COVER: Hyderabadi designers chronicle a renaissance by bringing age-old crafts on looms
Championing a renaissance of sorts, Hyderabadi designers are reviving age-old local art forms by juxtaposing them with textiles. We follow their creative journey ahead
Six Yards Plus, a handcrafted sustainable store from Hyderabad that specialises in handloom saris, was recently approached by one of their clients, Bhavna, to reinvent a sari that she kept as a prized possession for decades. What next? The label got an opportunity to upgrade the Kanchi silk sari and added their own twist to it. They embellished it with a 5,000-year-old Kalamkari folk art and transformed the piece beautifully. Done in collaboration with local artists, the sari looked like a canvas in motion with motifs of forest life animatedly interacting with the deep rust base color, leaving an onlooker stunned by the immersive tale telling capacity of the sari. As we dig deeper into the world of fashion inspired by age-old art forms, we soon find out that this is a part of an art movement of sorts in the fashion world of Hyderabad.
In fact, recently, ace fashion designer Gaurang Shah took to social media, and celebrated this phenomenon by posting how his 2019 collection Khadi A Canvas took him five years from the ideation to finally using Khadi as a canvas for recreating thirty landmark paintings of artist Raja Ravi Varma. Looking back, he tells us how reviving old art forms through unique textile mediums can totally revolutionise the field of art and fashion by giving rise to wearable art pieces. “It is a unique experience to integrate two art forms, to preserve the heritage and the culture of the region and at the same time elevate the community involved in the art. By working on this concept of wearable art, I was able to underscore the unlimited possibilities of Khadi and Jamdani from their loom to luxury journey.”
Previously, Six Yards Plus has worked with local art for ms like Cheriyal of Telangana and Pattachitra of Odisha. In one of their past Cheriyal sari collections motifs of suburban leisurely life dominate the fabric — a girl playing Thokkudu Billa (hopscotch), two ladies playing a wooden board game named Vamanaguntalu and a girl swinging on Uyyala (a type of swing). Mrinalini Shastry, founder, tells us how her lifelong passion for saris, love for local arts and crafts and understanding of artisanal business has given rise to her five-year-old label that is reviving the age-old crafts of India. “We make sure that the Cheriyal, Kalamkari and Pattachitra which are all GI tagged crafts are from particular areas where they originate from and are made by traditional artisans from that region. This adds authenticity to the handcrafted saris. For instance, the handpainted Kalamkari saris are handcrafted by artisans from Srikalahasti in Tirupati where we work in collaboration with them to establish an authentic supply chain.”
Another designer from the city, Jyoti Reddy, is doing the Eri Ikat adaptation of the Telia Rumals, the 19th-century statement handkerchiefs from Andhra Pradesh. As she weaves the distinctive designs in Ikat, it is bringing them back to glory. “Such wearable art pieces can be attractive if used in the right manner. In saris, it could work gorgeously if placed strategically all over or in the pallu,” she says.
Connecting with artisans
With such creative endeavours, Hyderabadi designers are merging indigenous arts of India with existing fashion trends to chronicle an age of revival. While this is putting a spotlight on local artisans, Indian handicrafts and sustainability, there lie many challenges ahead like bringing artisan clusters on board and creating a stable demand-supply chain. Talking to the designers and experts of the field, we are told that there are indeed many challenges to getting the local artisans to work with the designer’s vision. Designers are many a time turned down by artisans when they approach them for collaboration for reasons like unfair wages, migration to cities, seasonal nature of work and temporary exoticisation of art for the limelight. Sharing one of the challenges, Jyoti says, “Very few artisans are motivated to try anything new. The very skilled are dwindling. Earlier our artisans had royal patronage. They could focus on their craft and not worry about their financial needs. In today’s scenario, with so many variables at play, it is hard for an artisan to oblige and agree to new experiments or change traditional mediums. But when they do, the results are marvelous.”
Similarly, Mrinalini was also at her wit’s end when she embarked on her design journey as a couple of Cheriyal artists were reluctant to collaborate with her. “They were hesitant to move beyond traditional Cheriyal scrolls and masks and did not prefer to experiment with new mediums like home décor products. For us, saris were our means of expression, and we felt that a relatively higher value and better cared for product like that would help preserve the craft and return a higher income to artisans. Then I introspected about how to create a product that compensates the artist fairly, represents the art form appropriately so that it does not appear like a dramatic change from traditional art and at the same time makes sure that the product is viable both in terms of functionality and price,” Mrinalini says.
Designers often face such catch22 situations like bringing artisans on board. Such situations can be dealt with sustainable solutions that can seal long-term bonds with the artisan community. Here, while sustainability is often confused with just being green at the core of operations, the concept encompasses a far broader meaning like finding ways to not only reduce environmental damage but sustain livelihoods of local artisans to ensure long-term, impact-driven collaboration. Bina Rao, founder of design studio Creative Bee who works for handloom textile products, has been successfully working with artisans for the past 30 years. Her success mantra is — respect the artisan community in every way possible. “An artisan is a born creative soul while you are trained to be creative. So you always have to put them on a higher pedestal and since they are very sensitive, they will be very happy when you appreciate their work with a dignified lens.”
The road ahead
Bina is a pioneer of the handcrafted textile business. She is also known for the goodwill she maintains with artisans. During the pandemic when local and small scale artisan-run businesses were shut down and livelihoods were at a crossroads, Bina reduced her production and gave a `5,000 per head allowance to artisans to support them in crises. “I just wanted them to be healthy and safe. By minimising production, we also reduced the burden of work on them.” That’s how she sailed through the crises with her loyal artisan groups while many designers struggled to keep their artisan base intact.
Sharing some tips for designers working with local artisans, Bina believes that the biggest threat to the heritage crafts sector is the discouragement of the next generation from joining the artisan family trade due to the dismal conditions to earn for livelihood. However, she avers that a designer can seal deeper bonds with artisans by hand holding them for six months to one year. She says, “That way designers can impart the knowledge of technical know-how. They then need to create a structure for artisans to let them work in their local locations rather than ask them to migrate to cities. Provide them stable income by taking long term orders. Do not take artisans for granted just to make them part of one exclusive collection or fashion show, otherwise they will migrate back to their villages. Once incomes are secured, it will encourage artisans to take up the work on a long term basis and that will lead to a real social impact.” She further suggests to reach artisans beyond the master weaver level because sometimes the entire profit gets concentrated in their hands and does not percolate to the smaller artisans.
Given the fashion landscape is vulnerable to the disruptions of the economy, crises and rapidly changing aesthetic trends, a designer has to be alert and attentive to such market influencing variables. Bina concludes that a designer has to be an entrepreneur at heart to quickly adapt to the changes and tap into existing opportunities. “The world is waking up to sustainable designing now. So Indian designers have a huge opportunity where they can take local craftsmen and collaborate with them on a long-term basis ushering a revival of the arts, sustenance and sustainable fashion.”