India’s Textile Traditions are the Most Versatile in the World: Dr Toolika Gupta

“Being attracted to design, creativity, history, research, colours, cultures and so many other things, I have always been fascinated about all that the world has to offer, both the natural world and the manmade world,” says Dr Toolika Gupta. A designer, academician and a crafts enthusiast, she is the Director of the Indian Institute of Crafts and Design (IICD) in Jaipur. The Indian Institute of Crafts and Design is driven by the vision of promoting Indian craft forms and design through research-based teaching as well as create a positive impact in sustaining the local craft communities.

Having specialized in textile history, crafts and design, Dr Gupta has a been an advocate for Indian textile traditions and their importance in the global market. She says that “Indian crafts and design exists as a soft power, we are known for our handicrafts. So many foreign brands come to India for execution of their designs. However, there is a need to promote our handicrafts in a better manner, the way people knew about Cashmere shawls, Madras Checks and calicos, because British tagged them and promoted trade, we need to do that to promote more crafts. We need to work more sincerely and in a more organised manner for us to succeed.”

In this interview, she speaks about the tradition of textile crafts in India and the work of IICD, covering broad range of topics from history and sustainability to fashion and policy.

How can Indian crafts, design and textiles be preserved and promoted as India’s soft power?

Indian handicrafts have already carved a niche for themselves, in the world. The scope is tremendous. We are one of the very few countries who have managed to keep our crafts alive in a commercial manner. Most of the western countries have lost these skills. If we give the required attention to this sector, it can grow by leaps and bounds, can give employment to many and make a mark.

I think and I very strongly feel that India needs a ministry for crafts. A ministry dedicated to the cause of Indian handicrafts. Today, these are divided between- MSME (that’s where KVIC is), Textiles Ministry, Minority affairs etc. There is no consolidated ministry to look after the needs of this sector. This sector includes designers, craftspeople, small businesses and they need handholding. Not random allocations of money but well-planned executions, awareness, growth and a fully organised sector. Once we can achieve this, no one can stop India from being the best in the world. We have been there earlier, much before the British came and we can achieve the status again.

Once there is consolidation, better marketing strategies for the domestic as well as international markets need to be planned, awareness of our work, and of course maintaining good quality are all essential to come above what we already are. We are already doing a lot of work, but it is largely unorganised and in times like Corona, the vulnerability is exposed. We need better planning and facilities for this sector to grow. We need better communication channels, better promotion and more emphasis on techniques and designs.

Another important opportunity for us is to promote craft tourism, people want to come to India to learn crafts. It is a win-win situation for all. This year we taught Chikan embroidery to a group of Australian tourists who came to India for an embroidery tour. They were all experts in embroidery and wanted to learn more, so we invited two embroiderers from Lucknow to teach them and it was a fabulous experience. So, there is a lot that can be done.

You have done extensive research on the history of clothing. What inspired you to choose this specific domain and what were your experiences?

I started my career as a designer and then went into academics. While teaching history of costumes and design at NIFT, New Delhi, I got to read and explore a lot. This made me hungry for more and I decided to get into research of Indian clothing history, because I felt that a lot of hidden gems would come out of that research. We could find out about garments that were best suited to our climate, we could also find out why we wear clothes in today’s time period that do not necessarily give us comfort. Ties worn by people in the hot Indian climate seem to be a rather crazy idea.

While teaching history of Indian textiles and clothing, I was attracted to reasons for wearing clothes, I read theories and books and wanted to dive deep into that area. It was really great that in 2010, I could go to Denmark for a workshop on archaeological textiles. After attending that workshop, hosted by CTR (The Centre for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen, Denmark), which was on experimental archaeology at Lejre in Denmark, I felt that in India there is so much to explore, and we haven’t yet started. I decided to give up on teaching textile science and surfaces, because there were many good faculty who were there to do that, but instead to focus on research related to history of clothing and textiles in India and across the world. I always feel that I do not want to study only about India in isolation, but about India in relation to the world.

I must say that I have been lucky to have done my PhD from the UK, as it gave me access to both India and the UK, thus appropriately I decided to research on the British period and its influences on Indian clothing, as a lot of work had been done on the Mughal period by the British themselves, which laid a good foundation for research. Knowing the languages of both countries was an added advantage, as I did not look for translations, a basic knowledge of French and an understanding of Urdu were also very helpful.

The research journey was very fulfilling, apart from learning, reading and writing a lot, I made acquaintances with many learned people in the area and some of us together have also created TCRC (Textiles and Clothing Research Centre) in Delhi. It has also immensely helped me in understanding the History of other Indian Crafts.

What makes Indian fashion distinct and diverse?  How can one understand Indian haute couture?

What makes it distinct is, I think, the use of colours and styles. There is no single style. For instance, when we talk of India, Punjab has its style quotient with bold colours and prints, same is the case in Rajasthan, but the colours preferred here are more intense, whereas gold and bold are preferred in Punjab. When we talk of Kerala, white and neutral colours with gold are preferred there.

