The current sparks on social media are not just a frothy tussle between some elite persons, who are considered the protectors of craftspeople, daring to come up against Sabyasachi Mukherjee, one of the most successful names in the fashion business. It is about a genuine and much larger challenge for the world of the handmade. On one side are the values that are important to our cultural heritage, which are about community sharing and retaining pride in our diverse identities and skills. It is about a lifelong riyaaz to improve one’s skills and designs. Craftspeople can create, innovate and co-operate with modernity very easily. Their immense value is that their workmanship incorporates specific cultural histories and stories special to each place and skill. They are our living treasures, who need support and opportunity and they need to be prioritised so that their existing and precious livelihoods are sustained. On the other side is the new “market monster” which makes it alright to swallow up the old ways for the sake of fame and profit. Jeff Bezos, who has been accused of exploiting his workers, has the gall to thank millions of Amazon customers all across the world for funding his multi-billion dollar dream trip into space for five minutes. It is an unequal battle. The passing acknowledgement by our designer to hybrid craft forms is something similar.
When it was announced that marketing lines had crashed due to the success of H&M’s tie-up with Mukherjee for a new line, who would not have rejoiced that Indian designers had conquered the world? We have been proud of the typical Indianness of his designs in the Bengal patina, just as we proudly acknowledge Ritu Kumar’s contribution to hand embroidery and hand block prints, when other designers were running the Western way. But on reading Mukherjee’s statement about the collaboration, it was the mention of a Sanganeri block print being digitised that caught the eye of those who have dedicated their lives to ensure that its neglected and often starving practitioners gain respect, recognition and remuneration.
One wonders if Mukherjee knows what’s been going on in the real Sanganer. It is a small edge-of-town kind of colony outside Jaipur, surrounded by garbage and sewage. The block printers there have been struggling to get clean water and to continue staying there instead of being summarily relocated to some unknown and unfamiliar area by the Pollution Control Board. Hand-block printing employs wood carvers and metal block makers, dyers, designers and printers. The charm of hand-block printing is also its “perfection of unevenness”. Now, the block printers are simultaneously struggling with heavy competition from skill-less screen printers, who provide fabric quickly and cheaply, in the same way that power looms have overrun handlooms. They faced the challenge of mill prints on huge machines in large factories when colonialists prioritised Lancaster and Manchester and destroyed India’s tradition of textile production by hand. Then came digitisation, sounding yet another death knell for India’s hand work heritage.
The whole point of the crafts-supporting world, even internationally, is to respect handwork and human endeavour over the machine. This support is not just a hashtag or a hand-on-heart statement. Its purpose is to benefit the makers directly and to respect a distinct heritage that loses sense if hybridisation is considered true design. If fashion designers like Mukherjee used some of their profits to uplift the working environment in Sanganer, it would be a genuine gesture of respect for our craft heritage.
When Mukherjee boasts of “putting Indian design on the map” with his name and his brand, it may be a big win for him and for India, but not for those who are fighting to continue block printing in Sanganer so that people like him can be “inspired” and “create hybrids” from multiple regions including other “ancient world cultures”, as he says. Sadly, there is no humility in such statements. It is no longer really Indian nor Sanganeri craft if it comes out for H&M’s “masses” from a digital version. Yet, he should know that he is a huge “influencer” for all fashion design students in India. He drives the media into a frenzy of adoration. Brides are so desperate for a Sabyasachi lehnga, which can cost up to Rs 25 lakh, that one small-time electrical shop owner had to sell some of his property to please his to-be-married daughter. We came across a zardozi shop owner in Delhi who showed us his “original copy” of a Sabyasachi sari that he “kept hidden from imitators”, he said.
Since the designer’s influence is vast, if he even whispers the word “digitisation” in the context of a precious hand-crafted textile, he could crush the aspirations and livelihoods of all hand-made textile producers and invalidate the work done by those who have struggled to keep crafts and livelihoods alive through a better appreciation of hand skills. Those young people who are turning to support the craft sector now in the name of “organic” or “sustainable” or “slow fashion” will switch paths in a moment if some big fashion name says it’s okay. There is also a risk of dumbing down those customers who are slowly learning to care about and recognise the differences between powerloom and handloom and screen and block prints. One cannot proudly claim to “Make in India” by destroying another creative section of India, and benefiting only multinationals and designer brands.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 21, 2021 under the title ‘What Sabyasachi owes Sanganer’. The writer is founder, Dastkari Haat Samiti.