At Vriksh, handloom is not just about weaving beautiful fabrics. It is the most sustainable practice to create fabric; it is an intrinsic part of our culture. Culture is what we cultivate and what we do for our livelihood and our ecology. Handloom is India’s second largest means of livelihood.

Vriksh, an alternate design studio based in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, eastern India run by textile designer, Gunjan Jain, works solely with handloom weavers and artists to bring in contemporary aesthetics in its textiles, ensuring traditional designs are re-interpreted by retaining the values that existed and adding a fresh perspective to each piece.

When Vriksh began its work in Odisha, the region’s under-explored and under-appreciated range of fabulous textiles were a key motivation. From finest tussars of coastal Odisha to natural dyed cotton saris from the tribal belt of Koraput to rare Bomkai, Dhalapathar, Habaspuri saris and many more, there was so much of Odia textile that the world needed to see again. And this is where Vriksh began its interventions.

Along with ikat, there are many more art forms, designs and weaving techniques yet to be popularized and find a foot hold in the markets outside Odisha. We are already witnessing slow death of many such Textiles – dhala pathar, kala pathar, siminoi, habaspuri, original cotton bomkai, Kotpad etc. In the post-liberalisation phase the numbers of handlooms and weavers was nearly halved within a decade.

Today, in Odisha there are about 44,000 handlooms and 1 lakh weavers remaining, with the numbers reducing by the day. Large hordes of weavers have been reduced to breaking stones in quarries, pulling rickshaws & trolleys, selling vegetables on the streets, etc. To add to the woes of the weavers due to neo-liberalism, older problems like poor wages, feudal master-wage-weaver relations, stiff competition from powerlooms, untapped markets and consumer ignorance add to the poor socio-economic conditions of the weavers.

In Vriksh, maximum emphasis is to create an egalitarian partnership in the design process. Along with ensuring fair wages and a better marketing platform, there is constant introspection for ways in which we could build and not damage the weavers’ confidence.

Vriksh has been on a quest to revive some of the dying weaves of Odisha particularly the Bomkai and the Dhalapathar. They are among the rare original weaves that Odisha was once famous for. Today, only four weavers are left in the village of Bomkai who still weave their beautiful thick cottons with extra weft designs. The others have migrated to Tamil Nadu and other states to work on powerloom or given up weaving altogether. You see this story of weavers migrating as unskilled labour and the death of rare weaves that is part of their heritage, over and over again in Odisha.

Vriksh has encouraged weavers to return to their art with a fresh appreciation for their own creativity and skills. In 2013, four tussar weavers from the Vriksh community bagged the prestigious Odisha State Handloom Awards 2013 for best design and weaves from the Odisha govt.

gunjanDesigner speaks…
Gunjan says “After working in the apparel export industry for a few years, in 2007 I packed my bags and moved to Odisha. Working in big metro cities like Delhi and Bangalore I had found it difficult to relate to the industrial process of making clothes — the most intimate commodities human beings use. In that world of factories and assembly line production, relationships are built on the foundation of exploitation rather than collective union. Those early years in Odisha with one of the world’s oldest and greatest traditions of weaving changed my life. I dived head first into the world of the handmade.

I didn’t want to be the urban designer who just handed over sheets of papers to the weavers to get the jobs done. I was determined to create an egalitarian partnership in the design process. After years of being treated as mindless labourers I found that sometimes even the weavers believed they lacked creativity. Along with ensuring fair wages and a better marketing platform I had to constantly introspect for ways in which I could build, not damage their confidence.”

The Weaver as Designer
Right from the beginning, Vriksh was clear not to pretend to be a messiah of the weavers! Jain says “It was the weavers who guided me and taught me the science of handloom, their techniques, the cultural significance of their motifs and colours, shared their experiences, knowledge and wisdom on the beautiful tradition of weaving.”

While the thrust has been to bring in contemporary aesthetics into Odisha textiles, traditional designs are never dismissed as redundant. Rather the idea is to re-interpret them in new ways; to add to what existed and not take it away.

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