Life & Style

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Jaipur is a contradiction of sorts. Its beautiful forts and palaces are contrasted by crowded urban sprawls. It is the production centre for intricate embroidery and prints that’s used by some of the world’s most luxurious brands, but the city has few big local brands to boast of. “Though Jaipur has been a centre for various aesthetic activities through the centuries, the average lay person doesn’t belong to the cognoscenti. In fact, the cognoscenti is very small here,” says art curator and founder of arts organisation Red Earth, Himanshu Verma (aka the Saree Man), pointing out that a price-sensitive market also “waters down how brands grow”.

But what it lacks in size, it makes up in heart, drawing talent from all corners of the globe. Much of the works of note are being created through the agency of a group of itinerant creative practitioners — those who shuttle between the Pink City and London, Paris or New York. And while their works, ironically, may not be available to the locals, they help charge the economy. This was seen last year. When much of the country’s craft segments struggled to regain their footing, Jaipur’s artisans, in the most welcome of contradictions, got busy with orders — exports stepping up as tourism dried up.

“I know there have been international buyers arriving in the city and collaborating on design and production, over the last few months,” says travel writer Fiona Caulfield. “I know there are some jewellers and textile people in town. It’s impossible to fly in from Australia, of course, with our stringent border lockdown, but that is not true for some Europeans and Americans.” A strong sense of community is also helping. Not only do the designers look out for (and collaborate with) each other — be it textile entrepreneur Jeremy Fritzhand or printmaker Shaivyya — they are also giving back to their artisans through creative interventions and training. We speak with 10 designers on how they are surviving the pandemic.

— With inputs from Rosella Stephen, Nidhi Adlakha and Aparna Narrain

Nur Kaoukji, creative director, Ecru

Nur Kaoukji, creative director, Ecru   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

We survived because we were entirely online

Nur Kaoukji, creative director, Ecru

The Lebanese designer may have been away from her Jaipur home for much of 2020 — an expiring visa had her catching the last flight out in April and spending the rest of the year in Paris and the Italian countryside with her French husband, Livio Delesgues — but she stayed connected with her artisans. “One of the positives of the pandemic was that people who couldn’t purchase internationally began to look locally. They were introduced to our brand, sales picked up, and we were able to access a much wider range of clients. This meant we could keep our karigars busy,” says Kaoukji. Craft in Jaipur, she feels, is faring much better than anywhere else in India. “People still need their block-printed dohars, marble bowls for their flowers, and jewellery for their weddings. While I have heard horror stories — like a jeweller who lost his clients and now is a rickshaw driver — I’m seeing an uptick in work.”

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Pandemic pivot: “My attitude towards retail has changed. Newness always sell, so we tend to keep producing, and end up having too much. So now I’ve started to clean up. If an object doesn’t tell a significant story — be it the inspiration behind it or its relevance in the home — I cut it out. I also pruned our huge clothing range. If more than 50% of the people in our team don’t use it, it’s out. It’s a question of curating and downscaling based on necessity and what moves us.”

Making connections: “As the coronavirus spread, and we realised something very painful and scary was unfolding globally, we stopped all our campaigns. The cookie cutter approach of beautiful photographs just seemed meaningless. Instead, we began to communicate real stories — be it of our karigars, the people at office, or even us. For Mother’s Day, we interviewed our mothers! It was very personal and that’s what people care about now.”

Up next: “Our flagship store will open on Azad Marg Siskim in the next couple of months. Also look out for Ya Dahar, a new collection inspired by the sea trade and connection between India and Kuwait.”

Thierry Journo, founder-designer, Idli

Thierry Journo, founder-designer, Idli   | Photo Credit: Ashish Choudhary

2020 has been a journey to know the purpose of things

Thierry Journo, founder-designer, Idli

How do you reinvent a business in the midst of a pandemic? Ask Journo. In May, the French designer closed his lifestyle store at Narain Niwas Palace hotel (high rent played a part, as did the need for a bigger space to accommodate his growing product lines) and in September he moved the brand to its airy new address on Subhash Marg. In the three months in between, he roped in artisans to create a fantastical setting — with marble floors, doorways framed by painted trompe l’oeil canopies, and walls sporting palms and banana trees. He also went digital. “I am not a big fan of digital, but the pandemic made me rethink my stance. I’ve since gone from being someone who didn’t believe in online sales — because it diluted the feeling of ‘luxury’ — to having a strong presence through social media and my website [which has brought him new orders from places like New York, London, Paris and Sydney],” he says, adding that 2020 was both a difficult time and “a time for intense creative reflection, to figure out how to continue doing beautiful things”.

