallop shapes filled with variations of Ajrakh motifs printed in the traditional colour palette.
Tie-and-dye has been transformed into ‘a form of small-scale soft sculpture’, writes Maggie Baxter in her book Unfolding: Contemporary Indian Textiles, on the work of Abdulaziz Ali Mohammad Khatri. Aziz, as he is known, attended Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, where he was able to explore and challenge the limits of bandhni. Baxter describes how he ‘loves the three-dimensionality that the knots produce, dramatically increasing their depth, twisting and screwing the fabric in the process to produce multicoloured cones that bend and point in different directions…. He has no compunction about abandoning the customary prescribed order for bandhni, all in the pursuit of whatever effect he is after — from neon to ethereal moonscape. The one thing that is inviolable is the environment and to this end he only uses biodegradable dyes’.
The Vankar community of Kutch are weavers who produced rugs and shawls in exchange for wool provided by Ahir and Rabari shepherds. Over the years, with the onset of commercial production, the demand for their wares seemed to diminish, until an effort to revive the traditional dyes and motifs was made by Vankar Vishram Valji. His son, Vankar Shamji Vishram, experiments with colour, weight and density to create unique, minimalist expressions in wool. Rough and uneven in texture and composition, Shamji demonstrates respect for the material and a sophistication in his deliberate but sparing use of colour and motif.
Asif Shaikh now works under his own design label, Asif, and lists among his proudest achievements his innovation of the karchob, the traditional floor-mounted frame used for embroidery. Traditionally, fabric is stretched across it, a tedious process that takes four or five hours. Shaikh simplified the design so that it took only 15 minutes to be tied, thus cutting out the need for shortcuts that often affect the quality of embroidery.
Kalsi first interacted with sujani embroiderers through the Jiyo! project helmed by Rajeev Sethi. The technique is integral to her collections. “I collaborate and engage with them over interactive creative workshops and processes, to uncover the artist in them…. Hands can think and create surfaces that programmed machines can’t. So, I try to focus my efforts on creating pieces that marry their unmatched skills with an aesthetic spirit.”
This article originally appeared in Verve magazine, August 2016.