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2.Hariyaben w quilt sm-0164 1.Hariyaben instructing sm-1

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!

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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.

1. Bhujodi to Bagalkot label- 2. All in favor sm-0150 3. SKV class of 2014 edit sm-0028 4. Zakiya w new work sm-0135 5. Bairaj logo-

A long time ago, there was a chappal maker. His work was good, so I asked him to make some boxes, purses, and bags for Kala Raksha. I sat with him to develop the specifics. They sold. Then he started to sell them through other organizations. I told him he could sell other things elsewhere, but not to sell the designs I had given him.

“You didn’t give me designs,” he retorted. “You only gave me ideas.”

At the time I thought there was a misunderstanding. He discounted the value of concept and initiative. He thought that design = prototype.

Recently, I heard a rumor about an artisan who put his work in an online shop. An organization objected, so the rumor goes, saying they had put design development into the product. And finally the artisan was forced to withdraw it from the site. The work was his, I thought, but who had the right to sell it? And who had the right to the profit? So I realized that the issue is more complex and, by now, my perspective has changed.

When I began the journey of design education for artisans, it was largely because I felt that artisans were having their own traditions lifted from them, shaken up, and returned in kits for them to produce. I thought artisans could get more credit for their capability and more pay. In one of the first classes, the men teased an artisan who pinned a concept up on the board. “Did you do that, or did you copy it?” they asked.

“Copying is what a designer does!” he rejoined. He had seen it for years as designers came to his house and went.

I also hoped that design education would diminish the phenomenon of artisans copying one another. In the traditional context of men’s work, design and ownership were not concepts. (women’s work was a very different story, one for a later discussion) Art existed, and the artisan produced it as best he could. So it is probably not surprising that the same understanding was simply overlayed onto the early innovations. Someone introduced the now ubiquitous “Bhujodi shawl,” and everyone just produced it.

Shyamjibhai, a weaver with the wisdom of experience and an SKV advisor, fully understands how artisans think. “Every year, we do a ‘Donation Design,'” he says. “These are designs based on tradition that are salable, can be done in quantity and are easy to produce. These are designs that we know artisans are going to copy. We do them for a year, and by then so does everyone else.”

But his nomenclature reveals the amazingly sophisticated strategy his family has developed in response to the issue in the context of changing times.

“But there are other designs that all weavers can’t do,” he continues, “due to the skill and cost involved. These we keep for our own edge in the market.”

I believed that if artisans develop their design capacity and find their unique voices, diversity will grow, and the need to copy will wane. If each artisan can find his or her own niche, everyone can enjoy good sales. This has, in fact, happened to a great extent, to graduates of the design program.

However, with the advent of individuality, competition of a different sort is born, and the concept of intellectual property emerges. Perhaps copying is not any more or less than it ever was but now it is easier to identify. And as the stakes become higher, the issues of ownership and copying are becoming more frequent and more thorny.

At the Santa Fe Folk Art Market, a designer happily showed Dayabhai a design he was doing in Kutch, recorded on his mobile phone. Dayabhai was shocked. “It’s my design!” he exclaimed. “I made it for the Co-Creation Squared show in Mumbai, 2013.” Fortunately, the designer recognized the situation, and gave future production to Dayabhai.

For me, the thrust of design education for artisans has been to enable artisans to be independent designers and entrepreneurs. In the Bhujodi to Bagalkot project a question of ownership came up. The Bhujodi weavers had mentored the designs, and in many cases had given detailed drawings. We had made cloth labels “Bhujodi to Bagalkot” for all of the work to give the show an identity. But each Bagalkot weaver had, on his own, made a paper tag with his name. The tags were identical, except for the name. The weavers felt a tremendous sense of ownership for their work, probably for the first time, as they usually are laborers for a cooperative, and it showed in their engagement as much as in the work.

