Handcrafted Textiles for A Sustainable Future

Craft, Handloom, Art, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

Handcrafted Textiles for A Sustainable Future

Shah, Archana

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Issue #002, Winter, 2019                                                                            ISSN: 2581- 9410

1 Introduction

Indian textiles have been appreciated the world over since antiquity and it is to the credit of traditional artisans that hand skills have survived and evolved across time. The ornamentation of these textiles communicates the story of our indigenous design aesthetic and culture. Each region in India offered its own unique skills, distinctive range of textiles that use diverse materials and methods. (fig 1)

I was first exposed to handmade textiles as a student at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, in the mid-1970s. (fig 2)

Historical context: patronage and craft production

In the past, royal patronage and wealthy merchants supported the arts and crafts. Products created by local artisans were worn by other local communities. The artisan understood his clientele and there was a close interaction. This allowed the crafts to flourish and the artisans were encouraged to innovate in response to the needs of their customers. By the mid-1970s, however, many communities were starting to give up the use of local fabrics, opting instead for cheaper mill-made materials that were flooding the rural markets. As a result, the craftsmen lost their clientele as well as their livelihood.

There was a time before the Industrial Revolution when all fabric around the world was hand-spun, hand-woven, and embellished according to the requirements of the consumer and skill of the producer. (fig 3) Today, most cultures have lost their craft traditions and skills. We, in India are fortunate; our vast array of crafts skills survives but craftspeople have lost their former patrons and struggle to maintain commercial viability. Many artisans would continue to practice their hereditary vocation if it were financially rewarding and commensurate with their labour. Today, when most artisans earn less than an unskilled labourer on a construction site, there seems little incentive for them to continue their ancestral profession. This needs to change. Through collaborative partnerships, these valuable hand skills need to be re-purposed to become relevant again.

Craft revival: block printing in Kachchh in the 1970s

My association with the craft sector began in 1977 while I was still a design student at NID. As part of a project commissioned by the newly-established Gujarat State Handicrafts and Hand looms Development Corporation, I was sent to work with a block printer, Khatri Mamadbhai Siddikbhai (“Mamadbhai”), at Dhamadka village in Kachchh district, Gujarat, to create a collection of prints for their store,Gurjari. (fig 4) Dhamadka was known forajrakh – the block-printed chadors worn as male dress by local herders, or maldharis.(fig 5) Sulekha, my senior at NID and I were sent to live with Mamadbhai’s family for two weeks. We were  to study and document their textile craft and based on this understanding would then design a collection of block prints for their stores in urban centres. We were among the first outsiders to reach the village and to work with a printer to produce textiles for an alternate market. At that time, the printers only produced fabrics for local, rural communities. Dhamadka was isolated and no-one from the village had even visited an urban centre or interacted much with people from the city, so people were apprehensive about having two young, unescorted ‘city girls’ living in their midst. Luckily, Mamadbhai was a well-respected man and was able to pacify the local community.

In the 1970s, the village had no electricity, so the day started at sunrise and ended at sunset. During the day we worked in the workshop, gaining practical knowledge about the process of dyeing and printing; evenings were spent listening to Mamadbhai’sstories about life and work. This was a world completely different to our own. We were amazed by the generosity we were shown. Living with Mamadbhai’s family at Dhamadka was a great learning experience and it became the foundation for a lot of my future work. (fig 6)Our collection of prints was greatly appreciated and from that time onward, the family received regular orders from Gurjari.

After my graduation, I continued my association with Mamadbhai. I used his traditional prints to create new surfaces by changing the placement of blocks to produce a range of home furnishings. There were always a few pieces that had some printing variation and didn’t pass my strict quality requirement. I felt it would be a financial burden for him if I  just rejected these prints; something he could not afford. So instead I decided to make the reject pieces into garments, using the parts of the fabric that were serviceable, and a collection developed. I showed it at exhibitions in Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Delhi and encouraged by the positive response, I started ordering fabrics regularly from Mamadbhai, a relationship that has continued until the present day.

