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HomePageTurnerBook ExcerptsTourist to ambassador — how Europeans like Jenny Housego revived Indian craft

Tourist to ambassador — how Europeans like Jenny Housego revived Indian craft

In ‘A woven life’, textile historian Jenny Housego chronicles her love affair with handicrafts & her journey as researcher and entrepreneur in Iran and India.

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When David and I had arrived in India, I found that the craft revival had already taken a leap forward. The Indian government had been trying to expose textiles and handicrafts to international markets through its Festivals of India, held in many capitals around the world. Apart from Jasleen Dhamija, whom I had already encountered in Iran, there was only a handful of Indians involved in promoting textiles. The most prominent Indian was Laila Tyabji, who had set up the non-governmental organization (NGO) Dastkar, a cooperative space for craftspeople from all over the country to show and sell their wares. Laila’s family was illustrious. Her mother, Surayya Tyabji, had served on the Flag Presentation Committee that finalized and presented the national flag to Parliament when India got its independence on 15 August 1947, and in turn, she had devoted her life to working with Indian artisans.

But traditional craftsmen, unused to a European aesthetic of more subdued colours or cleaner lines and patterns, were unable to break through these markets. It was as if the stars had conspired to bring me to India at such a time. In fact, as I began my work, I discovered there were several others like me – foreigners in India for all sorts of reasons, whether it was because they had married Indians, or whether they arrived as tourists and fell in love with what India had to offer – committed to promoting more sophisticated craft of a high production standard, and ensuring space for them to sell in Western markets. Brigitte Singh, Paola Manfredi, Faith Singh, John Bissell, Edward Oakley and Judy Frater – French, Italian, American and English, immersed themselves in this revival.

I have often wondered how it is that so many foreigners have been able to work with and develop high-quality handicrafts and been so instrumental in India’s handloom revival. When we gathered socially, we often asked ourselves why this was so. Even though we had been differently involved with textiles and craft in our lives before India, India’s skill and richness in these areas was altogether at another level. The opportunity to contemporarize and make these more accessible, not just globally, but to evolving urban Indian tastes was wide open. As foreigners living in India, many of us needed to find ways to engage culturally with the country we lived in, to build bridges between our homelands and our new adopted land. And textiles, so critical to any culture, became that point of entry.

Also read: Little to no demand for silk weaves amid Covid crisis brings many of Assam’s looms to a halt

Brigitte remembers she was swimming at a Jaipur hotel when she saw a tall, handsome man looking at her from the other end of the pool. He had seen her and decided she was going to be his wife. He dived into the water next to her and from then on, Brigitte never looked back. She has worked for years with artisans from Rajasthan, who are experts at block printing, on colour, design and placement. Today her signature prints, undoubtedly some of the finest work available in the country, command a high price, and great attention. Judy Frater came to India as a college student in the 1970s, and has never gone back. The founder of Kala Raksha in Gujarat, she has been instrumental not only in the revival of embroidery in Kutch and Saurashtra but helped to provide employment and shelter to women in the deserts of Kutch. Two of our group, John Bissell and Faith Singh, went on to become big textile retailers, starting their own brands. It was through John’s wife Bim (Bimla) Bissell that we were first introduced to so many of the others.

John Bissell arrived in India from New York in 1958, on a two-year grant to work with Indian villagers on products that could be exported to international markets and advise the government-run Central Cottage Industries Corporation. His love for India and its crafts made him stay well after the grant ran out, and his earlier work experience with handwoven fabrics at Macy’s, the major US retailer, was a natural doorway to then multimillion-dollar company he subsequently set up. His intention to boost the image of handloom textiles and provide opportunities for local artisans led to the founding of Fabindia. It was in those years that he met and fell in love with Bimla Nanda, who was working at the US embassy. As a journalist, David’s paths crossed with the Bissells often, and soon we were swept up in the company of others like us, expats from Europe and America living in India for one reason or another, all finding our way to local crafts and textiles. We were a small group, who formed a community of sorts. There was more camaraderie than competition. In fact, while setting up Shades of India, David and I met John Bissell to ask his advice, fearing he might think we were competing with him. But, to the contrary, he encouraged us to go ahead with our plans. It wasn’t hard to forge these strong friendships in Delhi.

