Following the Thread of India’s Artisans

Today, BoF columnist Bandana Tewari reports on Project Renaissance, a unique collaboration between Indian artisans and international fashion brands organised by Vogue India in celebration of the magazine’s fifth anniversary.

MUMBAI, India — Living in India, it’s not difficult to see the magic that lies in the country’s artisanal crafts and textiles. From the foothills of the Himalayas to the tip of Kanyakumari, there is tremendous variation. We wear them with ease, in a terrific mix of drapes and silhouettes. And we wear them everywhere: to family get-togethers and grand dinners alike.

Indeed, the Indian thread is something of an arterial lifeline that connects the spirit of this vast nation. And though the “Made in India” brand hasn’t been cultivated, protected or promoted nearly as much as “Made in France” or “Made in Italy,” it’s no secret that many of the top international fashion brands use Indian craftsmen.

As well as being sought-after and beautiful, Indian crafts also generate tremendous benefit for local communities across the country. Just today, Dasra, an India-based NGO, released a report entitled Crafting a Livelihood, which underscores the financial, environmental and social benefits of India’s artisan economy — which employs an estimated 7 million craftspeople according to official figures (and up to 200 million, according to unofficial sources) — and the need to protect it.

I recently had a small peek into the large universe of Indian crafts and textiles. In the deepest alcoves of rural India, I learnt about the most sophisticated weaving techniques (the patola saris of Patan are as much a product of scientific ingenuity as indigenous dexterity); about the social structures embedded in the weaving patterns of the tribes of Nagaland; about the excruciating, loving labour of millions of minuscule mustard seeds tied in silk to create breathtaking bandhini and tie-dye fabrics in Gujarat and Rajasthan; about gold brocades from Benares, temple-bordered Kanchipuram silks from Tamil Nadu and fragile jamavars from Kashmir.

My journey started with experts. Textile aficionado Sally Holkar, introduced me to the weaving traditions of Maheshwar in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh, where weavers operate mammoth handlooms in tiny homes. Rajeev Sethi welcomed me into his labyrinthine multi-storey Delhi studio, a treasure trove of the most spectacular arts and crafts from every corner of India. I visited The Ants in Bangalore, an NGO run by husband and wife Pradeep Krishnappa and Smita Murthy, whose unflagging support of the weaves and crafts of Northeast India left me inspired. And then there was Rakesh Thakore, one half of the beloved Delhi design duo Abraham & Thakore, who argued that unruly India isn’t held together by Bollywood and cricket, as we are wont to believe, but by the sacred traditions of the thread, part of our collective religion (as janoi) and our personal relationships (as rakhi).

S.N. Damodaren, vice-president of Nalli and a fount of knowledge, directed me to the most enthralling South Indian silks in Kanchipuram and gilded brocades in Benares. In Ahmedabad, I was welcomed into the Hutheesing haveli by its owner Umang Hutheesing, who shared tales about his private collection of antiquated fabrics and his devotion to the endangered queen of all weaves, the patola. In a secluded street of the same bustling city, I met the enigmatic Anuradha Vakil, a textile devotee, who draped over cold marble floors the most intricate Tree of Life kalamkari saris in warm colours (as splendid peacocks and comic squirrels peered through her sunny studio windows). And of course, there was the dynamic, no-nonsense Ritu Kumar, who at first sized me up as a dubious champion of the crafts, but eventually opened her heart and bequeathed to me generous helpings of her expertise.

With their blessings, I set off to far-flung regions of India to hunt and gather a range of special fabrics that Vogue India eventually gifted to international fashion labels including Gucci, Burberry and DKNY to mould them into unique pieces that marry rich cultural heritage with cutting-edge, modern design.

I had made a PDF of my visual journey — simple pictures and silly notes to myself of my little adventure. And a week later, in the dazzling, high-tech city of Taipei, I showed it to Burberry’s chief creative officer Christopher Bailey. I was nervous as I asked him to scroll through images of the distant villages and alien traditions of India, but he was mesmerised.

The images above are a testament to the exceptional beauty of India’s artisanal textiles and the ease with which international designers are able to inject their own design DNA into India’s timeless fabrics.

A friend who works for a number of designers based in New York told me that in the 1980s there were not more than 5 India-based textile operations working with international high-fashion designers. Now there are hundreds, though, traditionally, international brands don’t exactly advertise the work that’s done in India — except, of course, for Mr. Christian Louboutin, who proudly proclaims his unending love for India and the country’s embroiderers!

