Friday, June 19, 2009

Design Explorations for Cover Jacket

A number of design options for cover jacket of 'Indian Saris: Traditions - Perspectives - Design' were explored before arriving at the final one. It was quite a creative effort designing the layout of this book as we aspired it to be visually delighting for the readers. Designing the cover that could satisfy both Shobit Arya, the publisher and me was the process that led to so many explorations. Special photograhy sessions were also organised just to shoot the pictures for cover. Some of the earlier layouts of the cover are shown above.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Excerpts from an interview with ‘Trellis’ *

Trellis: What is this book all about and who is the target audience?
With the backdrop of Indian socio-cultural and economic ethos, sari reflects the true panache of resilient Indian weavers. New designs, layouts and drapes of sari have always been the manifestation of evolutionary character of Indian sensibilities. From the range of uncut and untailored Indian textiles, saris—the mesmerising woven yards that have draped the Indian women since time immemorial—are the most evolved textile products for which the Indian pit loom was specifically engineered and perfected.

The book, ‘Indian Saris: Traditions-Perspectives-Design,’ co-published by the Wisdom Tree, India, and the National Institute of Design, India, attempts to rediscover the hand-woven sari from a textile designer’s point of view. It analyses Indian sari traditions for its conceptual strengths that are relevant to the contemporary markets. The publication upholds the sari as an epitome of holistic design with a unique cultural expression. It also showcases the meaningful engagement of contemporary Indian design with the traditional handloom industry of India. The premise of this publication is that the emerging issues and problems related to the sustenance and development of Indian textiles and fashions are very different from what they were in the past. The new environment calls for a reassessment of the original objectives, approaches, and methodologies of design in this sector. The attempt of this book is also to establish new connections between the traditions and modernity. Its visually rich content makes it of interest to designers, students, policy makers, technocrats, marketers, and businesspersons besides all those who are interested in Indian art, culture, design, and fashion.

Trellis: What led to the making of this book?
During last two decades, as result of many assignments undertaken for the handloom sector in different parts of the country, fairly good first hand insights were gained. Each one of these engagements offered unique experiences of regional cultures and led to valuable understanding of living traditions of sari. Design and its comprehensiveness play a vital role in the growth and development of the handloom sector. Though hand-woven sari is inherently design driven, very little has been published on this sector by the designers themselves. Usually the sari and its traditions have been studied and described more from the socio-cultural perspectives. Holistic understanding of sari as a product and its tacit relationship with the user have barely been touched upon—a visible gap that this endeavour aims to bridge by presenting the sari and its nuances afresh from a designer’s perspective for the benefit of common audience. Role of Indian design in the traditional handloom sector and meaningful contributions made by textile designers is an important focus of this book. Design elements from the traditional practice of sari can contribute immensely for the future growth of the textile industry in many innovative ways. Ideas such as these have led to the making of this book.

Trellis: What has been the process that went into its making of “Indian Saris: Traditions – Perspectives – Design”?
V.S.K.: Concerted efforts went into the making of this book, which began in 2004 when the new saris designed for Kanchipuram, Paramakudi, Arni, Salem, Mannarkudi, Rasipuram, and Coimbatore handloom clusters were presented through a buyer-seller meet at Hotel Le Meridian, Chennai. The new collections received overwhelming response from the customers and the weavers alike. A fresh contemporary look was given to these saris using traditional design repertoire specific to each cluster. The design collections were culmination of an integrated approach where tenets of traditions were blended with judicious inputs of design, technology, marketing, and management. Overall strategy of the projects also included intense brand building and capability enhancement initiatives. The photographs of these collections made Wisdom Tree, the publisher, interested and we jointly constructed our plans to do a very different kind of book on saris including contextual approaches for design interventions. The idea was also to celebrate fifty years of formal design profession in India and its achievements. Since the aim was to make the book visually prolific, it was decided to capture both, panoramic as well as micro views of sari traditions and their diverse design elements.

