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A Delhi exhibition plans the future of Indian crafts

A 19-day outreach programme hosted by Delhi's Asian Heritage Foundation showcases Indian crafts and explores new business possibilities for artisans

Rajeev Sethi with artisans from the ‘sabai’ grass cluster of Odisha. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Rajeev Sethi with artisans from the ‘sabai’ grass cluster of Odisha. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

I am not really looking at posterity in artistry. As long as people making the pieces, tying the pieces, get something in their pocket," says Rajeev Sethi, one of India’s most prominent design thinkers, in a voice that is as soft and calm as ever. “The bottom-line is that the benefits should reach the doorsteps of the artisans. And, in the bargain, if the buyers get a sense of joy and pride, that’s good," he says.

Sethi’s Asian Heritage Foundation (AHF) is currently hosting a 19-day outreach and “public stocktaking" exhibition of products made by crafts clusters across India. The event is part of AHF’s design-led empowerment programme, aimed to bring together artisans, craftspeople, and stakeholders from different domains and showcase their work and receive feedback, according to Ankush Seth, director, AHF. The foundation is moving into a new space in Mehrauli in a couple of weeks from its current address in South Extension, a space that it occupied for two decades—the event also marks this new juncture for the organization.

For the duration of the exhibition, the foundation has organized 18 artisan producer groups/companies across clusters—from weavers sanghas (clusters) in Uppada and Banjara embroidery sanghas in Yellamma Thanda to new media animation sanghas in Madhubani and Tholu Bommalata (shadow puppetry) units in Nimmalakunta—to come together and co-create. Think Kalamkari paired with Bandhni, Gond art with toy-making, origami with leather puppetry to create new pieces. There are also food products such as pickles and chutneys made of mahua from Jharkhand (see page 10). Here’s a snapshot of three such crafts:

Beaded jewellery(Madhya Pradesh)

The Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh has a long history of beaded adornments crafted by the tribal communities. The AHF team has been collaborating with the region’s women artisans since earlier this year to reinvent the craft in kitschy accessories such as chandelier earrings, mixed-metallic necklaces and brooches. Akanksha Rathore, design consultant with AHF, who supervises the collaboration, referenced street style and accessory trends to create the multicoloured, cheeky aesthetic of the designs. To familiarize the artisans to the new design concepts, Rathore delegated each woman to create small parts of the jewellery. “If I’d asked them to create these pieces entirely, they might have refused," she says. “I assembled them into complete pieces and seeing the final jewels was a new experience for the artisans too." Apart from jewellery, the accessories line also includes woven caps and statement eyewear.

Prices begin from 80 for a pair of earrings.

Baavan buti and sujini (Bihar)

Bihar’s rich textile traditions often fly under the radar. Take the baavan buti, for instance, a weaving technique from Nalanda. It draws its name from 52 (baavan) motifs used in the handloom. The AHF is working with 15 artisans from four craft clusters in the region to recreate the craft in a contemporary avatar. In a departure from the traditional designs, the saris and draped separates showcase fluid patterns and geometry-inspired floral motifs on monochromatic garments.

Another little-known craft from Bihar is sujini, a quilting technique (not unlike Bengal’s kantha) used to make blankets for babies. Working with over 50 women artisans, AHF aims to teach them design skills. “We create frames for the embroidery patterns and ask the women to choose their own (thread) colours," says Brinda Dudhat, a textile designer overseeing the project. “They are often unable to stitch straight, so we have used their skills to create new designs." The new designs showcase abstract designs made using colourful threads (instead of traditional white needlework) on silks and handlooms like Chanderi.

Sari prices begin from around 1,500.

Sabai weaving(Odisha)

Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district is home to sabai grass (Eulaliopsis binata) that has been used in making ropes for centuries. One can weave up to 6kg of rope everyday and earn about 40 selling the rope.

There are about 10 women at the exhibition who too used to make ropes about six-seven years ago. But then Sethi identified the craft and its possibilities, and craftsman Pankaj Saroj was deputed to the state to identify craftspeople and train them about a year ago.

Together, they worked on the native designs, better finishing and devised ways to make bigger pieces to maximize profits. “Just a better finish would increase our profits by about 50 per piece," says Jayanti, one of the weavers, through an interpreter.

“We started experimenting. We used ropes and macrame knots to create lampshades. An existing small basket, used to store vegetables and fruits, was expanded to serve as stool-tops or table tops," says Saroj.

Today, there are four clusters of about 60 women each working with the foundation.

Prices begin from 1,200 for a lampshade.

The exhibition is on till 20 October at C52, Block C, South Extension II, New Delhi. Orders can also be made through email or on phone 9810852182.

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