Textile Journey Through Bengal
Part 1: Speaking to Namrata of Biome Conscious Textiles
Start of your journey with Dye and Textiles
It all came together as I was looking out of the window of my life for something that would make me financially independent and i was questioning consumerism. So, here I was, with no prior experience in business other than having some entrepreneurial DNA in my blood being a native of Rajasthani Marwaari community. And when i encountered someone who was invested in herbal dyeing process for almost a decade.Here I was having been wanting to do something with social impact as an important aspect in work. I got the chance to work with clothing and fashion that I understood very well ever since I can remember. I found a product in my hand finally that was not completely consuming humanity and was in harmony with Nature as well.
I am but a tool in the hands of this movement I feel, that is living, working, singing through me. So, I would like to share some lines that I wrote when I started to understand what I was doing in the first few years of starting ‘Biome’.“I like to think, to question, this makes me act I am, so i do I love clothes but not the indulgence into it.
Clothes are a symbol of Need, Comfort, Artistic expression, Dignity, Celebration, Attraction and more.However, they may not become the reason for environmental degradation and human exploitation.
My work is my belief, my communiqué: ‘Biome’
A clean present and cleaner future
Welfare of everyone involved in the process
Comfort of the one who wears
What keeps me going is the joy to know and working with a product i.e bio-degradable. Endorsing, embracing and collaborating with other such people makes me happy. The smile on my client’s face and always get a compliment when they wear it.
My work, Biome is now a Product- natural dyed fabrics and customized garments. And a Movement towards integrating with Nature. As part of that process I sell natural dyes and travel with natural dyeing workshops anywhere in the country.
My core values or should I say the universal values that I echo - "Work should not be for one person's fancy, it should be collaborative, it should transcend one and have many...In the end, it should unite, not divide" . Revolution starts with an individual but it must expand to the community as we are parts of one big whole. Nature is the intelligent system that has prevailed ever since life started, we can only grow and survive in harmony with it.
Local vendors and sustainability
I am interested to adopt ‘grow local, buy and sell local and decentralize.’ Hence I have been exploring to work with the strong weaver heritage of Bengal and introduce natural dyeing to them as they are mostly working with synthetic dyes as of now. Also, instead of thinking of ‘export’, I am keen to spread awareness amongst us, Indians who are a big ocean of consumers and deserve the best fabrics and not just trade the best out of our country. Imagine if an ocean like ours endorses natural dyeing and hand weaving.
Natural fibers, sustainable manmade fibers, hand woven fabrics are some aspects of my work but all only naturally dyed. The natural dye is like my boundary that does not limit, but creates the balance between environment and our need for colors.
Also, wherever I do workshops or events, I collaborate with other sustainable field workers like in education, food, lifestyle etc.
Workshops on natural dye
I realized that we as humans need to engage our senses to relate to our physical presence in life. And only listening or reading about it is so incomplete or poor way to share the concept and experience of natural dyes. Through workshops, we facilitate a chance to dye your own fabrics, engage with the look, smell and feel of the dyes and know how real and alive is it like us. We are Nature as well!
Biome Conscious fashion is the brand under which we make and sell customized sustainable natural dyed clothing and fabrics for a consumer or a designer or small brands looking for natural dyed fabrics.
Biome Project is the umbrella under which we do workshops and awareness interactive conversations and collaborative discussions on understanding ethical and sustainable textiles. It can be for children and adults both.
Dyes&Design is a 3-4 days residential experience in a rustic, natural farm/ resort / forest/ sanctuary for enthusiasts and curious travellers to connect to Nature, their bodies, mind and soul and explore sustainable practices including natural dyeing as one of them. We have done 4 till now, one in Jalpath in Kolkata, Kanha Tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh, Pench eco- resort in Madhya Pradesh and Vanvadi, a regenearated forest outside Mumbai.
Bio-gya are sessions where we invite guest speakers and organisations that are working on sustainability and we learn as we share.