The nature of the task was arduous as the subject of hand-woven saris is vast and its tradition is interwoven in the 5000 years of history and evolution of civilization in the Indian sub-continent. Research and content is rich as several design projects were undertaken concurrently in different parts of India while the book was in the making. Strategies and design methodologies utilized in these projects were tested and validated several times before their inclusion in the manuscript. Continuous updating of resource of visuals and first-hand data kept on supplementing already existing knowledge base and my previous experience of two decades of work with the handloom sector. The design projects took me to some far-flung villages in India where hand-weaving is still a major component of the way of life. This gave an added advantage of discovering some of the scantly known sari traditions in depth. All this along with literature research from exclusive resource of craft documentations at NID—that cover many handloom traditions of India—together formed a unique material for this publication. Analyzing and managing substantial amount of data itself was an exhilarating experience. The 840 images used in the book are carefully chosen from a collection of over six thousand visuals.

Some experiences with this publication are very special and close to my heart. Many saris featuring in this book are from my own design projects. Most data and information used are first-hand from reliable sources in the field itself and included after reasonable verification. A good number of old pictures are from the archive of last forty years giving a nostalgic experience. They shall provide the reader with contextual understanding of the weaving and draping of sari in the past. Product shoot for new sari designs was exhaustive and took over six months to photograph. Writing the captions of images was the most enjoyable part—each one presented in the form of a short story. Pictures and captions together will give a fair understanding of Indian saris even through a casual browse of the book.

An important decision was to design the book myself so that sensibility to textile materials, techniques, and processes could be retained in the final look and layout of the book. The response that we have received so far from across the world makes it possible to believe that we have fairly succeeded in this effort. Above all, many colleagues at NID and the publisher took keen interest and extended their help and co-operation at all stages of the making of the book. That enriched many relationships and of course the process became very enjoyable.

Trellis: How do you see sari on a global platform — what leads to its international appeal?
Though Indian textiles were traded with many international shores since ancient times, saris were never a commodity traded with foreigners. Sari was primarily for Indian consumption. During British Raj sari designs and motifs were studied and documented for their intense appeal to the Indian masses. The British wanted to copy these designs for replicating them on the mill-made textiles manufactured for the Indian markets. A wider appreciation for saris emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century when the mobility of people across the globe started increasing due to availability of affordable means of transport. This was also the time when the rest of the world took a fresh and curious interest in India due to its awakening for freedom struggle. Subsequently with Mahatma Gandhi’s call for Swadeshi goods, Indian women re-embraced saris as a symbol of national pride and identity. Most Indians who migrated and settled in other countries also carried with them the tradition of saris. However, it is the pursuit of the modern world hungry for new knowledge and experiences that has led to deep explorations in old civilizations and cultures and has brought the Indian saris to the centre of the global platform in true sense. Today, world over sari as an iconic Indian product, is deeply admired for the remarkable endurance of its many traditions even under the extreme pressures of cultural invasion and evolution. Saris are appreciated for their elegance, style, and diversity of design language. The concepts, motifs, colours and layouts of saris have frequently been used by creative professionals as powerful resource of design and ornamentation. Many textiles that are used world over today were originally inspired from the technology and rich design vocabulary of saris. Fashion designers too have experimented with many traditional styles of drapes and ornamentation. In last few decades, there has been a profuse use of saris in home textiles, made-ups, and accessories. Many modern creative professionals dealing with forms of new media are often found inspired with classical compositions, formats, layouts, and ornamentation of Indian saris. And the reservoir of aesthetics and utilitarian concepts do not show the sign of getting exhausted. There is still a lot that is yet to be discovered about many regional styles of saris—and it adds to the mysticism and curiosity necessary for future developments. Therefore, I can comfortably presume that Indian sari will continue to gain greater international recognition in future. In decades to come we shall expect many more research initiatives in this area especially by designers, technologists, historians, and cultural anthropologists.

