Kutch to Kashi

Somaiya Kala Vidya was invited to begin a new Outreach project with a group of weavers in Varanasi. Like all collaborations, it involved negotiation. At first, the All India Artisans and Craftworkers Welfare Association (AIACA) wanted us to hold some workshops in Varanasi, followed by some workshops in Kutch. We said we would like to do the project as an Outreach project, as we have done in Bagalkot and Lucknow. Finally we settled on a jointly run project.

Jentibhai, a Weaver Designer from Bhujodi and member of the Bhujodi to Bagalkot team, traveled with me to Varanasi to find out what is feasible.

Jentibhai is quiet and thoughtful. He was the one who thought of bringing the weavers from Bagalkot to Bhujodi. During a long layover in Mumbai, we look at a book on Varanasi weaving to get an understanding of the tradition, which is different from the weaving of Bhujodi in almost every way you could think. Jentibhai says he will have to understand the jacquard mechanism that the Varanasi weavers use. Once he sees it, he will understand what can be done.

We arrive at night, to a wall of sticky heat, and drive through a long corridor of rough rubble roads running on either side of a massive elevated road under construction. Homes and shops have been ruthlessly chopped to make way for this super highway. Old sacrificed for new.

The next morning we meet the weavers and the AIACA team in their office. It is a boon to have a group of people on the same page, who understand the vision of artisan design and enterprise. That is the AIACA team.

The weavers, about thirty-five termed “small and medium,” meaning the degree to which they weave themselves or supervise other artisans, listen intently as I present an illustrated journey through our education programs. I zoom in on the Outreach project, intending to show how the concept of design education is transferrable, while the concept of innovation within tradition insures that each community will work out its own design solutions with integrity.

They have practical questions: how does the funding work? Do the students have to do homework? And who checks it? How do you know what the Market wants? How do you prevent copying?

They are quite vocal. And the most vocal find reasons why design education is not possible here. You are talking about Kutch, they say. That is a different kind of weaving. They see their situation literally. They explain why they can not change their designs. The main obstacle is the straitjacket of the jacquard. Making a new design is time consuming and expensive. The designs are given to a graph maker, and then to card punchers. Once the patterns are ready, you have to make a lot of saris to recover the cost. After all, the jacquard is a production machine. It was invented to make weaving faster, cheaper and more standard.

I tell them that hand loom is no longer for need; it is for desire, love, joy. But right now the weavers can’t understand other goals. Besides that, the colours and raw materials that they use are given by designers.

They are so used to working for someone- a “master weaver” middle-man, a designer, a shop, an organization- that they can’t imagine another way.

So they neatly define their challenges: the restrictions of the jacquard loom, and the huge number of weavers and products in the market. The weavers say there are over 300,000 weavers! AIACA says only 60,000 are handloom weavers. But Bhujodi has barely 200!

Still, I believe in the power of design. There are other things you can change.

I say, on one warp you can still make each sari unique.

Salim, one of the most vocal weavers, agrees. Yes! And I do it!

Surely they are creative. They just need direction in how to use creativity. They need to see. They have been taught that they are workers. So they forget their creativity. Khalidbhai, a current SKV design student said, “Artisans don’t know their capacity. SKV opens their minds.” They need to push or break their restrictions- as Avanish, the AIACA consultant, tells them.

Where do designers get their ideas? I ask. I hold up the Varanasi book. Who has seen this?

Not one person!

This is your heritage, I say.

They eagerly flip through the pages, and suddenly one young man stops. There is a picture of him at a loom! The caption says, ‘The weavers’ condition does not match the richness of the saris.’

There it is.

After lunch, Jentibhai has his session. He shows his work, explaining what he kept of tradition, what he changed. The Varanasi weavers hold the samples with keen interest. What yarn did you use? What reed? What loom? They ask…. Then, “Oh, we can do this!”

Here Madhura, AIACA Director, intervenes. “We’re going on a diversion,” she says. “It’s not about making Bhujodi stoles in Varanasi. It’s about innovating on your own tradition!”

Then she asks who wants to learn design, to try. A dozen hands go up– including the young weaver in the book.

Those not interested file out. And those interested breathe a little sigh, and eagerly sit and talk with Jentibhai, weaver to weaver.

I ask Jentibhai how he thinks the workshop went?

We’ll know more tomorrow, when we visit their homes, he answers.

We visit only one home. The looms are crowded close to each other, silk and golden threads stretched over crudely dug earth pits, simple bamboo poles for treadles. Many of the weavers are elderly. One young man, one of the interested ones, tells us that he has learned computer skills; they have experimented with engineered skirt and blouse pieces.