But perhaps India needs to take ownership of this issue and solve it from within, which begs a question. Is India doing enough to promote its incredible crafts?

“One of the biggest issues in India is that our markets do not recognise the true value of craft. When this value is recognised, and if people are willing to pay a higher price for craft-based products, this should translate into higher wages for weavers and craftspeople and act as a boost to millions of rural-based livelihood opportunities associated with this sector,” said William Bissel, managing director of Indian ethical clothing manufacturer FabIndia, in the Dasra report.

In India, we have no shortage of incredible artisans. What we lack is the marketing prowess to bestow value onto ordinary lives who have extraordinary skills.

Bandana Tewari is a columnist at The Business of Fashion. A version of this article first appeared in Vogue India, where Tewari is fashion features director.

Photography: Matthew Shave
Styling: Lorna McGee and Fabio Immediato
Hair: Ernesto Montemovo at My Management
Make up: Florrie White at D+V Management
Manicure: Steph Mendiola at Caren
Model: Tali at Next Models

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  1. Very good and useful article Bandana! We believe wholeheartedly in the Indian artisan incredible and diverse skills. MADE in INDIA deserves more visibility and praise! Time for brands using this heritage to put it forward the way France and Italy have done it. Now, at least, when it says “Made in India” you can trust it is so, obviously Made in France and Made in Italy have been suffering for years from abuses… Let’s hope for more transparency and accountability on where products are made and who makes them.
    Thanks BoF for another significant and enriching article!

  2. Thank you for this wonderful article. It definately describes the major problems Indian crafts have. Their work is not recognised globally although they create beautiful pieces with great passion for detail, which results in high quality. I’ve been to Pakistan where people work similarly. Choosing the threads and textiles is the first and most important step in order to create a piece of art. The designers you have mentioned have discovered these fabrics for their designs and the liaison of east and west is a perfect dream.

  3. Bandana references a vital, yet often neglected resource to understanding this ‘epidemic’. The Dasra Report findings are key to helping solve the serious issues she raises. While many will at most cluck-cluck at the state of affairs, taking the next step to read the report and continue the conversation are key agents of change. Designers patting themselves on the back for using chanderi or zari will miss the point; as Bandana notes, true sustainability will arise once we value our craft and bridge the rural-urban divide.

  4. Wonderful project bandana .I feel elated seeing these awesome work of art’s. Indian has a treasure to offer in terms of textiles and embroideries , but unfortunately the quality of the final garments produced using these amazing exotic fabrics do not match up to the international standards in most cases .
    There is a big lack of commitment and understanding of good apparel finishing and fit .
    Once these concerns are addressed new doors shall open and get employment and opportunities to these craftsmen .
    We wish them the best, and salute your perseverance and results achieved in this project.

  5. “And though the ‘Made in India’ brand hasn’t been cultivated, protected or promoted nearly as much as ‘Made in France’ or ‘Made in Italy,’ it’s no secret that many of the top international fashion brands use Indian craftsmen.”

    This is an outstanding article! We’re one small company who is working to promote “Made in India” fashion because we realize how much it deserves to be valued and promoted. Thanks for writing this!

    Jmf 633 from Vancouver, BC, Canada
  6. Great Article !

    Aarti from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India
  7. Thoughtful, engaging, forward thinking, and most of all a fitting tribute to the rich history of crafts in India. Bravo Bandana! More, more more please.

    Rymn Massand. NYC. from Singapore
  8. Congratulations Bandana on a great article and a great project! It’s one of the most creative efforts to promote Indian textiles and craftsmanship globally. I am sure this will be a turning point for Indian crafts and Indian luxury heritage.

  9. As the co-founder of a company who’s products are made exclusively in India, one of our main goals is to not only educate our customers on the incredible craftsmanship in India but to also see value in it. Too long has a “Made in India” tag represented cheap fashion for mass producing retailers. As Abhinav pointed out, sometimes these final garments do not match up to International standards. To that, I say yes, we CAN do better in India and we can demand more as designers, retailers, and customers.

    Fantastic article Bandana and thank you BOF for giving a platform to an oft- neglected topic.

