— BELAA SANGHVI
Craft revivalist, textile conservationist and fashion designer Belaa Sanghvi built her journey on reviving indigenous textiles in a modern context and giving weaver clusters a fresh lease of life. She worked with them at grassroots level when researching weaves, identifying weavers of languishing weaves and training weavers at workshops. Her rich knowledge and experience made her visiting faculty at LS Raheja; SNDT; NIFT Mumbai. Feathers in her cap include Creative Head at State Institute For Development Of Arts And Crafts; integral part of the Chanderi task force by then Chief Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia; Secretary of Venkata Chari Committee for handloom revival, Maharashtra; re-engineering projects for Paithani weave and gold beading at Maharashtra Small Scale Industry Development Corporation, namda embroidery for Jammu and Kashmir Handicrafts Development Corporation… and much more. Today, her brand revives antiquated weaving styles and she has displayed at: Das Schweizerische Museum fur Volkerkunde, Basel; Victoria and Albert Museum, London.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The House of Lords, London. She is also working on a book that would document textile techniques she has come across. In conversation with Belaa Sanghvi.
Bela as craft revivalist- designer- textile conservationist what hurdles do you continue to face?
A major hurdle that I face is consumer awareness. Older generation consumers could understand my work as they knew about classicism and what saree would look good, when and on whom. Unfortunately today's generation's visual language is different. With that sensitivity, to appreciate handloom, handcrafted and khadi is difficult. Once they wear it, they love it. But until that point they use western sensibilities for Indian textiles. And that is so wrong… French, Hindi and Tamil are different languages, right? It's the same with textiles.
You optimised local expertise in the modern context, with the aim of reviving local craft, some of which are on the verge of extinction. What inspired you at a time when "sustainability" was not a buzz word?
I love handloom, handcrafted and khadi. Even at the time I started working towards their revival, issues were the same. In each technique, resolutions had to be customized. And, at that time there was no path in this sector. I had to find my path. Mrs. Pupul Jaykar, one of the best revivalists with a profound understanding of the sector, took me under her wing. This gave me a sense of direction. She had already dedicated her time to J. Krishnamurti Foundation and introduced me to Weavers Service Center, which was founded by her to revive textile craft and support weavers and karigars. There was a lot of support from then director Shri Gautam Vaghela, Mr. Dutta and many such people who guided me through the process. Even though weaving is part of my blood, their direction helped tremendously. Now, I am advisor to them.
Is it challenging working with weaver clusters due to language barriers and design aesthetic? What were the stumbling blocks when designing contemporary motifs and textures? How do you balance it with the pace of market demand and supply?
Not any more… as we speak the same technical language. We understand each other well; my gestures are understood by them. My design language is the same as their technology language. I am a purist. As much as possible I don't like to change the antiquated technology because sticking with it brings out the result that has sustained itself since centuries. Design aesthetic also varies according to technology. I believe I understand the inherent delicacies of each weave. So which design solutions to offer, stem from there… For example few designers bring Benaras sensibilities and technology to the South. Aesthetically, it doesn't work. I believe it takes centuries to develop a sensibility and make it a tradition. And one cannot just slap designs in traditional sensibilities, even to contemporaize the design. That, I believe, is the sensibility I offer weavers and karigars. Let me give you an example — In the market where people sell khichdi, biryani is not appreciated. This explains my stand. If I am making khichdi, it has to be just that. If I am making Biryani, it has to be just that. Also, I don't pace the weaving and design process with market demand. I don't like that. I have never followed what the market wants and have always been loyal to the weave or craft, and then according to that technique, my design comes to life. Indian weavers are used to working at their pace, at their time. That's when their best work comes out. If at all I tell them to take less time it impacts the fabric. That's why i don't like taking short cuts. If we are to appreciate handloom, handcrafted and khadi, this is a vital point. Many times my customers ask me, why do my fabrics drape so well, looks better than others… well, this is the secret. We don't compromise in the quality of raw materials, labour cost or design cost. Hence we are more expensive than others. As it is weavers earn pittance. Now if we push them to make it cheaper, they will go away. For example, if a saree takes one year to create, the family of the karigars needs to survive. Per month they need at least Rs.15000 to survive. And the highly skilled weavers deserves much more. If you calculate the survival cost of the karigars for a year, it comes to 1,80,000. Now if we make it cheaper, it would not be fair to the karigars. So I try to increase what we give to consumers… so that the karigar earns better.
