Closer to the Earth
Anurima Das profiles Madhu Jain, Crafts Revivalist and Textiles Conservationist, who has been pioneering the bamboo-silk ikat for a sustainable future for textiles.
A profile of Madhu Jain, Crafts Revivalist and Textiles Conservationist
In 2007, she became an eminent member for the Culture Committee, South Asia Foundation, which promotes better understanding between SAARC nations through crafts and culture. In 2011, she restored a rare khadi sari woven in prison in 1941 by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. In 2018, she was awarded Nari Shakti Puraskar 2017, the ‘highest civilian honour for women’, at Rashtrapati Bhavan by the Hon’ble President of India, Shri Ram Nath Kovind, for her outstanding contribution to women’s empowerment. She is none other than designer Madhu Jain. Better regarded as a Crafts Revivalist and Textiles Conservationist, she is a role model and torchbearer for the younger generation and has been a catalyst of change for the society at large. She has much recently (2017) been awarded the Pehchan 8th Rajiv Gandhi Excellence Award by Smt Sheila Dixit, the Governor of Kerala. This award honours her pioneering invention of the eco-friendly textile of the future, bamboo-silk ikat. This is the first of its kind, and it took her almost 15 years of R&D to unveil her creations in its entirety to the world. At the moment, she is busy taking her innovation beyond borders. But amidst her busy schedule, we caught her for a quick chat.
TAKE US BACK TO WHEN YOU STARTED IN THE INDUSTRY DECADES BACK.
Three decades ago, when I formally joined the fashion world, there were just a handful of designers. Back then, fashion did not enjoy the cult following that it does today and it was not so predictive of trends. We designers were not really cognisant of world fashion, and most of what we created had a strong Indian ethos, aimed specifically at the domestic market. Because it
was such a fledgling field, and the current cutthroat competition did not exist, all of us went out of our way to support each other. And even though each of us came from different design sensibilities, we would bind together as a single unit. The camaraderie between us was something I will cherish forever. Even today, those of us who started out together continue to watch out for each other. Back then, shows were few and far between, and all shows were multi-designer, with the designers brainstorming with the organisers and all the people who went into producing a show! We carried a lot of the success of a show on our shoulders by being equally involved in what happened backstage.
The Ensemble store in Mumbai quickly made its mark as the leader in fashion trends, and it was around that time that the fashion fraternity started seeing itself as being in a profession that had huge potential. It gives me great satisfaction to see today’s streamlined and thoroughly sophisticated fashion weeks. These are extremely professional events that nurture and bring new designers to the fore, and give the fraternity a common platform through which to drive India’s textiles tradition forward.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR COLLECTION? HOW WILL YOU DEFINE THE CHANGING SHADES OF YOUR COLLECTION OVER THE YEARS?
From the year dot, my work has been rooted in tradition, and I have strived to do my bit in furthering India’s 2,000-year-old textiles legacy. Being a Crafts Revivalist and Textiles Conservationist, I have concentrated on only natural, organic fibres, and today, I am honoured to say that I have been recognised for my work in developing new hand-woven textiles, high on quality and design, in distinctive combinations of two different weaving traditions from two states or countries. I have also been instrumental in the revival of traditional craft forms, notably the Nakshi Kantha stitch and the Dhaka muslin cloth, both of which had been lost to India after partition.
Unsurprisingly and inevitably, I found myself growing increasingly conscious of global warming and other environmental concerns. My R&D needle swung more and more towards discovering how my textiles could leave the smallest carbon footprint, right from sourcing to production. This is when I discovered bamboo yarn, around early 2000, and introduced it in India in 2004 at the 7th World Bamboo Congress held in Delhi. For the last 18 years or so, I have been refining and perfecting this 100 per cent biodegradable yarn and incorporating bamboo into the production of my own textiles.
TELL US THE STORY OF YOUR LOVE AFFAIR WITH INDIAN TEXTILES. LET’S THREAD YOUR JOURNEY FROM WEAVERS TO THE FINAL PRODUCT IN BRIEF THROUGH YOUR TIMELESS COLLECTIONS.
My personal style and sensibility is swadeshi. I learnt to respect the charkha-woven khadi early on, thanks to my freedom fighter grandfather. When I wanted to professionalise my interest in fashion design, I very naturally gravitated to working with natural fibres in the handlooms space. I have worked with master weavers across India and the subcontinent. I have learnt that weavers are the biggest mathematicians of all because of the incredible mathematical precision and detailing required in weaving.
FROM THE YEAR DOT, MY WORK HAS BEEN ROOTED IN TRADITION, AND I HAVE STRIVED TO DO MY BIT IN FURTHERING INDIA’S 2,000-YEAROLD TEXTILES LEGACY.
Since I develop my own textiles, I work closely with weaver communities. The process involves incessant research from my end, and then, with the help of my weavers, translating my ideas into reality. It takes us absolutely ages to get the correct product blend and to weave in motifs and threads in fresh patterns. For instance, when I first experimented with developing my Uzbekinspired collection, I drew from both the Adrasa and Atlas forms of Uzbek weaves. I concentrated on the former weave as it incorporates both a cotton weft and a silk warp, whereas the Atlas weave uses only silk. Also, a huge challenge was that the fabric width of Uzbek ikat is barely 10-12 inches wide. It took us months of meticulous research and weaving to get the convergence just right! My Uzbek collection was a first in India, and I continue to innovate, adding Indian elements to it.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR BREATHTAKING INNOVATION—THE WORLD’S FIRST ‘BAMBOO-SILK IKAT’.
