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Last year, Somaiya Kala Vidya began Open Studio Tours. The idea is borrowed from the western world, where artist/craftspeople live in a niche and invite people to visit their studios on designated days. It is a mutually beneficial idea: people have the chance to interact with artists, see their work and take home more than a product- an experience. For the artists it means not being annoyed by interruptions to their work, but being ready for visitors and in a mood to welcome them. Win-win.

We had an additional goal. We wanted some of the talented artisan design graduates to be known, and to have the opportunity to learn from interacting with clients. In Kutch, as in most tourist places, a few people become well known, and all of the tourists go to them. The artisans benefit in many ways. But after a while tourists also feel that they are going to well-traveled destinations, and seek fresh experiences. So we hoped on this front to be win-win too.

After the first season, Kuldip Gadhvi, a local tour professional working with us on this project, and I met with thirteen Artisan Designers to see what their experiences were. Sitting in an orchard, shaded by huge mango trees, we asked how they thought the pilot year had gone.

No one volunteered.

Uh oh, I thought. After some silence, I asked if they could begin with the goals we originally had?

Finally, they began to talk.

The goal was grand, Ifranbhai recalled. We wanted to begin working toward what would eventually lead to a major event- an exhibition that would draw people to Kutch like the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. It should become a go-to event.

So, how did we do this first year?

Khalidbhai Usman offered that if we want to attract good visitors, artisan designers need to bring only their exclusive work to the exhibition at the end of the tour. They should bring their own new designs, work visitors don’t otherwise get to see- not the work available everywhere. If the work is new and interesting, people will come, he said.

I asked if they were they concerned that if they show their new work, it will be copied? They all agreed that copying was a universal issue. Designs will be copied, by artisans who are not graduates- and anyone using the internet. But copying within the group was not an issue, they assured.

Soyabbhai said that bringing ordinary work also makes a difference in pricing. Ordinary work is cheap- making new work seem expensive.

Khalidbhai shared that in Ajrakhpur, the group has decided to meet the day before the Open Studio Tour, jury the work, and then only display new work. They will also keep a record of who participated, and what the results were. And they will have all of the sales go through a central billing person so that it’s easy to tally.

Soyabbhai suggested that if there is a small group, they should select just a few artisans. I reminded them that they had decided that for each tour there would be only a few demonstrators, but the exhibition and sale at the end would be open to all who are interested. Junedbhai and Prakashbhai have thought of selecting the hosts for each tour based on proximity, so the visitors don’t have to walk a lot. Khalidbhai added that in Ajrakhpur they also make sure to clean up the area that will be highlighted in a tour.

But how much work should we bring for the exhibition? Niteshbhai wanted to know. When someone brings a huge pile, it eclipses those with less work. They discussed this at length, and agreed to keep a limited number of pieces per person, but no one could bring himself to determine that number.

Product segued into display. The Ajrakh artisans thought it was a good idea to display by product rather than person. But Aslambhai disagreed. Display by person is better, he said, because each artisan’s collection would be clearly understood. His experience at his BMA exhibition was that when there was a crowd it sometimes became hard to get through it in time to reach an interested customer and explain his work. Other artisans felt that they all know each others’ work and anyone nearby can explain someone else’s collection. When we were in class, they said, we heard each other’s presentations so often we could repeat them by heart. Niteshbhai summed up: they should display as a group, and agree to help each other. Junedbhai concluded with the thought that the method of display could relate to the size of the group.

Juned also pointed out that the tours aren’t only about sales; there is explanation and interaction with guests, which generates increased visibility.

“–Especially for those artisans who don’t have a shop,” Pavanbhai added. Plus the tours offer artisans a chance to share information within the group. “We don’t go to each other’s homes without any reason,” he explained. The Open Studios provide an opportunity to meet and see what’s going on.

Prakashbhai agreed, this is an opportunity for our work to get into visitors’ sights and hearts.

Pachanbhai said he thought the tours were an opportunity for planning. “Even if it’s short notice, it gives us a chance to plan,” he said. “Plus, people begin to understand that each of us has a unique style. Sometimes the visitors keep in touch with us afterwards.”

