In conversation with one of India’s pioneers in sustainable and handcrafted fashion – about blending the traditional with the new, contesting homogeneity and re-purposing crafts.
Exquisite fabrics are tastefully arranged in an elegantly designed room. Wherever the eye looks, it covets. This place is not just about fashion or clothes, it is about crafts and values, about sustainability, about being Indian and, of course, about sheer aesthetics. We are talking about Bandhej – one of the icons of Ahmedabad – an institution which brings us sustainable and handcrafted fashion.
We sat down with its founder, the multi-talented Archana Shah, to learn more about what goes into creating such exquisiteness. Shah is one of the country’s leading designers of women’s clothing. Her label draws on India’s rich textile heritage –while being matched with contemporary sensibility –with Shah having worked with crafts for more than 30 years now. We learn of her remarkable journey, one that is intertwined with that of the organisation. We hear stories of people and places – distant and close – of her travels, her interactions and her efforts to bring the skills of craftspeople to the forefront.
The beginnings of Bandhej: blending the traditional with the new
What started as a college project back when Shah was at NID in the late 70’s – when she was first exposed to handcrafted textiles of Kutch– has bloomed into a lifelong association with the region that continues till date.Beginning her collaborations with traditional artisans from Kutch, in order to create textiles for an urban market, she now works with artisans from across the country.
On graduating from NID, Shah began by creating collections and having exhibitions of these traditional fabrics. The success of these ventures led to the establishment of the first Bandhej store in 1985. Shah is one of the pioneers in this sector, being amongst the first people to recognise the value of crafts and their appeal in the urban market. In the three decades since its inception, Bandhej has crossed one peak after another.
Shah has recognised the essentiality of selling Bandhej’s collections in order to continue with this kind of work. With the increase in demand for their products, they have also increased the number of artisans they work with. They work with clusters and groups of artisans and the associations with them are treated as long-term commitments, rather than as purely commercial short-term transactions.The team treats their work as a design challenge –how can they come up with new collections every season using the same craft techniques? Shah has been working with crafts for so long now that the intervention comes almost as a reflex action.
Challenges of mass production: contesting homogeneity
The work of Bandhej has been accomplished despite many challenges. Compulsions of price points and scalability are a constant challenge in the craft sector. Outputs are also much less in the handcrafted sector, with vagaries of the weather affecting the work – something that one doesn’t have to face while working with a power loom, per se. Most large format organisations have, as a result, been forced to shift to industrially produced material. In this rapidly changing craft sector, Bandhej has been one of the few organisations to remain true to its ethos of the handcrafted and not compromise on it.
Shah feels that Bandhej’s continued success and relevance stems from finding a balance – between dealing with the handcrafted versus dealing with large format retail. It takes a different kind of mindset to work with the handcrafted, she points out. The scale of operation is very small and the production isn’t easy. For example one can’t expect to produce 10,000 metres of exactly the same fabric with handcrafted work; although Bandhej does have 330 million craftspeople in the country and can generate such volumes through some standardisation while leaving room for slight variations.
As we see it, it would be a breath of relief if more people realise the value in variety, and desire to be relieved from the homogeneity which has largely taken over everyday life, especially in the clothing sector. Shah notes that it takes passion and sensitivity to approach this work.
Repurposing crafts: creating room for evolution
Shah’s passion for the crafts shines through in our conversation. She strongly feels that the fabrics we see in museums can easily be reproduced and repurposed today, as we have the artisans and skills that are necessary to create them and repurpose them to produce newer things. She mentions how quality always improves when the demand is there; how crafts have never been static – instead, constantly evolving – with every generation adding and changing something. There is a need to nurture these crafts because today many artisans are unable to find work despite being highly skilled and are forced, instead, to take on unskilled labour work. They don’t need new skilling but the right kind of intervention in order to be able to use their skills, she says.
Shah also sees hope as many artisans’ children are continuing with their crafts today. Often, they receive an education and come back to their crafts out of choice, seeing it as financially viable work that also offers a better quality of life.
E-commerce today has also opened many avenues for craftspeople and expanded their reach. Online platforms like Jaypore, Shah mentions, directly source from artisans and give them fresh exposure. She sees this as a positive sign for the artisans and their crafts. Bandhej has also seen its reach increase widely through-commerce.
Shah hopes that designers will tread beyond already explored areas and begin to explore unexplored areas. She also cautions against the perils of cost cutting, as it reduces the quality of workmanship. One should avoid playing with quality, and flooding the market, as it becomes difficult to go back to earlier craftsmanship. One needs to understand and respect the time frames and scales. She believes that less is better if it assures higher quality.
“Half the battle is in finding something you love”
What makes Bandhej unique is that their work is not just a business for them – it comes from a place of passion and they do not compromise on it. They are also small scale, though not without the dictates of external actors. They strongly believe in not imposing the techniques of one area onto another and changing things.
Even after all these years, with the expansion of her work into other parts of the country, Kutch maintains a special place in Shah’s heart. She has even written a book “Shifting Sands Kutch: A Land in Transition” which explores the beautiful land, its people, their traditions and their crafts, and the changes that have taken place here over the decades. It is also a deeply personal account as it talks about her journey and the evolution of her work. The book emerged from a social visit to the region that she made in 2010 with her son, which prompted her to share her story and her journey – as a tribute to the land, and as a document for the younger generation. Gauging by her wide experience and exquisite writing skills, we hope to read more of her works – an idea that she is not averse to.
Shah looks forward to continuing in the crafts sector, if not in the business, then maybe in the area of documenting or policy. As she has such wide experience in the field, it would be good to see this experience translate into something which can bring a positive change for a wider population.
Shah signs off saying that half the battle is in finding something you love. And she certainly has. We wish her and her organisation all the best for the future – may they keep bringing us the uniquely handcrafted.
Photographs : Ravi Panchal
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