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Changing aesthetics: “The aesthetic is ever evolving through the exchanges between a western designer and Indian craftspeople. But I’ve always had an exotic dream in my head, and I translate that in all my products.”

Local craft: “In the months to come, I hope to have more creative exchanges in the fields of printing, weaving, furniture design, and marble marquetry. Yes, the craftsmen need our help, but we also have a great need of them. This exchange will re-energise all the fields and develop new vocabularies to blend the techniques of yesterday with the needs of today.”

Up next: “A new line of cashmere kani shawls with my motifs, such as palms, embroidered on them. I’m also working on new motifs, including one inspired by Mughal gardens.”

Siddharth Kasliwal, CEO, Gem Palace

Siddharth Kasliwal, CEO, Gem Palace   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

I’m working with a pichwai artist from Jodhpur at my farm

Siddharth Kasliwal, CEO, Gem Palace

Among other things, Siddharth Kasliwal has spent the last few months dismantling old gold jewellery. “I have put jewellery in a box to redesign. You have to be careful with your buying spree now. So I am breaking old pieces and making more fun designs like bracelets with charms, necklaces of varying lengths, even a polki hair clip,” says the ninth-generation jeweller and entrepreneur. While ensuring Gem Palace, Jaipur’s legendary jewellery emporium, retains its 70 plus employees, Siddharth, 36, has also used this time to put his late father’s personal belongings in order. It is no secret that he was very attached to Munnu Kasliwal, the jeweller favoured by both royalty and Hollywood stars. “It took me six years to begin clearing his things and I recently found some loose diamonds and spinels among them. It appears my father had also sketched a ring and other designs on the pocket of an old shirt.” Siddharth recalls how Munnu used to stay up late many nights, drawing. “He had this artistic way of sketching from scratch. I, on the other hand, need stones for inspiration,” he shares. So he took the spinels, incidentally his father’s favourite stone, and turned that drawing into a jewelled bloom that fits his little finger.

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Gem Palace, a vertically integrated company, has teams handling sourcing, cutting, polishing, designing, wholesaling, and retailing, all out of one building. Siddharth agrees that they have survived the pandemic because of exports. And orders for wedding jewellery. Most of the jewellery consultation with brides is via FaceTime, he says. The absence of international tourists in Jaipur is deeply felt. “In our case, these American and European tourists used to take a ‘memory’ back with them.” Pre-pandemic days easily saw over 200 walk-ins daily, with busloads of tourists visiting the store downstairs, and clients by appointment heading up to his atelier. “The lull has hampered our creative excitement. There’s only so much you can sell via Instagram. Meeting the family, hearing their story, that was important,” he explains. But his recent visit to New York has brought some cheer. “New York is coming back to life, with most people getting vaccinated,” he says. For the summer ahead, he has created “an insane briolette diamond necklace, and since not everyone can afford it, a multi-coloured briolette collection”.

Scouting havelis: “This isn’t the time to expand the hotel business as my two properties are barely surviving. But I’m keeping an eye out for havelis for future expansion.”

Pandemic pivot: “I’m working with a painter from Jodhpur at my farm. He is creating ‘cool pichwais’ with amazing lotuses, cows and elephants, a departure from the usual Nathdwara paintings [popular in the pilgrim town 45 km from Udaipur]. The pichwais (₹15,000-₹25,000) would be a good way to draw people to Hot Pink [Kasliwal’s fashion and home decor store at Hotel Narain Niwas Palace].”

Retaining employees: “With Gem Palace, Hot Pink and the two boutique hotels, 28 Kothi and Johri, it isn’t easy. Salaries and rents are a huge pressure on retail and it will take time to pick up. Since it is still very difficult to keep the workshop engaged, I keep some of them busy with the painting collection, cataloguing, or with the hotels. Instead of 15 goldsmiths, eight will be busy at work, with the rest cataloguing.”