When I discovered bamboo, I also learnt that India is the second-largest bamboo producing country in the world. With such a massive bamboo base, I was excited at the prospect of working on this fibre, as I realised that India could be positioned to seize global ascendancy in bamboo yarn production. Imagine the fillip this would give India’s bamboo farmers! So I worked single-mindedly on refining this yarn and testing it against and with other natural fibres. In 2017, after 15 years of persistent R&D (and many a heartache!), I unveiled my seminal bamboo-silk ikat textile, the first such textile of its kind in the world. My textile ticks all the right ecological boxes, even in its production process. It is 100 per cent biodegradable, leaves a negligible carbon footprint, and is anti-bacterial and UVprotective to boot. Precisely because of these exceptional qualities, it is truly a textile of the future—a sustainable future.
HOW DO YOU SEE THE BAMBOO FABRIC SHAPING THE INDIAN TEXTILE AND FASHION SPHERES IN THE TIME TO COME?
Very few people know that the fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, after, would you believe it, oil. That really shook me. This is when I realised that the textiles I innovate need to be mindful of the kind of environmental damage we are doing to Mother Earth. Thus began my quest for a viable green option in clothing. My experiments in alternative textiles lead me to discovering a new yarn in bamboo. And, because India is the world’s second largest bamboo producing nation, the full significance of what I was about to embark upon hit me. We have such an enormous and captive bamboo base. Just imagine how these textiles can transform the lives of bamboo farmers!
It is a good sign for the sector (and not myself alone) that I have won recognition for my textiles, including being awarded the prestigious Nari Shakti Puraskar 2017, the ‘highest civilian honour for women’, by the Hon’ble President of India, Shri Ram Nath Kovind, at Rashtrapati Bhavan where they have also recognised me as a role model and torchbearer for the younger generation and as a catalyst of change in the lives of women and the society at large. I sincerely hope that my innovations in producing bamboo textiles will soar because the need of the hour is sustainable fashion. Call me an eco-warrior if you will, but I am convinced that ecologically produced and manufactured textiles are the way forward.
WHAT ARE YOUR DESIGN CLASSICS THAT HAVE TRANSCENDED BOUNDARIES OF TIME AND PLACE?
Because my textiles are so rooted in tradition, they are impervious to ‘trends’ that have a tendency to come and go. While I have experimented with many weaves over my career, some that are dearest to my heart are the Dhaka
muslin, which I helped to revive. Then there is my Royal Venkatagiri collection from Andhra Pradesh woven in the intricate flat-weave Jamdani tradition. Another favourite is a cotton collection in which I paid homage to the frescoes and murals of the temple paintings of the Guruvayur temple complex. I have depicted Puranic themes with a wealth of detail that is almost impossible to replicate today unless one is steeped in the nuances of the craft. Then, of course, is my favourite child, ikat! I have experimented with ikat in combinations of fibres and weaves, from Indonesia and Uzbekistan to Thailand and India.
DO YOU THINK ‘SLOW FASHION’ HAS A BRIGHT FUTURE?
I am among the pioneers in sustainable fashion, what is also called ‘slow fashion’ today. By developing the world’s first bamboo-silk ikat textile, I have hopefully created a path for others to emulate. In India, and globally too, the fastgrowing bamboo is cultivated pesticide-free, and hence, wholly organic. Moreover, bamboo requires minimal water, unlike cotton and other fibres, so it doesn’t put a load on earth’s finite resources. And finally, the bamboo textile is handwoven, unlike the so-called bamboo textile found in shops, which is machine-made and is actually a form of rayon. As you can see, my textile is sustainable right from procurement to production.
Since sustainability is indeed the way forward, I am keeping my fingers crossed that more and more designers and fashion production houses will take up this initiative. In my role as Member of the All India Handloom Board, an advisory body of the Government of India’s Ministry of Textiles which is tasked with formulating policy decisions on the handlooms sector for the country, I hope to push this agenda forward.
YOU HAVE DESIGNED FOR MANY POWER WOMEN OF INDIA, INCLUDING LEADING ACTRESSES AND STALWART POLITICIANS. GIVE US A GLIMPSE INTO YOUR EXPERIENCE.
All of the ‘power women’ (as you call them) who have worn my clothes know exactly what they want. Each has an individual style that reflects their personality. It is no coincidence that they opt for a Madhu Jain outfit, as my clothes glory in the magnificence of India’s textiles tradition and these bold women of substance wear their pride in being Indian on their shoulders.
YOU HAVE WON MANY HEARTS BY MAKING YOUR COLLECTION BOTH ‘RAMP READY’ AND ‘EVERYDAY READY’. ON THE OTHER HAND, YOU HAVE WON INNUMERABLE PRESTIGIOUS AWARDS AND ACCOLADES. HOW DO YOU SUM UP YOUR JOURNEY?
I will be developing more clothing lines made from bamboo textiles. Basically, I will focus my energies on deepening my tryst with bamboo in the time to come! Also, I am grateful to God and the universe for conspiring to turn me into an ecologically conscious person. I am also grateful that I have, in my own small way, contributed to assuring the livelihoods of India’s craftspeople.