Haute Couture’ literally translates to ‘High Fashion’, which is a really restricted term. Indian fashion is rather complicated, and there is no single answer. My opinion on this is that the Indian elite (read celebrities, top business-men, or men and women of very high eco-social standing) wear majorly foreign brands, because that is what they consider ‘haute’. The nationalist kind of elite, wear clothes that are handcrafted, designed by home-grown brands. Most of the latter do wear the Indian brands that have either to do with ornate embroidery and highly embellished surfaces, as that is what is considered Indian.

But if we do not talk of Haute Couture and only talk of Indian fashion, then there is a lot to it. I have always believed that fashion is not only about clothes, it is a lifestyle issue. It depends a lot on people, acceptance, time and place. Today having a smart phone is fashionable. But for the sake of this interview, I will only talk about clothes. Bollywood dominated the fashion scene for a long time, but today, it may not necessarily be so. There are many influencing factors now. The times that we live in, Indian fashion is huge, from designers to knock-offs, everyone is conscious of the demand of the domestic market. A new style comes into the market and you can see it everywhere. Ready to wear clothing has entered India in a big way. The local tailors and boutiques are also doing good, but people largely depend on ready to wear. Many Indian brands have come on the scene to cater to office going men and women, for occasion wear, kids-wear etc.

With new styles and brands entering the Indian market, where do you see the future of traditional textile crafts and design?

Textile craft is here to stay. In India, textile crafts have existed for centuries. Weaving, dyeing, printing and embroidery were all a part of our culture. Many of these crafts were earlier made for self-consumption, or for the consumption of family and friends. Many of them were commercially made, to be sold to the masses and to be sold to patrons. Many layers and types of textile crafts existed. After industrialization, these could have been lost, but with the efforts of stalwarts like Pupul Jayakar and Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, they were brought into limelight again. Today, thanks to many NGOs, craft revivalists, designers, CSR activities and self-help groups that Indian handicrafts are being admired the world over.

I see a very bright future for handicrafts if we focus on research, quality and sustainability including sustainable livelihoods for craftspeople. Indians handicrafts have received the Geographical Indices, for example, the mud resist fabric called Daboo which is handcrafted in Bagru (a small village near Jaipur), is covered under GI and so is Kasuti the delicate hand-embroidery from Karnataka. Whatever craft we take, there is a huge variety in India. Kantha is embroidered in Bengal, while Phulkari in Punjab, sujani in Bihar, and suf in Gujarat. The woven textiles, mainly sarees also exist in a huge variety in terms of colours, techniques and motifs. The Paithani of Maharashtra, the Patola from Gujarat, the Banarsi saree from UP, the Jamdani from Bengal, the Pocchampalli from Tamil Nadu and the Ventagiri from Andhra Pradesh are all Indian, yet different in their styles. The names that I have taken are not even one-tenth of the exquisite woven material available in India. Each piece is unique and each craft is worthy of mention. I have spoken about embroidery and weaves, but there is so much more like resist dyeing including tie and dye, block and screen printing, batik and many other crafts that are related to textiles. Then there is a whole industry that makes tools for these crafts.

The biggest support needed is in the sector of entrepreneurship and businesses development. A complete strategy for upliftment and self-sustenance for the crafts is required at multiple levels. Incubation support is needed by the industry so that they can learn and take a leap. There are many family-run businesses, we only need to support them with the latest know-how and they will be able to take forth the business. This is what we do at IICD.

There has been an increasing demand for products which are sustainable yet fashionable, and are contemporary so to say. There is also an element of increased digitization of crafts, design and textiles. How can India respond to these consumer choices?

While studying Indian clothing history, we could research on ayurvedic medicines/clothes dyed with herbs; the cut and construction of garments that could be created without wasting fabric (called zero waste pattern making), we could explore which garments were best suited to our climate.  Infact, now many designers have started working on this idea, as it is really the need of the hour. A lot of work on traditional dyeing practices has begun. Ayurvastra – clothes dyed with ayurvedic medicine, that are kind to our skin and make the clothes allergy-free have come into the market, but currently they are being exported. Some designer clothes like brand Upasana (in Pondicherry), is dyeing clothes with neem and Tulsi. I bought a kurta made of absolutely soft cotton and dyed in Tulsi from them last year. It is the most breathable garment that I have.

At IICD we are doing an experiment to dye a natural grass in natural dyes and then to weave and create indoor products out of it. It will really be sustainable and also we are experimenting that by using natural material instead of plastic, we should be able to bring the temperature of the room down.

However, the increase in demand for sustainable fashion is not a sustainable activity in itself. Due to high demand, the quality has gone down in many places, small businessmen sometimes make fake and machine replicas of hand-embroidery which are ugly, cheap and unsustainable in every way. Digitization of crafts is a good thing, but creating replicas may not be the best situation. Indian crafts cannot meet all demands of every sector, and I think they do not need to do so either. They are unique, beautiful, difficult to execute, and have a legacy. Each craft needs to be understood and moulded according to market needs, the craftspeople need to be educated, and thus institutes like IICD, Kalaraksha, Somaya Kalavidyalaya etc are needed to educate them so that they can design, understand quality, create wonderful pieces and be able to market them as well. A lot of effort is needed if we want to keep the quality of Indian crafts alive, otherwise the market will be flooded with cheap goods in the name of Indian handicrafts.