So, can this group of weavers make Varanasi weaves that we haven’t imagined? I will love to see.

Ahead I see hope, excitement, and hard work.

Bagalkot to KAMATGI!

“We want to weave!” They avowed, one after another, all nine of the Kamatgi Jeevadaara group. Remarkable for weavers in Karnataka today, when their community members refuse to give a daughter in marriage to a home with a loom. But in three and a half years, working artisan-to-artisan with Somaiya Kala Vidya graduates in our Bhujodi to Bagalkot Outreach project, these weavers have learned to love their tradition.

Kamatgi is the name of the village where these weavers live. We called the project “Bhujodi to Bagalkot,” because Bagalkot is the name of the District. Ten years ago, Kamatgi had ten thousand handlooms, mostly dedicated to Ilkal saris. Today there are only one thousand two hundred.

There is a lot working against the Ilkal sari. Ingenious as well as beautiful, it is the only sari made with a cotton body and a silk pallav. The cost effective and comfortable design is possible through an intricate, labor intensive “kondi system,” in which women loop each cotton warp thread with a silk one for the pallav. Today, as Ilkal saris are copied in power loom, the government is urging Ilkal sari weavers to switch to Jacquard replicas of Varanasi saris (though Varanasi weavers struggle to survive). Alternatives are simpler technologies- ikat or silk weft only- that avoid the kondi and lose the beautiful undulating pallav edge.

In 2014, when Somaiya Kala Vidya began the Bhujodi to Bagalkot Project, Kamatgi hand weavers were doing job work for master weavers or cooperative societies, earning startlingly meager wages. P.L. Hoti, secretary of Chamundeshwari Handloom Weavers Cooperative Society, saw potential in the project, and convinced five weavers to meet the weaver designers in Kutch. The idea was quick start to good markets, so that hand weavers could understand their potential. Working in teams, the Bhujodi and Kamatgi weavers created innovative collection in six months and held an exhibition in Mumbai. The fresh cotton Ilkal saris sold and the group was enthused to learn design- a key goal of the project.

Over two years, SKV brought a compressed, tailored version of the core design course to Kamatgi. The group doubled to nine members and the sari collections each year were stunning. The group named themselves “Jeevadaara“- Threads of Life. They have held two exhibitions in Mumbai and one in Delhi. Well-reputed agencies including Red Earth and Fabindia have sought them out. As of now, 90% of production has been sold.

The road has been a series of challenges- synthetic to cotton yarns, sourcing raw materials, technological changes, new colours, layouts, language and business limitations- and not least, keeping the traditional kondi.

The staunch resistance to the kondi –the wonderful distinguishing feature of the Ilkal sari- – had to be approached with creativity. The weavers have been brainwashed that the kondi is the source of their downfall! This year, our new Bhujodi team came with fresh ideas and enthusiasm. They decided to counter the resistance with marketing. Puroshottam wisely said if you charge RS 50 more for kondi saris, people will bargain. If you charge RS 1,000 more, they will ask what the difference is, and give you a chance to market! Customers have to value this very labor-intensive technique.

Danesh, Tukaram and to some extent Vithal are ready to venture. They have grown so much in three years. Tukaram says he watched how Chaman’s masterpieces sold right off at very high prices. “I think a few special, high value pieces rather than a lot of simple cheap ones is the way to go,” he says.

The weavers met all of their challenges with good humor and great solidarity.  As they graduated from the SKV course in June, the nine weavers shared their dreams for the future. They all spoke with confidence and earnestness, not a hint of shyness or hesitation. All were happy and hopeful.

One by one, they said clearly, “We want to weave!”

When we began the project, weaving was a fate, a burden. Now it is a source of pride. Learning to love their tradition was the greatest achievement we could wish. Tukaram said he wants Kamatgi weaving to reach all over the world, like SKV faculty member Dayabhai taking Bhujodi weaving to the International Folk Art Market in the USA. Whether he himself goes or not isn’t important, Tukaram said. Their work should go. Dasrath agreed: Kamatgi should be a brand. No one expressed great personal ambition. Nor did anyone speak of wealth. Dasrath wants a language course. They all would love two exhibitions a year. But at least one is a must. They want their tradition to be revered. They want to travel, see the world.

The Bhujodi to Bagalkot+ exhibition will be at the Folly Gallery, Amethyst, in Chennai 7-9 September, followed by a workshop/ demonstration at Dakshinachitra in Muttukadu, Chengalpattu 10-11 September. Kondi Ilkal saris will be featured!

After that, the world is the limit.

Coping with Copying

Over twelve years of design education for artisans, the issue of copying has emerged among artisan designers. They discuss it furtively, angrily.