I had a chance to ask the question during a joint session of the men and women of Somaiya Kala Vidya’s first Business and Management course. The artisans are all earnestly working toward the first exhibition of real Artisan Design- a collective of themed collections- to be held in Mumbai December 3-6. In the session, they were planning the production of the show. They became mired in how to organize the display- by individual? (but there are 12, in a small space!) By craft? Or by product? Before that could be comfortably decided, they moved on to the name of the show. They brainstormed wonderfully, coming up with the name “CRAFT RE-DEFINED” in a way so organic that no one really knows who coined the phrase. But they all knew immediately that that was IT.

Now I got my chance: But what about Somiaya Kala Vidya? I asked. Should the name not be on the show? “Whose products are they, anyway?” I asked.

I saw the group collectively, defensively frown. (Each one had worked so hard to create a logo and a brand identity. Was I going to try to take this away from them?) Finally, one artisan voiced their answer, “They are OURS!”

Good! I answered. But what then is the Somaiya Kala Vidya product?

Without hesitation, Zakiya laughed and pointed to herself. “WE ARE!” she cried.

Ah, yes. So we added the subtitle CRAFT RE-DEFINED: Artisan Designer BMAs from Somaiya Kala Vidya

Everyone wants the opportunity and the satisfaction of creativity… Ownership is critical to enthusiasm and motivation. But it is important to be clear about just what one’s work is.

Thank you, Zakiyaben!

When we last left our brave weavers of Bagalkot, the second round of samples were in process, and we were combing the universe for funding for loans. God is Great, and we managed just what we needed in the time we had. But there were communication challenges and a few doubts, so within days of Dayabhai returning from his highly successful USA tour, he and Nilanjanbhai set out once again for Bagalkot. The mission was to insure that the Bagalkot team was weaving the samples approved, and to make any adjustments necessary to insure that they had the stock they would need for the October exhibition, now just over a month away. Face to face support has no substitute. The weavers were bolstered to finish their collections.

A month later, I had the chance to make my second trip to Bagalkot, to present our project in a year-after follow up event organized by the Catalytic Think Tank Forum. Nilanjanbhai and Jentibhai also came for the event. The three of us went to a packed auditorium and waited for the Bagalkot team. They strode in, smiling and happily chatting. During a break, I went to their seats and asked if they had brought samples? Of course! They each eagerly showed their work, and a crowd immediately gathered, with people grabbing the cloth and asking for the prices. We were all encouraged! And right after that, gliding on our enthusiasm, we all came on stage, each artisan holding his sample up proudly. Knowing we had a very short time, I introduced the project and quickly gave the mike to Tukaram. He spoke with confidence, from the heart, and the crowd cheered and clapped. Later, Tukaram confessed, “I had never been on a stage before!”

The next day, we visited each weaver’s home in Kamatgi. The saris, dupattas and stoles were good, with soft cotton and strong, bold patterns and colours. You could feel how much fun the weavers had had creating their own work, and you could hear their pride as they showed each piece. It was like fish diving into the sea. Nilanjanbhai, Jentibhai and Srinivasji costed the products for the imminent show. The prices also seemed right, though we all realized where costs could be trimmed next time.

We selected a few traditional saris for comparison and insurance, and some traditional Guledgudd khan blouse pieces. When we were leaving, Srinivasji grinned broadly and said, “The Eiffel Tower… Everyone knows it for the engineer’s name. No one knows who the artisans were. Here, we are going to tell the artisans’ names!”

In a few short days, we reunited in Mumbai. Again, the Bagalkot team strode happily in, chatting away. I was nervous. Our show immediately followed a show of sophisticated weaving, which had sold very well. They later confessed they were nervous, too: “We saw the women on the street wearing jeans and shirts. We wondered how our saris would sell?”

They hesitated, having never displayed their work before. But with Radhiben’s guidance, they got to work. From the installation to the last sale, the group demonstrated a remarkable cooperation. They were each proud of their own work, and had created individual labels, but when a customer showed interest, any one of the Bagalkot team showed her the work. Kudos to the Chamundeshwari Cooperative Society for creating a genuine collective spirit, which I believe will facilitate their growth as weaver entrepreneurs.

