Like most fashion school graduates, Gunjan Jain began working in the apparel export industry based in the urban centres of Delhi and Bangalore. But soon she was disillusioned with the industrial process of making clothes and their resultant commoditisation. Factory and assembly process of creating clothing lacked the collective union she wished to be associated with. That led to her packing her bags in 2007 to move to Odisha, where she set up her design studio Vriksh in Bhubaneshwar in 2008.
“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”, she recalls.
Ever since she began working with weavers in Odisha almost six years ago, Gunjan has stayed away from being a designer who just hands over sheets of papers to weavers to get the jobs done and instead has built an egalitarian partnership with them in the design process. For Vriksh, the weavers have been guides and teachers of the science of handloom, its techniques, the cultural significance of the motifs and colours. The weavers’ experiences, knowledge and wisdom on the beautiful tradition of weaving have been the underlying strength of each collection they have created together.
“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”, she explains.
Gunjan is constantly working 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. She refutes the claim that is often made about handloom losing favour among the populace.
“The truth is that we’re killing our local talent and artistry by focusing only on what we want to consume in the cities and ignoring what most Indians really want to buy and use… In Odisha, where I work, practically every district has unique handloom products and a key reason why the industry keeps going is that to a large extent, weavers still have access to local markets and do not depend only on outside buyers.”
Working with a team of weavers’ groups in Odisha, Gunjan explores and blends native crafts with contemporary designs and aims at promoting traditional weaving communities in the State.
She goes on to explain what her brand Vriksh stands for, “Right from the beginning I was clear that Vriksh was not going to pretend to be a messiah of the weavers. 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.”
Among the different weaving techniques and fabrics Gunjan and her team of weavers work with, Vriksh has intervened significantly in the famed tussar Jala work. Wild tussar silk is mostly cultivated and hand reeled into fine tussar yarn by women in Coastal Odisha. The highly skilled tussar weaving communities of coastal Odisha, with their famous extra weft motifs of fish and rudraksh in Jala techniques, have earned the patronage of Rajas in the past. Vriksh has been doing extensive research and developing new weave constructions to make softer tussar sarees and stoles combining it with different natural yarns.
Through her work, Gunjan wants to bring in contemporary aesthetics in each design, but she also wants to ensure that traditional designs are not dismissed as redundant.
“The idea is to re-interpret them in new ways; to add to what existed and not take it away.”
– By Manika Dhama
Image Courtesy: Vriksh
Shop for a collection of Tussar silk sarees by Vriksh on http://www.jaypore.com