Kuldipbhai agreed, “The Open Studios can be an opportunity to explain your design work, your USP. Live discussion is important for visitors. And let’s understand them as visitors rather than clients. If they want to just buy a product, they can do it online.”

True, echoed Pavanbhai. When buyers come to my shop, they bargain. In these tours, no one has bargained.

Khalilbhai had been quietly listening for the whole meeting. Finally he gathered the courage to speak. “What if you know what to say, but don’t have the ability to communicate?” he asked

This struck a chord. A major concern is how to market oneself?

Aslam related, “In an exhibition I can speak to anyone. But somehow among my friends I feel shy.”

“Your work is excellent and exceptional,” Kuldipbhai told them. “Now if you can bring it to life, it adds value.”

“Speak in Gujarati or Kutchi!” I said. “But speak. People want to communicate with you. And there is a difference between having Kuldipbhai speak for you, and you speaking and with his translation: the difference is contact.”

“Craft is the language of the heart,” Jentibhai said.

Finally, Prakashbhai requested that they find a way to determine who will participate in each tour. “Those who are genuinely interested should volunteer,” he said, “and also help organize, so that there is no scrambling at the last minute.”

It’s a matter of prioritizing, I noted.

“We need to be into it,” Junedbhai said.

Khalidbhai concurred. “We need to make a commitment, make this event as important as the Santa Fe Folk Art Market, so that our goal will come true.”

Listening to the discussion, I realized that it was about more than our Open Studio Tours; it was about Artisan Designers and their market.

The tours provide learning for visitors. (“It is totally jaw dropping to be educated on the complexity of Ajrakh printing and weaving techniques of Bhujodi- and all of the innovations!”) As we had hoped, the tours also provide learning for artisans. In one season, Artisan Designers have learned about being responsible, working together, and managing this project. They are taking ownership. They are thinking of the visitor’s experience. They are learning to overcome barriers of inhibitions and communicate.

Building local respect builds self-respect. Exposure has provided an opportunity to move toward the ability to reach appropriate markets effectively- in a low-stress situation that allows open exploration, exchange.

Open Studio Tours are not just about purchase, as Kuldipbhai and Pavanbhai said. They are a human exchange, rather than a commercial one. So when someone purchases, it is an experience rather than a product. This is why the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market works. So perhaps we are beginning a microscopic version of that phenomenal event.

What the Artisan Designers learned will surely make our Open Studio Tours even better this year… and it will develop their enterprises.

Win-win.

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In April, Somaiya Kala Vidya began an Outreach project with Avani Kumaon. Avani, a nearly self-sufficient voluntary organization, is situated deep in the Kumaon Hills. The nearest village is Tripura Devi. A 7-hour arduously winding road journey is inevitable, whether you take the train to Kathgodham or the flight to Pantnagar.

The region, 150 km from the Nepal border, is cool and scenic, with forests and views of the Himalayas. But its isolation makes it difficult to earn a livelihood. Typical villages are small. Hamlets have 30-50 families. Revenue villages have up to 200 families. Traditionally, small plots of subsistence farming were enough for families. But as families grew, the land was further divided. Availability of facilities such as phones, cars and computers has increased people’s demand for a cash economy. So nearly all of the young men of Kumaon migrate to cities to earn for their families. Those who remain in the hills work in tourism or small businesses. The villages are managed by women, who do the farm work, housework and child rearing. Despite heavy demands on their time, they would also like to earn money.

Rashmi and Rajnish, the founders of Avani, are from Delhi. They decided to work in Kumaon, to make a contribution to help stabilize the communities. They work on environmental/ ecological issues, community management, and income generation. They promote solar energy, and Rajnish has invented a pine needle gassifier, to generate energy and lessen the danger of forest fires caused by combustion of the pine needles. Rashmi began a craft project that is now largely EarthCraft, a producer company.

EarthCraft’s weaving is primarily an income generation project. The local weaving traditions are very basic and not valued. Avani did initially try to work with two traditions, a semi felted blanket, Thulma, and a looped and cut pile rug, Chutka– with little success. Procuring good quality local materials is also a challenge.

