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‘Saving Indian craft is our responsibility’

At the launch of a new series of luxury handcrafted wallpapers made in collaboration with Asian Paints, crafts patron Maximiliano Modesti talks about how we can ensure Indian design thrives    

The La Casa Sky wallpaper from the INK-Wandering Lines collection
The La Casa Sky wallpaper from the INK-Wandering Lines collection

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Asian Paints recently launched a collection of luxury handcrafted wallpapers. Labelled INK-Wandering Lines, the collection has been crafted at AP Atelier in Jaipur, and designed for Asian Paints by Maximiliano Modesti, a craft and fashion entrepreneur based between India and France and the founder of the Kalhath Institute, a Lucknow-based non-profit education and craft preservation centre.

“We already had Nilaya, which started out as a collaboration with Sabyasachi some years back,” says Amit Syngle, MD & CEO, Asian Paints Limited, referring to the company's previous collaboration on a luxury wallpaper collection. “With INK, we see all the artisanal elements coming together, whether it is block printing, screen printing, hand painting or embroidery, and this creates a wonderful range that stands out on the uber luxury front.” 

Lounge spoke to Maximiliano Modesti about this new collection, Indian design, and his work with the Kalhath Institute:

Maximiliano Modesti
Maximiliano Modesti

What is the origin story of this collaboration? How was it conceptualized?

It started at my meeting with Amit Syngle four years ago. That’s when I told him, almost like a challenge, that it was his responsibility as a large corporation to sustain and patronise Indian craft. So, when we looked at a collection of wallpapers, I told Amit that historically, wallpapers in India would be done with block printing, screen printing and hand painting; and that was no longer the case. Today, you can get wallpapers abroad, in France, in England, even in the US, block-printed or screen-printed, but nobody in India will do it in this historical way (I mean the process, not in terms of design).

I said to Amit, let's set up a manufacturing unit that will embrace all these crafts, let's set up a unit where we will educate artisans, where we will give the artisans the resources to do their job slowly and in an excellent way. This is what the project is about, which became INK Jaipur. We decided that Jaipur was the best historical place in terms of design – block printing, screen printing and hand painting, these are all crafts of Jaipur. So INK Jaipur was born from this manufacturing unit, and from of course, a point of view on design.

What are some of the stories you are trying to tell through the collection of INK wallpapers? What were the inspirations behind each of the Wandering Lines series?

‘Another Mumbai’, a wallpaper from the collection 
‘Another Mumbai’, a wallpaper from the collection 

I wanted to go back to the roots… I wanted to go back to my roots as an Italian designer and artist and I wanted to go back to the manufacturing roots of wallpaper in India. Wandering Lines collection has a very strong theme, which we call La Casa. La Casa is inspired by (American painter, sculptor and photographer) Cy Twombly’s house in Gaeta in the south of Rome. Since I was a child, I was always fascinated by this house, especially by the way Twombly mixed the tiles in his house. So, La Casa is truly an homage to this house in which Twombly lived a major part of his life. And it was translated into a pure block printing series of wallpapers.

What are some of the specific techniques that went into creating these wallpapers?

The techniques of creating the wallpapers are the techniques that we nurtured into the manufacturing unit. Firstly, block-printing is the pillar of Jaipur craft heritage. Then, screen-printing, because screen is also the second step of printing in Jaipur. Thirdly, hand-painting, which is truly part of Jaipur history since the 17th century. Then, embroidery because I come from the embroidery craft background. Lastly, digital-printing, because today you cannot cut yourself off from technology. So what is interesting here is how we merge digital-printing with block-printing with screen-printing, and with hand-painting. One craft that is not yet here in this collection that will come up in the next one is tie and dye; where we will look at how traditional tie and dye from Jaipur can be integrated in the wallpaper collection.

How have the events of the past two years with the pandemic impacted the world of craft -- both in terms of livelihoods and also how it has impacted the artists' and designers' imagination?

Well, the biggest impact I see from this pandemic is that it really badly hit the craft community throughout the country. Nobody came out the way they were, just before the pandemic, we all suffered at different stages. The river belt of artisans in Varanasi has struggled the most, because the country completely stopped buying their sarees, most people remained at home. So the entire process of designing, weaving, manufacturing, selling, retailing, and all that went into a hold. So, of course, the artisans in Varanasi, the handloom weavers, are the ones who suffered the most.

But I'm happy to know that today, the industry in Varanasi is back like it was before and with more and more orders coming in. I really think that’s fantastic. There was no job security for these artisans during the pandemic. And INK Jaipur actually provided security for… of course, it's a small number… but for 30 of them, who had a roof to practice, to experiment during the pandemic. They got their salaries, they got the training, they had a real job where they didn’t have to worry about the day’s earning, but they had to care about the quality of what their hands were going to produce.

Tell us something about the ongoing projects at the Kalhath Institute. What are you excited to be working on at the moment?

We have lots of projects at the Kalhath Institute, it's the fifth year for the institute. I would say that the most difficult part is done, we’ve put it on the map. And right now, we are working with amazing artists from around the world. We had the chance of starting the art residency three years ago. Today we are collaborating with the world's biggest artists in terms of art market and in terms of quality of work, which are working with the artisans to create new bodies of work. I'm really proud of this, because I would have never imagined that such big artists that I truly respected would welcome this initiative and support it.

You have worked towards creating greater awareness of Indian craft excellence abroad. Do you find that although Indian craftspersons are the backbone of the fashion industry globally, they often don't get the recognition they deserve? What can we do to change this?

Well, what you can do to change this is very simple – each of us needs to be committed to craft. It’s not just about me playing the role of an advocate of craft in India. Each one deserves recognition – I recommend going to the villages, and adopting a craftsperson. This means being trustworthy to them – repeatedly buy what he/she does, buy at the fair price, buy from the artisans. When I speak about artisans, for me, there's no gender difference. Women artisans have the brightest minds. They are the future of the artisans’ craft in India. So really it's an everyday job from everybody. We cannot just say that the government is not doing enough; the government has so many other things to do. It’s also our responsibility that we look at craft, we look at design, we look at art.










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