Narmada Chachi

For one of our recent projects, we invited a three Madhubani artisans from Bihar. Their train was late and since the ladies had never been to Ahmedabad, I went to fetch them from the railway station. I was surprised to find that the leader of the group was a wizened old lady. While I dropped her at the hotel, she refused to give her thumb impression insisting that can sign the register. And she wrote Narmada Devi in English, a lilting handwriting that is typical of someone who has been a painter all her life.

Narmada chachi (aunt) as everyone fondly calls her is the president of the self help group. Her grown up sons are married and live in cities while she lives in the village with her husband. While we often hear stories of male dominance and abuse towards women, this lady tells a different story. Her husband encouraged her to paint. He manages the household when she is away chaperoning the young apprentices in her charge.

As the grand old lady manages the group, orders materials from all over the country, deals with clients and allocates work to the team, she leads by example.

Take a bow, chachi!

summer school, CEPT, exploring crafts, himachal crafts, study tour, DICRC, HImbrothers

#sws2016_kulluspiti

June 2016 was one of the most hectic months ever. Traveling almost every day on non-existent roads, putting our feet up when travel got too much, a group of 19 students, my co-faculty Dr.Mukesh Patel and I were out in Himachal exploring the crafts in that region. Low oxygen levels at Spiti, sub-zero temperatures in the nights and roads of gravel tested the best of us. Of course, with it came the stunning vistas, snow-capped peaks, quaint and hidden monasteries and surprises in the form of murals painted more than a thousand years ago.

summer school, CEPT, exploring crafts, himachal crafts, study tour, DICRC, HImbrothers, kullu weaving, kinnauri weaving, Thangka, hand-beaten metal, prayer wheel

Kinnauri weaving

This course was part of the summer school at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. The student mix of interior design, architecture and planning was helpful in giving the course a multi-disciplinary approach in learning. We witnessed the meditation required for a Thangka painter, a way of life that weaving signifies for the pattu weavers and the sacrosanct process demanded by the metal artisan who makes prayers wheel, the ubiquitous architectural element in the whole region. We covered Thangka painting, weaving and hand-metal crafts across Kullu, Spiti and Kinnaur valleys. Our trip ended with a refreshing and informative discussion with Dr.O.C.Handa, an expert on local crafts, culture and architecture.

And of course, none of this was possible if not for the wonderful team at Himalayan Brothers Adventure. They managed both the logistics and the tough roads so smoothly with barely an hitch. Here are some pictures from the trip. For more, check out #sws2016_kulluspiti on Instagram.  Explore with us!

summer school, CEPT, exploring crafts, himachal crafts, study tour, DICRC, HImbrothers, kullu weaving, kinnauri weaving, Thangka, hand-beaten metal, prayer wheel

Gateway to Lipa

summer school, CEPT, exploring crafts, himachal crafts, study tour, DICRC, Himbrothers, kullu weaving, kinnauri weaving, Thangka, hand-beaten metal, prayer wheel

Thangka-work in progress

summer school, CEPT, exploring crafts, himachal crafts, study tour, DICRC, Himbrothers, kullu weaving, kinnauri weaving, Thangka, hand-beaten metal, prayer wheel

Spinning it up!

 

Shanti Devi, Madhubani

Shanti Devi is a single mother of three children. Her husband was bed ridden since the time their kids were barely in school. She educated her children and got them (and now her grand-daughter whose father is a good for nothing fellow) married and settled in, built her family home and is the matriarch in the real sense. And all this in a tiny village in Bihar where in 2012, I had to walk the last couple of kilometres as there were no paved roads.

A Madhubani artisan by profession, she paints to support her family. And at 60 (approximately, as she cannot recall her age), she continues to do so. For someone this spunky and full of vigour, her paintings reflect the same. She unapologetically paints Draupadi‘s de-robing in the Mahabaratha while cracking the most sexually laced jokes. Her wicked sense of humour and forthrightness is her signature.

