THE humble yet artistic nala — intricate and hand-woven drawstring used in salwars, sari petticoats, lehengas, and churidars among others will get a new lease of life with Project Nala Wali, which will attempt to revive the traditional craft of the azarband and its weaving techniques. This will be done by involving unemployed communities of women and reaching out to designers across the country. The effort by The Dialogue Collective, an interactive platform where artisans, designers, social thinkers collaborate and grow together, the project is the brainchild of Shyamli Chaudhry, who has travelled and worked with artisans at the ground level, and is armed with years of experience with NGOs, communities, and various CSR projects. According to her, the larger mission is to change consumer behaviour towards handmade products.
Azarband, commonly known as nala (drawstring), was earlier hand-woven in undivided Punjab and the art of creating it was passed down from generation to generation. It is now a dying craft.
The idea, says Chaudhry, is to revive the weaving techniques by designing utility-based products, and inviting designers from all over the country to be a part of the process. “We strive to create an interest among the unemployed communities of women and train them to design contemporary products that suit the urban market needs. It is a way of empowering them by giving them a platform to use the skill they have and work from home as per their convenience,” explains Chaudhry, founder of the Collective. Starting with a cluster of women from Punjab’s villages and remote areas, who have learned how to weave the nalas from their grandmothers and mothers, more than 12 women meet at the Collective’s centre in Madhav Colony in Khuda Ali Sher near Chandigarh. Chaudhry says that this will be a design incubation centre, where product design and development will take place with inputs from designers, who can then sit with the artisans and give creative ideas a form and shape and use the nalas as part of their collections in varied ways.
The seed for the project was planted by Chaudhry’s teacher Swatantar Mann, who has a Museology (museum theory) degree from MS University, Baroda, after which she worked for five years at the Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai, before moving to the US. There she was working in a public school, finding ways to make cultural connections through creative learning. In 2008, when Mann visited India after 10 years, she spoke to members of her Punjabi community and family about azarband. No one could recollect even hearing it in common usage. “Thus began my own research on the folk craft. I used my own azarband to start a conversation with Punjabis here in the US. That led to a great conversation. Even those who wove the azarband growing up, threw theirs as they did not use the handwoven ones any more,” says Mann, whose resolve to pursue the research grew stronger. “From my maternal grandmother to my mother and aunts, all would prefer the handwoven nala in their salwar because it felt secure and thick enough to not sink deep into the skin when secured tightly. The beauty of the weave and an appreciation for it was always pointed out by them when it was stretched out,” says Mann, who began formal research in 2015 and hopes to publish her paper on the azarband.
Mann’s wish to revive the weave, “because a traditional craft lost in time has to be made to feel relevant in contemporary times”, led her to conversations with Chaudhry about the revival plans. She felt the project had potential to provide employment to women in need and a cultural craft could be revived.
These nalas, adds Chaudhry, were an integral part of wedding trousseau once, with girls weaving them for their salwars in both silk and cotton. The art is still prevalent in Pakistan, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Now, as part of the revival project, the Collective is designing dress straps, neckline trims, belts, buttons, tassels, and lace among others, with designers approaching them for hand-woven nalas for wedding lehengas too. “The older women who are adept in the craft are teaching young women to take the legacy forward. We get them the raw material, help them create new designs, select a colour palette for today’s consumers, create samples of different products and also teach them how to directly meet consumers and pursue their independent work, which gives them a scope to earn their living. Also, the investment is very less, for we are also encouraging the use of recycled threads,” says Chaudhry. Design and product development are integral features of the project, as now she hopes to involve women who have looms, so that she can create a range of home décor products using the weave, fashion jewellery, durries, woven furniture like pidhis, manjis using cotton and jute rope, and souvenirs among others. Chaudhry hopes that designers would support the cause.