The show opened with a bang beyond expectation! Crowds came, and they purchased. Sankarappa sold a whopping 80% of his saris on the first day. We broke records previously known. The weavers were thrilled, and interacted confidently with customers, bypassing any language barriers. Amrita Somaiya officially opened the show, and Samir Somaiya arrived the next day, right off a flight from Europe. Srinivasji spoke eloquently of his experience. Thereafter, each day at 4:00 a team of Bhujodi and Bagalkot weavers presented their work. Those who attended were duly impressed to hear first-hand the physical and psychological challenges faced and met, and to share the joy and self esteem of creativity so irresistible in these artisans.

At our debriefing this morning, Nilanjanbhai read the results: an average of 50% sales, with one artisan selling 75%, and one selling 90%. The saris sold! And new work far outsold the traditional. The weavers said they only wished they had taken the project more seriously and produced more. Experience is the best teacher. They were already talking about investing in new raw materials and wanted to know where the next exhibition will be?

And what did they learn? COLOUR! They all said. Colours are the main factor.

I asked if they would like to take a course in colour. Srinivasji said he would be the first to sign up.

I told them I have a dream of opening Somaiya Kala Vidya, Bagalkot.

They applauded enthusiastically.

At this first milestone, the success is intoxicating. Creativity in artisans seems like the grass that sprouts from the desert with just a short drizzle.
Surely, to be continued….
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6.Samirbhai at exhibition sm-0029

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SKV logo smThe Somaiya Kala Vidya logo was officially launched with the exhibition of Bhujodi to Bagalkot. Creating this identity was a study in collaboration.

I have long been fascinated by collaboration. When there are two authors on a work, how did it actually happen? Did one write the first half and the other the second? Did one talk and the other write? There are probably as many methods as there are collaborations. Here is how our logo evolved:

I had a concept. I wanted to show tradition coming alive, a motif that one could recognize as traditional, and yet it was new- what we teach at Somaiya Kala Vidya. I thought of inviting women to embroider their examples, as a contest. So I gave book cover sized fabric and threads to many women in many villages. They made many motifs, but none quite expressed what I hoped to see. I liked Sajnuben’s parrot the best. It had character. But it was still. So I thought of my friend Nina Sabnani, animator par excellence. I knew that if anyone could breathe life into this parrot, she could. I flapped my arms, trying to convey the sense of joy in flight I was imagining.

Nina and Piyush made many renditions of Sajnuben’s parrot. Many, many. We got tired then, and took a break while Dayabhai and I went to the USA.

On return, we came straight from the airport to Nina’s house, crashed, and in the morning all looked at the logo again. Piyush revived the parrot. Nina gave it a final tickle. It was flying!

But what about colour? Dayabhai asked. We narrowed it down to parrot green…. And pink. Dayabhai was not satisfied. He turned the colour wheel a bit… until it was a darker green with maroon. Much more dignified for an institution.

Nina added the title, in Optima, one of her favorite fonts. We pushed it back and forth, up and down, til we were happy.

Nina studied it. It still needed something to complete it, something to make it sing. She tried another, tiny parrot. Too complicated. Then, inspiration struck: She took the mirror from Jivaben’s motif, and placed it above the title.

Bingo. The logo was born.

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People were raving. “I’ve never seen anything like this before!” they exclaimed. “This weaving is amazing…fantastic…. gorgeous!” “Best in the show!” The accolades were pouring in. Curiously, there was in fact traditional weaving from Kutch in the “Best of the Best” booth just across the walkway. Dahyabhai and I could easily recognize it. The exciting thing was, the visitors were instead focusing on Dahyabhai’s innovation on the tradition. Wow! Design really works! Fortuitously, the Santa Fe actress Ali McGraw came into Dahyabhai’s booth early Saturday morning, and she was the first and most enthusiastic fan. She modeled Dahyabhai’s trademark rhythm checks for the next two days and directed customers to where they could get a stole too…. And that’s show biz.

When the cotton checks sold out, people bought wool checks… until there was only a suitcasefull of miscellaneous non-checks left.