When she talks about the tough phase of her life, she recounts the patriarchy in her village. Every home has Madhubani painters and the ones with husbands willing to chaperone them get the best opportunities. She had to struggle against such odds to set herself up in her profession. When she was painting a pandal in West Bengal, she heard of her husband’s demise. She got her son to take her place immediately. She did not allow him time to grieve. A practical woman, she says that she always knew that this day would come. But the living need to survive.

I have the education and the exposure to be the person that I am. I wonder if I would have stood up to such a thing if circumstances were different. So here’s to the real feminist, the one who doesn’t claim to be one.

I really wouldn’t say that I work very hard. The cliché that if you love what you do, it doesn’t seem like work, is true. Very true. I’ve skipped lunches without feeling even a bit hungry and woke up in the middle of the night to write down a dream, cos some awesome ideas are only dreamt. Even for a job like mine, there are surprises. As if everyday wasn’t awesome enough, I stumble upon more wonder.

Peacock using sea shells

The Troikaa family is one such. With a home that will take your breath away and the home owners tastefully doing up every inch of it, this one project was a delight. We usually work with interior designers, the home owners are people we barely meet. The whole idea for this project came up from a humble collection of shells, yes sea shells from one of the family’s trips to Goa. A whole box of fragile, shiny, white shells were handed to us.

While we buffed, tinted and dyed the shells, we were convinced about using it the way it was. The lustrous, white, mother of pearl finish that caught the eye in every direction was the winner. Dotted inside the Kalamkari peacock, we had a one of a kind piece. Something that the family owns and cherishes.

Hawa Mahal, Jaipur (Pic courtesy: godisha.in)

Summer isn’t the best time to go to Jaipur, or so I thought. A work trip took me there last month and I had an extra day to myself. While a part of me just wanted to huddle inside the hotel, binge watch TV and get some R&R, I am glad the other half prevailed. A little googling and I was out there to recee Jaipur. Not a big list in any way, but if you like my kind of things, is the kind who prefers gawking at beautiful things over buying them, this list is for you. And yes, do this only if you have already covered Amer fort, Hawa Mahal and Anokhi Museum.

1. P.M Allabuksh and Sons

An old place with gigantic hanging lamps, shiny brass plates and a retro world charm. I chanced this while on my way to somewhere and I stopped in my tracks, literally. Go there just for the feel of it. And when you step out with a mission to have a big enough home to fit that pendant lamp, get a lassi from one of the shops there. Lonely planet recommends just one of them, but trust me, all of them are awesome. And for more hunger, Lal Maas at Niro’s. Perfect lunch.

2. Leheriya

Leher means waves in Hindi. And the chiffon leheriya sarees are just that. Wavy, breezy, colourful. A meagre Rs.100 for a dupatta, you feel like you stepped out of Raghu Rai’s pictures. Pick one anywhere on Johari bazaar. Most of the stuff on display is very bad, but the real gems are Leheriyas.

3. Head to C scheme

Now you are in the hip part of Jaipur. Religiously check out Anokhi, Soma and Rasa. You will be bowled over with endlessly beautiful clothes and home accessories.

4. Anantaya

A store that I fell in love with. Anything you pick up here will be a piece that will up the style quotient in your home. I bought a lotus coat hanger in brass and copper. For Rs.1350, it was value for money. Trust me, I don’t say that often. After this, a quick visit to Neerja pottery on Jacob’s road to stock up on some pretty blue pottery buttons and coasters.

5. Chaisa Cafe

Now you need some chai and maggi here. Delightful interiors and perfect chai. Remember to step out and gape at the Vidhaan Sabha, a stunning piece of architecture.

6. Pandit Kulfi

Just before you end this lovely day, make sure to stop by Pandit Kulfi near Amer Road. Google it and ask a million people. It is so small that you may walk by a hundred times and not figure out the place. Have both the malai and paan versions for Rs. 20 each.

So enjoy your day in Jaipur!

