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Is anyone listening?

Archana Shah

Archana Shah  

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Archana Shah says it is time people heard the stories of our craftspeople and gave them a place in the sun

“If you listen, things will tell you a story,” says Archana Shah, founder-designer of Bandhej. “It is my dream to have a museum of 21st century Indian textiles, where every state can showcase its textiles and, instead of just talking about its past glory, also show how it can be contemporary. Developing appreciation for our handlooms is as essential for their sustenance as it is desirable for everyone to be wearing it.”

Archana knows change is an essential part of growth. She strongly feels that one should stop romanticising our ‘rich cultural heritage’ and instead do something to keep it alive and make it worthwhile for the craftspeople to continue engaging with it. “Everyone bemoans the fact that artisans are abandoning their craft. But no one asks why. Either make their work worth their while or provide them with skills so that they can integrate outside when they look for other jobs. If their children see the financial benefit of sticking with their traditional craft, they will want to weave, dye or print.”

She wishes that the powers-that-be, who are responsible for policies that affect millions of artisans in our country, were more hands-on and sensitive to their plight. “Our artisans are some of the poorest in the land,” she says. But, she is optimistic about the future of handlooms especially as there is a great new influx of young designers with fresh ideas and contemporary designs. “Dynamism is the key. We can’t hold on to something old and resist change,” she says.

When Archana graduated from NID in 1981, she was all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. She visited remote villages in Gujarat and began interacting with craftspeople. “I was staggered by the colour palette, the designs and the variety.” That was the beginning of a lasting relationship with the artisans, as she learnt from them, discussed design with them and lived with them to learn more about their art. But it was their stories that she found irresistible. Sadly, while the skills remain the stories have disappeared, she rues.

She gives the example of cotton cultivation in an area of Kutch where farmers can’t use chemical fertilisers, as that would require water. Therefore in the drought-prone area, the cotton that is grown is organic by default. “And it is from this cotton that we developed the Kah-Lah range of organic textile. This is also what I meant when I said if we listen, nature will tell us stories that we can learn from.” This also shows how scarcity leads to adaptability and creativity.

Archana has shared some of the old photographs, traditions of weaving and dyeing and the word-of-mouth legacies in her book Shifting Sands. “The book would not have happened without them,” she says emotionally. Three hundred of her artisan friends and their families were special invitees at the launch in Ahmedabad. “The essence of handloom is that it needs human touch. It builds relationships. It is not the same as dealing with machines. Forty years on, my relationship with Mohammad Bhai’s family continues. I have met his son and worked with his grandsons as well. I witnessed their joys and sorrows, the devastation during the Bhuj earthquake,and their painstaking rehabilitation. Now they have more work than they can handle.”

Archana speaks with pride about Ismail, who may not have had a formal education here, but was conferred a PhD from a university in the UK for his understanding of Ajrak. And about Sufiyan and Junaid who routinely visit museums abroad to share their knowledge. It is this human connection beyond mere work that has kept the fire in her going.

Now it is not so much the business as the joy of sharing what she has learnt over the years that drives her, she says. “We must make the handloom stories special and they must reach a wider audience. For example, do people even know how the craftsmen and women tie thousands and thousands of little butis by hand before they dye them to create the beautiful bandhini we see?”

Handlooms are unique and cannot be replicated. In most cases they are sustainable, responsibly created and of the land. Almost each village has its unique textile and handicraft tradition. They are to be celebrated, made iconic and given pride of place. Their stories have to be made so special that the craftspeople will own them, be proud of them and keep them going. These are the kind of stories, she firmly believes, that will give our craftsmen and women and their artistry a long lease of life.

Archana was in Coimbatore to speak at the TIDES Leadership Summit.

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Printable version | Dec 11, 2019 6:52:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Is-anyone-listening/article14628574.ece

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