Restored Parsi cots, re-invented Indian garland techniques, sustained Urdu calligraphy and more, from the city’s heritage ambassadors
THIS IS A city that prides itself on its rich cultural history. But with every attempt at revival—one of the most popular being Visalakshi Ramaswamy’s work with the Chettinad basket weaving craft, kottan—many other traditions are being forgotten. “In my lifetime, I’ve seen scores of arts and crafts dying,” says renowned dancer Anita Ratnam, who played a key role in reviving Kaisiki Natakam, a 13th century Tamil temple theatre ritual. “I believe we should all turn revivalists. As our world becomes more about ‘sameness’, about glass and steel and chrome and high rises, only this will give us a sense of identity, of individuality,” she adds. Meet some of the city’s restorers who celebrate the past, but in a modern format.
By Surya Praphulla Kumar
Her formative years in Europe had given Kiran Rao a deep love of history—of art, museums and even old structures. “In European cities, they don’t demolish old buildings—they rework and reuse them,” begins Rao, 50. “I’ve always been puzzled as to why we in India are always ready to demolish and rebuild, and rebuild badly at that.”
Rao returned to India in the late ’90s to discover a lack of boutique shops and cafes. She decided to create one of her own, leading to the birth of Amethyst in 2000. “I was looking for something much smaller, then decided to work on a 100-odd-year house that belonged to my aunt, which was dilapidated but charming. I retained the place as it was so that it conveyed a sense of history,” says the advocate of adaptive reuse. When she had to move Amethyst’s location in 2010, she zeroed in on an old warehouse. “Working on it was, in some ways, more rewarding, as it was a bigger challenge than an old house, which had so much going for it already,” informs Rao, who created a link between the two properties by using the same furniture and black chequerboard floor. Her restoration work has won her many fans and she admits to working on a few projects, including a private club “with the Adamesque style of architecture (an 18th-century neoclassical style).” Another passion is her curated exhibitions. “The India revival story is the very ethos of all that we do here—like at Bloom, the flower shop, where Indian garland techniques are merged with garden-style arrangements,” she says, adding that we can soon expect textile historian Jasleen Dhamija’s presentation of Phulkari work.
Rao believes the city has so much scope. “V Sriram (historian) says we have more old buildings than Kolkata. We need to hold on to them,” she exclaims, saying her next project will be the restoration of an old property in Pondicherry.
Soumya Keshavan doesn’t want to call herself a revivalist; she is a re-interpreter. A partner with Good Earth in Chennai, she is also the name behind Souk, the store next door that retails signature pieces of home décor. “My inspiration is the desire to surround myself with beautiful things, like carpets, which I can’t get enough of,” smiles Keshavan. “The combination of old and new always interests me,” she adds, explaining that the furniture and accessories she displays in her store are things she’s “liked and picked up from auctions and vintage furniture stores.”
While she likes contemporary styles, she is fascinated by how a lot of what was built earlier is still relevant today, design-wise. “My father, an engineer, was passionate about architecture. He used to design houses and build furniture. In fact, I still have furniture he had built in the 60s. It’s incredible how contemporary they are, and how form and function can work so well years later,” says the anthropology post graduate.
At Souk, Keshavan restores pieces—from Parsi cots and Chettinad pillars to Victorian sofas—that are in disrepair, retaining their originality, but giving them new character by introducing a contemporary element—like an edgy stripe or Missoni upholstery.
Much sought after for her restoration of old houses—like the century-old British bungalow in Coonoor for Nandan Nilekani—she has scaled back a little now. “But at some point I want to take an old house and give it a contemporary look and feel inside. It will open up different ages in terms of style, so you’ll never get bored,” she says. What is she working on currently? “I’m doing a couple of houses (clients want their privacy) and sourcing Oriental decor for another client,” she signs off.
If not for a power outage in Varanasi in 1986, Jean François Lesage may never have started Vastrakala, the city-based export house that boasts clients like Christian Louboutin, Lanvin and even European royalty. The heir to France’s illustrious House of Lesage (which was taken over by Chanel in 2012), was just 21 when, in the blackout, he saw a lone embroiderer working by the light of a single lamp. “It was a revelation. I realised India is as much a nation of embroiders as France is,” he begins.
Lesage returned to India in 1991, looking for a place to start an embroidery outfit, and in 1993, started Vastrakala with artisans from Sriperumbudur. “We blend the French taste for innovation with the Indian talent for intricate work. Embroidery is a language that each country speaks with different designs, but the same alphabets. And it needs to be preserved,” says Lesage, 49, whose days working at auction houses in Paris had sparked his interest in home furnishing.
Part of his plans to ensure more stability to his 200 master craftsmen is a new centre coming up in Sriperumbudur. “When clients come, the embroiderers can interact with them and understand how much their work is appreciated. This will encourage them to allow their children to follow in their footsteps,” he explains, adding that this is one of the reasons they recently tied up with the French Lesage. “The partnership gives us a much larger network. Also, Chanel owns other high-quality craft units and we want to work under the same flag, so we can promote excellence and help the craftsman not fear the future,” he says.
