Craft Re-Defined: The FUN Factor

“We’ll have fun!” were the words that arrested me as I headed toward Somaiya Kala Vidya. The idea brightened my day.

I had earlier identified two factors critical for success:
The “Into it” factor, and
The “Go for it” factor

Now, I find the third one: The Fun Factor.

One recent evening Adil, a current artisan student, calls in a panic. He is in charge of photographing for the invitation to Craft Re-Defined, their final exhibition, and he knows the photo isn’t right.

I and our intern from the Institute for Rural Management just happen to be near the studio. I ask, should we come?

He says yes, and sends out for dhabeli and strong chai.

A team of students is on the job. When we get there, we all brainstorm, verbally, visually. Adil really wants an image of stoles of each artisan pouring out of a trunk. But it is static and silent (and if the truth be told, it is a bit of a cliché). Time to think out of that proverbial box. We try a close up, my idea. We try a perspective shot, Adil’s idea. We try pots- Harshad, my photographer friend, and Zakiya’s idea.

Zakiya realizes that while it is important to them to include each and every craft, if not each artisan, it isn’t working visually. She suddenly understands editing at a deep, useful level. Wow!

Santosh, the IRMA intern, says he has an idea- put the artisans in it with their faces covered- the unknown artisan.

I yelp!
That is just what we are re-defining! The faceless worker, the hands without a head…

We edit, try fewer stoles with the pots, zoom in on the details.
Then Santosh quietly says he had a flash- what if we have the row of stoles with the artisans’ faces peeking out.

Eureka! It’s brilliant- the Artisan Designers in the picture!
and in doing it everyone had FUN!

We knew it was right. The fun shows in the image, engages us- perfect for an invitation.

So that is the importance of the FUN factor. It sings in the work.
See you at Craft Re-Defined! ARTISANS’ gallery, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai… 3-6 December, 2014


A few years ago, I worked on a film on design in traditional arts. I did not have a script. I used the film to learn how traditional artisans understand design. When we edited all of the footage down to what people have patience for, I gleaned one important understanding: men and women artisans have distinctly different relationships to their art. For men, the concept was there. They had to produce it as well as they could. They could innovate a bit if requested, but they dared not innovate too far, or the identity of the textile would be lost.

For women embroiderers, innovation was an intrinsic part of creation. They got their ideas by looking at other women’s work, but they would never copy. They would add something of their own. Copying would mean they were not creative, and embroidery was a means of expressing one’s creativity, identity– it was an expression of one’s self. Besides, there would be no satisfaction in investing so much time and effort without the joy of creative expression.

Today, both men and women artisan students of Somaiya Kala Vidya are busy finishing their collections for the exhibition they will produce in Mumbai December 3-6, 2014, in just over two weeks. “Craft Re-Defined” is the name they have chosen. Each artisan has re-defined a tradition in his or her own way. This is the first time artisans will present work based on a theme to a sophisticated metropolitan market. And it is the first time they have produced the collections they have designed. It is a major step in becoming independent, truly a post-graduate show.

I called Hariyaben about her logo. She had not decided yet and it was the eleventh hour, so I offered her the option of Ralli ni Rani. It was already designed, and it was in fact designed with her in mind. She is the one standing in the “Ralli ni Rani” post.

But she wants her own name, and she came up with Kambole– The Work Speaks.

I asked her how her collection is going?She is producing quilts inspired by the date palm.

She said she had asked Champaben and Nilaben to work on the quilts, but they don’t want to work on a theme.

I said, they just have to produce. They just have to copy your samples, don’t they?

So, she continued, she has gotten four women to sit at her house all day, and they work as they can, trying to interpret the theme.

Oh, no! I thought. She hasn’t understood the concept of production!

But they just have to copy! I cried. That’s what production is!

But no. I had to learn from her. I suddenly realized that Hariyaben was supervising the other artisans to interpret her theme themselves. She was encouraging them to create! For her, this is the work of a designer.

I remembered back, years ago when we had an order for 15,000 narrative works. We had a workshop to show women how to use cardboard templates to cut out the figures. They laid the template to the side and cut freehand, looking at it. Then, I had tried to show them how to use the template.

Hariyaben had said, simply, “We don’t do it that way.” And we did all 15,000 as unique works of art.

Now, eleven months of business and management courses has not changed her clear understanding of her art. Women artisans never ever thought of production. Art still is, for them, personal expression, one of a kind. I can’t wait to see this collection, each unique piece.

We must learn from these amazing Artisan Designers!


One man’s trash is another man’s treasure

One man’s pain is another man’s pleasure

–Robbie Robertson (I know he probably didn’t coin this, but I love the way he sings it…)

Leaves of gold line the road outside my kitchen window. I think of fall in New England, and how right now New York tycoons are making pilgrimages to Vermont and New Hampshire to see the brilliant silent light show of leaves turning red and gold…. And falling to the earth.

In India I used to watch poor municipality workers sweeping dust in the road, and wonder. To me, this symbolized FUTILITY and said a lot about how India works. Over the years I learned more. I planted a tree in my house in Banker’s Colony. The neighbors asked me why I was wasting time and money gardening in a rented house? I said I was thinking of the World, and Nature, and even the next person who would live here. But I lived in that house 15 years! And the tree grew HUGE, maybe to prove my point. It shaded the neighborhood and hosted birds, squirrels and vendors needing relief from the relentless sun.

One New Year’s Day my neighbor came across the road.

Oh, he’s coming to say ‘Happy New Year!’ I thought.

Before I could offer my greeting, he launched into a tirade about how my tree was aiming at his house and if there was a cyclone it would crush his roof and he had already registered a complaint with the municipality AND the police. It was sunny and pleasant out, for the time being.

A few months later, I heard chopping and ran out to see another neighbor felling a beautiful gulmohar tree that had shaded the rest of the street. I felt like I was witnessing a murder. “Why are you cutting down that tree?” I cried.

“It leaves a lot of trash,” he replied.

Trash? You mean those gorgeous red flowers that spread across the way? Meanwhile I had spent probably 14 years of futility asking all of the neighbors not to throw plastic bags, garbage, plastic wrappings and whatever else they did not want into the street. I wondered if it is somehow harder to sweep flowers than dust…. And plastic?

So that is one big reason I left Bhuj (irreconcilable differences) and went to Vandh, where we had owls, and cats and cows and I did not allow anyone to throw paper and plastic or cut more that a desi toothbrush from our magnificent neem trees, and the leaves fell gloriously, luxuriously to the ground and became compost for the next generation. Nirvana.

Today, I am living in a cement box. The gardener has chopped a magnificent neem tree into a pathetic stump. Meanwhile the sun is blasting and in November it is still 32C (85F). No doubt the gardener is worrying about the “trash” he will have to pick up, and expecting cooler weather.

No nature in sight. But I am dreaming of a beautiful new campus with trees and eco friendly all natural and aesthetically soothing architecture… and carpets of golden leaves.