David came up with the name ‘Shades of India’, and before we knew it we were off to Rampur in Uttar Pradesh after a lucky break. Barbara Smith, an American art historian and also an old friend I made through my work at the Rug Society, had wanted to catalogue the miniature paintings in the Nawab of Rampur’s collection. She had wandered through the local bazaar there and come upon a stall selling the most exquisite organdy with applique leaf patterns stitched on to it, called, quite simply ‘patti ka kaam’ or leaf work. Many of the ladies of the town wore this beautiful, fine white cotton organdy as a dupatta over their traditional tunics and salwars (loose pants). Barbara then found a little shop that was making these dupattas and asked them if they would make curtains for her to carry back to New York. When she returned to us in Delhi, we happened to have Marie Claude, a French designer we had met through friends in Paris, staying with us and she immediately fell in love with the curtains Barbara had brought back from Rampur. This was Marie Claude’s first visit to India. She suggested that we could develop this material into an entire collection of home furnishings, such as tablecloths, curtains, napkins to show at the International Trade Fair, Maison et Objet, outside Paris. She set off with David and me to Rampur, where we found the craftsmen, after which we displayed our products at the Paris trade fair.

Soon Shades of India was off to a blazing start with its first order. Being the first time Indian fabric was shown here, our stall was an immediate success and we received many more orders than we had thought possible. People who saw David and I, two English people at the stall selling this exquisite fabric, looked almost incredulously at the name of our company, wondering if this really was a product of Indian hands. They hadn’t seen anything from India as finely crafted and contemporary enough to be appreciated across borders but had only been accustomed to what was colloquially known as ‘Indian Tat’, short for tatty, coarse, poorly designed and finished textiles and handicrafts sold at souvenir shops everywhere.

Soon we had more work than we could handle. We needed more craftsmen to keep up with the orders, and someone to help us oversee the work by travelling to Rampur every week. There were just a few families in Rampur engaged in the craft. As is the story of handicrafts nearly everywhere, younger generations, eager to join the modern workforce and optimize technology to their financial advantage, were leaving their family’s handloom traditions behind. This meant that several crafts, which involved long hours of painstaking work, were being lost. I considered our options. If Shades was to grow and be a success, we would have to find a way to keep up with the demand. A friend and a prominent writer, Patwant Singh, suggested setting up workshops in villages near a charity hospital he had established in neighbouring Haryana. I had already travelled a little through Haryana and Punjab while working on the durries that women wove and carried as brides to their new homes. But these villages were in a different part of the state, in Sohna district, and fortunately, not too far from Delhi. David and I set off through mustard fields and bumpy roads, until we arrived at a group of dusty buildings that was the hospital. O.P. Yadav, who ran a local NGO involved in women’s rights and empowerment and was an acquaintance of Patwant, jumped into our car, and took us to a village called Kherla. By local standards, Kherla is a large village. The 2011 census counts Kherla’s population at just over 5,000 people, and a higher average sex ratio (920 compared to the state’s average of 879) and higher literacy than the rest of the state as well. It was a good place for us to start. Yadav introduced us to the sarpanch (village headman) and told him about our proposal. He liked the idea, which was a relief, but wasn’t sure how many villagers would agree as well. Only two women came forward. They were hesitant, shy even, and a little intimidated, wondering why the ‘goras’ (foreigners) were interested in them. We started production with them in an empty house, with an aangan (central courtyard) and rooms all around, which we had spotted on our way in when we peeped through the keyhole of its locked door. With O.P. Yadav’s help we found the owner and negotiated the rent, went back to Delhi, picked up a thaan (roll) of organdy and came back to Kherla.

Also read: Handlooms silent, no Bohag Bihu sale: Assam textile hub Sualkuchi fights to survive Covid

The two women needed to be trained from scratch. Fine embroidery was a long way away, as these women needed to learn simple, basic stitching. By this time, we had hired a tailor who worked out of our home in Delhi’s Sardar Patel Marg, stitching napkins and curtains and all the items we were sending out to our buyers. Mandeep, our assistant, taught the two women to sew and hem and prepared them to start duplicating the patti ka kaam of Rampur. Before we knew it, their confidence had grown. They were working and earning their own money for the first time in their lives and felt empowered in the home, encouraging more and more women to come and join the work. Before we knew it, large numbers of these women were part of the Kherla workshop, empowering their daughters and asserting themselves at work and at home. For one of the women, the symbol of that liberation was the purchase of a cupboard, one that she could lock. She now had the means to buy something she wanted and the strength to ensure her own privacy in the tiny space of her home. Women are tougher than most people give them credit for. We rise to all sorts of challenges – emotional, financial, physical – as demands are made on our time, energies and mind-space from often deeply conservative families. The workshop became a space for so many of them to interact with a different world, share stories of wonder and tribulation and escape from the drudgery of feeding and caring for their men and their children. By and by other women, encouraged by them, came looking for work, and the Kherla workshop grew to house over 200 women who learned the art of embroidery and applique from scratch, gaining confidence and independence as they did so. 



This excerpt of A Woven Life by Jenny Housego and Maya Mirchandani, has been published with special permission from Roli books.

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