The Designer’s Destination
Brinda Gill explores the rich and vibrant textile and design heritage of Ahmedabad.
Exploring the rich textile and design heritage of Ahmedabad
Ahmedabad, the largest city of the western Indian state of Gujarat and its former capital, meshes the past, present and future in its cityscape. From intricately carved stone monuments and beautifully carved wooden structures of centuries past to chimneys of mills that speak of its earlier epithet of being the ‘Manchester of the East’ for its production of mill-made cloth, famous educational institutes designed by eminent architects, upcoming IT parks and malls, the Sabarmati Riverfront promenade, the international airport and more–the city’s spaces speak of its multi-faceted identity.
THE MAHATMA’S EXAMPLE
Ahmedabad is inextricably linked with the presence and spirit of Gandhiji, as it was from Sabarmati Ashram that he led the Dandi March. Gandhiji also took up several causes associated with the textile industry, specially the handspinning of yarn and weaving of cloth with this yarn to create khadi. During India’s freedom struggle, khadi was closely identified with cloth woven from hand-spun cotton yarn, and the spinning wheel, associated with khadi, was the symbol of liberation, freedom and non-violent revolution. The ashram recalls Gandhji’s efforts to promote khadi, and stores like Chandan Khadi Bhandar near the ashram take pride in selling a range of khadi apparel and linen, as do designers in the city.
CITY OF MILLS
“When it comes to understanding the present scenario regarding textiles and garments, one must understand the DNA of Ahmedabad. It was once the ‘City of Mills’ with around 300 mills of varying scales which were involved in the spinning of yarn and weaving of cloth. These mills were founded based on technology from Europe,” says Villoo Mirza, Former Director, National Institute of Fashion Technology, Gandhinagar.
“The nationalisation of mills was another chapter in their history, and those mills that did not bring in new technology collapsed. However, mill workers had the knowledge of fabric construction and different aspects related to textile production, and this led to them being employed in different units related to textile production. Though several mills closed down, some continued and those like Arvind Mills, Ashima, Asawara and Modern–all the ones that brought in modern technology are doing very well,” states Mirza.
A CENTRE FOR CRAFTS
Gujarat has, since long, been regarded as a cradle of handcrafted textiles. While Ahmedabad had its own body of artisans working on different textile crafts, specially embroidery and block printing, the city’s proximity to Kutch and Saurashtra also brought in handcrafted textiles, garments as well as artisans. Many migrants also arrived here from different parts of the country to work at the mills. “In the earlier days, the city’s landscape was dotted with mills. Migrant labourers who were travelling to Ahmedabad by train and could not read were simply told that once they saw many chimneys appearing, they should disembark at the station!” says Asif Shaikh, master embroiderer and textile designer who has a studio in the city.
“Interestingly, the wives of migrant labourers who arrived from different parts of Gujarat were skilled in embroidery, and could thus take up hand embroidery,” says Villoo, who worked with Mrinalini Sarabhai, Chairperson of the Gujarat State Handicrafts and Handloom Development Corporation Ltd, who she credits with taking its brand-store Gurjari to a global level. By tapping into the immense talent of textile artisans of Gujarat, the beauty of traditional embroidery of Gujarat as well as other textile techniques such as tie-dye and weaving, Gurjari went on to make ethnic chic. “We worked on embroidered yokes and had them attached to kurtas and kurtis, which were worn with salwars, churidars as well as embroidered bell bottoms. These embroidered kurtas and kurtis became a rage all over India.
This was possible because of the inherent craft skills of the people of Gujarat, especially in Ahmedabad. The strength of Ahmedabad continues to be its artisans who create surface ornamentation using traditional ethnic skills.”
NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF DESIGN
The establishment of NID at Ahmedabad in 1961 as a centre for design education, practice and research, based on the philosophy of learning by doing, played a very important role in nurturing talent and creative minds over the past half-century. Today, the institute, declared as an ‘Institution of National Importance’, offers a spectrum of professional education graduate and post-graduate programmes as well as a PhD programme, foundation programme workshops, international exchange programmes, collaborations, and more that have created designers in varied fields, many of whom have contributed to and created the city’s vibrant design ethos.
NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF FASHION TECHNOLOGY, GANDHINAGAR
National Institute of Fashion Technology is a group of fashion colleges, established in 1986 under the aegis of the Ministry of Textiles, Government of India. It is an institution of design, management and technology for international fashion business and offers undergraduate and post-graduate courses and programmes in design, management and technology. Over the years, NIFT campuses have been established at different cities in India. The establishment of NIFT at Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, about 23 kilometres north of Ahmedabad, in 1995, added another dimension to the textile and fashion industry of Ahmedabad. Trained fashion designers from NIFT could now connect and collaborate with artisans in Ahmedabad and Gujarat to create apparel labels and their training in fashion and marketing skills increased the fashion business in the area.
ESTABLISHING GARMENT LABELS
Over the decades, an entire spectrum of organisations and designers emerged in the landscape of Ahmedabad, crafting garments of different expressions from SEWA, an organisation of self-employed women who are involved in different activities including handcrafted garments to standalone designer studios creating one-of-akind garments.
“Members of mill families contributed greatly to developing Ahmedabad as a design centre. Many prominent mill families invited architects and designers to Ahmedabad. Asha Sarabhai launched Raag and was invited by Japanese designer Issey Miyake to launch Asha, her own label under the Miyake Design Studio in Tokyo. Well-known designers from abroad have also come to the city to collaborate with local designers and artisans. Among them is Christina Kim,” says Villoo.
Many designers who studied at NID or NIFT stayed on in Ahmedabad or went on to pursue further courses abroad and then returned to Ahmedabad to establish their stores or studios with their own garment collections. Villoo credits Archana Shah for establishing Bandhej (1985), describing the store as the first standalone destination for garments that blended traditional craft and style, and successfully continuing with its ethos over the past three decades of handmade fashion apparel. Another NID graduate
is Aratrik Dev Varman Founder and Designer, Tilla, who designs simple, stylish contemporary attire rooted in handwork. More recently, some designers have established multi-designer stores where they present different international luxury garment brands.
With its unique heritage and history, in July 2017, the old, historic walled city of Ahmedabad was declared as India’s first UNESCO World Heritage City in July 2017. The city’s rich past and culture has nurtured creative minds who were surrounded by its ethos. Asif recalls growing up seeing natural-dyed hand-block printed textiles drying by the Sabarmati River bank and textile artisans at work and enjoying the expression of eminent modern architects such as Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, BV Doshi and others in the city.
The culture around him, his interest in embroidery, led him to establish his embroidery studio where he designs and creates collections of embroidered artworks and unique scarves, shawls and saris of very fine and miniature embroidery, primarily ari and zardozi, on handwoven textiles that have been sourced from different parts of the country. He says that while the city has undergone a huge change, one can still come across skilled artisans who can be trained to learn techniques and fineness of work that is the hallmark of his eponymous label.
CITY OF MUSEUMS
Historical, rare and antique Indian textiles are a great resource for designers and students as they tell of authentic techniques of crafting them; the sheer skill, creativity and effort of artisans in creating them; traditional motifs, patterns and colours; and other details. While centuries-old textiles are hard to come by due to their fragility, The Calico Museum of Textiles managed by the Sarabhai Foundation brings seekers a unique and fantastic collection of some of the finest and rarest Indian textiles. The exhibits cover textiles and apparel crafted by different textile techniques, from weaving to resist-dyeing, embroidery, printing, and painting, and different styles of these techniques. A guided tour is organised which takes visitors through the different galleries. There is a counter with displays of publications brought out by the foundation, which includes folders and books related to Indian textile techniques and textiles.
Ahmedabad could easily be called City of Museums for the many museums in the city that are sure to inspire designers. Among these is Vechaar, a museum displaying over 4000 artefacts, mostly kitchen utensils. This is regarded as the only museum of its kind (fittingly located in the Vishalla complex that has a rural ambience and serves local cuisine!).
LD Museum also has a wealth of Indian sculptures, manuscripts, paintings and other artefacts. The Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum has a wonderful collection of traditional and modern art displayed in a restored heritage home. Other noteworthy guardians of heritage include the Kite Museum, the Shreyas Museum that has a museum of folk arts and also houses toys and other objects from different parts of the country, the Kanoria Centre for Arts that has a wonderful gallery, several studios, and holds programmes and workshops, and the Leila & Purushottam Hutheesing Visual Art Centre that promotes art and cultural activities. The House of MG, a charming heritage hotel also has a textile museum and books on textiles speaking of the rich traditional textiles of the region and how they find space in the homes and hearts of the city’s residents!
With such a rich tapestry of textile tradtions, design spaces and creative minds, Ahmedabad is truly a designer’s dream come true.