Laila Tyabji, the founder of Dastkar, is almost as well-known for her personal collection of saris as she is for helping revive India's craft traditions. Ahead of National Handloom Day, we share our interview with the woman who is synonym with it.
Is the whole idea of the craftsman designer non-existent now? Do you have an interest in designers and craftspeople being entrepreneurs?
I am not so keen on craftspeople being entrepreneurs—they are perforce becoming entrepreneurs because they need to get to the market and there aren’t enough sensitive and fair entrepreneurs doing that job.
But I am very anxious that craftspeople should become designers and product developers. I think one of the major failures of all of us who work in the sector, including design schools is that they haven’t really made that connect effectively. There are very few experiments like Kalaraksha Vidyalaya, which show immediately the kind of catalytic effect of craftspeople being introduced to the terminology and techniques of formal design. That it isn’t necessary for the craftsperson to need a professional designer or design student as an intermediary if they have that professional expertise themselves.
One of the questions I often ask at conferences where issues of crafts, design and contemporization come up is, where are the craftspeople? Why are they not there? They are hardly ever there! At NID I asked once, if we were having a national seminar on the future of architecture in India, would we not have architects? I have been to occasions where there has been some token presence of craftspersons but there has never been an attempt to create a common language to enable them to participate constructively in these discussions. And yet, when there is something like the Kala Raksha Vidyalaya in Kutch, or CDI in Srinagar, craftspeople come in and learn, and there are extraordinary results. They laugh and say, ‘You know we were so nervous and paralyzed by this whole concept of the designer — someone who is very professional, who has expertise and creativity far beyond us. Now we realize that what they’re talking about is very much like what we also do, but we have not formalized it and this whole thing of concepts, mood boards, colour spectrums is not so amazing!’ Either we have deliberately suppressed this growth and evolution in craftspeople, or perhaps it is something that we do unthinkingly and insensitively.
I will never forget a month-long design workshop we did 20 years ago in the early days of NIFT, Delhi with the Accessories Design department and Jatin Bhatt, (whom I find a very wonderful person to work with on craft) was heading that department. He suggested a joint project with NIFT and Dastkar. We would bring around 30 craftspeople from all over India and they would work with the Accessories Design students for a month and develop a whole range of products in various mediums from fibre to leather and metal; with products ranging from jewellery to footwear. I was not there for the initial couple of days of the workshop. I was on a field trip somewhere. So, when I came back to Delhi, one of the first things I wanted to do was to see how this thing was going. I went straight from the station to NIFT, and when I walked in, it was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon: lunch time; and there were all the students sitting with all the craftspeople and they were talking animatedly. I thought, wow, that’s really great! But when I came closer, I saw the students were actually talking on their cell phones or amongst themselves, and the craftspeople were just sitting. It was winter and quite cold, and they were all sitting huddled in their shawls and just watching these kids. So I said, ‘You’ve been here for 3 days, why aren’t you doing anything or interacting with each other? Why are you sitting here with them sitting there?’ The students said, ‘Oh ma’am, we’re still working on our mood boards and our concepts, so we are not really ready to work with the craftspeople.’ And the craftspeople came up to me and said, ‘Lailaji, yeh kya ho raha hai? Hum teen din se baithe hain aur kuchh nahi hua hai. Kai ke liye bulaya yahaan…’ and so on. So then we all got together in one of the studios and I said, ‘Look, if you are all working on your concepts and mood boards, why can’t you include them in the process? Why aren’t you talking to them? And why aren’t you trying to find out how they respond to your ideas and if they think it can be made in that medium?’ I said, ‘You’ve never worked with glass or punched leather or whatever; you also need to find out about processes and possibilities. They’re not computers that you switch on when you’re ready to input.’ This was apparently quite a shock for them.
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