Trellis: How do you perceive the past, present and future of saris — How has the demand and the concept of saris been changed from the time it came into existence; the changes, the development, etc?
V.S.K.: India is perhaps the only country that presents unbroken legacy of its many living traditions. Though there are many influences that have assimilated in the culture and social structure—as we witness in earlier history of India—traditional cultural practices down the ages are considered to be a personal privilege by most Indians. Weight of tradition and force of public opinion had always characterized the typical behaviours and customs since ancient times. Even in today’s era of globalization and scientific logic such tendencies refuse to wane. There is distinct demarcation between the code of conduct for ‘professional-public’ and ‘social-personal’ life. While former is open to global influences and increasingly getting westernized, latter is largely governed by sensibilities that people consider traditional or truly Indian. There is a distinct contrast in dressing styles of most people for each of these lifestyle domains. However some deviations are visible—particularly in case of urban population—where people attempt to fuse western and Indian idea of dressing. Western outfits are frequently considered more functional portraying progressive outlook, but Indian styles and ornamentation are also commonly integrated to satisfy the innate need for identity or to self-impose compliances to the acceptable social and traditional norms. The needs pertaining to this complex issue of sensibilities have led to the evolution of numerous forms of fashion that are hybrid in character. Even saris have not remained untouched with this approach and agenda. While the dimensions and format of sari have now become standard, modes of its surface ornamentation have become varied and experimental. Sari that was once only handcrafted, with the developments in technology and fashion, is now being experimented with many ways of production processes and drapes.

I am inclined to thank the dynamic assimilation of external influences and resulting evolution that is responsible for making saris continue to rule the heart of most Indian women. While some other forms of Indian costumes have gone in oblivion, sari still continues to withstand the pressures of modern lifestyles. Its survival is also due to the intrinsic style statement that connects a sari flawlessly to both traditional mindset as well as modern outlook. It upholds modesty and dignity but at the same time it could also be worn to exude sensuous glamour. It all depends on the choices made by the user herself. However with increased number of Indian women choosing to take up professional career, the demand for many varieties of cotton saris, which were used for everyday wear, has sharply declined. But at the same time, the demand for many exquisite varieties has gone up as women having more disposable income prefer to buy expensive sari as an occasional wear. Even the women who seldom wear saris keep buying them as a precious possession for their wardrobes. Most weavers and designers today carry out new developments in this category only.

In recent decades, the core concepts of sari have also been taken forward for product diversification to provide economic advantage to the weaver communities. Stoles, scarves, curtain panels, yardage for Indian dresses like salwar kurta, etc. are good examples of this approach that has proved successful in the marketplace.

Trellis: How do you sari and its place in the Indian textile industry?
By virtue of huge domestic market that is multi-tier and multi-segment, sari is one of the most important products for the Indian textile industry. If we take into account woven, printed, embroidered, and other handcrafted varieties together and also include the production from handloom and power loom sectors, the official statistics for the last 10 years reflect that a sari is the only textile product in India that has registered a sustained 7–8% growth annually. It’s only the traditional hand woven varieties that continue to suffer due to inappropriate policy of government and stagnant innovation in handloom sector since many decades. But the power loom sector has capitalized a lot by producing printed and woven saris. It offers cheaper variations and caters mainly to huge but lower market segments. Sari production has been the backbone of decentralized power loom sector in India. In the current scenario, there is need for national conscience to understand that the meaningful existence of the handloom sector in India depends on continuity of sari weaving. It should be a matter of our serious concern if we truly value handloom traditions as unique components of Indian heritage. Handloom fabrics are unique and add value to the range of textiles that only India can offer to the world.

Trellis: Why sari is so important for our time? Are there some relevant connections that are useful to socio-economic development?
Over 60% population in India still lives in villages and semi-urban areas where crafts and handloom weaving are the only alternate source of meaningful employment activity besides agriculture. For many, handlooms and weaving are the only productive activity accessible. Since ages handlooms have supported a large number of artisans and their families in much sustainable manner. Looking at the socio-cultural dimensions and geo-demographic profiles of such regions sari weaving offers vast potential for employment generation. As I said earlier saris still have a huge market within the country but it is the existing systems and overbearing support mechanisms that are failing our talented weavers. We need to honour our artisans and strategize their creativity to make their profession lucrative enough for younger generations of weavers to join in.