Copying is a perennial issue in the world of design- and especially the world of fashion. It is an issue of intellectual property- name, but more of fame and ultimately income. So I thought of having an open discussion on coping with copying, between the artisan designer community and our 2017 jury members, who know the world of design and fashion.

Hearing about this idea, some people questioned why it was necessary for artisans? If artisans are copied, more people get work and it benefits the community, they said.

I wondered if Sabyasachi or Donna Karan would look at it that way?

Other people liked the seminar idea so much they told me they would copy it!

Copying in the world of traditional artisans is surely a tricky issue. Traditional art was made within a community for a particular community. Traditional designs were community property. Individual artisans were known by distinctions in technical skill, but not usually by design. Copying was not a concept.

But that world has changed some time ago. Traditional markets have dwindled. For decades artisans have been creating for contemporary markets. Our education program teaches traditional artisans to make unique designs- by innovating within tradition- with the goal that they will be known by their individual styles. By encouraging individual styles, I hope this will mean there is no need to copy.

But as artisans enter the design world, copying does happen.

Does it matter to artisans as much as it matters to Sabyasachi or Donna Karan?

Here are excerpts of the discussion…

Coping with Copying began by asking, who owns designs?

Azizbhai, bandhani artist, replied, Traditional work is community property. The new work you do is your own intellectual property.

Anjali Karolia, Professor at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda noted that in teaching, as in the world, the onus is on you to know what is happening- so that you can recognize copying or plagiarism.

But real designers don’t even want to copy, she said.

Meher Castelino, fashion pandit: But it happens. Rohit Bal has copyrighted many of his designs. Tarun Tahiliani exasperatedly said he wishes at least the copies would be decent so that his name isn’t tarnished. Sabyasachi is so fed up with copies that he said he feels like copying his designs himself! And Meher also faces copying of her fashion commentary.

There are professional copiers, she recounts. They make money but they don’t get known. Consumers of copies know the difference between replicas and the real thing.

Karishma Shahani-Khan, fashion designer of the label Ka-Sha: You do need to speak up when you know you are being copied. But get your work out into the world nonetheless. Believe in your work. No one can do it just like you do.

At this point, Moderator Lokesh Ghai asks the audience filled with artisan designers, who feels this discussion is relevant to them?

The entire audience quickly raises their hands.

Azizbhai, bandhani artist: When I was creating new work for participating in Lakme Fashion Week, one of my designs was out in the market before the show.

And I have another, opposite experience: one well-known company asked me to copy another artisan’s designs cheaply.

I stopped working with the one who leaked my design, and with the company.

Aakibbhai, Ajrakh artist: You need to work in two markets: one for a bread and butter line, and one for your extraordinary work. Have occasional special shows to show your real capacity.

Irfanbhai, Ajrakh artist- When developing new work, you have to try to keep it secret.

Gulambhai, bandhani artist: Copying is inevitable; big fish eat smaller fish. Copiers will make your extraordinary work into ordinary. Be practical.

But don’t let it stop you. Keep true to quality and to yourself.

Aakibbhai insists that no one can copy his work.

Lokeshbhai, Moderator: Small fish can outnumber big fish!

Poonambhai, weaver: You have to make designs that even you yourself can’t copy!

Khalidbhai, Ajrakh artist and current student: I was afraid of being copied until I took this design course. Now I know that I can make unlimited designs. I have confidence.

Lokeshbhai: How do you distinguish inspiration and copying?

Azizbhai: Inspiration comes only from nature. All the rest is copying in different degrees.

Lokeshbhai: What about taking ideas from books and the Internet?

At this, there is dead silence in the hall. The artisan designers are pausing to reflect.

Lokeshbhai: what about copying within families? We have several cases of father and son, or two brothers who have taken the course. Could you copy each other?

So far, the families are together, they say. Designs belong to the family.

Wasim Khan, Director, Lemon Design, thinks the question is apt. When families divide, intellectual property can become a bitter issue.

Anuj Sharma, Lawyer and entrepreneur, notes that the legal system is very weak. It is easy enough to copyright. But enforcement is very difficult.

Nurture your designs like your children, he says -and then let them out into the world.

Clearly, artisan designers do not think that their creative efforts should immediately be community property. Interesting enough, the jury members in just two days could recognize individual styles- and could spot “borrowing.”

The artisan designer community accepts copying as an inevitable evil. But they have no interest in copying, and they will shun those who copy or want them to copy. Work with people you trust, they concur. They want to create, and they want recognition.

Lokeshbhai: Who feels that signing your work, with labels or crafted stamps, is important?

All hands shoot up in accord.