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Geetanjali Krishna: Back to art school

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Often when I look at Indian handicrafts, I wonder why we have the world’s of and artisans — yet few among them have undergone any formal training. And even fewer achieve national and international recognition. Could skills and design training be the key to bridging the chasm between artisans and designers? Last month, I met Khatri Akib Ibrahim, a young Ajrakh printer who had just completed a month-long residency programme at Delhi-based Happy Hands Foundation. An award-winning graduate of the Kalaraksha school, the Bhuj-based artisan – the youngest in a long line of Ajrakh printers – talked to me about all the new things he had learnt and the ideas he had for designing and marketing his age-old craft.

“My father and grandfather have passed down the skill of Ajrakh to me,” he said. “It is a beautiful but laborious art of block printing and resist-dyeing textiles that’s been practised in Gujarat for centuries.” While Ibrahim’s ancestors worked only on bulk orders from retailers, he feels there is today a growing market of direct buyers. “One of the most important things that this residency has taught me is the importance of communication,” he said. “To sell my product, I must be able to tell them about all the work that goes into it. Only then will my customers understand the magic of Ajrakh!” So, Ibrahim has devised tags for all his products and plans to add fabric care instructions. “This would help me market my products better!” he said.

During the training, he learnt concepts of basic design and material exploration. “While my grandfather and father print yards upon yards of Ajrakh, their designs never changed. But now I’m planning to work on some new designs and colours!” he said. “I want to experiment with natural dyes and pigments to obtain offbeat colours like grey, khaki, purple and off white.” Since Ibrahim participates in many fairs, he plans to sample these new colours in small batches there. He also wants to employ the technique of Ajrakh to create newer products: “I want to make wall hangings and dhurries rather than the same old saris, dress materials and bed covers!”

When our meeting ended, he handed me a card with a smart, self-designed logo. I left him, excited to have met a craftsman who thought out-of-the-box. Then I started to wonder whether such training actually translated to better sales and more creative products. There were no numbers available since craft residencies are a relatively new concept. However, Happy Hands founder Medhavi Gandhi was optimistic about their outcome. “Rural artisans rarely manage to travel away from their homes/villages and this sometimes constrains their imagination. Our residency programme encourages them to explore their artistic traditions through innovative and creative processes,” she said.

A conversation with of Crafting Nuru, an organisation that’s helped set up five schools for craftspeople in Bikaner, underlined the importance of training. “Our artisans need training to ensure that they remain relevant to the market,” she said. “Traditionally, they conceptualised products that they found useful, but these didn’t necessarily appeal to urban consumers. Further, selling their wares in local village markets is very different from selling in city markets in India and abroad. This is where training and exposure to new markets can help.”

All this sounds great. What remains to be seen is how well Khatri Akib Ibrahim’s take on Ajrakh does in local and urban markets.

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