At the end of the two and a half whirlwind days of the Santa Fe Folk International Art Market, we sat quietly at my friend Robert’s table and tallied the sales. They were more than double what Dahyabhai averages in a year. We did some quick calculations. It is not all profit, of course. He had to extend his capacity beyond himself, his son and his wife. He had hired two weavers. And he had maxed his cash credit account to purchase raw materials. But he had benefited from the financial aid the Market provides some first time participants, and clearly, he was in the best financial situation of his life so far.

Dahyalal Kudecha is a traditional weaver from Kutch. His grandfather wove. His father gave up the tradition to work in a salt mine because it earned more money. When his father needed medical treatment, the family migrated to Bhujodi, a weaving village, and Dahyabhai experienced the environment of his traditional art. He decided to learn weaving, and for over 25 years he earned his livelihood through job work for a master weaver. But he always had two dreams: higher education for his sons, and to become an independent artist.

In 2008 Dahyabhai took Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya’s year-long design course, and learned to innovate within his tradition. He gained confidence in his creative capability, and began to take creative risks. He began his own business. A natural teacher, he joined KRV as a core faculty member in 2010, and today is a faculty member of Somaiya Kala Vidya.

Teaching, Dahyabhai honed a sophisticated understanding of design, and a deep love for his tradition, both of which he seamlessly weaves into his work. Design took Dahyabhai out of the village, to a fashion show in Mumbai, a collaboration with an Egyptian weaver in Delhi, an international conference of weavers in Cusco, Peru. He became known; but more important he gained exposure, which he could apply in design innovation.

Last September, Dahyabhai submitted his portfolio to the highly competitive Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, and was juried in. This brought him the experience of a lifetime- a trip to the USA to experience this magical market.

On the final leg of our 3-day journey home, I asked Dahyabhai his impressions.
The Market began with a two-day workshop for first time participants.
He felt that was important in preparing him for the Market. It was an opportunity to meet people- staff as well as artisans. The exercises helped to create a sense of community and comradery. “I learned how to overcome the language barrier,” he said. “I became confident. After that, everything seemed easy and ready to apply in the Market. Having Marilyn as a mentor was really great. The volunteers were also helpful.”

The Market itself showed him the limitlessness and value of craft. “It took me beyond my imagination,” he said. “I learned about artisans of the world, and customers of the USA. I learned what people like, what is marketable- colours, finishing, and the importance of tradition. People at the Market are attracted to our customs. I realized in a real way that we need to retain our identity. We need to present our culture.”

I asked what he would remember most from the Market? “People from all over the world!” he said. “But art and being artisans unified us all. Being an artisan made me feel part of a family.”

And what will he do on return? “Share what I learned with my colleagues!” Dahyabhai filled two data cards- totaling 12 MB- twice with images. He is planning a mega slide show presentation for all of the students of the Business and Management for Artisans course he is currently taking, and the Somaiya Kala Vidya staff. With his earnings, he plans to source new materials, try new experiments, and especially expand his capacity. “That will be win-win,” he grins, using a concept from the course. He can increase production so that next time he won’t run out of his best sellers, and he can give work and some training to less developed artisans. He is thinking how best to utilize and maintain the contacts he made at the Market, and how to get feedback that will help him in his work. “I’m also thinking of getting a computer,” he said. “A laptop will be useful in making presentations. And maybe I will build a website; people asked for that.”

Dahyabhai’s sons are both in college. The younger one weaves while studying business. He proudly shows a new, elegant design he wove while his father was away. The elder one, studying engineering, has been happy to find that he has a role to play in marketing. His daughter helps with finishing and is going to study tailoring and pattern making, and his wife weaves, a vanguard for women as full economic partners. Over that last six years, the family has begun to see a bright future for craft.

Would Dahyabhai have gotten into the Santa Fe Market if he had not studied design? Possibly. But I feel sure that the rave reviews he enjoyed were directly related to that extra edge his education gave him. And, I am confident that his design capability will transform his experience into a super next collection.

