Saturday, November 14, 2009

Author’s Speech at the national launch of ‘Indian Saris: Traditions – Perspectives – Design’ in Delhi on 11.11.2009

Maharani Chandresh Kumari ji, Ritu Kumar ji, Director - NID, distinguished members from design & art fraternity and delegates,

The first thing I would like to say is 'thank you' for having taken out your time to be with us this evening. Your presence is a demonstration of solidarity that you have in your hearts for the cause of Indian textiles. I am well aware that many of you have been contributing significantly to the crafts of India. For me, it is an extraordinary privilege to be in your company and share some insights gained through my close contact with the handcrafted textiles of India — with particular reference to the saris of India.

There could be no better place than Delhi for the national launch of this book, as the city is home to a large number of creative professionals. Policy framework for the development of handlooms in the country is also determined here. I wish to share my experience and intent to engage in a renewed dialogue with people and institutions to initiate meaningful partnerships for sustenance and growth of Indian textiles.

The idea of globalization and dealing with its issues is not new to India. Traditional Indian textile industry down the ages has amply shown a resilience to deal with it through innovation and dynamism. If we discount the dynamics of power and politics of our history, the foreign intervention and business interests in the region have had some positive impact on the profile and structure of the Indian textile industry. The reputation of Indian textiles reached far and wide to many new shores which, were not necessarily dealt with earlier by the Indian textile communities. New elements kept being assimilated in our design vocabulary. The concept of production line was established. Many new varieties were developed specific to the interests of new markets. The interaction amongst the artisans across the production centres improved.

The situation was to the gain for all stakeholders till the introduction of the detrimental diktats of British rule. It was this period when many exquisite crafts got extinct. However, we could overcome such adversaries through the Swadeshi movement led by Mahatma Gandhi and post independence craft revival movements. But, it is important for us to note that it has been to our great advantage that many foreign artists, scholars and surveyors, since their very early visits to India documented many exquisite textiles and other crafts in detail. A great deal of revival initiatives in the twentieth century for some exquisite Indian textiles by heritage conservationists could only be attempted due to the availability of such records — especially for the textile traditions that had languished under the impact of machine-led industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and also due to the sharp decline in the demand of many varieties during the two World Wars. In the era of intellectual property driven global society, we need to learn lessons from our past and rightfully claim our heritage and indigenous knowledge through quality research and publication programmes in the country.

Foreigners in pre-independent India did not find a trade interest in the sari. So, its existence and continuity remained interwoven with the successes and declines of other major varieties of Indian textiles — particularly, in terms of its design, production and styles of draping. The Indian sari could out-survive other major trends in Indian textiles and fashion due to inherent tradition bound continuity of certain ethos and values of Indian society. It remained one of the core products from the family of uncut-and–unstitched range of Indian textiles which a traditional pit loom was originally fine-tuned to and engineered for. The day Indian handlooms stop producing saris, the very existence of handlooms in India will have no music. They shall lose the inherent identity that we all love and cherish.

In India, for a practising textile designer, it would be a rarity if one did not get an opportunity to design saris. Today, when I look back, I consider myself fortunate to have got such an opportunity right from the early part of my career as a textile designer. Since 1987, I was happy designing hand woven saris—it was always like beginning to work on a new canvass each time where opportunities for creative expression are comparatively much higher than any other commercial category of textile products. One could simultaneously explore and design inexpensive but colourful cotton saris as well as rich and exotic silk varieties at the same time.

But, the excitement of the initial period could not last long. One was soon to feel concerned by a number of issues that were beyond the obvious or the market success of new design collections of the sari. There are a host of issues such as, poor socioeconomic conditions of the weavers; survival and continuity of the icons of cultural identity in design that is constantly being influenced and invaded in modern India; tension between traditional ethics and tenets of globalisation. Of course, the sustainability and continuity of diverse traditions of the hand woven sari that continue to offer meaningful employment opportunities to millions of Indians, outgrew the otherwise simple design brief and called for meeting the larger challenges.

Earnest attempts were made with the interdisciplinary support systems of the National Institute of Design to address the needs of handwoven saris with a new perspective in order to meet the challenges of socio-cultural responsibility in design interventions. The design teams increasingly became multifarious and the collaborations in the field grew much deeper. Relationships with the market forces were redefined. Focus was brought to the empowerment of all the stakeholders from raw materials to production to distribution. The unique concept of ‘technologically-enabled-design-studio-on-the-move’ worked much better compared to traditional ‘remote-control-approach’ of the designers. Long term commitment and hand holding of the producer communities was meticulously embedded in the design methodology. Working for the handwoven sari sector in India now calls for many new capabilities that were traditionally not considered by the textile designers. The book, ‘Indian Saris: Traditions – Perspectives – Design’ derives considerably from such ideas and first hand experiences. The deliberations call for equilibrating the needs and aspired priorities of the sari weavers, designers and the users in a well considered design process. An approach that not only creates the products that will sell but also nurtures the indigenous practices and identities to flourish. The initial chapters in the book articulating the history and typology of the Indian sari traditions from the point of view of skills, materials, techniques and innate human creativity and people centricity, provide a backdrop to the reader to understand this new approach of Indian design in the traditional sari weaving sector of India.

At the turn of the 21st century, official records show that there are 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. With over 80% of these artisans being inhabitants of rural areas, the industry continues to remain the second largest provider of alternate employment after agriculture in the rural economy of India. Most importantly, with items made by hand using locally available materials, often with the use of simple tools, most crafts practices are sustainable and environment friendly. Unlike any other form of dress, the saris of India frequently function beyond their basic role of ornamentation or utility. The inherent innovativeness and diversity of the sari traditions exemplify that the sari weavers continue to have tremendous amount of 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 the region. This book is a tribute to the great Indian master weavers.

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. With the changes in socio-cultural and economic profile of consumers, there needs to be a reassessment of the original objectives of design in this sector. While many of the problems from the past may continue to exist, new environment calls for a difference in approach and methodologies by designers and policy makers. The attempt of this book is also to establish new connections between our age old traditions and the advent of modernity. I am hopeful that the effort to demystify design through this book to make it understood by a larger cross section of people in India and across the world will be rewarded through your valuable feedback and suggestions.

Before I conclude, I wish to share that putting together this book was a long and arduous task. Two individuals who constantly motivated and encouraged me in this initiative are Shobit Arya and Shrikrishna Kulkarni. I stand enriched with a redefined friendship with both. My sincere gratitude to both of you present here. I thank everyone at NID who actively supported this work particularly, the Director - NID, and my colleague Shilpa Das who is heading Publications at NID.

Thank you very much.

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