Gond wall mural, middleman in crafts, SKS microfinance, Compartomos

Designer Artisan collaboration

Every time I listen to a student presentation (or even tea-time discussion) on crafts, I hear about this obnoxious middleman. The guy who is in between the artisan and the final customer, the one who makes the maximum profits leaving the poor artisan with barely anything for survival. I imagine the middle aged man with a paunch wearing a gold strapped watch and chewing paan. His life’s goal is to fleece the poor artisan. Only the reality is far away from it.

The artisan has to deal with multiple issues like lack of access to credit, understanding of his market, idea of design, pricing, packaging, inventory management and whole lot more that I can rant on about for pages. Middlemen are the least of his problems. I am a middleman (yes, another sexist term!) and I am not that guy. In a typical product based organization, there is a manufacturing/production unit, sales and marketing unit and allied functions like Human Resources, Finance and Accounting and many others depending on the specific needs of an organization. In no set-up is it possible for the manufacturing unit to directly sell their products to a bunch of customers and then go back to making more of those products. So why should this phenomenon exist in the craft industry? The maker/producer’s core competency is production, so it is in his best interest that he/she sells it to the ‘middleman’ who in turn stocks inventory from multiple producers and sells it at a higher price.

So the next question is how much should the artisan earn? What is the fair price for his product? Since craft is an unorganized sector, there is no policy on this. Hence in such situations, the market decides the cost of the product. This scenario leads to competition and this in turn leads to ‘better quality’ wares being demanded more.

Take for instance Fabindia. You could call it a middleman. Being an organization that buys from artisans and sells to the customer through its brand name, by definition, Fabindia falls into this ambit. The big difference being, Fabindia just does not buy. It trains artisans to make better quality products. Their design team understands market needs, translates them into products and helps artisans form self help groups that create channels for access to credit. The resulting products are both urban centric and rural made, with a strong flavor of the traditional form. While all this portrays the organization as a beacon of hope for the craft industry, there is always a question of how much profit that it makes? The industry average of net profit margins for social enterprises is pegged at around 3%, while Fabindia makes 8%. For the sector that it belongs, it is a highly profitable company. Fabindia employs 80,000 artisans and is for most of them, the only source of livelihood. For me, this one factor clearly justifies the business model of the organization and the profits that it generates.

Social mission is the foundation that houses many organizations, but profitability is what makes them grow. It infuses efficiency and accountability in the system and incentivizes the individual working to further the mission. Microfinance is a grey area here, it struggles to walk the tight rope between eradicating poverty and worsening it.

Hyderabad based SKS Microfinance may have taken a leaf out Compartamos’ book, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to ensure the same success story. SKS went public a year or so after Compartamos, the leading Microfinance institution in Mexico. While Compartamos regularly netted a profit margin of around 20%, SKS promised investors a higher figure. Critiqued globally (even by the father of Microfinance Mohammed Yunus), Comparatamos is seen as an organization that got richer by charging interest rates of up to 90% to its million poor borrowers who are mostly women. The success stories range from small grocery stores selling snacks to high school kids to producing homemade cheese that sells to bigger markets every year. While Mexican borrowers did not care much for the criticism or the high interest rates, the scenario was quite different in India. A spate of suicides in Andhra Pradesh owing to pressures by the microfinance institutions led to government scrutiny and a ruling that prohibited any sort of pressure to recover funds from borrowers. This led to unrecovered loans to the tune of rupees 1300 crores forcing SKS to exit state operations. While the situation isn’t exactly black and white and the factors that finally did SKS in was much more than just the hand of the government, the end result was that the needy were deprived of the much needed capital. While the Mexican counterpart continues to grow its base and help the women borrowers grow their business, the Indian story once again stagnates.

The answer to the artisan poverty problem isn’t doing away with the middleman. He isn’t a bad guy, after all.

