Laila Tyabji, chairperson of Dastkar, on why she considers craftspeople as India’s ‘living heritage’

When Valmik Thapar invited Dastkar to Ranthambore 21 years ago, to work with villagers relocated during the creation of the tiger reserve, Laila Tyabji was struck by how little craft existed among the displaced agrarian people. But not one to give up easily, Tyabji stayed in Ranthambore for a month, put up photos of other Dastkar projects in her room and spent the day sewing and embroidering. When the women wandered in, she told them inspiring tales of Dastkar’s craftspersons, and when they, in turn, asked her what she was doing, she told them she was making a cushion cover, taught them simple designs, and paid them for their work. “Soon, I was swamped with people who wanted to sew and embroider,” smiles Tyabji. From that humble, somewhat reluctant beginning, the Dastkar Ranthambore project today nets over Rs. 1 crore.

The Ranthambore story is just one of Dastkar’s (a society for crafts and craftspeople) many successes narrated by renowned designer and writer Laila Tyabji. As one of Dastkar’s founders — and currently its chairperson — Tyabji has worked with traditional craftspersons, especially women, for the last three decades, helping them and their exquisite crafts survive. “We have, in India, an estimated nine million textile craftspersons. It is the second largest employment sector, and involves a huge number of women.” It was in Ranthambore, Laila says, that the death of an impoverished woman (overwhelmed by her poverty) drove home the point that women need some economic alternative, and an identity to survive. “Craftspeople have so little social status, and they lead such tough lives, the women often balancing a child on their lap, while embroidering an intricate pattern.”

Working, as they do, with primitive technology, craftspeople have no real understanding of their customers — the urban consumer. That’s why Dastkar’s bazaars prove to be such a boon to them, as they get to interact directly with their customers and update their designs. Women are very conscientious workers, says Tyabji, adding that she only tells them to innovate for a global platform, what they have always made for their families. Laila recalls her work in Kutch, where she started documenting crafts and working with the women, asking them to tone down the colours (Rani pinks and parrot greens) much to their amusement. “I’ve been told that I have a good sense of embroidery, but no sense of colour,” she quips. But her advice finally found favour with the women, one of whom acknowledged that she was now as mad as Tyabji, having embroidered a splendid white-on-white piece for her daughter’s trousseau!

Hands-on designer

A very hands-on designer, Tyabji says she travels across the country, to rural areas and works on new designs, often sitting under a tree, surrounded by people and livestock. “Once, I sat with a baby goat in my lap,” laughs Tyabji. Traditionally, craftspeople used local materials, and that reined in costs. “Besides, the simplicity of their equipment is amazing,” says Tyabji. “The most beautiful of dyes are simple, cooked in courtyards, and the most stunning saris are woven in looms that are no more than a collection of sticks.”

To ensure the survival of crafts, it’s vital that the next generation of craftspeople be persuaded that craft has an economic future. And it’s important to remember, Tyabji says, that India might have a 5,000-year-old craft history, but it’s the craftspeople who are the real living heritage. “Crafts have survived even in the most poverty-ridden landscapes, such as Bihar, Chattisgarh and Kutch. Often, villages that are just a few km apart can have distinctive embroidery patterns. It’s astonishing how the most delicate, translucent stitches can come out of dark, gloomy rooms,” she says.

“Craftspeople do not have coffee table books to showcase their products, they do not exhibit in museums, and often, they haven’t even seen the best of their own tradition. We have to keep in mind their cultural sensibilities, respect their traditions and remember that a craftsperson is not a mass-production machine,” concludes Tyabji. “When they’re capable of producing such an amazing variety, are we doing them a long-term favour by asking them to make hundreds of Christmas tree hangings for the U.S.?”

(Laila Tyabji’s talk, ‘Threads and Voices’, was part of Apparao Galleries’ ‘Yarn Club’ initiative. The Yarn Club is a platform for textile enthusiasts, collectors and designers, to gather and share their knowledge and love for textiles)