At the turn of the 21st century, official records show that there are nearly 6.55 million handloom weavers in the country. Nearly half of them are engaged in sari weaving itself. Further, a sizable number of people engaged in activities like supply of raw materials, sales and marketing gain from the industry. In addition to simple, sustainable, innovative, and environment friendly practices the diverse sari traditions exemplify that the weavers continue to have tremendous imagination and creativity. Each tradition in itself is such a relevant concept that it lends many ideas to set-up new formats of creative industries for much needed economic progress in many parts of India.

Trellis: Could we know more about the book release at London?
The occasion of the international launch of the book, 'Indian Saris: Traditions–Perspectives–Design' was certainly an exciting event. This first international release took place in London on 20 April 2009 at The Nehru Centre. Coinciding with the event, a panel discussion “Design for Indian Textiles and Fashion: Traditions to Modernity—UK-India deliberation,” was also organised that provided an opportunity to discuss the synergy between the traditions of Indian textile and fashion and the modern sensibilities of our times. The panel discussion was moderated by Karen Spurgin, a senior consultant designer from UK. The other members from UK included Sophie Roet, Design Consultant; Prof. Jimmy Stephen-Cran, Glasgow School of Art; and Dr. Eiluned Edwards, V&A scholar. Shashank Mehta and I were on the panel from India. The panellists introduced the approach of textile and fashion design from the point of view of their own country and experience. Here the general view that emerged was of the need to collaborate and work together in the area of Indian crafts and textiles. Some of the panel experts who have had contact with India and are aware of the activities of NID, amply lauded NID’s efforts and interventions for crafts in the past decades. They praised NID’s endeavours for the development of crafts and handlooms that have often gone beyond just simple design interventions and dealt with complex social and cultural issues as well. Most members from the design fraternity and institutions in UK actively participated in the later part of discussions and shared their experiences and insights. Many innovative ideas and possibilities came up, which will further require collaborative efforts on the part of the design and art fraternity from UK and India. The chief guest, experts on the panel discussion, and the delegates delved into engaging interaction and dialogue.

The Rt. Hon. The Baroness Flather of Windsor and Maidenhead, UK, was the Chief Guest and released the book. Her speech on the occasion instantly connected with the audience as she herself is very fond of Indian saris. Her address reflected a profound understanding and passion for the saris and Indian handicrafts. To our surprise, she had meticulously gone through the book prior to the function and described the book as the most exquisite one and a landmark achievement. To explain to the audience of UK, who may not have much understanding of the sari, she had also brought a number of saris from her personal collection and displayed them during her speech. This was an outstanding gesture of solidarity for the cause of Indian saris from her side.

Visit to the London Book Fair was amply rewarded with many visitors taking keen interest in the publication and in discussing about the handloom industry of India. Together with some of these contacts we should be able to carry forward collaborative forms of engagements with the Indian handlooms and handicrafts. London Book Fair is one of the most important book fairs. Also this year the theme for the fair was ‘India.’ We got the opportunity to meet a number of publishers and distributors. Specially, the distributors from US and UK were excited about the book and the possibilities that are emerging around it. All the buyers who visited the Wisdom Tree stall appreciated the content and the overall quality of the publication and felt that it is at par with the international standards.

Trellis: Any new plans for the future?
My interest to continue working for the sari and handloom industry of India will certainly remain. The process of making this book has only deepened my concern and commitment further. About my future projects, and other initiatives for saris are going to be regularly shared with international audiences through a blog specially created for saris. It would be a good idea for me and people to wait till new plans unfold. For now I must sincerely congratulate each one who continues to support the endeavours of Indian design and its huge social and professional responsibility towards Indian handloom and handicrafts industry.

* ‘Trellis’ focuses on the latest developments in the field of Design and Research. It is a research newsletter published by the Research and Publications department of the National Institute of Design. This interview features in forthcoming issue of Trellis, to be available soon.