So Avani bypassed the craft market, and turned to the design market. EarthCraft weaves stoles, shawls and fabrics in local and Merino wool, wild silks and now some linen and cotton, with a focus on natural dyes. They try to procure locally. They have encouraged 250 local farmers to grow indigo, and are trying to grow a linen that will survive in the hills. They have invested in professional equipment for processing natural dyes, which they sell. Rashmi feels that the potential for natural dyes is good. So Avani has focused on producing good quality, easy to use dyestuffs.

Avani and EarthCraft’s work is professional, despite contending with great distances that must be covered by foot. The organization has collected an impressive number of awards. Despite its daunting isolation, Avani regularly attracts interns from Indian design and management schools and from institutes all over the world.

However, even with their focus on self-sufficiency, Avani routinely engages design students, rather than artisans, to develop new fabrics and products.

One major challenge that EarthCraft faces is the constant attrition of weavers. Rashmi attributes this to the winds of change. With exposure, she says, aspirations change. When artisans get access to information, they leave craft. She sees this as part of the skill upgradation process. Construction workers become weavers, and weavers become supervisors or office employees. “Where skill has been upgraded it has value,” she says. There is also attrition when young women marry and move away or become busy with new households.

We felt that Avani and EarthCraft have not recognized the potential of artisans doing more than skilled work, or that recognition and satisfaction in weaving might make it more valuable, curbing attrition of weavers.

Because of the shared philosophy of self-sufficiency and sustainability, and strong existing infrastructure, and because our program addresses the issue of attrition of artisans, we thought Avani would be a good partner in a program of design education for artisans, despite a weak cultural heritage connection.

Avani agreed.

From 7 to 19 April, 2018 our team of Pachanbhai and Rajeshbhai, weaver designers who have graduated from the Somiaya Kala Vidya program, and Lokeshbhai, senior Visiting Faculty, conducted the first workshop for our project, on the Avani campus.

“They have a different style of weaving than we do,” Pachanbhai observed. The patterning they weave comes from drafting. He and Rajeshbhai were also intrigued that the weavers seemed to have forgotten how to join new warps.

The first thing they did was find out about tradition. The team went with their Avani weaver partners to villages and asked questions. Pachanbhai liked this part a lot. He enjoyed talking to the women elders- especially since the weaver partners did not speak. Once the ice was broken, they learned that the women had previously had bad experiences with teachers from outside. The teachers yelled at us, they said. So when they heard the SKV team was coming, they were afraid.

“We had to find out their history,” Rajeshbhai related. They learned that the Bora community had 4 subgroups, and they actually did use to weave. They made 3 or 4 utilitarian products- carriers, rugs- things not valued. They used hemp for the warp and shreds of waste fabric for the weft. At that time, they wove on a back strap loom.

Armed with some background on the region and weaving traditions, the weaver designers began. “We had to teach,” Pachanbhai said. This was their first experience. “At first it was hard teaching principles of design,” he said. “We had to really get a grasp on what we knew.   But they women understood, because we taught in their language- not just Hindi, but the language of craft.”

It was an experience of teaching Kumaon women to be creative. And that was about building confidence. One woman said she had been affected by black magic and could not work, Pachanbhai recalled. He had to convince her that the best remedy was to just work anyway – and she overcame her block.

“They thought their natural dye colours were limited and people don’t like them,” Rajeshbhai said. So he wove them a sample with his ideas about how colours could be combined. This inspired the women to try some ideas of their own. And then the workshop gained momentum.

The women had expected to be told what to do. But they had to test their own ideas. Pachanbhai and Rajeshbhai had them make layouts, then try to weave them. They realized problems, revised layouts, and wove again.

The weaver designers recognized the biggest challenge right away.

The women weave as a job. Where is the incentive?

We don’t think, the women said. And why should we make so much effort? They indicated that they would only be interested if they got more money.

“When they come to Delhi, they will know,” Pachanbhai said. “I used to want only easy work. Now that I am independent, I like challenging designs.”

Rajeshbhai and Pachanbhai felt that if the women can be promoted as designers, if they are given a platform, they will be motivated. And Avani will benefit because their weavers will be able to work better with designers, and the quality will improve so that there will be fewer seconds.

Pachanbhai related how one of his team members cried because she felt she didn’t know anything. She felt she couldn’t do anything because she only did plain weave.

