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.

Aziz w Donna Karan sm-0195Over twelve years of design education for artisans, the issue of copying has emerged among artisan designers. They discuss it furtively, angrily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are excerpts of the discussion…

Coping with Copying began by asking, who owns designs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The entire audience quickly raises their hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aakibbhai insists that no one can copy his work.

Lokeshbhai, Moderator: Small fish can outnumber big fish!

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

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

Lokeshbhai: How do you distinguish inspiration and copying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All hands shoot up in accord.

As Emma finished her course in Rabari embroidery, she said she felt free of the bonds of perfectionism. It doesn’t have to be perfect! she discovered. Aakib told his Ajrakh student Claire not to fret over a mistake– it will be lost in the beauty of the piece, he said.

Somaiya Kala Vidya is becoming an art oasis where you can come and appreciate and philosophize.

Alternative to perfection is one thing that drew me to craft so long ago.

Perfection is a mathematical or industrial concept. Ironically, when a block print is copied in screen print, a bandhani copied in mill fabric, or an embroidery stitched on a stenciled pattern, it irons out the beauty that was meant to be preserved. Perfection snuffs out the life of a work of art.

I don’t look for perfection in craft, I recently told a visitor.

Then what do you look for? she asked.

Difficult to define…

The human touch, the person who created the work, humor, play, but above all excellence.

So, where lies excellence? Is it just short of perfection? Or is there something else? And who decides?

A visitor at our Ahmedabad exhibition, a seeker, asked, “How do you know a screen print from a block print?” I called Juned, Mubeen and Mustak- our Ajrakh students. They laughed and said, “You know! You can see it.”

So we examined some block prints. Mubeen gave a hint: somewhere you are going to see a join.

So is hand work bad work?

At a conference on handloom last year, designer Hemang Agrawal asked the audience what is the enemy of hand loom? Most people said power loom. But he said no, the enemy of handloom is bad handloom!

So how do artisans strive for excellence without needing to be perfect?

That is what the traditional artisan knows. They know that excellence isn’t perfect. Perfect is not a goal, just as perfection rarely exists in nature (the ultimate designer.)

Traditional artisans know this in a way that they distinguish from “learning.” When I asked Jivaben how she learned embroidery, she answered, “I didn’t learn it. I knew it.” That is the best definition I have ever found for tradition.

Then how does the consumer discern excellence?Traditionally clients and artisans shared a culture and they knew excellence in the same way.

And there lies connoisseurship.

Perfection is fairly easy to identify. Discerning excellence takes experience.

Arjo Klamer and Priyatej Kotipalli speak of the importance of connoisseurship in creating value, and in building a creative craft culture.

“Creative crafts come about not just because people make creative products, but also because others are able to appreciate those products. That is why we speak of co-creation: the creative crafts are a co-creation of makers, lovers and users.

An artisan’s success is first determined by the people who know, by the experts who can judge the quality, and then by others who pay attention to such judgment and are able and willing to pay the price.”

It takes time and experience to become a connoisseur. It is a journey well worth the time it takes. But connoisseurs are not usually young.

Meanwhile, artisans have some responsibility to teach their clients, in addition to making excellent work. This is part of the journey of connoisseurship, and it is part of the luxury of the human connection. That is exactly how Emma enjoyed her insight.

Lately I have been writing about Craft as Sustainable Luxury. I love writing, and especially when it involves grappling with concepts, pushing the boundaries, provoking, and coming up with a great new idea.

How often do I do this?

Well……the truth is, rarely. And these days, it is pretty much when I am asked to. Or, rather, to see it from another perspective, when there is an opportunity.

Raise your hand if this is true for you, too.

Opportunity is a key factor for using one’s potential. You can of course create your own opportunities. But opportunity is a catalyst.

So a new role I find us developing in our work with artisans is insuring opportunities. Finishing a course in Design, or Business and Management, is not the end. As Mukhtar said, “We thought we were at the end. Now, we realize we are at the beginning!”

A glance at the artisan designer What’s App groups indicates Somaiya Kala Vidya’s institutional development. As we grow, the opportunities for graduates to create new designs come to us, and we pass them on.

Two groups are designing and producing décor for hotels.

A number of artisans this year created new work to apply for the World Craft Council Award of Excellence, and the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market.

Many will be creating for the official opening of Design Craft.

One group is enthusiastically developing a collection for a fashion show.

A team is teaching Craft traditions to international students.

Most exciting, thirteen artisan designers are busily Co-Designing collections via What’s App with students of the University of Wisconsin.

It feels like a blessing and a bright new world for artisan designers.

Mukhtar stopped by the office the other day. He had just come back from an exhibition in Mumbai and was flushed with exhilaration. “I wanted you to know that I still remember you; I’m still here,” he laughed. He was heading for another show in Ahmedabad, and then finally to the class’s final exhibition- also in Ahmedabad, in just a few days!

“Of course the products will be different! ” he laughed again.

But now he is thinking of being more selective. As opportunities come, he wants to weigh them and decide which to take. It’s a great position in which to be.


The Design Course 2016 is over.
After six intense courses and nine months of hard work, last month we completed the two-day jury, in which our artisan designer students present their work to professionals in the design and craft world.