Tradition, design education, and the Santa Fe Folk Art Market: a win-win-win combo!

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When I first encountered people who had migrated from Nagar Parkar to Kutch, women did not go out. Not even into their own village, not even to bring water or vegetables. In decades in India I had never seen men doing these household tasks. But in this subculture, keeping women secluded superseded everything. One day, a young woman asked me where her uncle’s shop was? I was astounded; it was in the center of this little village of population 7,000. She had not been able to venture into town since she reached puberty.

I insisted on a few tiny steps, trying to respect the culture in which I was surrounded. Women had to come to meetings in order to get work. They had to come forward and sign in order to get paid. ….At least a representative or two had to come to bazaars and meet the customers.

Meanwhile, I also opened up the earning potential. Women older than 35 or so could no longer see to embroider, but often had more free time. I had them make the humble patchwork ralli quilts they traditionally made for household use in natural dyed, printed fabrics, for sale. They laughed at this idea. Who would buy such a thing? But these ralli quilts were new in the market and sold very well. I encouraged them to look back to the examples at home and in our museum and re-invent their designs. Quickly, these older women took interest and pride in their new opportunity. They were good artisans, and they knew it. They demanded continuous work at fair wages, and enjoyed the comfort of getting it without having to leave their homes.

Times changed. More artisans had slid into the older, ralli-making group. And they were no longer getting the work they wanted. Not wanting to be idle, and ever hopeful they experimented with quilts for sale on their own.

God, as ever, is Great. Just as ralli master Hariyaben took the courageous step to join a new “post graduate” course in Business and Management for Artisans, an opportunity to participate in a quilt exhibition arrived.

Can you manage this? I asked her.

Without skipping a beat she said, “Yes.”

Together we made a target of 30 ralli quilts. I fronted her the raw materials. And I could not resist naming the project Ralli ni Rani: Quilt Queens. Production management was up to her. I soon realized the old pitfall of paying: she saw the quilts as more mine than hers, and complained that I had not gotten her enough fabric, fast enough! I asked how she would have done the quilts if they were for her home? She brightened and quickly said she’d have gone out and gotten the fabric.

What is the difference? Is the market the barrier? Or the opportunity to have someone else be responsible?

Now. finally, it is countdown time. The quilts have to be priced and sent to Chennai. I have work in the area and offer to pick up the quilts and have our office pack and ship them. But on the way the brakes of our car fail and we can’t reach in time.

You will have to get your son to bring the quilts, I tell Hariyaben.

She objects. But I can’t comply.

Next morning, Hariyaben calls from her mobile phone. There is traffic noise in the background. “Tell me your address,” she says. “We are on the way.”

An hour later she shows up, having engaged a culturally appropriate chaperone and a three-wheeled “chakado,” with 26 ralli quilts. All are already priced– and photographed. Five more are in production.

At lunchtime, I remember that I have sat with Hariyaben and her women relatives to break their annual ten-day Dasama fast. In the seclusion of their homes, these women swallow burning dough lamps. Yes, they are surely Ralli ni Rani: Quilt Queen fire eaters.

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The women’s business and management class began. Hariyaben symbolized it as a computer screen with an “A” inside- opportunity.

I call it “Soul Searching, Confronting your Demons, Getting Ready.”

This course has no full stops. It is intense and crammed into a very small space. No tea breaks, and no place to go.

The women are as always, different from the men. They use the SWOT exercise to analyze their experiences deeply. They are acutely aware of their limitations. While the question for the men is how to grow their business, for the women, it is how to start? How to circumvent all of the real and imagined obstacles? How to procure raw materials, contact the market?

Monghi is afraid. She is the last young embroiderer of Vandh. Can she do it? Would she get support? During the class, a man from her village organized a huge meeting for all Rabaris to discuss where education can take you. Would he support Monghi? He did not send his wife to our class.