Pachanbhai walked her to the Avani shop. “What do you see here?” he asked.

Plain weave, for the high end market.

“So is it not a design?”

She said she wasn’t educated, she couldn’t read or write.

Pachanbhai said that came up again and again. The women had been convinced of their insurmountable limitations. With a huge grin, he laughed. “I cant read either!” he said. “So it’s no excuse.”

What a beautiful model.

At the end of the workshop, the SKV and Avani weaver teams presented to the Avani staff. The resoundingly positive response of not only the weavers involved but also the entire staff was very encouraging. Everyone was very happy to see that the women could use their own ideas. They voted on the samples- the first real feedback. On viewing the work, Rashmi immediately realized that each artisan has a unique take on the same traditional references.

Now the weavers will carry their samples to Delhi for a jury with professionals in weaving and design, and then with refinement they will put them into production for an Outreach exhibition planned for Chennai in September.

In the term coined by Bunker Roy, this is “barefoot” education. Artisans are teaching artisans, without either necessarily being able to read or write.   Nonetheless, it is real education. The Artisan Design graduates have imbibed a philosophy of education as well as facts and tricks. And they can share it. They question, they research. They understand the process of design. In teaching, they realize new capacities, and the deep satisfaction of releasing creative potential.

This education is owned, and it grows. On return, within just three weeks, Pachanbhai designed and wove two exquisite saris inspired by his experience.

Look for more from all of these creative weavers in Chennai in September!

 

We have a steady stream of visitors who make the pilgrimage to Adipur because they are concerned with craft. Concern is vital. Yet I can’t help asking a nagging question: Why Craft? What is the concern?

I recently participated in two very different but equally compelling conferences, The Values of Craft, at Erasmus University in Rotterdam; and Beyond Change: Questioning the Role of Design in Times of Global Transformations, at FHNW Academy of Art and Design, Basel.

I came away stimulated with more questions than Why Craft?

What is craft today? What is design today? What is knowledge, and what is skill?

The initial keynote at Beyond Change was “Are We Human?” The final keynote was ”Landscape-Scale AI and the Question of Agency.” At the conclusion of the latter presentation, the professor, discussing intelligence beyond life as we know it, said that the green tree toad does not know- or care- that he is the totem of a tribe. Instantly, came a protest: “How do you know that?”

And I felt like I had surfaced to gasp a breath of air.

The questions of the values of craft and the role of design converged: In a world of increasing de-personalization, craft is all about soul, and meaning. Design can guide craft to realize an identity as an emerging luxury by virtue of its personal, human character. Craft can re-personalize.

Soul has to be the reason to care about craft.

And this is why artisans need to be able to create, and not simply produce.

I have long thought that the two keys to the success of our program of design education for artisans are sustained input and local orientation. I now add a third: a clear goal for the program– developed with the participants’ perspective.

Therein is a catch 22, the dilemma of education: students must find the education they receive relevant. But they can only imagine from their experience- pre-education. So how to create mutually concurred goals?

We have worked out the program so far with the guidance of master artisan Advisors, and graduates. But last month we met with design graduates to check back and learn from them how artisans, as creators and not just producers- Artisan Designers define success.

“Success is achieving goals,” Dayabhai said. “You need a goal. You need to know your capacity, what is good for you.

“Success is decision making power.” Purshottambhai agreed. “You have to be clear, capable, and target your market.”

“Success is using your creativity,” Prakashbhai said.

“We confidently know good design,” Rajeshbhai added.

Dayabhai elaborated on this. “We now have own concepts and identity,” he explained. “We know how to take feedback.”

To this Pachanbhai added, “Everyone’s work is unique. Besides knowing your USP, you have to be able to articulate it. We can talk to our customers now. Success is having a voice.”

“If you don’t value your work, your customer won’t,” Puroshottambhai echoed. “And success is being able to take responsibility.”

Strikingly, not one artisan spoke of success in terms of money.

“My early goal was money,” Dayabhai explained. “My goal was to educate my children. Now, it is to be my own person. My son told me not to weave. Now people from all over the world come to my house, so I have value. It’s not just money.”