Every year it seems to become more complex. The artisan students strive to understand and translate themes and concepts, to innovate and carry forward their deep, ancient traditions.

They yearn to succeed.
“But they can’t all succeed,” one jury member said.

I’m not sure if I agree.

“Tell me what, what, I don’t know….what is success?” croons Bonnie Rait. “Is it doing your own thing? Or to join the rest?”

Indeed. Does it mean becoming a super star? Or is it selling well in the market one chooses? Chooses is a key here. Because choice is essential to empowerment.

“But, do they want new or traditional?” asked Izaz after his jury. He was deeply puzzled because in the same hour, the same jury members had told him two different things.

The truth is, people who know and love craft- the ones we call as the jury and the ones we want as the market, want something new, and they don’t want something new. Both are true.

Disconcerting, however, is that even while jurying students of a design course, the jury could not help but focus on technique.

This is reality too. People associate artisans with technique. Surely, technique is an important part of design. But what about the rest that comprises design– and a tradition? Weavers in Mexico, Morocco, Kutch or Assam use basically the same techniques. Of course there are differences that are deeply important to weavers. And technique itself is nuanced. In traditional work there was variety in technique, and that changed slowly and subtly over time, telling the story of where its practitioners had been and who they had met.

But to the consumer the techniques are more similar than not. What distinguishes one tradition from another is use of the technique, the combination of fibers, yarns, colours, motifs, layouts, and the final product. Any of those elements can be varied in unlimited ways to make an innovation. But only the artisan knows in his or her heart whether the essential character of a tradition is preserved. That is why artisans designing is critical to the preservation of traditions.

So what is the answer? As the jury told the students, there is no answer, no formula to design. Design is a way of seeing and thinking. It is seeing the bigger picture, the context. So in the end, the real responses were visceral, aesthetic responses.

So how does an artisan designer move forward toward success in this murky complex world?

At lunch the second day, escaping the heat, we watched The Eye Has to Travel, a documentary on Diana Vreeland. Inspiring, it was also apt. As Diana told a colleague at Vogue,

“You don’t give them what they want! You give them what they don’t yet know they want.”

Next stop, Ahmedabad– where these soon to graduate Artisan Designers will test their collections in a real market experience…..

61. Poonam FS sm-3904Poonambhai, a weaver from Varnora, graduated from the Somaiya Kala Vidya design course last year. He had actually begun the course in 2013, but at the time of the second session he had an opportunity to go to Delhi for a sale, so he went, saying he would be back in a few days. He missed the whole course and we said he could not continue. He realized he wanted to complete the course, so two years later, at age 40, he came again, starting over from course one.

Poonambhai lost his father, also a weaver, when he was only twelve years old. The family had no income, so he went to Bhujodi to learn weaving, and wove as a job worker there until he got married at nineteen. Returning to Varnora, with no savings and no business experience, he managed to make some products. Then he learned about the DCH (a government agency that deals with craft) from fellow weavers. He immediately contacted the office and was invited to an exhibition in Guwahati, Assam.

Without knowing where Guwahati was, Poonambhai went. And he earned RS 70,000– plus the subsidy the government offers. From then he has largely depended on government exhibitions for his livelihood.

In his admission interview at SKV, Poonambhai said he considers his art a means of livelihood and achieving social respect. A good design, he said, is one that no one, not even the artisan who made it, can copy exactly.

A year ago, in the Concept Development course, Poonambhai chose a subtle cool pastel colour palette from the trend forecast. He was intrigued because he had never used such colours before, he said, and he named his theme “Air.”

This week, as the Concept Development course was in session, Poonambhai breezed into our office, bright, confident, happy. He was supposed to come on Sunday, but he said he had been in a two-day meeting for a huge government program. Though Poonambhai has run after government programs for much of his life, I saw a difference. Of course he will take advantage of their opportunities. But he’s not desperate or dependent now. He knows he has better markets and good products.

He happily relates how well his collection sold and lists the people who bought pieces and ordered– high level clients, several international. He says the design course changed his life, so he sent his nephew to take it this year.

Poonambhai intently studied the theme boards that his nephew and the other students had made, and examined the experiments they were doing in weaving, printing and bandhani. He was excited to look at the 2016-17 trend forecast.

Then he asked if he could use one for his own work?

Of course.

He sat with Lokesh, the faculty member, and looked at each story. He chose one, another palette of subtle tones. And then he volunteered to go out and get print outs.

I was struck by his willingness to make this effort. No hesitation and no thought of subsidy.

I remembered Poonambhai in course one, buffering himself with an armory of excuses. He can’t hear, he can’t remember, he is too old to do these exercises… And as soon as he had he developed the theme “Air,” he wanted to change it. It needed a bright pink– something more familiar. He was upset that he could not change the colours; he was sure no one would like them. Even after Ritu Kumar chose his work for a fashion show she was presenting, he wanted to bring the old products for his final show in Mumbai.

But his collection sold- every last piece. And now he has orders on it to fill.

Poonambhai has long forgotten about his excuses, and his age.

This is the real gift in the work I do: priceless.