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IN CONVERSATION WITH MADHU JAIN

JASMEEN DUGAL  (click here to know more about this blogger)

Craft revivalist, textile conservationist and fashion designer Madhu Jain — whose journey is built on crafting indigenous textiles, revitalising and reinvigorating languishing textile crafts and therefore giving weaver clusters a fresh lease of life — was honoured by FICCI for her pioneering work in introducing an alternative fibre into mainstream fashion, for which she was conferred its Award of Excellence in the field of Creative Arts. Today, she is gearing up to launch a seminal, new bamboo-based textile that she developed together with master weavers in rural India. This Bamboo-Silk Ikat is the first of its kind in the world — the fruit of 15 years of R&D. In conversation.

You have been in the business of Fashion since 30 years. Which are your most memorable shows till date?

There are a number of shows that have stayed with me for different reasons and I'll list three. My first solo show — that I held at my brother's home in Prithviraj Road in Lutyens' Delhi — was one of my proudest moments. I'd just completed a project with BRAC Bangladesh, one of the biggest NGOs in the world, on reviving the endangered Dhaka Muslin and Nakshi Kantha. My collection, on which I'd worked hands-on with rural weavers and embroiderers in Bangladesh, reintroduced these into India's sensibility. In keeping with the Bangladesh theme, I’d showcased some exceptional Jamdani weaves as well. Another memorable collection is the one I did in 1997 for the Miss World pageant at Seychelles, where I dressed 15 contestants. This won me International acclaim and was a huge ratification of the brilliance of India's handlooms sector and my 'Made In India' philosophy. Finally, I can never forget the dreamy, on-the-beach show for Ensemble in Goa, back in 1994, choreographed by Mehr Jessia. It was a joint-show, with the likes of Tarun Tahiliani, Raghavendra Rathore and Monisha Jaising, and was a trendsetter, a first of its kind in Indian fashion. Even though each of us come from different schools of design, we came together in a show that spelt fun, camaraderie and was high on aesthetics. Even today, all of us share a very special bond, which is rare in the fashion fraternity.

 

As a craft revivalist- designer- textile conservationist what are the hurdles that you face?

Developing new weaves takes time and energy. Not to mention, creativity. It requires a great deal of R&D, and work at the grassroots, deep in rural areas where Indian's best master weavers reside. As you know, my expertise lies in crafting distinctive combinations of two weaving traditions to create new, hand-woven textiles that are high on quality and design. Expectedly, such weaves are not inexpensive, but sadly, only the most discerning are appreciative of the intense work that goes into producing such textiles. The challenge I continue to face is to shift handlooms from a niche space into one where it enjoys the wider patronage that it deserves.

 

Your forte lies in creating hand-crafted textiles. Do tell us about the process of transforming these textiles into ensembles. Are the weaves determined by the ensembles you want to fashion them into?

When I started creating new textiles, I realised that their beauty lay precisely in the weave itself. That's when I made a conscious decision to use the weave as an embellishment. Since I innovate at both the design intervention and production ends, I have fairly clear design ideas in my head, which form the basis of the particular thread count I have in mind, or the nature and arrangement of organic dyes or patterns I'd like to include. Thus, the inherent nature of every textile influences the silhouette that is eventually created by a fashion designer.

 

Where did you get inspiration from for the weaves and how does it transform into reality?

My fascination for weaves came from my freedom fighter grandfather, from whom I learnt about the concept of Swadeshi and of Khadi. My commitment to serve the cause of India's illustrious handloom tradition was thus born early, and it's the driver that's kept me going. As a craft revivalist and textile conservationist, my passion lies in designing new weaves and motifs with master weavers and embroiderers, and in ensuring that our traditional arts and crafts don't die.

 

Please share details about the bamboo-based textile you've developed with the master weavers in rural India.