Namoribhai shared his experience. “You need design and business to get full value. New design at home has no value. You need to know when and where to sell. And business without design is no use. If you have both design and business you can answer the question: ‘Why is it expensive?’”

I asked if their goals had changed because of design and business education?

Prakashbhai laughed. “Before the course, we had no goals!” he said.

“At least I was interested in weaving. If a weaver is not interested in weaving, how could you interest him?”

“Previously there were no choices,” Dayabhai concluded. “Now, weavers who continue their tradition do it by choice. What we can do is share our experience with the next generation. Now we can think of the benefit to our community.”

Our clear goal is to make a discussion like this possible. We re-imagine traditional systems, where master artisan advisors teach students about traditions, weavers and dyers work together, and artisan designers connect directly to markets.

We provide a space to make goals, to create and develop a unique expression- so that artisans infuse craft with its invaluable soul.

 

What does the Cyber World have to do with hand crafted textiles?

Good question.

These days many people can’t live without technology. I admit I have become immersed in the technological world to the extent that I spend far too much time at a computer. And when it isn’t working I feel as if I have come down with a terrible illness. In November I had my Mac updated, because the Microsoft Office program I used threatened to close down if I did not update. This initiated a domino like series of mishaps and malfunctions. Incompatibilities. I use Microsoft Office for Mac- the manifestation of two titans jockeying for biggest and best.

This combo did not use to be a problem. But now I am shocked to see the polarization. When I decided I had to bite the bullet and purchase a new Mac, I asked the shop person, who until then had been very cheerful and attentive, if she would bundle Microsoft Office into the machine, as was done in my 2011 Mac. I received a chilly rebuff. “That is not our product,” she said. “You could go to a Microsoft store (miles away) or download the product.“

Ok, I thought. Sounds easy enough.

But trying to migrate my 2011 data to the 2017 Mac has been a nightmare. Two months after purchasing the Mac, and purchasing more than one version of Office, I am still struggling to make it work. I lost count of how many Microsoft techs I have talked to and chatted with, for hours and hours. And I’ve done the rounds with a few Apple techs as well. Neither will utter the name of the opponent- today one Apple person referred to “third party” products. By now more than weary, I had to make an effort to figure out that he meant “Microsoft Office.” But if a tech cannot solve the problem, he or she conveniently sends me to that “third party.”

I tried to check online to see if my problem is unique. I typed in “How many people use Microsoft Office for Mac?” I found ads for purchasing hardware and software. Finally, scrolling down, I found the article “Why I may never install Office for Mac again.” The world is too interconnected for polarization. We have to get over this phase fast. At some point, I wondered, if I have to choose between Apple and Microsoft, what would I decide?

At this point, I think neither.

The techs of both teams are remarkably similar. Well trained to say, “I understand…. I will solve your problem… I’m confident.” But I have talked to at least 30 people, none of whom solved the problem –nor followed through. Each one dropped the problem- hanging up in one way or another. What a terrible life! Never finishing anything, never connecting, never finding any satisfaction. Purgatory.

In the middle of all of this, I had the great privilege to have a conversation with William Bissell of Fabindia. He told me that he met with a group of women artisans and asked what they would like. They wanted four things, one of which was to finish whole products rather than do piece work. Closure, I feel, contributes a lot to satisfaction.

So these days I am way far from satisfied. But I am not giving up. A friend found an article online about an update (!) to enable updating from 2011 to 2016. Why did neither the Apple nor the Microsoft team know about this?? So that inched me toward resolution. Tomorrow I am going to take the situation in my own hands and simply wipe the new Mac clean and manually upload the files again.

Suddenly I remembered watching a National Geographic film on polar bears in Churchill, Canada with my Dad. One winter the bears were repeatedly coming too close to human civilization. The town called in expert scientists, who tried fantastically complicated solutions, trying to scare the bears with noises, recordings of other bears, and mechanical contraptions. Nothing worked. Finally a Native American resident of Churchill said quietly, “The bears are hungry.” He solved the problem by simply feeding them, far outside of town.

That story, and writing this down, have helped me feel a little better. The DE-humanization of increasingly, unnecessarily complex technology may explain why we care about human touch and cultural heritage.

“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” wrote Thoreau.