  10. Awesome !
    I think India is progressing very fast in the field of designer dresses.
    They are doing very good in the field of Fashion for women.

    zoyasakia from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India
  11. Cute initiative. Will have no downstream effect on craftsmen livelihood. Any orders from the global fashion labels will be eaten up by folks like Rajiv Sethi , Jaya Jaitley & other supposed doyens of Indian crafts, who will offer their services through their “non-profit organizations” , which are in-effect tax-saving (read – cost deflecting ) & charity-seeking entities, for their related for-profit &/or for-fame ventures. Each of these craft non-profits have their favoured artisans (actually micro-entrepreneurs each employing 8 to 40 artisans in the villages) whom they provide access to, in the craft-markets/melas of Delhi, Bombay etc. The profits of every piece of art produced lands up in a sharing arrangement between the non-profit organization & the village based micro-entrepreneur. The artisans themselves are paid “dehadi” or daily-wage of approx Rs 10 to Rs 20 per hour of work ! There is no sharing of profits with the artisans, as the buyer changes from Fabindia price-points to Cavalli price-points, unless of-course you follow the Abu Jani- Sandeep Khosla model of factory production, where artisans are “employees” & their wages are documented under the Indian companies law. In craft manufacturing in India, where production is decentralized, income flowing into actual artisan hands is almost never more than Rs 120 to 150 for 8 to 10 hours of intensive work. Do note that we have a serious labour laws issue (state governed, not central) & massive shortage of full-time employment opportunities in India. Of India’s 650 mn working age population, just 34 mn have jobs ( i.e. written work contracts with a monthly wage assurance) – 22 mn in govt & 12 mn in private sector ( including 3 mn in IT/BPO, created in past 10 years). Off the rural non-farm sector (a focus area as India moves rapidly towards urbanization) supposedly employs 30 mn in informal handicraft jobs & 30 mn in informal handloom/textile jobs. The need to organize this sector is huge. Its the handicraft exporters who are doing so , but due to weak labour laws, they’re not creating formal employment too. Eventually the artisan is being exploited – by the craft non-profits & by the handicraft export units. Then there is another key issue – raw material costs & sourcing. Today much of the raw-material used in Vogue’s exhibits, is manufactured outside India. The Silk including the threads are imports from China. Take Zari-Zardozi – both the net-cloth & the glass-beads used on it, are imports into India. The net-cloth comes to India from China & sometimes from the Surat mills, in Gujarat state. The cheaper glass-beads come from China & the better ones ( Preciosa/ Swarovski) from Czech Republic/Austria. In doing Zari work, an average zari artisan consumes approx 30 grams to 50 grams of glass-beads per hour. At the current whole-sale price levels of glass-beads in India, please note that while the zari artisan gets paid approx Rs 10 to Rs 15 per hour of work ( such work that by the age of 45, most artisans have lost near-sight), while the glass-bead consumption is Rs 20 to Rs 30 per hour ( of Czech/Austrian quality). As more & more zari work gets done, the manufacturers of the machine made glass-beads make “more” profits than the artisans. We have systemic issues in labour laws & a chronic shortage in manufacturing, which will ensure that the artisans themselves will not be able to get a share of the profits unless the buyer personally intervenes & hands-over money directly to the artisans. In the past only royals wore such handwork intense clothes but today its not uncommon to see most women at Indian weddings wearing zari sarees & lehengas , each with 500 to 1000 hours of work. The handcraft artisans are getting a very small share of it. The Lion’s share is going to the middleman ( NGOs/retailers etc) & the machine (Chinese/European/Gujarat). The Dasra report makes many good points however its not gone down deep enough into each craft’s supply-chain to identify unit costs. The artisans earning livelihood through hand-labour are jammed. They’re being exploited by the very folks who’re representing them. How I wish Vogue folks put down the economic break-up of each of the designer products on display – price & source of silk cloth + price/source of colour dyes + price/source of 1 hour of labour etc etc – that will reveal the link between craft & livelihood. Else, this is all gimmicks.

    Ratnesh from Delhi, Delhi, India
  12. To say what came out of the fusion project, as shown in the slideshow, is absolutely stunning is an understatement. I found this rather insightful about international artisanal trade in India.

    While there are a number of designers already engaging rural artisans, perhaps more stronger international brands like FabIndia needs to emerge to make the “Made in India” stamp stand out.

    Thank you for sharing Bandana!

    Harshit Sekhon from Melbourne, Victoria, Australia