Within the walls of the National Institute of Design, in the years that spanned between 1974 and 1980, there was a woman who was inspired.
At lectures, she would sit intrigued by how fabrics were woven together to create magic and how the seams of culture were strengthened to result in the best patterns. Archana Shah had always been baffled by the world of fashion and now she was embarking on a journey at the design institute to understand it in a deeper sense.
“During the course, we were introduced to Indian heritage and handcrafted textiles,” she tells The Better India, adding that along with theory, they were also encouraged to travel to remote areas in India and watch first-hand how the artisans created their pieces.
On one such trip in 1977, Archana and a friend from her batch were sent to a village in Kutch for a 15-day stay wherein they were required to study how the artisans worked, understand the technicalities of the craft and come up with a collection of their own.
This proved to be a turning point in her life. “It was the first time I was seeing artisans work in such proximity.”
A realisation dawned on her — for artisans, all of this wasn’t just ‘a job’. It was their way of life.
The start of a unique friendship
Recounting the two-week stay at Dhamadka in Kutch, Archana says she stayed at the home of one of the artisans, Mohamedbhai Siddikbhai Khatri. What she did not know was that the friendship they would forge during this time would be the foundation on which her brand Bandhej would be built.
During the time they spent at the artisan’s home, he would patiently explain the tricks of block printing and also tell the duo about his life in the village.
“While work ended with sunset, the stories did not,” says Archana, adding that artisans by nature are wonderful storytellers. “I realised that a motif was never just ‘a motif’. There was a larger story behind it.”
Today, she says it has been more than 40 years and she is still working with the descendants of this family to create new prints and designs for her brand. “The connect that began in those two weeks never ended.”
As the stay came to an end, Archana viewed the world of fashion differently. To her, it was now the portrayal of culture.
“I was fascinated by the diversity and variety that was breathed into each fabric,” she recounts. “Every region in India that we explored, offered its own skills, natural materials, etc and I made up my mind that when I left the portals of the institute, I would collaborate with artisans. I would create work with them and sell it in urban centres.”
The young designer started her journey doing small collections, and also exhibitions in Mumbai, Delhi and other metro cities. The response, she says, was phenomenal.
A brand born in culture, rooted in heritage
“Slowly, the collections grew, the love grew and we set up Bandhej in 1985. We collaborated with artisans from Kutch and then Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bhagalpur, Banaras, etc,” she says.
The brand was based on a simple ideology that hasn’t been affected by time — building long-term relations with the artisans so they could see value in their work.
“Bear in mind that this was a time when not a lot of people were working with this community, and hence artisans were unsure about how reliable this partnership was and how long it would last,” says Archana.
But she took it up as a challenge.
“I started wondering how I could create new collections and seasons, and as the business grew I started expanding on the number of artisan groups.”
Through her journey of building her brand Bandhej, Archana also came out with her book titled ‘Crafting a Future: Stories of Indian Textiles and Sustainable Practices’in 2013.
“I was visiting families in Kutch and wanted to write down the stories so the next generation would know about the richness and craft and the people.”
She goes on to add that this was a land that she knew nothing of, but through her associations with the artisans, she had developed an understanding of it.
Another important aspect, says Archana is that she wanted to address the common misnomer that people have of children of artisans not wanting to continue the craft.
“I have seen it differently on the ground,” she says. “The young generation has witnessed the financial transition that the family has seen. I went across remote areas of India to determine if the younger generation wanted to continue the artisanal work. They do, but only if there is regular work too.”
Testament to this, Mohamedbhai’s son Ismail, who is also a block printer, says he loves working with Bandhej and Archana and says it makes him almost nostalgic when he creates designs for her.
“Archana ji had first contacted our late grandfather in 1980 and today our third generation is working under her guidance. She is cooperative, positive, and has a noble nature that gives us the energy to improve the quality of the art.”
Fashion woven with trust
Archana elaborates that Bandhej is handcrafted textiles and clothing. They work with around 500 families, while pre-COVID the number was 800. The partnership is unique as artisans are often living in remote areas and may be unaware of the changing needs of the market.
“While on one hand there is this, on the other hand, in the mainstream markets, customers are looking for new designs with every season and new collections,” she says. Hence, this is where the collaboration between artisans and designers comes into play.
“Designers become the catalysts.”
As for how this collaboration has contributed to the financial growth of the artisans, Archana says she has seen them go from mud homes to a comfortable life. “We must be doing something right.”
However, Archana says the market is volatile. “When I started, there wasn’t any competition. But now there is an excess of everything and competition has grown.”
She recounts how she overcame her challenge in the initial days of interacting with the artisans and building trust.
As one of the artisans, Abduljabbar Khatri from Dhamadka says, “Archana ji came here in 1977 and since then has been promoting our ajrakh craft. She continued to promote our craft in cities where there was no light nor any kind of facility. She worked hard to support us and to save the ajrakh craft and we will be always thankful for this.”
Archana says she is merely doing what she was taught at her fashion institute. “At NID, we are trained to learn about the region and spend time understanding the process,” she says, adding that slowly with regular work, she managed to build a relationship with these artisans.
Today, Bandhej ships worldwide and sees around 5,000 orders per month. The price of the outfits ranges from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000, depending upon the pieces.
But even though she has built a legacy brand, Archana says her motive has always been the same.
“I wanted to leave behind a story – of the artisans, the weavers and these people.”
Edited by Yoshita Rao