Designer Sunita Bali had been working with ikats, block prints, zardozi, tie and dye and bandhani for long, but had never worked with weavers and artisans. Until she travelled to Himachal Pradesh in 2010. Bali went to the hill state as a design consultant with the Ministry of Textiles to work with weavers and help make their craft more sustainable and productive. Soon she found herself travelling to remote villages, spending time with weavers, and assisting them in giving traditionally woven Kullu borders a contemporary touch. She now finds herself at home here.
“The Kullu borders used on Himachali shawls are so beautiful and I found that bright colours like red, orange, mustard were predominant in their work. Although very beautiful and vibrant, they are not always suitable on garments made for contemporary women,” says the Delhi-based designer, who took the Kinnauri motifs used on Kulluvi shawls and Pattu, a traditional jacket-like garment, and reinvented them for winter wear like capes, ponchos and stoles. In the last eight years, she has worked with over 2000 weavers, mostly women from Kullu. “Also, the yarns that they were using were very rough, hence I mixed wool and linen, wool and silk, and made them finer,” she adds.
After working with them for few months, she realised that guidance was not enough, finding markets for their products was equally important. “If we don’t make it commercially viable, their craft is in the danger of dying. The viability will help the next generation to take up weaving as a whole-time profession,” says the designer, a graduate from Sir JJ School of Arts.
Bali has been selling these products through fairs, exhibitions and her website, in India and countries like England, Belgium, Switzerland and France. “I’ve seen first-hand how this has helped them supplement their income and improve their standard of living. Now many husbands have started taking out time to help their wives with work and have added rooms in the houses to make more space for the looms,” she says.
When Finnish artist Soile Yli-Mäyry was in Delhi exhibiting her paintings, she asked Bali to transfer them into weaves. “I was initially surprised by the idea. But when I went back to the hills, we tried working on it. The first sample took nine months, but we made many stoles with Mäyry’s artistic impressions,” says Bali, who then decided to convert her own paintings of Himalayan sceneries into woven tapestries, and exhibited them in London and Delhi last year in a show titled “Himalayan Weaves”. “I met many Indians in London who were not exposed to this Indian craft. They didn’t know what hand weaving was, and how long it takes to make a piece,” says Bali, who plans to continue to work with the artisans in the near future.