 

Gond ceramic mural at CIIE, IIM Ahmedabad

The CIIE mural

It is a mixed feeling as you walk past one of your own installations every morning. Sometimes it is a feeling of elation seeing a piece of art that will remain forever. But most times, it is panic at the thought of small chip here, a little paint peeling there and loads of excruciating scrutiny. This installation, a magnificent, vibrant tree perched high above on a dominating grey wall is part of my own office. Made with ceramic and pasted (yes, piece by piece) on painted plywood, this 12 feet by 12 feet structure is a jolt in the predominant stark grey architecture of the building.

Gond ceramic mural design team at ClayClub

The design team with the artisans

A collaborative project with Design Innovation and Craft Resource Centre at CEPT University, David Gray, a ceramic designer from Scotland, ClayClub, the local ceramic studio and our team at CraftCanvas, this was one hell of a joyride. Spanning over 2 months and sweating it out at the studio while a 1000 degree Celsius kiln is on (it is one of the hottest summers in Ahmedabad), this has been one of the most physically taxing projects ever. Interspersed with a lovely exchange of ideas and conversations from the East and the West, Indian food and Scottish coffee (no, not palatable at all!), the mural took shape.

David Gray working on the base design for the Gond Ceramic mural

David working on the drawings

The language barrier faded very quickly with the Gond artisans from Madhya Pradesh  figuring out a way to swap ideas with the Scottish designer. David spent a good amount of time in understanding the art techniques before suggesting a design. The mural was to be installed at the Centre of Innovation, Incubation and Entrepreneurship (CIIE), IIM Ahmedabad. Being the focal piece of art at the institution, this mural at the entrance symbolizes their vision.

Installation of the Gond Ceramic installation at CIIE, IIM Ahmedabad

David working on the installation

The logo forms the base for the mural. Painted in bold Gond colours and textures, this represents CIIE as the platform/roots for every start up in their premises. The tree symbolizes the ecosystem that houses all the companies. Every sector dealt with by the incubatees here is represented by an icon.

Installing the Gond Ceramic Mural at CIIE

Installing the mural on the wall

The run-up to the climax was no less than a Bollywood flick. With 15 people working on either sides of a shaky scaffolding, the final installation was the longest 30 minutes of my life. I panicked as the massive structure swayed chipping a tiny edge, but more damage was averted by the hero of the show- our carpenter Naresh. As the final screw was nailed in, there were tears in my eyes. We had done it. I’ve heard that going through labour changes your life and makes you a different person. As I see the plaque holding my company’s name beside the mural, I know that with every project a little bit of me changes. And I welcome that wholeheartedly.

Kaza Spiti Monastery, Kaza, Spiti, Thangka paintings, Himachal Pradesh, Manali
Kaza, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Indian crafts, Thangka paintings, Sakya Abode, Buddhist monasteries, Tabo monastery, Kullu, Manali, Himalayas

Road to Kaza, Spiti

As winters turn into summers, I still long to snuggle under the covers and wake up to a blast of cold morning air from the window. And with a recent movie that shows beautiful stretches of snow, I am longing to go back to that place. I was there last September and now I want to go there again. I guess I can start out by writing about it. I promise to cover all the beautiful crafts very very soon. But till then, do let me day dream.

In less than 24 hours, I was in Spiti. A flight from Ahmedabad to Chandigarh, an arduous bus journey to Kullu and from there a day long journey on the non-existent highway took me to Kaza in Spiti. I landed there in time for dinner and found my head reeling. I put it aside to all the excitement of the trip, the difficult terrain and most of all to my utter lack of sleep. So I dozed off under comforting covers at the cozy Sakya Abode. I woke up in a few hours unable to breathe. The harder I tried, the more difficult it was and I started to panic. The search engine in my head was trying to work out time frames before I slip into cerebral edema. Thankfully a very thoughful team member handed me an oxygen can and I took in the delicious air while staring out at the star speckled sky. I have never seen a more beautiful sight in all my life.