It was during this period that Mamadbhai started to gain a reputation for his knowledge and understanding of block printing and dyeing.(fig 7) His interactions with designers and museum patrons made him realise the relevance of his ancestral craft. He understood that designers would come to his doorstep only if he continued with traditional practices. He shifted gradually from using chemical dyes to natural mineral and vegetable colours, and recreated old blocks. He was far-sighted and wise enough to teach his three young sons the value of the craft. He consciously passed on his knowledge of the traditional methods and talked to them about their history and craft.Exposure, appreciation and sustained regular work transformed the lives of this family and many others in Dhamadka. For example, Mamadbhai’s son, Ismail Khatri, who completed only basic primary education at the village school, ending his studies in class seven, was awarded an honorary degree in 2003 (Doctor of Arts), by De Montfort University, Leicester, UK, for his deep understanding of his ancestral craft and his contribution to scholarship: a commendable achievement. (fig 8) Over the years, the quality of ajrakh produced by Mamadbhai Siddikbhai’s family in Kachchh has continued to improve and today, their name is synonymous with high quality ajrakh.(fig 9)

When I first started working with Mamadbhai, no-one from the village had ventured ‘outside’ or had worked with an urban designer so it is heartening to see that his sons and grandsons have gained recognition and established financial stability – all of which  encourages them to pursue their ancestral profession. Mamadbhai’s grandsons have become globe-trotters and are regularly invited to international seminars and workshops to demonstrate their craft.During a recent visit to Kachchh, it was very encouraging to observe that all one hundred and forty families of block printers living in Ajrakhpur (the new village established by the Khatris after the Gujarat earthquake of 2001) have regular orders. This is a new and encouraging development. In my experience, if there is an appreciation and a sustained market demand, craft skills can be revived and the next generation of artisans see a future in continuing their hereditary occupation.

Tie dye (bandhani)

Apart from the longstanding relationship with Mamadbhai’s family, another meaningful association has been with a bandhani artisan, Khatri Ismailbhai Nironawala, whom I met when travelling around Mandvias a student in the late 1970s. (fig 10) While wandering in the bazaar, I chanced upon an old man sitting in his shop tying knots on a piece of fabric. Out of curiosity, Iwent up to him to take a closer look. He showed me some of the bandhani odhana that he created for local communities. At the time, Mandvi was a leading centre for cotton bandhani production.

I first started collaborating with Ismailbhai in the 1980s. (fig 11) I had discovered that there were very few good bandhani craftsmen left in the region. Mostly, the work was of poor quality and local consumers were not willing to pay the price asked. In order to make the product cheap enough to suit the market, the artisans had to compromise on quality. I was able to change this pattern of decline through design intervention and improving the quality of production.

Over thirty-five years of continuous work with Ismailbhai and his sons, we have managed to create more than eighty collections, using the same bandhani dot technique, adding new colours, rearranging old patterns, and in the process, developing a new design vocabulary, without ever compromising on quality. (fig 12)I also persuaded Ismailbhai to educate his children as well as to teach them tie-dyeing, and convinced him that his craft has a bright future. Today, all his three sons are involved in bandhani production. Their education and exposure has helped them to experiment with designs, adapt to the current market requirements and expand their business.

When, in the mid-1990s, I started a mail order business, bandhani outfits were prominently featured in our catalogues; these were distributed all around the country for over seven seasons. (fig 13) In many ways, the catalogue helped build the Bandhej brand, and popularised bandhani nationwide and Mandvi became known as a centre for quality bandhani. Merchants from towns and cities throughout India, carrying copies of the Bandhej catalogue, travelled to Mandvi to place orders. This design intervention has had a rolling effect; bandhani fabric continues to retain its charm and the dyers of Mandvi have more work than they can handle. Today, over twenty-five thousand people in Kachchh earn their livelihood from tying bandhani fabrics.

The collections created in collaboration with rural artisans were greatly appreciated by urban customers. (fig 14) This response gave me the confidence to start the first Bandhej retail shop at Ahmedabad in 1985. During this phase, I was completely fascinated by the bandhani technique and decided to call the company Bandhej, another term for tie-dye that also means ‘a bond’. The name seemed appropriate as it captured my strong bond with artisans as well as craft techniques.

Bandhej: craft and design for the modern world

Bandhej was started with a vision to uphold, preserve and sustain the precious hand skills and inherent knowledge of the indigenous artisan through collaborative design intervention.Over the years, Bandhej has created a distinct idiom in its design, offering a range of handcrafted clothing that has an understated elegance with contemporary appeal. The company continues to promote handcrafted, sustainable fashion that is eco-friendly and supports a large number of traditional artisans.

Even as the main business of Bandhej has been to design and produce a range of clothing for its retail outlets, the underlying concern has always been with the diverse traditions of fabric-making and embellishment in India. Over the years, the company has striven to work with artisans towards building upon their skills and knowledge by suggesting fresh design directions and providing a market for their production. In the process, Bandhej has played a modest role in rejuvenating many traditional craft techniques and there has been a knock-on effect to the company’s interventions.

