Vastrakala: putting Sriperumbudur on the French map

It is 10.30 on a muggy Monday morning at Vastrakala, the Chennai-based embroidery atelier. But today, dark heads are not bent in concentration over wooden frames, fastidiously pulling thread through cloth. Instead, the 220 embroiderers are milling around the high-ceilinged, capacious factory — the men in white kurtas and the women in bright saris. It is a big day: their ‘boss’, Jean-François Lesage, is to receive the Chevalier (Knight) Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and two of their own are to be presented the Médaille d’Honneur du Travail (medal of labour).

An hour passes, interrupted by coffee, conversations and selfies, before the Consule Generale de France, Catherine Suard, arrives, to pin the medals on the three men’s lapels in a short, simple function. But the event itself is not simple. In a country where craft is on shaky ground and artisans are often overlooked, it signifies something more: pride, accomplishment and a hope for the future. “It is the first time that the French government is awarding Indian craftspeople,” Lesage tells me, explaining that though he was conferred the honour two years ago, he wanted to receive it with his employees. “Togetherness is very important to us at Vastrakala. We have a common language, embroidery — an old and solid bridge between India and France, for the last two to three centuries — and it was important for me to signify that to my embroiderers.”

Jean-François Lesage with Gopi Narayanaswamy (left) and Magesh Mani

Jean-François Lesage with Gopi Narayanaswamy (left) and Magesh Mani   | Photo Credit: Sunder Ramu

An artisan-driven story

Praise where it is due
  • According to Lesage, the two awardees represent two aspects of craft. Gopi Narayanaswamy, 54, is a leader, an organiser, who lives and breathes embroidery. “He is always fighting for the craft he believes in, motivating the others,” he says. Magesh Mani, 35, on the other hand, works in a more intimate manner, “putting all his energy in mastering embroidery at a level that very few people in the world have reached. He is always experimenting, learning new techniques, going through our archives and asking me questions.”
  • As family members examine the medals and pull them in for group photos, I overhear them recounting their stories. Narayanaswamy talks about learning embroidery as a kid and working with zardozi in Mumbai before joining Vastrakala 25 years ago. But it is Mani, who comes from a family of embroiderers and took up the needle when in class seven, who is eloquent. “In our area, once there were over 10,000 people doing embroidery. Today, hardly 100 pursue the craft. They don’t know its value,” he says. “Now that people know they can get recognition like this, it could inspire them to come back into this field. There will be more demand for handwork in the future, so I want to start teaching my children.”

The Frenchman — the third generation of the 160-year-old House of Lesage, whose forebears created embroideries for Napoleon III’s court and whose father worked with fashion maisons like Balmain, Dior and Balenciaga — has often said that if he’d been Indian, he would’ve been born in Sriperumbudur. It is not a flippant statement. “I belong to their community,” he stresses. “Besides the fact that we were not born in the same country, and defined by our own sets of surroundings and contexts, we belong to the same group. I believe passions can unify people wherever they are born.”

This belief is at the core of Vastrakala, set up in 1993. Lesage began with two embroiderers producing cushions. Today, Chanel is on board as a major stakeholder; they embroider for haute couture and bespoke furnishings (an influential Mumbai family has ordered 72 pairs of embroidered curtains); and their work can be spotted from Victor Hugo’s house in Guernsey (recreated embroidered panels) to the Rashtrapati Bhavan (draperies in the banquet hall). Through everything, Lesage has ensured that his artisans drive the story. “The biggest problem of craft is that the people believe they belong to the past. It is important to restore their confidence, pride and sense of belonging,” says the master embroiderer, adding that the French award (Vastrakala is an Indo-French company) is a step in the right direction.

However, he also feels the tide is slowly changing. Enormous value is being given to craft, inspiring young people to work with their hands rather than sit in front of a screen. “It is a movement that is gaining in strength and will also hit India,” he says. And until it does, everyone who is involved in it must continue to celebrate craft and its people, “so that they don’t lose hope. Because when you stop practising, you lose your art very quickly”.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 9, 2021 7:56:03 AM |

Next Story