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In Kutch, artisans bring innovation to traditional arts and crafts

A Mumbai show offers a view of the innovative designs and art created in the workshops of the region's all-but-forgotten artisans

Artisan Shakil Ahmed Khatri
Artisan Shakil Ahmed Khatri

Miya Kasam Adam Sangar and Zuma Kasam Adam Sangar refuse to talk to the media. Six years ago, the brothers, perhaps the only two people left who know the traditional mochi chain-stitch embroidery, were celebrated in global publications for working on an elaborate costume worn by Emma Watson in Beauty And The Beast. Their work made it to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, for it showcased the intricacies of centuries-old ari embroidery created only by Mochis, a community of shoemakers, cobblers and saddlers who worked with prepared leather in Gujarat’s Kutch (Kachchh) region.

The fame didn’t help their craft. Guides started bringing foreign and Indian tourists to their workshop. They would ask why a mochi-work cap cost 3,000. The Kasam brothers, in their 20s, believed their work should speak for them. Eventually, they gave up the craft to take up jobs like creating metalwork for bandhani saris, for a steady income.

Also read: The art of crediting the karigar

Four years ago, they were convinced to return to the craft—part-time. Bored after working at a corporate job for five years, Satish Reddy, a mechanical engineer, had accepted an offer to volunteer with a non-profit in Kutch to work on the value chain process of kala cotton. The move from Mumbai to Gujarat gave Reddy an opportunity to learn about the region’s crafts. Around 2014, once the kala cotton project ended, Reddy started working with US-based designer Charles Galatis as a design development consultant, helping him source Indian crafts. It was around this time that Reddy started learning and interacting with artisans across Rajasthan, Gujarat and West Bengal.

About four years ago, he met Kirit Dave of Shrujan, a non-profit that has been working with craftspeople in Kutch for five decades. He started a project called Sanchari, funded by Dave, to help artisans innovate. “I reached out to artisans who wished to innovate but were hesitant,” says Reddy. “Convincing them was quite challenging, especially the Kasam brothers.” It took months. The first piece of embroidery the brothers did, three years ago, is now part of Kachchh Born Again: Stories From Old Craft & New Design, a month-long exhibition that starts at Mumbai’s 47-A gallery on 10 June.

A display of ‘mochi’ embroidery by the Kasam brothers at 47-A
A display of ‘mochi’ embroidery by the Kasam brothers at 47-A

Curated by Reddy, the show has embroidery and weaving in 12 art and craft forms. All will be available for sale; visitors can place orders as well. Part of the money will go to the artisans and the rest towards a fund used to support existing and new artisans. The Sanchari project currently has 13 artisans. “I have no background in arts and crafts,” says Reddy. “I read books, watch fashion shows, interact with Kirit a lot, to find ways of innovation. Through this show, I want the viewer to see how the workstation of the karigar is a place of fun and innovation. These are the designers.”

He adds: “The Indian fashion industry needs to look beyond chikankari and zardozi. Mochi embroidery and namda (wool felting) can also be on the global runway, which is what we want to communicate through this show.” Most of the craft on the runway continues to be ari, chikan and zardozi; forms like mochi and namda feature rarely. This is what Reddy is hoping to change with the focus on innovation.

In the show, artisan Champa Siju tells a unique story of Kutch weaving in the shape of an installation, where she uses the kesh technique that hides the warp thread. The result is a work that shows coloured cubes with an element of texture introduced through the variation of yarns, cotton, wool, silks and linens.

Aafasil, a young copper bell artisan who uses only one name, shows how a broken copper bell can be used to make a lamp and a tangram.

Karim Mansuri brings together elements of modern and folk art to use his namda wool-felting techniques to create wall-hanging pieces inspired by the American painter Mark Rothko. He has come up with abstract designs as well as designs of animals and plants. Reddy, it seems, showed him the works of different artists, from S.H. Raza and Gustav Klimt to Rothko. Karim chose Rothko for his playful use of colours.

“I did not know I could create something like this,” Karim, 50, says over the phone, in Hindi. “We artisans are so used to the traditional designs that we don’t realise our own potential to innovate. Someone has to really push us to think differently, like in our case it was Satishji.”

Like the Kasam brothers, Karim, too, had almost given up on namda as a profession, owing to lack of demand and the presence of machine-made products. To support his family of five, he makes furniture and does namda as and when orders come. “I earn 20,000 (a month) from furniture-making and if there are orders for a namda product, then 10,000.” Creating a namda cap that costs 5,000 takes 10-11 days, he says, adding: “There’s not much demand. I think I am the only person left now who does Kutch namda (it is also done in Kashmir and Rajasthan but the designs are different). My hope from this exhibition is that more people will know and talk about my work.”

That’s Shakil Ahmed Khatri’s hope as well. Ahmed Khatri, who comes from a family of batik-design makers, wants to show the viewer what handmade batik looks like. “The quality of batik is so bad in the market (because of machine-made versions), the customer doesn’t show much interest in it,” says Ahmed Khatri, whose work at the show includes an eclectic mix of prints and painterly textures. “But I am not giving up. I have done batik paintings for the show and I want the world to know what handmade work looks like. For way too long, we have waited quietly for things to turn in our favour, for the customer to realise the importance of our work.”

Kachchh Born Again: Stories From Old Craft & New Design is on at 47-A gallery, Mumbai, from 10 June-9 July , 11am-7pm (Mondays closed). Prices, 3,000 to over 1 lakh.

Also read: Labels celebrate India but ‘karigars’ remain faceless

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