My colleagues and I at Bandhej have a deep commitment to the people with whom we work. Apart from our involvement with printers, dyers and weavers in Kachchh, as the business grew over time, we expanded our association to include weavers in Champa, Chanderi and Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh; Mangalgiri and Puttapaka in Andhra Pradesh; Bhagalpur in Bihar; and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. The large network of artisans developed over the years has allowed us to manufacture what we design. Without the dictates of any external pressures, our products are sold through our own retail stores in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Mumbai and Chennai; the company also has an online presence. (fig 15) This sounds wonderful, but it comes with great responsibility. The most challenging task has been to constantly find new design directions for the same craft skills and to create fresh collections season after season, maintaining quality as the scale expands.

Legacy

At a personal level, it has been gratifying to see that most of the children of the artisans with whom Bandhej has collaborated see meaning in pursuing this work.They perceive the financial benefits and appreciate the comforts of working within their homes. In many cases I am already working with the next generation; I find they are more open to experimentation as they have experienced a wider exposure than their forebears. Artisans are quick to learn, and today, many of the younger generation connect through the internet with a wider market.

What started as journey inspired by my fascination with handmade textiles has now shifted to a concern for sustainable livelihoods for the craft community in general. Over the years of collaboration with artisans I have been able to demonstrate that there is a viable market in urban centres for craft-based products. Design can play a very positive role in rejuvenating the craft sector. While they are highly-skilled, artisans need to develop fresh products that are relevant to the fashion-conscious urban markets that demand newness every season. Appropriate and sensitive collaborations between designers and craftspeople can generate sustained work for a large number of our very skilled artisans. Equally, designers can benefit from this rich repertoire.

Designer-artisan collaboration

It is widely believed that the high-end luxury market is the future for hand-made textiles. An increasing number of textile and fashion designers are collaborating with artisans which has given the craft sector a fresh sense of purpose and greater visibility. The process is now driven by mutual, commercial benefit and has transcended the stage at which initiatives were driven by philanthropy. But many of these commercial initiatives serve the high end market segment, and support a comparatively small number of artisans. Given the size and the diversity of the artisan groups, this number is not sufficient to sustain the crafts community overall. The market needs to expand substantially. Around thirty million textile artisans would greatly benefit from a renewed interest in handcrafted textiles. Local communities also need to be encouraged to use locally-produced textiles. This would restore the close bonds that formerly existed between artisans and consumers. The artisans would profit from direct interaction with the consumer which would help them to incorporate the consumer’s preferences in future production.

Craft for mass consumption

There is a misconception that craft production cannot be scaled up. Handmade products are unique and no two pieces are identical; in addition to which the pace of production is different to that of industrial fabrication. If this is understood and production is planned with a clear understanding of time required for creation, and supervisors accept the variation inherent in craft production, orders can be distributed amongst a large number of artisans. Design and production managers would need to have an encouraging approach that is realistic and conducive to making things by hand. Why should the five thousand scarves or shirts all be identical if they can be made by hand in the same price range and of acceptable quality?Once the five thousand products have been distributed throughout a chain of shops, they are purchased and worn by individuals who put their personal stamp of them. The charm of the handmade object is in its uniqueness and there need be no compromise on quality.

Women’s upliftment

Apart from weavers, printers and dyers in different part of the country, Bandhej also works with many women’s groups who add embellishment to the garments. Among these women, the experience of working with an embroiderer named Tyaibabanuhas demonstrate dhow a little support, exposure and encouragement can bring about change. (fig 16)

Tyaibabhanu’s husband, Mohammadbhai handled Bandhej’s metallic thread embroidery production. His job was to collect work from the studio and take it home after which Tyaibabhanu would execute the order. Like many artisans, she had good knowledge of the embroidery technique as well as an inherent understanding of how to create forms, patterns and layouts – all skills that are passed down from generation-to-generation as a matter of course.She was in charge of marking out the patterns on the garments or saris and would then distribute the work to the women in her neighborhood. After a while, it became frustrating to work with Mohammadbhai as he could not grasp the new layouts and I was keen to explain the designs directly to her. It took me a long time to convince him to bring Tyaibabanu to the workshop. He explained to me that the social conventions of his community meant that women do not step out of their home even to buy vegetables. So I continued to communicate with her through Mohammadbhai but things reached crisis stage and I had to inform him that I would be forced to stop giving him work as he could not comprehend what was required. Under pressure, he reluctantly brought her to the workshop.