The teacher shows a TED talk by the father of the young education reformist Malala. He talks about the systematic limiting of women, how it is sanctioned and passed on. Women are property, honour. They believe it. They lose their creativity, turn it inward like ingrown nails. Zakiya expresses her frustration. All her childhood she was treated “like a boy.” Now, as she matures, she is treated “like a girl.”

Hariyaben, much older, has learned to use this to her advantage- not a girl- a queen! She gets things done for herself. But it often seems passive manipulation.

She has an opportunity to participate in a quilt exhibition in Chennai. She has organized a group with the name “Ralli ni Rani” (Quilt Queens), made the quilts, but she wants to know if it is a good idea to go to distant markets?

She finds reasons not to participate in the English class. “If we try to speak a little English with a customer,” she says, “Our community will ridicule us.”

Crabs in the basket.

At the perfect moment, Shakil arrives and we set him in the class. He says, you have to go out, to exhibitions. You are the one who can sell your work.

I put the quilt project before the class, as a class problem. The women understand they need to go out to sell. But Hariyaben wants someone else to get the materials and sell the products. Unless they take responsibility how can they operate a business? Unless they feel the need to sell, how can they move ahead?

The class comes to the conclusion that they have collective strength. They can pool their individual strengths and overcome their weaknesses. Lakshmi and Zakiya, both educated but too young to have market experience, decide they will together take the quilts to Chennai! It will be an opportunity to experience the market, and if there are two of them their families can’t object.

In two weeks, the women have searched their souls, thought until their brains hurt.

The course is difficult. The goal is high: to design a collection and produce it for an exhibition. Harkhuben has decided she will drop out, non- negotiable. Sajnuben is getting stressed. Tara has gone beyond her comfort zone.

The suf artisans- Lakshmi, Tulsi and Tara- finalize a joint collection theme, “Butterflies.” They choose the concept because butterflies are colourful, light and can travel anywhere. It works with their delicate suf embroidery.

We watch YouTube clips of caterpillars wholeheartedly enveloping themselves in their chrysalises. Then they struggle magnificently to emerge, wet and exhausted, dry their wings…. and fly.

I wonder if they realize the metaphor they have chosen?

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The brave weavers of Bagalkot went back inspired. For our part, we kept up the pace. Within two weeks, our team of Bhujodi weavers, and Programme Coordinator Nilanjan embarked for Bagalkot. The mission was to create new samples in the Bagalkot- Ilkal tradition. Meanwhile, the Bagalkot weavers were to source cotton yarns to replace the synthetics they had been using, in the colours they had chosen in the workshop. With the short turn-around, they elected to procure from a known, though distant source, Hyderabad, and brought back whatever colours were available.

 The Bhujodi weavers worked with what they had, as creatively as possible. They found unanticipated challenges. The looms were not geared to cotton, and the weavers had been using synthetic yarn so long they did not understand cotton properties. The looms were dilapidated. This added up to major technical and quality issues. The colours were off. But everyone worked sincerely, and the Bhujodi weavers brought back the first round of samples.

For two days, a jury of renowned weaving experts reviewed the results with the Bhujodi team. The project was more involved than we had planned. Sources for appropriate materials had to be identified. Looms would have to be repaired or upgraded. Our schedule would have to be pinched to accommodate this extra work. The Bhujodi weavers made detailed sketches for their partners’ product ranges. And in less than a week, they journeyed back to Bagalkot.

Taking full responsibility for their work, the Bhujodi weavers decided to extend their stay. They split up. Chamanbhai went with Srinivas to source cotton yarns and loom parts, while Jayantibhai stayed back and conducted a workshop on finishing with the Bagalkot weavers. In between, national elections were held- an unplanned-for holiday. Chamanbhai and Jayantibhai generated the enthusiasm to get the Bagalkot weavers back to their looms after just half a day.

Staying on in the villages when the looms were idle made all the difference. “We explored,” Chamanbhai related. “We visited different villages, met people.” And they discovered a local source for cotton yarn, much closer and cheaper than Hyderabad.

