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Lunch with BS: Laila Tyabji

Modern traditionalist

Geetanjali Krishna 

Laila Tyabji
Laila Tyabji

Corporate investment would make the sector attractive for craftspeople, says the woman most credited with the resurgence of Indian handicraft

Delicate strains of Carnatic music waft to my ears. As I walk in to the much talked about Cafe Lota at the Crafts Museum, it seems the perfect setting to meet a woman who's known as the doyenne of Indian handicraft. I find a table in a shady nook and my phone pings. "I'm five feet tall, short grey hair, wearing a sari!" she texts. I reply that I know her well by sight. For Laila Tyabji is the most recognisable face of the resurgence of Indian handicraft today. The founder member and Chairperson of Dastkar, a society for crafts & craftspeople, she has spent her life connecting craftspeople with markets in India and abroad, even as she has worked to ensure that their craft products remain relevant in the modern context.

As elegant as she is outspoken, Tyabji is a delightful lunch companion. "I'm so glad we managed to meet this week, probably the last few days perfect for al fresco lunches before summer," she says, settling down. Effortlessly elegant in a blue silk sari and perfectly-matched jewellery, she is very down to earth. Peering enthusiastically at the eclectic pan-Indian menu of the cafe, she recommends we share a platter of crispy palak chaat for starters. I tell her that the rented DDA flat in which Dastkar took its initial steps belongs to my father, which is why I count myself among their earliest and most enthusiastic customers. She laughs delightedly as she tells me fond memories she has of that flat. "When I started working in the craft sector in the seventies, there was a perception of crafts as dusty relics that one bought out of social duty - not because they were usable," she says. "Hopefully, that perception has changed somewhat today."

The chaat is deliciously crunchy, and Tyabji delicately breaks off bits with her knife and fork as she talks about how she happened to join the craft sector. "I started off wanting to be a great artist," she says. After studying art in Baroda [now Vadodara] and then Japan, she saw how the Japanese blurred the distinction between art and design. "It was an eye-opener for me. I realised I enjoyed making objects that could be used," she says. Upon her return, it was design towards which she veered. "I tried everything from designing stage sets and costumes to interior design to making notepaper for Indira Gandhi," she says, laughing at her own recollections. But it was a chance design consultancy assignment in Kutch in 1978 that changed the course of her career.

"There I was, an urban, westernised, motorcycle-riding girl, thrown into a culture of which I knew little. At that time, if you showed a Gujarati craftsperson a picture of himself, he'd probably not recognise it. The scale was different you see... So getting them to make uniform designs seemed impossible," she recollects. The process was exhilarating, but also enabled Tyabji to realise a key fact: "to make a craft object better, you have to first make the life of the craft producer better," she says.

This was the germ of the idea that grew into the organisation recognised internationally today as Dastkar. After Tyabji returned from Kutch, a completely different assignment fell into her lap. She was asked to visualise, design and run the shopping arcade at the Taj Mansingh in Delhi. "It was a big success," she said. Tyabji's watershed moment came with, what she refers to as, The Incident with the Baskets.

While working on the interiors of the showroom, Tyabji decided that potted plants would go well with its open design. She ordered some cane baskets from the Assam Emporium to use as planters. "Surprisingly, we found there was a demand for the baskets, and began selling them in reasonable numbers," she says. The Assam Emporium was happy with the repeat orders (no one had ever wanted their baskets as much apparently) and so was she. The Taj management knew their maths, and wasn't so thrilled: "they pointed out that my selling price for the baskets was too low as I'd not factored in the cost of the prime real estate that they were occupying. If I added that cost to these huge baskets, they'd be priced too high and unsellable. Instead, if I stocked less bulky and more valuable products, the sales per square foot of the shop would substantially increase," she said. Before Tyabji could give Assam Emporium the bad news, the manager told her they won't be able to supply the baskets since it was costing the producers too much in transportation.

"That's when it struck me. The baskets had a market. The basket makers would benefit by their sales. There was only one obstacle - the logistics of bringing the craft producers and their products closer to their market," she recounts. The Incident of the Baskets led Tyabji, along with five others, to form Dastkar in 1981, and the rest is history.

It's time to order our main course and Tyabji opts for Konkan Fish Curry ("Only if I can have it with an appam instead of rice," she requests). The conversation veers towards the myriad bazaars Dastkar organises, now in Kisan Haat (Andheria More). "We've got the place on a 15-year lease and organise events throughout the year such as Green Mela, Design Mela and, of course, Nature Bazaar. While the logistics at our end are difficult, this is giving many new craftspeople the chance to market their products in Delhi," she says. As a dedicated customer, I've sometimes felt that there isn't enough innovation in crafts, I comment. "Craftspeople have little incentive to innovate," she counters. "Not only is it too expensive, they are often unable to produce new products that resonate with remote markets. What artisans need are more designers to work with them, but I find that the younger lot isn't all that interested in working in villages..." While Dastkar works throughout the year with artisans to help them add to their craft repertoire, it has limited funds.

The fish curry arrives, hot and fragrant, with lacy appams on the side. My choice, Parsi Salli Boti arrives seconds later. "Let's take a break from all this talking so we can eat some food," she says. Just then, the director of the Crafts Museum Ruchira Ghosh spots her and stops for a chat. Tyabji and Ghosh discuss their passion for saris. "My girls at Dastkar keep encouraging me to buy more and more saris," laughs Tyabji. "They know that whenever I buy one, I give one to them!" They talk about the opening of the exhibition, The Body in Indian Art at the National Museum. "I abhor openings," says Tyabji, "I'll probably just go when I'm not likely to meet a lot of people..."

We do justice to the excellent food and decide to forego dessert. After Ghosh leaves, Tyabji talks about her dream of bringing corporate investment in handicrafts. "Crafts are the second-largest employment generator in India after agriculture. They don't require large investment, fancy machines, technology or experts," she says. The unique skills required for each craft are abundantly present here. "Moreover, Indian handicrafts will never face competition from the Chinese or Koreans in the open market!" Corporate investment could help make the craft sector attractive enough for craftspeople. "Else, soon a day will come when there's a worldwide push for handmade products - but nobody left here to produce them..." she says soberly.

After Tyabji leaves, I walk around the Crafts Museum, looking at different craftspeople displaying their products. Suddenly, somehow, I feel a little like I'm in a zoo, looking at animals rarely found in the wild anymore. The Indian craftsman may soon become as endangered - and what a tragedy that would be.

First Published: Fri, March 21 2014. 21:44 IST