I remember her first visit; she came covered in a burkha. Although I could not see her expressions, I sensed that she was uncomfortable and in the confines of my office, I suggested that she could remove her burkha, if she wished. She seemed quite relieved to do so, and was happy to embroider a few samples with metallic thread, to show me the various possibilities. She was very receptive to my suggestions and together we created several new patterns. (fig 17) From that day onwards, she started coming to the office regularly, to work on samples and take back materials for bulk production. In the process, she has done some wonderful work, gained self-esteem and confidence, and is now the primary bread-winner in the family.

When I first met Tyaibabhanu she could not even sign her own name, having had no formal education. Today she manages more than forty women. She regularly distributes work to them, manages payments and ensures that the quality of their work is of an acceptable standard. She no longer needs an escort; operating her own business has given her tremendous confidence and a new freedom. She has invested in her own work space and has bought a home – all from her own earnings. She now travels to Lucknow with her grandchildren to visit her extended family, something she never dreamt would be possible. Her ability as a professional artisan and entrepreneur has transformed her life and expectations.

Conclusion: working together for a sustainable future

I am happy to have had the opportunity to develop partnerships with artisans and through these associations we have learnt from each other and enriched our lives. Based on my experiences, I believe that with appropriate partner ships craft skills can be re-purposed to suit contemporary markets and craft as an occupation has a bright future.But we are faced with the two major challenges today: climate change and unemployment. With growing concern for the large number of people who have lost  their jobs to automation and robotics, and fears about climate change due to excessive use of fossil fuels and pollution, there is wisdom in developing the craft sector. It is both labour-intensive(and thus has the potential to employ far more people) and inherently eco-friendly. We need to develop sustainable methods of production and to raise awareness of responsible consumption. As part of this agenda, craft skills can be re-purposed through sensitive design collaboration; innovative marketing and appropriate promotions can raise awareness of the value of handmade goods. This strategy would help to generate new markets locally and nationally as well as globally. New narratives need to be created for handmade goods to become aspirational products for the younger generation who are socially-aware and concerned about the well being of the environment.

The craft sector has the potential to do a number of positive things: for example, to create a large number of jobs without huge investments; to empower women and marginalised communities involved in the sector. (fig 18) It could provide sustainable livelihoods to families and communities in their own locations through the use of local resources, protecting them from the misery of economic migrancy. If artisans find work within their village and they have access to education and basic healthcare, there would be little reason for most to migrate to the cities. The community offers better security when compared to living in an urban slum, in over-populated cities where jobs are increasingly scarce. Craft is a generally ‘green’ means of production that can benefit the environment and has a light carbon footprint; moreover, indigenous craft articulates our distinct cultural identity in the age of globalization.

Craft, however, needs a vibrant platform for new synergies.There is a need to shift from patronage to collaborative partnerships in order to create sustainable livelihoods for artisans that enable them to live with dignity and allow future generations to practice their hereditary profession.In India, we areat an advantage as craftspeople have not yet lost their ancestral hand skills. (fig 19) With the greatest concentration of craft skills in the world, Indian artisans can make a very significant contribution to the search for a more socially just, inclusive and equitable planet, whose work offers opportunities for sustainable development. We need to applaud and celebrate our artisans who are the custodians of our rich cultural heritage. There is the potential to brand ‘handmade in India’ for the world market.

List of illustrations

Fig 1: Map of textile production centres across India.

Fig 2: Meghwal girls in Kachchh district, Gujarat.

Fig 3: Spinning cotton and weaving on a pitloom in Kachchh.

Fig 4: Khatri MamadbhaiSiddikbhai at Dhamadka, Kachchh.

Fig 5: Maldhari men (cattle herders) wearing ajrakh, Kachchh.

Fig 6: Khatri MamadbhaiSiddkbhai and sons (L-R), Abdulrazzak, Abduljabbar and Ismail, at Dhamadka, Kachchh, in 1977.

Fig 7: Dr Ismail Mohammad Khatri smearing alum mordant paste on to resist-printed cotton.

Fig 8: Dr Ismail Mohammad Khatri printing an ajrakh.

Fig 9: Printing and dyeing an ajrakh at Dhamadka.

Fig 10: Khatri Ismail Nironawala, Mandvi, Kachchh.

Fig 11: Women tying the bandhani(tie-dye)dots.

Fig 12: Tools used for tying bandhanidots.

Fig 13: Bandhej catalogue.

Fig 14: Tie-dyed saris.

Fig 15: Interior of Bandhej shop.

Fig 16: Tyaibabhanu embroidering with metal thread on a silk, tie-dyed sari.

Fig 17: Mookesh – metal thread embroidery.

Fig 18: Artisan in Uttarakhand weaving a rag rug.

Fig 19: Extra weft weaving in Kachchh, a feature of local men’s dhablo(blanket).

 

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