Somaiya Kala Vidya
Among the many honours showered on Frater, including Fulbright and Ford Foundation fellowships, she has received an Ashoka Foundation fellowship for developing the Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya. Meher Castelino, in a one-on-one with Judy Frater.
Fibre2Fashion : When did you come to India?
I came to India the first time in 1970 as a freshman in college, to learn better batik dyes and study traditional design in India.
Fibre2Fashion : What have been your projects in India since you came?
In 1970, I became interested in folk embroidery of Kutch and Saurashtra as a non-verbal direct expression by people about their lives. I did a study of the different styles in a cultural context. I returned in 1972 to do field work for my BA in a tribal area of northern Maharashtra (because I had studied Marathi), my topic being the collective self in tribal society. In 1974, after completing my BA, I researched Rabaris in Kutch and made a travelling exhibition, 'Rabari: An Exhibition of Folk Art in Context', with which I travelled around the Midwest of the US in 1975. A year later, I returned to India once again to develop educational materials for American school children. I wrote four of five units of "Five Indian Villages", a study of the effect of natural environment on culture. I did an MA in Marathi at the University of Minnesota in 1981. One paper for the degree was a theory of the tension among nomadic people between the need to maintain culture and the need to adapt to different regional surroundings. In 1983-84 I came to Gujarat as an independent researcher to test my theory, and studied the embroideries and dress of Rabari subgroups in Kutch, Saurashtra, North Gujarat and Rajasthan. I did a second MA on this material, in Museology at the University of Washington in 1987. I re-wrote my thesis as "Threads of Identity", which was published by Mapin in 1995. I joined the Textile Museum as a curator in 1989. In 1990, I received a Fulbright grant to study Sufi e
Fibre2Fashion : How have you involved yourself in the textiles of India?
I think the most important aspect of traditional textiles is their embodiment of cultural heritage. I understand artisans as the keepers of cultural heritage, and have focused on providing platforms for them to work creatively to express their living cultural heritage.
Fibre2Fashion : What is it about Indian crafts and textiles that appeals to you, and why have you chosen it instead of any other country's heritage textiles?
The main thing is that the traditions in India are still living. Once traditions have been abandoned, any revival loses its vitality and veracity. The "choice" I think has to do with my investment. Those decades of research and experience enable me to work at a deeper and, I hope, more meaningful level.
Fibre2Fashion : How has your work helped in creating awareness for sustainable textiles and its promotion?
I think there are two ways: first, making beautiful, genuine textiles in sustainable ways - using natural materials and dyes from day one in 1993, allowing the women who worked in Kala Raksha to make their own designs (rather than filling in printed patterns done by someone else) made people aware of issues of sustainability. Second, educating artisans to love their own traditions and innovate, while maintaining cultural integrity, did a lot to disseminate awareness of the issues.
Fibre2Fashion : Tell us a little about Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya and why you resigned last year.
Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya embodied a wonderful new concept, and it had tremendous impact on the graduates. But there were three major problems: the land on which it was built became engulfed by Asia's largest coal-fed thermal power plant, with a plant of equal size adjacent to it. I had to raise the entire budget to operate it every year. Finally, the trust under which it operated was moving in a provincial, rural family direction. This was appropriate to the original project: a sort of self-help model for rural artisans. But it lacked the vision to enable a concept of international importance to reach its potential.
Fibre2Fashion : How does the design for artisans concept work?
We begin with existing traditions, and work out. A key aspect is to ensure that artisans are aware and appreciative of their traditions and their existing capacity - knowledge as well as skills.
Fibre2Fashion : How can this model be replicated elsewhere?
The idea is to take the key concepts and adapt them to the specific circumstances. The success of the programme is rooting in specific tradition, and sustained input. Since 2014 I have been taking education for artisans forward.
Fibre2Fashion : When did you start Somaiya Kala Vidhya and how is it progressing?
I and the KJ Somaiya Gujarat Trust co-founded Somaiya Kala Vidya in March 2014. We had an exhilaratingly successful first year. As I mentioned, we expanded to include a post-graduate course in Business and Management for artisans, outreach programmes, and a course in Craft Traditions for non-artisans. Through these programmes, we can expand the concept I began - to provide "higher education" directly to those who can utilise it for genuine development, and project the capability of artisans as entrepreneurs and teachers. Through this, cultural heritage can be revitalised, artisans can increase their creative capacity, and they can raise their economic and social status. This year, 2015, we return to the core design for artisans' course.
Fibre2Fashion : How do you think Indian craftsmen and textiles can be brought into the forefront of fashion?
It is essential that artisans have ownership and creativity in their work. I promote co-design. This requires mutual respect and openness, and has very exciting and gratifying results.
Fibre2Fashion : What are the problems facing Indian craftspersons and weavers in India?
I think the biggest problem is not recognising their huge capability. Artisans are thought of as workers to do someone else's work - hands without heads! People do their best work when they have ownership. And in that case the issue of quality is a moot point.
Fibre2Fashion : How can these be rectified?
Here, what is important is education for artisans and designers, and to co-design.
Fibre2Fashion : Do you think Indian crafts and textiles can get global attention, and if so how?
The best way to achieve this is through good marketing methods which will bring results not only In India, but also globally.
Fibre2Fashion : What will it take to bring branding to these local craftspeople?
What is needed is a genuine appreciation and encouragement of their capability - of their knowledge as well as skills. After that, they are set to tell their own stories which will in turn help them.
Fibre2Fashion : Design is not given the hierarchy it deserves. Your observations?
Just a few days ago a designer I know told me that when she went to a design school her parents told her not to become a tailor.
Fibre2Fashion : What is the change in thought and philosophy that could accord design the status it deserves and appreciation of aesthetics?
Here, what is important is to make art and aesthetics an essential part of early education. That will help in the change in thought and philosophy that could, in turn, accord design the status it deserves, and the approbation of the aesthetics that people will learn to respect.