In July last year, Indian designer Anupamaa Dayal went to Istanbul for a fashion show, but landed in the historic Turkish city on the wrong day. It was the day the Turkish military staged a coup against President Recep Erdogan. The show was postponed and when it eventually took place some weeks after the failed coup, Bengal and Banarasi prints and motifs became the symbol for the celebration of democracy. “I brought the Indian culture of celebration to the dress,” Dayal told the audience at the recently-concluded Nine Dot Squares, a design show that took place in Jaipur recently. The dresses that clothed the Turkish models were all made by artisans who came from remote villages in Rajasthan, Bengal, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. That collaboration between the designer and the artisan mirrors the leitmotif of Nine Dot Squares, which brings India’s designers and craftspeople on the same stage. At Jaipur’s Diggi Palace, the popular venue of the Jaipur Literature Festival, designers, architects, artisans and manufacturers made use of its geometrical spaces to showcase their work during the design show. The designers and architects talked about their works, while award-winning artisans showcased their crafts at workshops held for the city’s design students. A trade show filled with stalls showcased mostly products that linked design and artisanal skills.
Nine Dot Squares opened a window to the umbilical connection between the designer and the artisan, who largely remains unknown to consumers. “There is a lot of fragmentation in the Indian design sector,” says Jaipur-based architect Ritu Khandelwal, who founded Nine Dot Squares with Shalini Agarwal, a lifestyle entrepreneur from the Pink City.
Campaign for craftspeople
Launched last year, Nine Dot Squares was initially meant to be a trade show for the design sector. It, however, took the shape of a designer-artisan conclave when Khandelwal and Agarwal changed their minds and decided to create an organised campaign to ramp up support for the cause of the craftspeople. “Jaipur is the world’s craft city. We wanted to start from here,” says Agarwal, who hit upon the idea for a design show focusing on artisans while talking to Khandelwal about a piece of glassware. “She said she knew the artisan who had made that piece. I told her to connect me with that person,” she says. “Then we thought, why don’t we do it for the whole community of craftspeople who have to fend for themselves?”
Jaipur remains at the core of the show. The name is inspired by the old city’s plan that had nine squares. “Nine Squares depicts the culture of Jaipur. Dot is the modern link, the fusion of the communities of designers and artisans,” says Khandelwal, who led the restoration of the 18th-century Bishengarh Fort, which recently opened as a luxury hotel. At its second edition this year, Nine Dot Squares’ organisers invited nine designers, nine artisans and nine designer start-ups from Jaipur for three days of talks and workshops.
Chandri Bhai and Krishna Bhai, two rug weavers from Manpura village, about 40 km from Jaipur, came to the event to show how they make the famous Jaipur carpet, which is made from wool and bamboo silk. “I have been working with Jaipur Rugs (a company based in Jaipur) for the last 10 years,” says Krishna Bhai. “I also have three looms at home to weave rugs,” she adds. Naresh Tinkar brought his brass-chandelier-making expertise to the show, a skill that is behind many of the hanging lamps in heritage buildings like Jal Mahal, Amber Fort and Rambagh Palace. “This is the first time someone has invited us to a show to share space with big designers,” says Tinkar, who learned the art from his father.
Jaipur Rugs, the carpet company that employs Chandri Bhai and Krishna Bhai, began 40 years ago with one loom and four weavers in the Charu district of Rajasthan. Today, it has about 10,000 looms and employs nearly 40,000 weavers in six states. “About 80% of our weavers are women,” says Kavita Chaudhary, a designer at Jaipur Rugs. Last year, a carpet with 16 lakh knots, made by three of its weavers from three districts of Rajasthan, won the Germany Design Award, dubbed the ‘Oscar of the carpet industry’. The people behind Nine Dot Squares say they are working towards replicating success stories like that of Jaipur Rugs to protect dying crafts and transform the lives of tens of thousands of artisanal families.
At the show, miniature artist Manoj Soni explained to visitors his skills that have taken his works to the Oberoi hotel in Delhi, Leela Palace in Goa and the Hilton in Jaipur. “I make traditional Rajasthani miniature paintings in gold and silver leaves as per the Mughal school,” says Soni, who was passed on the art form by his father when he was only 14 years old. “I make it with beauty in my mind,” he adds.
Another award-winning miniature artist Rayiz Khan, a resident of Jaipur, drew huge applause on the concluding day of the show when he told the audience that Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, a frequent visitor to Rajasthan, owns one of his works.
Designers from Jaipur and outside are now beginning to stand by these artisans in their quest for recognition and protection of their skills. “It is very hard for artisans to survive in this modern world,” says Alan Tweedie, cultural adviser, Nine Dot Squares. “It is important for artisans to be at the centre of this cultural experience,” says Tweedie, who lives in Mumbai.
Alex Davis, a well-known artist and designer from Delhi, says he has built a 15-strong team of metal artisans from Bihar, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi over the past 15 years. “I use their skills and they know how to work with me as per my requirements,” says Davis, whose last installation called Splash was a crown of water drops made with hand-finished stainless steel.
Then there is Jaipur-based entrepreneur Ayush Kasliwal, who runs one of the Pink City’s biggest craft shops. He has joined hands with his wife Geetanjali to launch a campaign to change the lives of one million artisans in the country. “From the lens of sustainability, it is imperative for the designer and the artisan to come together to realise the wisdom of co-existing with the environment, bridge the gap between the two knowledge bases and eventually have a positive change in the lives of both rural and urban communities,” says designer and social entrepreneur Meghna Ajit, who held a bamboo workshop at Nine Dot Squares. She started her project, Beeja, in Ghaziabad’s handloom hub of Pillakhua, three years ago with only 15 artisans. Today, the project is supporting 50 artisans involved in bamboo-based block printing.
Together with Ajit’s bamboo workshop, award-winning craftsman Gopal Saini’s blue pottery workshop was a crowdpuller at the show. Saini’s craft, an original Persian art form, is dying from the absence of contemporary practitioners. “Our progress is dependent on artisans working with designers for building interior decors,” says Saini, whose Blue Pottery Welfare Society is supporting 100 artisans in Jaipur.
In its last edition, Nine Dot Squares drew 30 manufacturers to its trade exhibition stalls at the Diggi Palace lawns to present their new design products. This year, that number rose to 70. With more well-known designers like Dayal and Davis throwing their weight behind the show, the show is slowly beginning to make an impact on the lives of India’s artisans.
Author is a freelancer.