The days ahead are bright with sequins and zardosi. “Besides several residential projects in Europe and Dubai, we are working on a wedding collection of shoes for Louboutin, and a historical project, with Paris’ Hotel Crillon, where we are doing the furnishing. Finally, we are also working on a new collection to show how fashion embroidery can influence interior embroidery and vice versa,” he concludes.
Over the last four years, By Hand, From The Heart has become an integral part of the city’s exhibition calendar. But more than being a market for handmade products, it’s also a platform for revival. “We have a rich history of craftsmen and we need to support them, revive them and create more markets for them. And one of the best ways is by encouraging product development—getting artisans to make products that match new requirements,” explains Divya Sekar, a handmade jewellery designer, who started the exhibition with Kshiti Davey, another crafter, in 2011.
In their last edition in June, Sekar brought down Parth Kothekar, an artist from Ahmedabad, who gives a contemporary twist to the old tradition of sanjhi, from Mathura. “It’s a form of paper cutting. But Parth has taken the art form to youngsters, by making jewellery and wall mounts,” says Sekar, 38, adding that while they whet applications from crafters, they also scout for talent.
The search for revived crafts is an ongoing process. “Last year, a Chennai-based doll maker approached us. While the products were good, the faces were not lifelike. When I realised hardly anyone speacialises in making dolls’ faces, I went looking. My search led to Nagpur where a woman named Ramani has been doing it for 25 years,” she says.
For the next edition of By Hand, Sekar has a wish-list that includes telia rumal ikats from Andhra Pradesh and bandha ikat from Orissa. “Handmade is cool now. In the last few years, not only has there been a surge in awareness, but it’s also heartening to see young designers, fresh out of design schools like NIFT, wanting to work with artisans, helping them design products that have a modern pulse,” she smiles.
Set for tomorrow
It was her passion for education that led V R Devika down the path of revival. “I felt the school system did not give importance to traditional performing arts as a teaching tool,” begins Devika, who studied Bharatanatyam to become a better teacher. “Teachers are storytellers and dance helped me communicate better with my students,” she says.
She then looked to rural ritualistic performing arts like therakoothu, oyilattam, thappattam and tholu bommalatam (puppetry). “These forms had begun to fade, but there is such wisdom in them that I wanted young people to understand,” explains Devika, 60, who is credited with bringing back devarattam. The ripple effect of her revival was a renewed interest in youngsters from rural areas to learn their traditional arts and bring them to the cities.
The founder of Aseema Trust—an organisation devoted to building bridges between traditional performing arts and education—is also passionate about spreading Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. “I use the craft of spinning on the charka and songs we have developed for schools, with lyrics that talk of non-violence and courage, to spread the message,” says Devika, who believes such a revival movement is essential in today’s world where people are very intolerant of diversity.
Of seeds and eroticism
Sharan Apparao compares herself to a magpie. “I go everywhere with my eyes and ears open,” she says. And what the owner of Apparao Galleries picks up are ideas and inspirations to exhibit and revive. Not only is she renowned for her curated shows, but also for giving a modern interpretation to old ideas. “People don’t know what old things are, where they come from and how they connect in the real world. I pick out old ideas and juxtapose them with new art—like a show we did called Sartorial World, where we showed old textiles with new. Or a more recent one, called Ritual and Reason, where we started with a seed (the beginning of creation) along with S H Raza’s Bindu, which is also the seed of creation. I also took old, erotic pieces from a broken rath and showed them with drawings by painter Francis Newton Souza,” recalls Apparao, who cut her teeth at the Smithsonian and Christie’s.
One of her most successful vehicles of revival is the Yarn Club. Started five years ago, “it became more focussed in the last three years,” with a monthly talk on the tradition of textiles. “We’ve covered varak printing, Bihar’s sujini embroidery, changing imagery in Kanjeevaram saris and, most recently, a talk by visual artist Shelly Jyoti on how she incorporates the 4,500-year-old technique of ajrak printing into contemporary art,” she explains.
According to Apparao, 52, revivalism is very important, especially now, because “people only talk about finance, poverty, etc. They have forgotten what a fantastic culture we were,” she says, mourning how few youngsters are interested in revival. However, she plans to do her best to spark an interest. “There is so much cultural diversity out there. Zakir Hussain gives fantastic talks on Andal Thiruppavai. These things should be brought to the forefront; it’s a great tool to integrate people,” she says. As for future plans, they include encouraging people to use recycled products, especially paper (the gallery is currently hosting an exhibition called The Passion of Paper) and to revive an interest in calligraphy. “Chennai boasts the only hand-written newspaper in the country, The Musalman, where Urdu calligraphers painstakingly ply their art. I am dying to get them to work with us,” she signs off.