Kaza Spiti Monastery, Kaza, Spiti, Thangka paintings, Himachal Pradesh, Manali

Kaza Spiti Monastery

The morning after was better, though my head felt like it was made of the heaviest metal. I woke up to a grand sight of brightly painted monasteries against the barren landscape.  The starkness was breath-taking. With even slight movements giving me palpitations, I decided to take it easy for the day. A little reading, sleeping and drinking a lot of water was supposed to do me some good. But sleep evaded me.

Kaza, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Indian crafts, Thangka paintings, Sakya Abode, Buddhist monasteries, Tabo monastery, Kullu, Manali, Himalayas

Dorje Thangka painter

So I set out to do my usual stuff of meeting artisans, this time a Thangka painter. This monk, Dorje (as almost all the men are called) showed us the various Thangkas that he had made over a period of twenty years. And even after all this time, he did not consider himself his master’s equal. He gifted us some of his work and refused to take money as a monk does not have worldly needs. The monastery catered to his need and he was well looked after.

Kaza, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Indian crafts, Thangka paintings, Sakya Abode, Buddhist monasteries, Tabo monastery, Kullu, Manali, Himalayas

weavers from spiti

While walking around the market, we encountered an old lady who sang her designs! Every design was linked to a song and women sang them as they wove intricate shawls.  She was the last few of them who knew the songs and claimed that she rarely sang them and is forgetting them quickly. She created a loom out of pieces of wood that she kept stowed away in her attic.

Kaza, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Indian crafts, Thangka paintings, Sakya Abode, Buddhist monasteries, Tabo monastery, Kullu, Manali, Himalayas, Indian Oil Corporation

Kaza Fuel Station

As we drove out of Kaza, we refuelled at the world’s highest fuelling station. What a high!

Note: It is better to stay in Manali for a couple of days before making the trip to Spiti as it helps you acclimatize. In case you feel a little off, drink lots of water, don’t exert yourself and eat well for 2-3 days. We stayed at Sakya Abode which is highly recommended.

 

Arka modular furniture, option 2
Arka, wood turning, lacquer, modular furniture, do-it-yourself, DIY, colour furniture, Jimena Biro, DICRC, CEPT university, CEPT, Jay Thakkar

Jimena with the artisan, Anilbhai

When I first met Jimena at the DICRC office, my first thoughts were not very positive. In my opinion, the very tall and very thin Jimena (from Mexico city, Mexico) would not last a week in India, especially if was going to work with artisans in their workshop. All it took was a week to disprove that fact. She blended in so well and at times, I was the outsider. The artisans took to her instantly and her very positive and optimistic outlook caused this camaraderie.

Arka, wood turning, lacquer, modular furniture, do-it-yourself, DIY, colour furniture, Jimena Biro, DICRC, CEPT university, CEPT, Jay Thakkar

Arka modular furniture, option 1

Arka, wood turning, lacquer, modular furniture, do-it-yourself, DIY, colour furniture, Jimena Biro, DICRC, CEPT university, CEPT, Jay Thakkar

Arka modular furniture, option 2

The ‘Arka’ project done in collaboration with Design Innovation Craft Resource Center (DICRC) was the first of its kind. Jimena interning for a month at DICRC worked on developing a modular shelving unit using wood turning and lacquer craft from Gujarat. Inspired by the widespread ‘do-it-yourself’ (DIY) concept, Arka was conceptualized as the new age application of a traditional craft.

Arka, wood turning, lacquer, modular furniture, do-it-yourself, DIY, colour furniture, Jimena Biro, DICRC, CEPT university, CEPT, Jay Thakkar

Arka-explorations

We started off with working on paper, trying to make sense of our idea. Jimena made a ton of these little things.

Arka, wood turning, lacquer, modular furniture, do-it-yourself, DIY, colour furniture, Jimena Biro, DICRC, CEPT university, CEPT, Jay Thakkar

Close up shot Arka

Then as we progressed, we tried various designs and chose the one above.

