After 2 weeks with a family of artisans, designer spends 40 years helping weavers revive the art of Kutch

Between 1974 and 1980, between 1974 and 1980, within the walls of the National Institute of Design, there was an inspired woman.

At lectures, she sat intrigued by how fabrics were woven together to create magic and how the seams of culture were reinforced to result in the best designs. Archana Shah had always been baffled by the world of fashion and now she was embarking on a journey to design institute to understand it more deeply.

“During the course, we were introduced to Indian heritage and handcrafted textiles,” she says. The best India, adding that in addition to theory, they were also encouraged to travel to remote parts of India and observe first-hand how artisans created their pieces.

Mohamedbhai Siddikbhai Khatri with his three sons, Photo credit: Archana Shah

During one such trip in 1977, Archana and a friend from her group were sent to a village in Kutch for a 15-day stay during which they were to study the work of craftsmen, understand the technicalities of craftsmanship and create a collection. of their own.

This turned out to be a turning point in his life. “It was the first time that I had seen craftsmen working in such close proximity.”

A realization came to his mind – for craftsmen, all this was not just “work”. It was their way of life.

The start of a unique friendship

Recounting the two-week stay at Dhamadka in Kutch, Archana says she stayed with one of the artisans, Mohamedbhai Siddikbhai Khatri. What she didn’t know was that the friendship they would forge during this time would be the foundation upon which her brand Bandhej would be built.

During the time they spent with the craftsman, he patiently explained the tricks of block printing and also told the duo about his life in the village.

“While the work ended with the sunset, the stories did not,” says Archana, adding that artisans are by nature wonderful storytellers. “I realized that a pattern was never just ‘a pattern’. There was a bigger story behind it.

Today, she says it’s been over 40 years and she’s still working with descendants of that family to create new prints and designs for her brand. “The connection that started in those two weeks never ended.”

As the stay drew to a close, Archana saw the world of fashion differently. For her, it was now the representation of culture.

Archana Shah, designer at the service of artisans in Kutch
Archana Shah

“I was fascinated by the diversity and variety that breathed into each fabric,” she says. “Each region of India that we explored offered its own unique skills, natural materials, etc. and I decided that leaving the portals of the institute, I would collaborate with craftsmen. I would create works with them and sell them in urban centers. »

The young designer began her journey by making small collections, as well as exhibitions in Mumbai, Delhi and other metropolitan cities. The response, she says, has been phenomenal.

A brand born in culture, rooted in heritage

“Little by little, the collections grew, the love grew and we created Bandhej in 1985. We collaborated with artisans from Kutch and then from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bhagalpur, Banaras , etc.,” she said.

The brand was based on a simple ideology that hasn’t been affected by time: building long-term relationships with artisans so they can see the value in their work.

“Keep in mind that this was a time when few people were working with this community, and therefore crafters were unsure of the reliability of this partnership and how long it would last,” says Archana.

But she took it up as a challenge.

“I started thinking about how I could create new collections and seasons, and as the business grew, I started to increase the number of artisan groups.”

Kutch craftsmen at work
Craftsmen at work, Photo credits: Archana Shah

Along her journey of building her Bandhej brand, Archana has also released her book titled ‘Shaping a future: stories of Indian textiles and sustainable practices‘in 2013.

“I was visiting families in Kutch and wanted to write the stories for the next generation to know about the wealth, the crafts and the people.”

She goes on to add that it was a land she did not know, but through her associations with artisans, she had developed an understanding of it.

Another important aspect, says Archana, is that she wanted to tackle the common misconception that people have of the children of artisans not wanting to continue crafting.

“I saw it differently on the pitch,” she says. “The younger generation has witnessed the financial transition the family has experienced. I traveled through remote parts of India to determine if the younger generation wanted to continue the craftsmanship. They do, but only if there is also regular work.

Witness Mohamedbhai’s son, Ismail, who is also a block printer, says he enjoys working with Bandhej and Archana and says it makes him almost nostalgic when he creates designs for her.

“Archana i first contacted our late grandfather in 1980 and today our third generation works under his direction. She is cooperative, positive and has a noble nature that gives us the energy to improve the quality of art.

Fashion woven with confidence

Archana explains that Bandhej is a handcrafted textile and garment. They work with approximately 500 families, whereas before COVID their number was 800. The partnership is unique as artisans often live in remote areas and may not be aware of changing market needs.

“While on the one hand there is that, on the other hand, in the consumer markets, customers are looking for new designs every season and new collections,” she says. This is where the collaboration between craftsmen and designers comes into play.

“The designers become the enablers.”

Designer Archana with one of the artisans
Archana with one of the artisans, Photo credits: Archana Shah

As for how this collaboration has contributed to the artisans’ financial growth, Archana says she has seen them move from mud houses to comfortable living. “We have to do something right.”

However, Archana says the market is volatile. “When I started, there was no competition. But now there is an excess of everything and the competition has increased.

She shares how she overcame her challenge during the first few days of interacting with artisans and building trust.

As one of the craftsmen, Abduljabbar Khatri from Dhamadka, says, “Archana i came here in 1977 and since then he has been promoting our ajrakh Arts and crafts. She continued to promote our craft in cities where there was no light or any kind of facility. She worked hard to support us and save the ajrakh craftsmanship and we will always be grateful.

Archana says she is just doing what she learned in her fashion institute. “At NID, we are trained to learn about the region and spend time understanding the process,” she says, adding that slowly with steady work she managed to build a relationship with these artisans.

Today, Bandhej ships worldwide and receives approximately 5,000 orders per month. The price of the outfits varies from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000, depending on the parts.

But even though she’s built a legacy brand, Archana says her motive has always been the same.

“I wanted to leave behind a story – of artisans, weavers and these people.”

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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