Indian Design Tradition Finds Expression in a Modern World

Ben Bellizzi
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Traditional & Contemporary side-by-side at recent fashion event, with student-designer,Varshaben Uttambhai (left)

Editor’s Note: The western-most district of Kutch, in the state of Gujarat is one of the most ecologically and ethnically diverse districts in India.  Close to the Pakistan border and subject to a massive earthquake in 2001, the people have a reputation for strength and resilience. Kutch is a celebrated for its art, crafts, music, dance, people and nature. A plethora of brilliant hues, profusion of design, superfluity of culture, a cornucopia of music and dance— together in the arid lands of Kutch—creates a mosaic of culture and design tradition which reflects the identity and spirit of the region.   

At the forefront of present-day Indian culture is the convergence of the traditional and the modern. This phenomenon affects issues from politics to religion to the arts as people strive to move forward economically and professionally while maintaining their heritage, identity, and individuality. A pursuit exists for a balance between what was and what is, especially for those with a direct link to tradition. In Kutch, where the legacy of intricate embroidery stretches back centuries and is still visible in the everyday dress of its residents, the past stands arm in arm with the present. fine arts magazine

The survival of Kutchi art depends on the combination of the two, and the successful artist is the one who is able to work with a connection to both worlds. For the traditional artisans of Kala Raksha (literally “Art Preservation”) located near the regional capital of Bhuj, the idea of Artisan Design combines the old and the new in a way that allows them to sustain the essence of their craft while competing in the international market and ever-evolving world of fashion design. 

A Kala Raksha coordinatior, Pabiben Lakhman, displays examples of colorful 'Rabari' embroidery

Historically, Indian art made no distinction between craft and design. The traditional artisan would create, from beginning to end, a product reflecting the lifestyle and environment of that individual. Artisan Design is a trademark that celebrates the traditional artisan’s autonomy over his/her artistic expression. It ensures that every product bearing its symbol is conceived, constructed, and priced by the artisan, and in doing so provides rural artisans the opportunity to succeed in a market where designers, laborers, and merchants work separately for disproportionate compensation. Artisan Design is the driving force behind the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya (the nation’s first design school for artisans, located near the Gulf of Kutch), now beginning its sixth year of classes. At the school, students from the region learn to incorporate each aspect of the trade so that they may not only continue to grow within their medium, but may also receive appropriate compensation and gain respect and social status within their communities.   

Kala Raksha's universally popular, Pabi-bags

Lachuben Raja, a Rabari embroiderer with no formal education, graduated from the Vidhyalaya in 2006 (and has been a coordinator with Kala Raksha since 1994). She has taught embroidery at the US Embassy School in Delhi and has traveled to Australia and the United States for exhibitions, workshops, and seminars. This level of artisan involvement is unique to Kala Raksha and is a revolutionary step in modern business, where the division of labor often comes at the expense of traditional artists; it helps the artisan avoid marginalization as well as promotes their creative expression, which in turn introduces innovative products to the public.   

Graduating student, Salmabai Ismailbhai, makes a presentation

While mass production tends to flood the market with impersonal merchandise, Artisan Design ensures a close relationship between producer and consumer. The artist studies the trends of the market, develops and enhances those trends, while applying his/her creative perspectives, and ultimately delivers fairly-priced products to buyers who may be assured of each item’s authenticity. This model is best exemplified by the success of another Kala Raksha coordinator, Pabiben Lakhman (above), whose use of the art form Hari Jari led her to create the now world-renowned Pabi-Bag. The rampant success of this bag has landed it in Hollywood and Bollywood films alike, and the public’s constant and seemingly ceaseless demand for it has made it a staple at every Kala Raksha exhibition.   

Artisan Design benefits traditional artisans from a variety of backgrounds. Salmabai Ismailbhai, a Jat embroiderer, also grew up without a formal education. She learned the basic skills of embroidery by watching her mother and grandfather (Kala Raksha contributors themselves), and when she enrolled at the Vidhyalaya, she blossomed as both artist and individual. Shedding her initial timidity, she graduated in 2009, winning the award for Most Promising Artisan for her fresh garment collection. She learned to read and write through Kala Raksha’s basic education classes, and she now claims, “My art is my livelihood, my capability, and a means to independence.”   

A Vashaben Uttambhai design on the runway

The Vidhyalaya has provided similar opportunities to Suf embroiderer Varshaben Uttambhai. A resident of Sumraser-Sheikh (home of the Kala Raksha Trust), Varshaben completed her formal education through the seventh grade, yet turned to embroidery when she was unable to continue her schooling in the nearby city of Bhuj. Since graduating from the Vidhyalaya in 2008, she has participated in exhibitions in Delhi, Mumbai, and Ahmedabad, and she believes that an increase in the creativity of her designs will result in a higher demand for Suf products in the future. The Artisan Design philosophy supports these women to flourish artistically and economically as they surpass the limitations of those from similar backgrounds to realize a new level of personal creativity, self-worth, and social standing.   

Designer Suleman (R) takes a bow at recent Kala Raksha Design School event

Suleman Umarfaruqbhai Khatri, on the other hand, came to Kala Raksha from a somewhat different angle. Having become disenchanted with the troubling ethics of a career in law, he chose to return to the family art of Bandhani and partnered his valuable business experience with his brother’s skill for craft. He realized that art must change with the times, and now, after studying the art himself, he and his brother work to bring the traditional into the modern. He exemplifies the evolved artisan whose success depends as much on the knowledge of the market’s fluctuations as on the intricacies of the craft.   

In the arena of traditional arts, any form of stagnation will soon render a medium antique. The market is worldwide, and in order to compete and thrive in such an environment, the artist must become worldwide as well. The challenge put forth to traditional artisans is to adapt to the requisite changes while maintaining the cultural and individual identities that continue to serve as the foundation of their art. Artisan Design guarantees artisans the opportunity to benefit from their own creative exploration, the result of which is to provide the market with Fair-Trade products that fuse together the most desirable traits of tradition and innovation.   

By Ben Bellizzi, Guest Contributor 

To learn more about Kala Raksha and see ‘global village’ products for sale, go to:  


FYI:  Kutch district (also spelled, Kachchh) is district of Gujarat state in western India. Covering an area of 45,612 km², it is the largest district of India.   

Kutch district embroiderers (including Lachuben Raja, right) plying their craft

The district is also famous for ecologically important Banni grasslands with their seasonal marshy wetlands which form the outer belt of the Rann of Kutch.  

Kachchh literally means something which intermittently becomes wet and dry; a large part of this district is known as Rann of Kachchh which is shallow wetland which submerges in water during the rainy season and becomes dry during other seasons. The same word is also used in the languages of Sanskrit origin for a tortoise and garments to be worn while having a bath. The Rann is famous for its marshy salt flats which become snow white after the shallow water dries up each season before the monsoon rains. 

Kachchh District is surrounded by the Gulf of Kachchh and the Arabian Sea in south and west, while northern and eastern parts are surrounded by the Great and Small Rann (seasonal wetlands) of Kachchh. When there were not many dams built on its rivers, the Rann of Kachchh remained wetlands for a large part of the year. Even today, the region remains wet for a significant part of year.   


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