From making the fabric to walking down the ramp, artisans come in the couture spotlight
Indian fashion has taken a decidedly desi turn of late, with designers fashioning garments in traditional hand-woven, hand-embellished textiles. Many have gone further, working with artisans to realise their designs. While a few have given credit to the artisan, it has seldom gone beyond token applause Wat the end of the ramp walk by the designer, according to Jaya Jaitly, Founder of Dastkari Haat Samiti, an NGO that has been working with rural artisans for over three decades. "Although this is done with the best of intentions, there is rarely a follow-up. It only makes the designer feel better. The artisans have their moment in the spotlight and then are forgotten," she laments.
Impact Bazaar, organised recently by the Ladies' Wing of IMC Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and ARTISANS' gallery, an ethnic arts and crafts store in Mumbai, was an attempt to go beyond this tokenism. It was the outcome of a six-month long collaboration between eight pairs of designers and artisans, who jointly showcased the garments produced at a fashion show, followed a day later, by the bazaar.
"We wanted to ensure that the artisans are treated as equal partners, and that their design inputs are also taken," explains Radhi Parekh, Founder director of ARTISANS', who attended many of the intensive designer-artisan workshops that took place over six months. "We have displayed these design lines at the gallery to make sure that we can sustain the initiative through the coming months. Each designer-artisan duo is also set to return to the gallery for an exclusive show of their works."
One of the most intensive of these workshops involved weavers of the Chakhesang tribe from Leshemi village in Nagaland, known for weaving nettle fabric, collaborating with Priyanka Ella Lorena Lama, of the label Pella. "I have worked with artisans before, but this was different," Lama says. "We were living in their homes, eating their food, and working with them on a one-on-one level. It gave us a deep understanding of their culture."
The weavers also found new Whorizons opening up. "For this project, we have made trousers, jackets and dresses – completely unheard of because we only make shawls and table mats for a local clientele," says Kekuweulomi, one of the weavers.
Among other collaborations were Delhi-based Indigene, which works with migrant women from Bengal and Bihar, and The Stitching Project, which works in rural Rajasthan. Both collaborations concentrated on boosting the innate patchwork-making and embroidery skills of the artisans. "The women are quite well-versed in tanka-stitching, which they learn as a way to turn old saris into quilts for babies," explains Ruchi Tripathi, Co-founder of Indigene. "We usually give them designs that we want them to follow, and show them how they can use the sujani embroidery to make clothes." This time round the artisans were given more creative freedom, with several designs coming from the women themselves.
Two designers worked with weavers in Maheshwar. While Dhaniya Kolathur, showcased saris woven by artisans of Rehwa Society (a cooperative of Maheshwar weavers), in experimental colours, Shaila Crow, gave her own touch to the garments created by artisans from WomenWeave, which had minimalist silhouettes to ensure the focus remained on the fabric.
For the artisans, it was an enriching exposure – from learning new techniques to coming to the city to hobnob with fashion's movers and shakers. "A visitor at the Bazaar was wearing a sari I had woven over 10 years ago, and was looking at the saris I have made recently. It was a great feeling," gushes Shobha, a weaver from Maheshwar. Sameena Khatri from the bandhini-making community of Kutch, who collaborated with veteran designer Sunita Shanker, admitted she loved wheeling and dealing with society ladies. But almost everyone agreed with Maheshwar's Sangeeta Jethwal that "the best part was walking the ramp side by side with the showstopper and designer – the lights, the people watching, clapping – there's nothing like it!"
Creating PartnershipsTo ensure an equal partnership between artisan and designer (instead of the latter treating the former as a glorified labour), special workshops were conducted. The most intensive one was held in the Leshemi village of Nagaland. Even existing organisations such as Indigene and The Stitching Project were urged to give more freedom to artisans, according to Artisans’ Radhi Parekh