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Endangered Ethnic and Tribal Textile Craft Skills in India”

with Bina Rao

Creative Bee Design Studio, Hyderabad, India

India is known for its rich history of traditional textile types, such as the Brocades of Varanasi, Patolas of Patan, Chintz (Kalamkari) from Machlipatnam and Thelia Rumal from Chirala, etc. The hand weaving skills of India’s master weavers were very special and religiously passed onto the following generations as a family legacy. However, when the 20th century Industrial Revolution gripped India soon after independence in 1947 with the advent of mill-woven textiles as a mainstream fabric, hand woven textiles, which had been thriving for centuries in rural India, began to steadily lose their marketability. These precious human resources have today found themselves at crossroads, with not enough exposure to the fast changing fashion world dominated by mill-woven fabric. Bina Rao and her design studio have actively taken on this challenge to promote these ethnic skills and transform traditional weaves and prints into contemporary color trends in order to meet current fashion requirements. They have trained at least 700 rural artists in traditional techniques of natural dyeing and traditional weaves, which is helping ancient crafts and arts from languishing and has connected the rural weavers’ work with the global market, and in addition to fashion houses, these textiles are now being purchased by museums and private collectors.

Bina Rao is the owner of a natural dye and textile-manufacturing company in Hyderabad called Creative Bee. Ms. Rao and her artist husband, Mr. Kesav Rao (a renowned painter in India) set up the company with the sole purpose of promoting and reviving ancient tribal art forms in 1996. The design facility uses only organic materials and vegetable dyes making the textiles 100% organic. The facility uses minimal electricity and no electricity is used in manufacturing the textiles and fabrics. Ms. Bina Rao has worked extensively towards growth and development of Ethnic Handloom and Natural Dye craft heritage of India. She has completed many design, development and revival projects for various textile clusters in rural India and South East Asia as well as represented India at International Textile and Fashion shows. She is on the Advisory Committees of Government of India, Textiles Ministry, Adjunct Professor National Institute of Fashion Technology, Member of WCC and Textile Society of America and Weavers Guild of Australia. Ms. Rao invites TMA/SC members to bring examples of hand-woven Indian textiles for show & tell.


“Endangered Ethnic and Tribal Textile Craft Skills in India”

By Marjorie Franken

Bina Rao is a textile designer and weaver who works in Hyderabad in the central Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. She presented the dilemma of traditional Indian textiles as one of conservation versus diversification. Briefly stated the problem is that slow traditional production of hand-dyed and hand woven textiles has been competing unsuccessfully with industrial production since the 19th century. Conservation of these techniques and skills can only be accomplished by establishing a supporting sector that designs for and markets to modern tastes and needs in clothing and home furnishings.

The history of the Indian textile trade is long and complex, as many of the TMA/SC members know. Export of Indian textiles to the West began in the late 1700’s, but long before, evidence shows that they were being distributed across South Asia via the Silk Route as early as the 15th century. External trade was only part of the distribution of silks and other fabrics. Internal consumption, especially by royal families and temples, supported local production.

The nineteenth century brought industrial production and increased export to Europe. Interestingly the biggest stimulus to factory production of textiles came from the Indian government itself. After independence in 1947 development was the overriding goal of the new state. The techniques, knowledge and skills of traditional textile production began eroding, forgotten as people found other occupations.

Creative Bee is a design studio begun by Bina Rao in an effort to revive, preserve and re-teach traditional techniques of textile production. Her organization has grown to include several workshops employing over 700 artisans in villages near Hyderabad. The textiles are 100% organic, from fiber to dying and finishing. Rather than contracting for exclusive rights to her weavers’ production, she leaves them as free agents to market their crafts to any interested buyer. Her major role, in addition to starting up workshops and re-teaching techniques, is to design fashions with traditional fabrics, colors, and motifs which will appeal to modern women as clothing and home decorations. The creativebee.in website has photos of many of these items as recently exhibited and marketed at international shows.

Although Ms. Rao studies many types of traditional Indian textiles the program for TMA focused on only two types due to time limitations. Kalamkari cloth is probably the most recognized Indian textile in the West—it was called “chintz” when introduced to Europe. The name Kalamkari comes from “kalum’ or “pen”. A photo of the pen showed a sort of pointed spoon, the bowl wrapped in a cord that presumably absorbs and holds ink for the artist to draw designs directly onto the cotton cloth.

Kalamkari production usually involves several members of a family and often some neighboring crafts-persons as well. The cloth is prepared to accept and retain the natural vegetable dyes by a process of milk bleaching. This is an expensive, repetitive and time-consuming process that results in a buff-colored cotton. This color remains visible as the background over which the reds, blues, greens and yellows of the design will be painted.

Many dye recipes have been lost according to Ms. Rao, and the present palette includes less than a dozen from a former selection of twenty or more colors.

The most skilled worker is the artist who draws the design onto the bleached fabric. Young people are now being trained in this skill to eventually replace the senior family members, male and female, now employed. As Kalamkari fabrics were very frequently used for temple hangings in the past, traditional designs concentrated on epic illustration of the lives and adventures of deities such as Krishna and his companions. Modern designs are more floral, especially variations of the “tree of life” pattern. Bina Rao herself has designed more modern looking ones which include monkeys, turtles and birds. The colors of the design are filled in by hand painters who work as a family group, taking about two months to complete a three to four yard piece. Kalamkari is now also produced by hand-blocking the outline design which is then colored in the traditional way. This obviously speeds up production and results in a repetitive design.

The second group of textiles discussed are Tal’ dyed fabrics. Some villages have apparently specialized in this textile for centuries. The villages are located in the Tribal Area of Andhra Pradesh, an area of restricted access where the Indian government conserves both the ecosystem and life-ways of the indigenous people. The textiles use three colors only, a deep red, a rust brown and white. The red color comes from the Morinda cirtifolia tree, specifically the bark removed from the roots. (More information on this tree can be obtained from Google, especially the U.S. Forest Service tropical shrub list. Two references are given: Little and Wadsworth 1964 and Nelson 1996). The tree appeared to be about 20 feet high, with oval leaves about 10 x 6 inches, rather like a large ficus leaf. An interesting cooperation between two tribes produces the dye itself. One tribe cultivates the tree in the forest, carefully extracting roots on the periphery, seven to eight feet from the base of the trunk. The bark of these roots is then delivered to a second village where the actual dying and weaving take place.

Again the dying is a long repetitive process, this time using cow dung and sunshine to prepare the cotton and set the dye. In order to change the color from the intense bluish red the bark produces to a rust-brown shade, iron is added to the dye bath. Apparently the form of the iron is not critical-- old scraps such as nails can be used.

The threads are then woven into pieces that appeared to be about two to three yards long and perhaps a yard wide. Traditional motifs include stripes, birds and “temple domes” using an ikat weaving technique. Ms. Rao has incorporated these designs as well as adding fish and figures of children to her modern versions. Another modern use of this fabric is in the home decoration division of the workshop. Table linens, bedspreads and cushion covers are all coordinated in traditional and contemporary textiles.

Ms. Rao’s design work is now also part of government sponsored workshops that promote other Indian crafts, such as woodworking, basketry and metalwork. Her own special area of creativity recently has focused on “wild” silk. Cocoons for this type of silk are gathered from the forest in contrast to a farming operation. Wild silk has different properties than cultivated silk fibers, and Ms. Rao has invented a weaving process that produces a semi-transparent cloth with a dramatic drape effect. The fabric was used in several of the fashion photos that concluded the program. These photos and much more are available on the creativebee.in website.


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