I've been experimenting with bamboo fibre since 2001, for which I worked with the textiles ministry in the early days. I successfully combined bamboo with cotton, khadi, chanderi and wool; in 2004, in tandem with the Ministry of Textiles, I introduced bamboo as an alternative, eco-friendly textile at the 7TH World Bamboo Congress in New Delhi. I soon realised that with India being the second-largest producer of bamboo in the world, it would be worthwhile to work with this yarn as it's plentiful and because it can augment livelihoods of bamboo farmers. Since then, I have been using bamboo on every platform, notably for the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where, for the "Fabric of India" segment, I used bamboo textile as the base material for creating a 115-ft Tree of Knowledge. My latest offering is the bamboo-silk Ikat—a first in the world! It took me long years to come up with the perfect blend of yarns that I, as a Craft Revivalist and Textile Conservationist, am satisfied with!!

 

How would this bamboo-based textile work in the age of subtle luxury- comfort and eco-consciousness?

Textiles made with natural fibres such as bamboo breathe well and keep the wearer comfortable. Not just this, but bamboo textiles offer UV protection and, what's more, is biodegradable! What's not to like? My ecologically viable bamboo-silk Ikat textile ticks all the right boxes for today's discerning consumer. I love the fact that it does not eat into the earth’s meagre resources; rather, with bamboo being so plentiful, we can provide livelihood options for bamboo growers. The silver lining is that bamboo is biodegradable, so this fabric will leave a negligible ecological footprint. It truly is a fabric of the future!

 

Looking back, was it difficult working with weaver clusters?

It is not always easy convincing master weavers to move out of their comfort zone. Yes, they are indeed masters of a craft which has been handed down generationally, but fresh out-of-the-box creations are necessary to keep their craft afloat. Which is where I come in with design intervention. The process of producing a new textile is a time consuming, hand-wringing one, complete with all the drama that goes into a 9 p.m. soap opera!! From convincing my master weavers that bamboo is a viable fibre, to combining it in a myriad of ways until it was fashioned into the perfect textile, was a long uneven road. But the reward for us lies in the product that you see before you today!!

 

How challenging is it to craft modern, globally relevant design with handloom?

Innovation in design and weaves that contemporarise textiles in tune with modern-day trends and markets is key to keeping alive traditional crafts. My brain and design cells are constantly ticking along those lines, which is why I never buy off-the-shelf textiles. I develop my own. My abiding endeavour is to give textiles a freshness that will resonate with current thinking and trends.

 

How knowledgeable is the Indian buyer about weaves? How should we educate masses about the importance of our textile heritage?

Unfortunately, it is only the discerning few who understand the mastery that goes into the crafting of a hand-woven textile. I believe that in today's scenario, social media is a powerful weapon that, if used judiciously, can effect change. The Honourable Minister for Textiles, Smriti Irani, has given the textiles domain a shot in the arm through her social media campaigns, all of which have created a buzz around the handlooms sector. People are sitting up and taking notice! Sunil Sethi, President, Fashion Design Council of India is also heavily endorsing the artisanal sector and actively promoting handlooms.

 

What are lesser-known weaves or handicraft techniques that we should know of?

There are two stunning textiles from Andhra Pradesh that need to be pushed centre-stage: Uppada and Venkatagiri. By no means lesser-known, both nevertheless need a business strategy to bring down the cost to make them more affordable and to thus enhance its visibility. If one runs one's hand down an Uppada sari, you will notice that the design is indistinguishable from the cloth — there are no loose threads on either side! Because of this quality, this makes it a reversible textile with great potential! The Venkatagiri comes in a cotton or silk weave, or in a combination of the two, often with zari edging. This textile is traditionally woven on pit looms and because of its high thread count, it tends to have softness that is irresistible.

 

Overall, how do you perceive the future of traditional textile craft in India?

As I noted above, for this sector to flourish, it needs champions. Additionally, we need to formalise this sector and provide our weavers with subsidies so that their livelihoods are ensured. It is important for successive generations of artisans to view their craft as an economically viable profession. We need to change the fortunes for them!


PHOTOGRAPHS' CREDITS:
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROHIT CHAWLA
MAKE UP AND HAIR: ASHIMA KAPOOR
CREATIVE STYLING: ANGNARBOO SHERPA
JEWELLERY: AMRAPALI
LOCATION: THE ROSEATE
MODEL: AASHALI SHUKLA
 

MADHU JAIN
 
MADHU JAIN
 
MADHU JAIN
 
11-AUGUST-2017
 
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