Arka, wood turning, lacquer, modular furniture, do-it-yourself, DIY, colour furniture, Jimena Biro, DICRC, CEPT university, CEPT, Jay Thakkar

Arka-Work in progress, at DICRC with Prof. Jay Thakkar

Towards the end of her internship, the workshop was busy with activity as pieces were being turned, coloured and lacquered. Prof.Jay Thakkar from DICRC mentored Jimena on the design application during the entire process. And we set up the the first prototypes.  For future use, we also developed an entire palette of colours that the buyer can choose from.

Arka, wood turning, lacquer, modular furniture, do-it-yourself, DIY, colour furniture, Jimena Biro, DICRC, CEPT university, CEPT, Jay Thakkar

Arka- single unit, hand-turned by artisans from Kutch

Post Jimena too, Arka has undergone some changes in terms of design. We tried a bit with the beautiful Kutch lacquer work mainly used in spoons and other cutlery.

Arka, wood turning, lacquer, modular furniture, do-it-yourself, DIY, colour furniture, Jimena Biro, DICRC, CEPT university, CEPT, Jay Thakkar

Arka, at the Garvi Gurjari exhibition

And here is how it looked at a recent exhibition at Garvi Gurjari, Ahmedabad. The product is a collaborative output, the artisania of Mexico joining hands with the karigar in India, bringing about the birth of Arka.

To purchase this product, please write to us at mail@craftcanvas.com.

I’ve always hated hospitals and airports. I find them vast and cold, very very cold. I guess it is to do with all the swanky steel and the blinding white light. It is not a cozy place to be in. And I would attribute this inherent dislike to my absolutely Indian sense of aesthetics. Before I am banished off of as someone who loves the hideously carved and highly varnished ‘Indian’ furniture, hear me out. I love the straight lines of FabIndia’s furniture. But give me the same thing in steel and leather and I would run a mile the other way. I’ve always wondered why our architects and interior designers borrowed so much from the West. We have some wonderful materials, a million sources of inspiration and some gifted artisans, yet our recently built public and corporate spaces mirror those in the West.

So when I saw pictures of the T2 terminal in Mumbai, I was elated. Designed by Rajeev Sethi, this is the reminder that we have arrived on the global scene. The way we flaunt our culture in one of the most visible points of the country is our way of telling the world, “Hey, look you are now in one of the most gorgeous countries of the world”. One of the largest art & craft galleries in the world with 7,000 artifacts and works by 1,500 artists, the 3 Km long art walk is a definite incentive to reach the airport much before time.

For someone who works with crafts everyday, this is welcome news. ‘Contemporary’ architects and designers, please take note. We’d gladly help you install some of our country’s most beautiful hand-crafted products and solutions in your projects. Take a pick from 22 different craft clusters, experiment with modern ideas and shed those inhibitions once and for all. We have enough artisans waiting to take up this challenge. Let’s bring our crafts back home. Sharing some pictures of the T2 terminal.

Mumbai airport, CraftCanvas, handicrafts

T2 terminal, Mumbai airport

Inspired by the peacock feather, the entryway is an ode to our National bird

T2 terminal, Mumbai International airport, CraftCanvas, handicraft flooring

Floral pattern on the floor, T2 terminal, Mumbai airport

Marble Inlay, very very Indian

T2 terminal, Mumbai International airport, CraftCanvas, handicraft flooring

Jaali installation

With inspiration from the carvers and carvings in key monuments of various states, a jaali (lattice) installation

T2 terminal, Mumbai International airport, CraftCanvas, Madhubani wall

Madhubani wall installation by Pratik Prabhakar

This is a special one, designed by a friend. As you can see, Madhubani is not all about Ram-Sita or Radha-Krishna. It is contemporary, celebrates our roots and cherishes a collective memory.

Do watch this video on the process. Narrated by Amitabh Bachhan, this one is sure to touch that proud patriotic nerve somewhere.

Video on art and crafts at the T2 terminal, Mumbai International Airport

Rajeev Sethi and GVK, take a bow!