Maximiliano Modesti, founder, Les Ateliers 2M

Maximiliano Modesti, founder, Les Ateliers 2M   | Photo Credit: Abhay Maskara

If you repeat traditional designs, the appeal is limited

Maximiliano Modesti, founder, Les Ateliers 2MHe may be based in Mumbai, but the crafts entrepreneur is a significant presence in Jaipur, where he works with printers. “The situation of artisans here is quite different from say Lucknow or Banaras, which are in the doldrums. Jaipur artisans are gifted because of the international community [and their global clientele]. Of course, they haven’t regained the kind of exports that they used to have, so they need to reinvent themselves to adapt to a more local market,” says Modesti, whose clients include luxury maison Hermes and French designer Isabel Marant. Lockdown was spent reading books (Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi being one), collecting Venetian glass and art — especially by young Indian artists like T Venkanna, Shine Shivan, and Prashant Pandey from Jaipur — and fine-tuning initiatives to educate artisans on how to better understand the market. “They are used to repeating certain types of products. But these don’t match what the market wants. We are teaching them to make less, but produce the right product, the right designs.”

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Pandemic pivot: “Having all that time gave me a chance to prioritise what is important and clean up my clients’ list. I have retained only those that I consider the best not only financially but also in their commitment to the artisans. That, for me, is essential. I don’t want to waste time on people who come here just for the price and never acknowledge how much India brings to their collections.”

Changing aesthetic: “It is historical what is happening [the pandemic], and historic moments always have an impact on design. My intuition is that there is going to be more care given to the handmade.”

Up next: “Expect a special Architectural Digest cover soon, and an interesting collab with an Indian industrial company, where they are merging craft DNA with their own.”

Tarang Arora, CEO, Amrapali

Tarang Arora, CEO, Amrapali   | Photo Credit: Krishna Beura

We are innovating a lot more in our workshops

Tarang Arora, CEO, Amrapali

2020 was a time of unprecedented creativity for Arora. Even testing positive for Covid-19 last October didn’t dampen his spirits. “Every day, my dad, uncle and I would open the office and go through our stock, identifying the objects we wanted to redo, the stones we wanted to design with. We were constantly sketching and producing. In fine jewellery alone, we made around 300 one-of-a-kind pieces. In silver, it would be around 1,000,” he says. This outpouring, he adds, energised the artisans (who had more work) and their social media because “the designs needed photoshoots”. While business in high-end jewellery stuttered, the Tribe vertical did really well, especially exports. “So we decided to bring Legend — another vertical that catered almost exclusively to a western market, with its clean, minimalist aesthetic — to India. Just weeks into its launch, with a new Holi collection, it’s doing well,” he says.

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Pandemic pivot: “We are innovating in our workshops. We’ve never done collections that combined two techniques [because each technique did well by itself]. But since we had time and we wanted to give our karigars work, we started creating new design sensibilities, such as doing jadai in white gold. We’ve also begun cutting stone, which is giving rise to experimentation.”

Giving back: “We’ve started teaching our artisans skills other than the ones they specialise in. Till now, someone who did filing couldn’t do wax moulding or casting. But helping them pick up something new, such as simple enamelling techniques, means they can be useful in other sections of the workshop, and they are also able to innovate more.”

Looking ahead: “The new trend is multifunctional jewellery — a choker that can turn into a bracelet, or a necklace that can be split into two distinct pieces.”

Marie-Anne Oudejans, interior designer

Marie-Anne Oudejans, interior designer   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

We changed, we adapted and we still believe in making beautiful things

Marie-Anne Oudejans, interior designer

For Oudejans, 2020 was a time of new beginnings. “Being forced to stay in one place, when a pandemic is wrecking havoc, makes you really think about what’s important in your life,” she says. To the Dutch designer, whose noteworthy projects include Jaipur’s popular restaurant-lounge Bar Palladio, that meant finding time to relax, to exercise, “to do things for myself. I just spent the days with my dog and my friends on the phone”. Workwise, it saw her stepping out of her comfort zone. “Since I had plenty of projects, both in India and abroad, I learnt how to delegate. And to collaborate over Zoom calls with different teams in the locations that I couldn’t travel to,” she laughs. Aquazzura Capri is one such, where Oudejans used summery pastels and an explosion of seaside references to evoke Capri’s landscapes and craft Instagrammable interiors. “Currently I am doing an incredible project — restoring a fort just 45 mins from Jaipur. There’s also a hotel in Mount Abu that I’m working on.”

