October 4, 2013

Shifting Sands: Archana Shah

By Preksha Sharma

Archana Shah founded Bandhej, an exclusive clothing brand which explored the Indian bandhani  (tie and dye in textiles), in 1980’s, much before dwindling folk arts and crafts were recognized as a matter of concern. At that time, Bandhej was not only a novel but a futuristic, sustainable and brilliant idea – it provided artisans with livelihood, customers with organic cotton products and merged a traditional craft with the urban fashion sensibilities. Today the brand has grown to over six stores in the country, and is still exploring and reinventing the bandhani technique.

Shah’s affair with bandhani, the artisans and Kutch, the area where the craft is dominantly practiced, has been long. She has chronicled her observations, experiences and her journeys in her book, Shifting Sands. The book provides a unique perspective into the culture, craft practices and ancient textile traditions of the area. Shah will launch her book today at Artisans, Kala Ghoda , Mumbai. We had an interesting conversation with Shah about Indian crafts, her brand, her book and her perspectives. Here are some edited excerpts:

How has the market response been towards Bandhej?

Well, I suppose quite good. When we had started out, the urban market was not exposed to the techniques and crafts used in the rural areas, and so it brought a freshness to the market. Over the years people have caught on to it and it’s nice to see young designers interacting with these artisans. This would give these old skills a newer market.

How do you brief the craftsmen? And are they receptive of incorporating changes as per your design requirements?

Now I have started working with the next generation of craftsmen. The older generation of artisans was much rigid. They had a lingering feeling that any variation in what they were already doing is impossible because even their forefathers had been doing things in that particular way. But the younger lot has not inherited this point of view. Their perspective is probably based on survival; that is if they have to earn a livelihood off their skills, they need to innovate, experiment and find newer markets. Education has also helped in this change. It has moulded their perspective and helped then in tackling with new dye stuffs, changes in their tools and in some bit of innovation.

Having talked about evolution, do you support this change or do you have a ‘purist’ point of view and feel that indigenous crafts should preserve their authenticity?

I don’t understand the point of being a purist because over the generations the craft has always evolved. As the artisans discovered new things, let’s say a new method for fastening colours, or maybe some other technique, they incorporated it. The earlier generation might be looking for slight differences; but every generation did want something that was a bit different. This evolution or these changes have constantly happened and they continue to happen, otherwise the craft would have died.

I am purist to the level that I do not support mixing of two very different crafts, without any point. If an artisan is skilled to do an extra weft weaving, I don’t see a point why he should be doing say Ikat. I do see this whimsical meddling a lot these days. Each region and  craft has its strengths. It is important to work within what a craft has to offer; and there is enough scope to do so.

Is it possible to mass-produce or go large scale with handicrafts?

It wouldn’t serve the purpose. There are different things that you can do with with machines – and they are amazing things- and one should do that. Why combine the two? The crafts should probably be for an exclusive market which understands and appreciates products created by hand. Though I also feel that in India, a large population of artisans and craftsmen work with their hands. And we need to encourage the production where a larger population of these craftsmen can be employed.

But on one hand you feel that the market of these products should be kept exclusive, and on the other you suggest planning something which involves a large scale employment of those working with hands.

I think it works at two levels. There are artisans who are extremely skilled and possess a craftsmanship that can produce very fine products. The percentage of these artisans is much smaller; and we can consider them as one lot. The other lot, like say the handloom sector where over 40 million people are involved might not be producing something so fine and exclusive, yet it produces very interesting products. And it would be good if they could keep working with their craft.

Which is that one another technique/craft that you feel has immense potential but is not explored to fullest?

I feel that something like khadi has immense potential. There are very few people now who can produce hand spun, hand woven fabric. It is a rarity anywhere in the world. The very idea of hand spun and hand woven makes it a precious fabric, at least to me. There is so much to experiment with the hand spinning and weaving. There are endless possibilities. Even a plain white fabric in a beautiful khadi texture can be so fantastic, but it is so rare to find now a days.

What advice do you give to younger breed of designers who want to explore the Indian crafts, incorporate them in Indian sensibilities and probably open their own brands?

I think it is very good for people to have their work rooted in some tradition because then it gives a very strong identity to the product. And it would be good if designers think of artisans as collaborators; because then the end product would be much richer. You are incorporating the richness of the tradition, the understanding of a craftsman, and together creating something unique.

What is that one valuable lesson that we will take away from your book Shifting Sands?

I really think that there is a lot to learn from the traditional wisdom. Traditional societies have a lot to offer and if one looks closely and understands them, there is a lot to learn.

book cover


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