“We found we had skills we didn’t realize,” Chamanbhai said. “I saw Jayantibhai doing research, asking questions about tradition, probing, following up. We didn’t know we had so many different skills!”

Elder weavers who remembered their tradition learned of their distant guests. They were so happy that the weavers were using cotton again that they invited Chamanbhai and Jayantibhai to dinner. The Bagalkot weavers discovered a love of tradition, buried deep within the sense of futility, loss of creativity and control.

Bhujodi to Bagalkot gained momentum, and the next round of samples sprang to life.

Dare I confess that full funding was not quite in place yet? As the weavers awaited funds for raw materials for production, Somaiya Kala Vidya kicked off our own private crowd-funding project. As of today five or six of the eight participants have sponsors and we are envisioning a grand show in October….

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When I was studying conservation in Museology, we had to work on beautiful reed baskets.  The instructor explained a governing principle: the reeds meticulously bent by an artisan want to revert to their original straight form. It struck me as one of those laws of physics that can as well be applied metaphysically: the urge to revert.

This week, I observed the law in a group of women artisans with whom I have worked for over twenty years.  “We are not getting enough work,” they complained. The wonderful part was that the situation had prompted several enterprising women to begin work on their own initiative!

I was stunned and dismayed, however, to see that what they had made was what they were making before our twenty years of our meticulous hard work!

In recent soul searching, I had mused about whether our twenty years had taken artisans forward or backward. I began to work with them because they had such admirable traditions, much more than skills- personal expressions, concepts, and products.  I was inspired by them, developed contemporary products based on all of the works of art that I could collect for the museum.  I intended to work within the traditions.  But was this just another form of what I had wanted to oppose: robbing people of what they already had and making them dependent workers?

A week ago I voiced this question of forward or backward to Ismailbhai, a Voice of Reason.  Yes, he agreed, artisans already made their own products, and they still can, like the Banniwallas. The word conjured the image of men trudging with sacks of those wretched quilts and wall hangings made with cheap materials and sloppy stitches, over-dyed in black or red.  “You have to insure the quality,” Ismailbhai said.

The difference I had wanted to make when I began two decades ago was empowerment- engaging artisans in the process so that they could eventually do it themselves and avoid middle people. I took the instructional part further and established a course in design- in which each artisan had to be responsible for creating his or her own collection of contemporary products.

Yet, after twenty years of observing the choices of materials, colours, layouts, products and finishing, and after a year of honest hard work in the design course, these artisans reached back to the old familiar- strips and squares of blended fabric heavily embroidered with synthetic threads!

We all have this urge to revert. It is easy; it is maybe reflexive, a law of physics.  Whatever we learn is not necessarily absorbed.  We have to make an effort to apply it, to own it.  I had factored this challenge into the design course, including a mentor program in which faculty members visit the artisan students on a one-to-one basis to insure that they are applying what they learned in class to their work. Still, I observed, whatever marvelous innovations the artisans did in colour and basic design exercises were tossed to the wind when they confronted a product.  The product itself elicited familiar old responses.

Think!  I told the women.  Draw on your twenty years of experience and your year of design education!  Go even farther back to your traditions.  Would you ever have made the same piece twice? You have the ability to do what a machine cannot- to think, play, enjoy, express.  You have all done this.  One woman who had not taken the course said anxiously, “I can only do what someone tells me.”  I reminded her of a wonderful narrative piece she had done on the Mahabharata!

“Her son did that for her,” the others revealed.  He drew the images and her daughter cut them out.  All she did was stitch them on!”

True confessions.

Ok, I said.  Then work in teams.  You have to stand on your feet.  You have to decide how.

The challenges brushed under the carpet have come back to haunt me.  Even if the women know quality, how can they source materials? Even if they learn good finishing, how can they access good product design?  How can they reach the higher end markets they need?

These are the real, hard issues, and defining them has come in good time, as I prepare to launch a “post graduate” course in Business and Management for Artisans.

Always go forward, I told the women. Guard against the urge to revert. Tap your knowledge and experience. The advice was for myself as much as for them.

To be continued…..