Discovering the fabric arts of Gujarat

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From Kala Raksha museum collection

To anyone who came to know textiles from India in the 1960s, it can come as a surprise to learn just how elegant the real deal can be. Forget those cotton bedspreads with the elephants, and don’t even think about tie-dyed t-shirts. The tribal traditions that continue to inspire fashion are something else altogether.

Last month, I visited several textile artisans in their workshops in western India, and had a first-hand look at the fabric arts of Gujarat. Everywhere we went, my travel companions and I were impressed with how local artisans are continuing time-honored methods of design and production, even as they turn eyes and hands toward the demands of discerning consumers in the fashion centers of India, Europe and North America.

To get us started, a morning with Judy Frater of Kala Raksha Centre in Sumrasar Sheikh, near Bhuj, helped us understand how a growing community of artisans, mostly women, are evolving their craft to meet the demands of a new century.

Prize-winning needlework

We met women who are winning prizes for innovative designs drawn from their observations of modern life. In addition to articles of clothing, they make high-quality products attuned to modern life, from wall hangings, pillow shams and quilts sized to fit today’s bed frames, to handbags perfectly at home on the streets of Milan or New York.

Embroidered seed pouch

Kala Raksha’s musem collection numbers more than 700 pieces, all cataloged and protected from the elements. Along with design students visiting from the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, we were shown objects, such as this seed pouch. Like most of the work we saw, the bag is highly practical. Meant to be worn while going about daily tasks, its exterior panel is heavily ornamented (although the creator couldn’t resist a bit of design on the back, as well). The museum welcomes serious researchers of regional textile arts.

Kala Raksha, begun in 1991 as a project involving 25 embroiderers in Sumrasar Sheikh, is now a trust working with hundreds of artisans in several ethnic communities in the region. Its design school for practicing artisans, Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, offers a one-year course which presents students with real-world design challenges, and encourages them to find authentic, marketable solutions. The results are showcased—and for sale—in a shop housed alongside the school. The work, finished to a high standard, has found its way to high-end retailers far from Kutch.

Judy Frater

I liked just about everything I saw in the shop, but was particularly taken with the totes (and took several away with me). The bags come in all sizes, some decorated with panels of top-notch traditional Rabari embroidery and others boasting colorful ribbon work, which, Judy Frater told us, began as a design response to the situation facing local needle workers.

After our mini-education at Kala Raksha, we were ready to visit the women and men who are, in some cases single handed, keeping their textile art traditions alive in an age of mass production.

To end this post, here’s another peek into the holdings of the Kala Raksha museum. The museum’s entire collection is now available online.

Needlework from Kala Raksha collection

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