Jaipur Rugs' Manchaha initiative is lighting up lives of many
How an initiative to use leftover yarns productively led to the birth of a project that might become synonymous with Jaipur Rugs in the years to come
Almost every other home in Aaspura, a village about 80 km away from Jaipur airport, has a loom installed in their home or has one in a neighbouring house where they will go to weave a rug. While weaving carpet is not new to most women and some men here, who have been weaving for decades sometimes by themselves and sometimes in a group of two or three, what’s new is their desire to weave their own designs. “I am constantly thinking and designing. I have made some shakkar para (used to refer to a diagonal shape inspired by the contours of a sweet snack popular in many parts of India, including Rajasthan). I am thinking of making a floral design going upward,” shares 35-year-old Savitri Devi, without shifting her gaze from the loom. Her hands and fingers move so fast and in a rhythm that it appears musical. Although Savitri has been weaving since the age of 10, it is Manchaha, a project where artisans weave their own designs, that has ignited these creative sparks. “I have made seven to eight Manchaha rugs, two of them have even won me awards (internal awards given by Jaipur Rugs) but I want to make more of them. They bring us recognition. Some of the women in my community have been to different cities and even abroad. I too want that,” adds Savitri, a mother of two, who weaves for a couple of hours everyday, mostly in the afternoon, in between her chores.
Started around a decade ago, as Artisan Original, Manchaha was a result of several factors but most importantly, it was an experiment to see how the parent company Jaipur Rugs can productively use its leftover yarns, which was huge in quantity. The founder Nand Kishore Chaudhary’s daughter Kavita, an alumna of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Design Director at Jaipur Rugs, who had seen how artisans would collaborate with manufacturers and hold exhibitions of their collection in Europe, came up with the idea - why not let the artisans use them to create their own rugs? It was a huge gamble, considering the rugs, particularly the hand-made carpets, are an expensive affair. But acting on her vision, the company prepared sacks (weavers are usually sent sacks comprising of yarns and a blueprint of the design for weaving), and send them to the 100 artisans spread across several villages in Rajasthan asking them to create their own designs. “The sack was lying here for over 10 days because I didn’t know what to do with it. I was used to making the designs that the company sends and had never thought about ‘what I wanted so I was really apprehensive about designing my own rug. Plus, I was worried what if I ruin it or what if they don’t like the design,” recalls Dhafali Devi, who started weaving two decades ago, after she got married and came to Aaspura. Over the years, she has won multiple awards, including the IF Design Award 2019. “I started Manchaha only after I received assurance from the company that we will be paid full wages whether designs are liked or not. Now my friends ask me to teach them as well and I try helping them with colour schemes,” adds Dhafali who was busy designing a rug inspired by a fort.
Although under wraps at the moment, it is a part of a yet-to-be-announced collaboration where she has been given the task to bring the artist’s vision to the loom using her own interpretation. Not all rosy Today, Manchaha is one of the sought-after categories of carpets at Jaipur Rugs and it has reached a stage where artisans like Dhafali, are collaborating directly with artists and bringing their interpretation of the artist’s vision to the loom. In fact, if Yogesh Chaudhary, Director at Jaipur Rugs, who look into sales and marketing, is to be believed, it won’t be a surprise if there comes a time when Jaipur Rugs only deals in Manchaha rugs. But, the journey to this point wasn’t all rosy. “When the first set of the carpets came back from the artisans, doubts seeped in. A lot of them had animals designed on them and some had a very bold colour scheme. One of them had a huge lotus in the centre with a hut on top of it and a monkey on one side who was holding the gun and aiming for the rabbit (we sold it cheap but it later became a rage with customers asking for ‘monkey with a gun’ rug). The market was very conservative and barring a few, nothing got sold. Years later, we sold them at cost price,” recalls Kavita.
A couple of years later, Kavita was working on Project Error when one particular rug from Manchaha called Antar caught her attention. “It was designed by three weavers who ended up forming a friendship over the course of one or one-and-a-half-month that they weaved this rug together and this transition can be seen in the rug as well. While the bottom of it has a lot of unevenness and different designs, they become more uniform as one goes upward so we called it Antar and it emerged as the only Asian rug to win a special mention at the German Design Awards in 2016. That made me relaunch Manchaha.” This time Kavita had some checks and balances in place — they tried multiple lengths as some of these pieces were quirky and worked well in smaller sizes, the colour palette was consciously thought of before preparing sacks and a series of workshops where artisans were given design intervention were held. Once the design part got over, came the selling part.
“Initially we had got a lot of carpets designed but we couldn’t sell anything and thought that this project has tanked. At that time, we were targeting B2B customers who are traders and don’t really care much beyond profit. It is when we reached out to people with artistic bent of mind that the sparks started igniting,” he shares, adding, “Occasionally, we would get insane reactions from people it was those reactions that kept Manchaha afloat otherwise we might have shut it long ago. It kicked off eventually but the first few years were full of self-doubt.” Next on the cards Today the project has spread its wings and has involved prisoners from Dosa, Bikaner and Jaipur in designing rugs under Freedom Manchaha. Going forward, one can expect seeing these artisans collaborating with artists in the field of photography, architecture and design and exhibiting their work as happened recently with Italian photographer Lorenzo Vitturi. In collaboration with Guddi, Shanti, Manju, Suman and Sonu Devi, he put together a collection called Jugalbandi, which was on display in Italy.
“Manchaha is not carpet, it is a concept, one that is so powerful that it might teach the whole world a new way of business. We see people from fashion and design and from all over the world trying to figure out how they can incorporate this. I think Manchaha is something that will be with us for the next 100, 200 or maybe 500 years as a business. Right now, we are only at the genesis of experimenting and trying different things. For example, we are doing a collection launch in April with an architect and interior designer from Mumbai,” he concludes.