In time like these, few things can feel as therapeutic as reminiscing the moments filled with love, joy and above all, hope. One such moment that I always hold closest to my heart is the day the first batch of the students of The Chanakya School of Craft graduated. We set out with this school to empower women from underprivileged backgrounds, but I think in the end, their confidence, optimism and fire to rise above all odds has left me empowered.
Our next batch of students are waiting for the pandemic to end so they can come back to school – their very own safe haven. And if I am being honest, I can’t wait for the school to reopen either, and be inspired by these brilliant stars!
In the meantime, let me take you back to how it all started.
In rural India, especially among some rural communities in Kutch, Gujarat, embroidery is a huge and integral part of the women’s daily lives. They use embroidery and several unique weaving techniques to make their own clothes, linen, home décor accents, torans to name a few. In fact, they even make bridal ensembles for their children’s weddings!
We’ve visited Kutch and several parts of India for a closer look and deeper understanding of their craft, and have always been left mesmerised. These techniques are intricate and elaborate, yet so deeply ingrained into their lives that executing them feels like second nature to these artisans. And not to mention, how unique these techniques are! As proud as we were, we were also left a bit saddened. This art, this heritage is dying a slow death. It’s almost impossible to sustain it in the face of the rapidly rampant fast fashion. And it needs to be sustained, not only because entire communities’ livelihoods depend on it, but also because these crafts and techniques are unique to our country’s heritage. The artisans and craftsmen families have been practicing it since generations, and deserve the recognition and reverence.
As designers who wanted to create ensembles rooted in Indian heritage, we knew we had to do our bit. The seeds of Chanakya School of Craft were sown in our minds. But it was our mentor (and Creative Director of Dior) Maria Grazia Chiuri, who over multiple long conversations, gave us that final push. The school was built on a few key cornerstones. For as long as we can remember, the embroidery and crafting space has been dominated by men, even though women from the community are equally adept and have been doing the same work in villages and their tribes. Saving and sustaining these crafts is the need of the hour, and for this we need more and more people involved at every level. We couldn’t do this without breaking the gender barriers around it. We started the school to create equality and equity. The curriculum doesn’t just cover embroidery and crafting techniques, but offers a holistic learning experience.
So that when they’re finally graduated from the school, they are thoroughly empowered with all the knowledge, resources and skills to make it in the ‘real world’. Not just that, but they also now have the knowledge to adapt Indian arts and crafts to make it more relevant to modern times.
India’s artisanal heritage and its communities cannot exist in silos on the fringes. The school endeavours to bridge the gap between traditional crafts and the modern world, to facilitate gender equality and equity, as well as a timeless sustenance of centuries-old crafts.
Our first batch consisted of about 200 students – girls and women across diverse age groups and backgrounds working together to create a future that’s more inclusive, empowering and authentic. Many of our students started out at the school as a haven where they could be themselves, relax and enjoy learning. By the time they graduated, they were carrying dreams of launching their own labels, becoming independent designers, and so much more.
As designers, there is nothing more precious than watching these women light up with the same joy and enthusiasm as we did when we started out!