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Local market: “Normally, Jaipur sees large numbers of foreign tourists. Since that has dried up, craftspeople are suffering. We are doing our bit by continuing to work with local artisans and suppliers, and ensuring they are kept busy.”

Design aesthetic: “People may talk about minimalism, but in my line of work clients still want it big and beautiful, with lots of magic. I love colour and all my mood boards at the moment are colourful expressions.”

Up next: “I’m doing a project in New York [that I can’t talk about yet] which will launch in 2022. I’m also doing collaborations with Aquazzura.”

Yogesh Chaudhary, director, Jaipur Rugs

Yogesh Chaudhary, director, Jaipur Rugs   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Exports were strong and the brand actually grew by 15% last year

Yogesh Chaudhary, director, Jaipur Rugs

Like many on our list, 2020 was one of Chaudhary’s most creative years. “It gave me a lot of time to focus. In one year, just on the creative side — in terms of development and designs — we did more than we had done in the past three to five years,” he says. One of the reasons, he explains, was the weekly calls that they had initiated, to keep everyone’s spirits up. “We are a large organisation and we don’t always get to talk to everyone on a daily basis. So these calls brought in a lot of new energy and fresh ideas.” They also revisited their portfolio and identified things that their customers had been asking them for — for example, more options in monochrome. “So we created a lot of black and white designs which became very popular.” They worked on over 21 collections and have already completed 16. Natural fibres like jute were also a point of focus. “We grew by 15% last year, despite India retail not doing too well. Our exports, especially to the US grew,” he says, adding that he anticipates the home segment to go through a big boom in the next five years.

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Design aesthetic: “There are a lot of shifts in trends. For instance, fussy is out and simple is in. People want to buy things that they can live with for the next several years. Also, colours have popped back in. As there is so much negativity around, people want things that will make them happy. So they are buying pop rugs. We’ve seen a clear uptick on sales of our brighter, more fun rugs, especially ones that aren’t the classic squares and rectangles.”

Up next: “We are opening two new stores soon, including one in Bengaluru. We also have a new collection coming out this month.”

Geetanjali Kasliwal, founder-director, AnanTaya

Geetanjali Kasliwal, founder-director, AnanTaya   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

To support the craftsmen, we started a project called ‘Local’

Ayush and Geetanjali Kasliwal, AnanTaya

Geetanjali Kasliwal describes the pandemic as surreal. “The uncertainty tested our resilience, but at the same time we got the chance to pause and introspect,” she says, adding that unprecedented collaborations became their support system. “We are an in-house family of 175 people working with over 10,000 artisans. None of them were laid off or their salaries reduced. We held on to purchase orders given to craft clusters, and contributed in the creation of voluntary movements like Hand for Handmade and Creative Dignity [supporting artisan groups across India].” Workwise, product development went on overdrive. “The sculptural Smile chair was designed to bring joy in times of distress, the wellness range [diffusers and the like] was crafted by Jaipur’s blue pottery artisans to soothe the senses, and the functional Ogee range [magnetic wall organisers] and Marcelle swivel lamps were designed to enhance WFH spaces,” says Geetanjali. Her daughters, Anunya, 18, and Tanaya, 16, also pitched in. They worked with the dhurrie weaving community in Badva, to turn their waste into braided bands and masks under the LuvAnd brand (a third of the proceeds go to climate resilient societies).

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Giving back: “We started a project called ‘Local’ to support craftspeople during the pandemic. Papier-mâché artisans from Brahamapuri developed products such as life-sized birds, while terracotta potters from Baswa created the sustainable, earthenware Maahi Kool bottles.”

Design aesthetic: “There is a [definite] move towards multipurpose, utilitarian, functional and sustainable choices.”

Up next: “We are launching the Icchai Lamp (a knock-down kit that can be assembled anywhere) this summer. Inspired by the architecture of Bengal’s 7th century temple, Ichhai Ghosh, the lamp is made with hand-woven jamdani over a metallic frame. It will also provide income to jamdani weavers.”