Once I get my damned computer up and running, I’m going back to the world of artisans and craft- human connection, the satisfaction of completion, slow and simple solutions. I can’t wait.

Today we interviewed women for the 2018 Design Course at Somaiya Kala Vidya. We have not had a women’s class since 2014, and I remembered Hariyben. It’s been three months since she is gone.

Hariyaben was one of the original trustees of Kala Raksha. I remember having a trustee meeting soon after we founded the organization. An elder man, a brother of her father-in-law, sat himself right in front of us to listen in. I was annoyed and told him that if he sat here, the women would not be free to speak as they have to cover their faces before elder men from their husbands’ families. He left. I felt triumphant. But Hariyaben refused to drink tea. It was some time later that I learned why. “You insulted my relative,” she said. From then I learned many things from her about art, artisans and culture.

The first time we went to an exhibition, Hariyaben was one of two artisans who represented Kala Raksha. The exhibition was in Chandigadh. Hariyben’s husband worked with a Sikh living in Kutch. Chandigadh is very dangerous, she informed me. She went nonetheless. We made it through the exhibition safely, and then went to visit the Rock Garden made by Nek Chand. It was a marvelous fantasy of figures made of mosaics of recycled ceramics. Hariyaben was quiet. At the end of the tour, she exhaled and said, “See, I told you it was dangerous!”

What do you mean? I asked.

“Didn’t you see all of those paliyas?!” she exclaimed. (Paliyas are figures commemorating the death of a person.)

Hariyaben was willful. We tussled over tailoring. She was a great, perfecting teacher. She taught many young women to make uncompromisingly beautiful suf embroidery and patchwork. I asked her to assist me in making an interpretation center for traditional embroidery. There, she taught me to understand tradition. We were dressing a mannequin with an embroidered kanchali-kurti. But there was no skirt from the collection to complement the outfit. “What shall we use for the lower garment?” she asked.

Traditional, I answered.

“But which tradition?” she wanted to know. Tradition, she understood, was not static but ongoing.

After working on the exhibition for some time, she told me, “This idea of yours, this exhibition, is not new. We already have it. Every time a women is married she displays her dowry collection for her village– and then her husband’s- to see.

We added a library for inspiration. Hariyaben got that before we even installed all of the books. One morning I spied her with a very unusual suf embroidered shawl that she had just finished. It had a huge, complex medallion in the center.

Where did you get that Idea? I asked her.

“From those books you had piled in the office,” she informed me.

When we began the narrative applique project, Hariyaben found a wonderful medium for her imagination. She did an elaborate piece on the first Sharad Utsav festival held in Kutch. She depicted Prakashbhai, me, the Collector and herself in sharply observed detail. And there near the center was the unmistakable then Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. She depicted the Mandvi palace Vijay Vilas, a political meeting, scenes of nature. She illustrated Kutchi proverbs with tongue in cheek humor.

Hariyaben invented wonderfully made toys and dolls, born of her concern over fabric remnants being wasted. She gathered them from the workshop and took them home to fashion camels, elephants and culturally correct figures.

She wanted to start her own individual business, and when we began the Business and Management for Artisans course, she quickly signed up. She knew she was not well. She detected a lump behind her breast bone. I went with her to hospitals in Bhuj and then Ahmedabad, trying unsuccessfully to get a clear diagnosis. It was hard to get a biopsy, and painful. She got fed up and decided to trust in God and take herbal medicine. But she was determined to take the course.

In spite of not being literate, she did well in the course. She made a masterpiece quilt collection. And when she wanted to produce it for an exhibition, she did not give samples for women to copy, but gave them the concept to work out on their own. I wrote about this in an earlier blog, When Women Design.

Hariyaben worked within restrictions. I used to think, if she had been born in another place, another time, what could she have achieved?

I met her a few days before she passed away. She knew she did not have much time left. She was always beautiful, always dignified. Her nails were painted and she was dressed in pink. She asked her daughter Varsha to bring her the dolls they had made. Carefully, she selected the right one, and gave it to me.

I imagine an after life, reincarnation. Maybe, just maybe we will meet again in another time, another place.

For now, I want to remember her by establishing a scholarship for women artisans.  She would like that.

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.

Bhujodi to Bagalkkot 17 sm-0049“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.