How art gets generated.

Following the Thread of India’s Artisans

Chique and Glam

Chique and Glam

Living in India, it’s not difficult to see the magic that lies in the country’s artisanal crafts and textiles. From the foothills of the Himalayas to the tip of Kanyakumari, there is tremendous variation. We wear them with ease, in a terrific mix of drapes and silhouettes. And we wear them everywhere: to family get-togethers and grand dinners alike.

Indeed, the Indian thread is something of an arterial lifeline that connects the spirit of this vast nation. And though the “Made in India” brand hasn’t been cultivated, protected or promoted nearly as much as “Made in France” or “Made in Italy,” it’s no secret that many of the top international fashion brands use Indian craftsmen.

As well as being sought-after and beautiful, Indian crafts also generate tremendous benefit for local communities across the country. Just today, Dasra, an India-based NGO, released a report entitled Crafting a Livelihood, which underscores the financial, environmental and social benefits of India’s artisan economy — which employs an estimated 7 million craftspeople according to official figures (and up to 200 million, according to unofficial sources) — and the need to protect it.

I recently had a small peek into the large universe of Indian crafts and textiles. In the deepest alcoves of rural India, I learnt about the most sophisticated weaving techniques (the patola saris of Patan are as much a product of scientific ingenuity as indigenous dexterity); about the social structures embedded in the weaving patterns of the tribes of Nagaland; about the excruciating, loving labour of millions of minuscule mustard seeds tied in silk to create breathtaking bandhini and tie-dye fabrics in Gujarat and Rajasthan; about gold brocades from Benares, temple-bordered Kanchipuram silks from Tamil Nadu and fragile jamavars from Kashmir.

My journey started with experts. Textile aficionado Sally Holkar, introduced me to the weaving traditions of Maheshwar in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh, where weavers operate mammoth handlooms in tiny homes. Rajeev Sethi welcomed me into his labyrinthine multi-storey Delhi studio, a treasure trove of the most spectacular arts and crafts from every corner of India. I visited The Ants in Bangalore, an NGO run by husband and wife Pradeep Krishnappa and Smita Murthy, whose unflagging support of the weaves and crafts of Northeast India left me inspired. And then there was Rakesh Thakore, one half of the beloved Delhi design duo Abraham & Thakore, who argued that unruly India isn’t held together by Bollywood and cricket, as we are wont to believe, but by the sacred traditions of the thread, part of our collective religion (as janoi) and our personal relationships (as rakhi).

S.N. Damodaren, vice-president of Nalli and a fount of knowledge, directed me to the most enthralling South Indian silks in Kanchipuram and gilded brocades in Benares. In Ahmedabad, I was welcomed into the Hutheesing haveli by its owner Umang Hutheesing, who shared tales about his private collection of antiquated fabrics and his devotion to the endangered queen of all weaves, the patola. In a secluded street of the same bustling city, I met the enigmatic Anuradha Vakil, a textile devotee, who draped over cold marble floors the most intricate Tree of Life kalamkari saris in warm colours (as splendid peacocks and comic squirrels peered through her sunny studio windows). And of course, there was the dynamic, no-nonsense Ritu Kumar, who at first sized me up as a dubious champion of the crafts, but eventually opened her heart and bequeathed to me generous helpings of her expertise.

With their blessings, I set off to far-flung regions of India to hunt and gather a range of special fabrics that Vogue India eventually gifted to international fashion labels including Gucci, Burberry and DKNY to mould them into unique pieces that marry rich cultural heritage with cutting-edge, modern design.

I had made a PDF of my visual journey — simple pictures and silly notes to myself of my little adventure. And a week later, in the dazzling, high-tech city of Taipei, I showed it to Burberry’s chief creative officer Christopher Bailey. I was nervous as I asked him to scroll through images of the distant villages and alien traditions of India, but he was mesmerised.

The images above are a testament to the exceptional beauty of India’s artisanal textiles and the ease with which international designers are able to inject their own design DNA into India’s timeless fabrics.

A friend who works for a number of designers based in New York told me that in the 1980s there were not more than 5 India-based textile operations working with international high-fashion designers. Now there are hundreds, though, traditionally, international brands don’t exactly advertise the work that’s done in India — except, of course, for Mr. Christian Louboutin, who proudly proclaims his unending love for India and the country’s embroiderers!

But perhaps India needs to take ownership of this issue and solve it from within, which begs a question. Is India doing enough to promote its incredible crafts?

“One of the biggest issues in India is that our markets do not recognise the true value of craft. When this value is recognised, and if people are willing to pay a higher price for craft-based products, this should translate into higher wages for weavers and craftspeople and act as a boost to millions of rural-based livelihood opportunities associated with this sector,” said William Bissel, managing director of Indian ethical clothing manufacturer FabIndia, in the Dasra report.

In India, we have no shortage of incredible artisans. What we lack is the marketing prowess to bestow value onto ordinary lives who have extraordinary skills.

By Bandana Tewari, columnist at The Business of Fashion. January 31, 2013.

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