Aavriti Jain, founder, Dhora

Aavriti Jain, founder, Dhora   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

We saw a rise in sales. Our artisans are overburdened with orders

Aavriti Jain, Dhora

“While personally I oscillated between a marathon of online classes and being a couch potato, professionally, work shifted online and we pulled up our socks,” says Jain, who launched the Dhora e-store last April. “I also run a chain of concept stores called Teatro Dhora [in Jaipur and Mumbai]. As retail took a hit, I invested all my time into thinking how to engage better on Instagram — with weekly sale exclusively for the ’gram, jewellery design contests, and the like.” All this paid off because she saw a rise in sales post August. “Our artisans are, in fact, overburdened with orders. Karigars who would wait for the season to sell to foreigners are now selling all year long online.”

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Staying local: “At Teatro Dhora, we ensure 50% of the curation is done locally and the other 50% are homegrown brands such as Naushad Ali, Anuj Bhutani, Shorshe, and Moborr. I personally hunt for such artists working from home.”

Moodboard: “It comprises nature and my playlist. I am always drawn to new DJs and musicians. I sketch, ideate and even build campaigns around a track that I have been hooked on to. I recently created the Safar collection after my experience at the 2019 Magnetic Fields Nomads in Ranthambore.”

Up next: “Last September, I started an online thrift store, Maina Devi. I hope to work more in this sphere of second hand buying. It’s the only way we can go green with fashion.”

Aarushi Kumar and Arpan Patel, Kassa

Aarushi Kumar and Arpan Patel, Kassa   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

We launched an apparel vertical for the first time during the pandemic

Aarushi Kumar and Arpan Patel, co-founders, Kassa

Yes, 2020 was a challenging year, but for the duo it also gave them the freedom to restructure everything, “to get to the basics and create something out of that”. The challenges were many — in terms of everything shifting online and ensuring their karigars had work — but so were the rewards. “We launched an apparel vertical last November; a beach collection for the people in Goa [where we have a store], since everyone was moving there” says Kumar. Collaborations were also a big part of their pandemic pivot. They organised pop-ups for other designers such as June, a boho jewellery brand, at their stores in Goa and Bengaluru because the times needed “cross advertising and marketing. For example, if a brand is located in a city that’s not allowing too many shows, I felt we should give them that platform”.

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Staying local: “The city has a lot of production in terms of textiles, jewellery, and crafts. So things will get back to normal soon. Last year, I went back to making moulds, jewellery castings and even graphical illustrations for my clothes. Now our karigars will implement them, to take to a larger audience.”

Not just a fashion brand: “We are a multidisciplinary brand — there are verticals under both art and design, and we do jewellery, clothes, furniture, and interiors. We also have an eco-friendly vertical where we upcycle materials. So we work with a lot of artisan clusters that are deeply embedded into craft.”

Fiona Caulfield

Fiona Caulfield   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

An insider’s guide

Former branding consultant and a leading travel writer, Fiona Caulfield moved from New York to Bengaluru in 2004 to create the Love Travel brand. An expert on Jaipur’s designers and singular experiences (the fifth edition of her Love Jaipur guide has been put on hold during the pandemic), Caulfield speaks with us from Adelaide, and discusses ground realities in her favourite city.

Market watch: Some businesses are booming online, such as homeware. It depends on the category. Last week, on behalf of an Italian fashion client wanting to source textiles in Jaipur, I connected with a number of block print specialists and they told me they are busy and continue to work internationally. It’s more convenient [for some people, including the media] to paint a picture that Jaipur is empty now and no one is buying. But it cannot be a blanket statement, it is more nuanced.

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

Itinerant designers: Jaipur has always been a hub for design, especially jewellery and textiles. Besides international designers visiting to work on collections, there are many Indian designers and a flourishing local design community. There is now quite a contingent of international designers who live permanently in Jaipur, many of whom have chosen to stay through the pandemic, to keep their businesses alive and their staff employed. There are people like Brigitte Singh — who has been in Jaipur for nearly four decades — and Thierry Journo, for over 20 years.

Retail and expats: In Jaipur, many people who are into production work are nervous about their intellectual property and their designs. It is complex to figure out how to retail in India, and how to run a business as a foreigner. It’s not that people don’t want to — look at Thierry, Barbara Miolini and Simon Marks.

Love Jaipur at with its handwoven cover and handmade paper from Sanganeer is a good resource for finding artisans and craft in the city.

Jaipur’s design community is standing strong

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 3:31:37 PM |

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