How challenging is it to craft modern, globally relevant design with handloom?
It's not difficult as long as the designer, buyer and consumer understand what is being mdd and sold. When that understanding is lacking it becomes challenging. I worked with an Italian designer to provide them with fabric — they wanted something strong and contemporary in an Indian weave. I showed them traditional weaves and the designer was not satisfied. Then I made a sample with Paithani, keeping their sensibilities in mind. And we got the order!! What I am saying is I understand what they need and who will be able to create that, using which technology. So it works out well.
Bela you have displayed your collections in Victoria and Albert Museum; LA County Museum of Art; The House of Lords. Do share feedback you have received about modern ensembles handcrafted with indigenous textiles?
I have not displayed at Victoria and Albert Museum; they have pieces created by me in their collection. Los Angeles County Museum of Art [LACMA] and House Of Lords, London were amazing experiences. Baroness Shrila Flathers came for my private exhibition of sarees in London. She loved my work and invited me to show my work at House of Lords, and within four days we prepared for that exhibition. It was an amazing experience. It was not my looks, my language or my skin. Only my work. LACMA had invited ten experts to talk about different aspect of Mughal lifestyle. Some spoke on cooking, others on architecture, aesthetics, music, daily life etc. I was invited to speak on Mughal Textiles. I have been working on Aashawal since the beginning of my career. As luck would have it, at that time I was working on a design which is part of the Kumarbandh of one of the portraits. I had a similar piece in my collection, they had a similar piece in theirs and I had a contemporary piece as well — all three were displayed when I was giving the talk. That presentation was appreciated by not only LACMA, but the audience too. Later, I got an opportunity to sell at Textile Museum Shop, Washington D. C. for three years. All of these were great experiences, which pushed me further.
Indian handcrafted weaves have potential to be recognised globally. How do we focus on showcasing it in a way that influences designers worldwide to use them in their collection, leading to development of communities through Fashion. So that our rural craftsmens' art comes under the global fashion umbrella?
I am writing a book on Textile Techniques Of India. I believe information is the missing link. Through these five volumes, I want to educate designers, students and buyers. When they come here, they get overwhelmed by our sheer variety because their exposure to handloom, handcrafted and Khadi is minimal. In order to create a market, we need to explain which weaves needs to be utilised and how. If it doesn't work for them, they will lose interest. One needs to give them perfect customized solutions keeping their requirement in mind. Only then it may turn into long term business.
In a different context, what should design institutes add to their curriculum to educate design and textile students about the importance of our textile heritage?
They need to have a subject on our textile heritage. I believe it is world heritage.
What can we, the end- consumer, focus on to help sustain the livelihood and craft of weavers and craftspeople?
Wear it, buy it, flaunt it. Take for example, Luis Vuitton. An LV bag is made of synthetic leather, it is only about their logo. Yet people pay a steep price and flaunt it… and that is what sustains the brand. Whereas here there is actual value which needs to be shown to the consumers.
What would be your advice to those of us who want to shop more responsibly or build an ethical wardrobe?
Make sure you understand what you are buying. Educate yourself about workmanship. Many times sellers themselves may not understand what they are selling; they have no clue as it about commerce. I strongly feel it should be about commerce but with an understanding and knowledge of the craft. Be an aware consumer. Wear handloom, handcrafted or khadi in natural yarns.
In view of the national lockdown and its devastating economic impact on the industry, how do you perceive the future of traditional textile craft in India?
With the lockdown the issues faced by this sector are many. This sector is the second largest employer in India… after agriculture. Handloom, handcrafted and khadi is expensive so buying will be much less then usual. To make matters worse, this sector is unorganised. So how does the government reach out to to help them? It is challenging. But I am eternally hopeful that we Indians will do Jugaad and deal with all the problems. I am trying to inspire people to increase demand by posting pictures of themselves and their loved ones wearing handloom ensembles and am speaking with influencers to write about the work done in this sector. This, I believe, will increase a reasonable demand.