sustainable fashion Fashion

I came to India to study textiles, says Ondi McMaster-Chullil

What started as a treasure hunt spanning the nooks and corners of an unfamiliar country, has led to clothing brand Atelier Om, the brainchild of Ondi McMaster-Chullil.

Recently in Chennai to display her work at The English Tearoom in Alwarpet, Chullil talks about how she packed her bags and first flew to India after grad school. This was the 90s, when mobile phones were scarce and online bookings non-existent. She shuttled across the country, right from Delhi to Kanyakumari, in local buses.

I came to India to study textiles, says Ondi McMaster-Chullil

“I came to India to study textiles. I applied to the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, to do my masters in textiles and got accepted. Because of financial constraints, I decided to forgo it and use that time and the money I had saved, to travel around India and study crafts of different regions,” says Chullil.

She returned to New York, where she worked in various arts and design fields, getting involved in costume design for film and television.

“I recognised how much waste was generated in that speedy world. I was designing costumes that would be used for thirty seconds and then they were done,” says Chullil. She says she felt the need to do something deeper and found a common point between her love for Indian textiles, costume design, and her background in sustainable arts.

Chullil cites Gandhi’s economic ideas when it comes to cottage industries. “Sustainability is all about keeping things small and not over expanding an idea.” Which was what she followed when she got back to India in 2010. “I started working with craftspeople and building relationships.”

These relationships were cultivated despite language barriers. “If I’m in Odisha or Andhra Pradesh, or any other region I source fabrics from, it’s difficult to work without a translator. I was dependent on people I could trust,” says the designer who found her way to several organisations across India who helped her reach out to the weavers directly.

Married to an Indian, she says she spends at least three months in Jaipur personally block printing material. “I got interested in a type of block printing called dabu. I developed a friendship with a small family in Rajasthan. There are three brothers whom I consider my own. I live there every year for a couple of months doing my own printing.”

I came to India to study textiles, says Ondi McMaster-Chullil

Although she is now a frequent visitor, even teaching yoga in Goa during the tourist season, the designer says India didn’t always seem welcoming. “When I first arrived in India, I only had a guide book to help me. I reached Delhi at 2.30 am. I didn’t know where to go or what to do.”

She read in her guidebook about Pushkar, a small temple town around a lake. She boarded a bus. “I hadn’t slept, and everything was going wrong. All of a sudden, the most amazing thing happened. Some 30 tribal women got on the bus, wearing the most incredible colours, jewellery, tattoos, and skirts with embroideries. I was looking at beautiful faces young and old. I had seen nothing like this,” she says as her eyes light up.

“They sat at the back of the bus and started singing. I just cried. I realised then that this was why I came. It was the most incredible feeling,” says Chullil who never turned back after that incident.

“When you get to the end of your road, something will come up and make it all okay,” says Chullil. “This is what India does to me.”

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 7:20:50 AM |

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