Biome Black is the newest initiative on the roll to take on a journey into understanding desi or indigenous cotton that grew before British wiped it and replaced it with American and BT cotton. It is a learning journey right now. I think we’ll call the project, ‘The Return’
BiomeXColor Ashram is the parent of all my initiatives. I grew with coming face to face with one man that was dyeing fabrics naturally with herbs and minerals for almost a decade and he has been my starting point for all that is under ‘Biome’. And I am very fortunate that now he has created a physical space that he calls ‘Color Ashram’ in Assagao, Goa. We are collaborating on everything that is about sharing the knowledge, process, philosophy, concept of herbal dyes, doing research, incubating projects and inspiring young people and brands or transition projects from synthetic to natural dyes, be it an individual, student, company, designer, institute or a weaving cluster or a village. Our projects are under the tagline, H4: Head, hands and heart in herbal dyeing.
A piece of textile is both a work of art and design
A piece of textile is a symbol of creation. So much has been created, imagined with warp and weft and has been an expression of art and design.Our textiles are our communiqué, our language, various cultures marked it with their sense of aesthetics and there’s deep history and heritage with what we wear and re-create over and over again. Design has been evolved in textiles in rhythmic dance with our lifestyle, socio-economic conditions, geography of a place and now it marks globalization. Another important driver has been ‘fashion’ and it has both pros and cons as anything in excess can result in.
Biome has always loved and learnt from collaboration and sharing. That’s been the constant motivation and satisfaction. So there was this one time, we happen to meet this young bright student from Srishti School of Design and we were witnessing her work on flora and fauna and a very imaginative expression of human mating a flower…and the resultant evolution of life….When we got to her more, we found Alisha Dutt Islam loves trees, can communicate with them and sketching plants alive is her passion. We took a look at her sketches and decided to convert them on our clothes through batik and herbal dyes. Thus started this experimental project of batik and painting with herbal paste. On board was the batik artist, Sushanto and Ghana, an artist from Chennai who was with us for that period. We released a collection and it was like a dream come true.
Batik and Indigo
Paramita Kar Choudhury is a batik and block printing artists who also dabbles in shibori and clamp techniques. She started her journey with synthetic dyes but soon found natural dyes calling. She took her training from an experienced practitioner from Shantiniketan. Then she opened her unit and heart to embrace Biome as a collaborating partner to use our herbal dyes and process orders together in batik, block printing and dyeing.
Indigo process that Biome follows and shares at workshops:
Take 2 parts of our refined lime powder and mix some warm water and stir for almost 10 minutes. Now add 1 part of our indigo sweetened powder and mix slowly and cover, removing all oxygen supply and light exposure for 3-4 hours. Now, open and check if the top is metallic purple and bottom is green. If yes, your indigo is active, alive and ready to go. Dilute if needed and put your fabric inside. Let it soak the dye and as you bring it out, it magically comes out green turning blue on exposure to sun’s light and oxygen. In time, it’s bright blue. Wash it after it’s dry with a mild soap and rinse in vinegar water and dry again. Ready to wear!
Part 2: Visiting Mahamaya, Master craft-man of Kantha
First day of Kolkata and we visited Mahamaya, a third generation Kantha artist and National award winner who has made some masterpieces including Ramayana with Kantha.
“Illustrations makes for a Naksha on Kantha which is the stitched layered fabric” explains Mahamaya. Kantha stitch is typically a long running stitch however there is innovation now and Herringbone, Satin and Button stitches are being used. Browsing through her pile I came across one that her grandmother had made, a 70 year old piece with natural colours.
Kantha is a way of storytelling through geometric patterns, figurative narratives and floral illustrations. Mahamaya talks about her process and shares that she like to draw first on the fabric and then go by her instinct to fill colours into a piece of work. “There are works that take years to make. Sometime I do the border and then another artisan fills the space inside. Reds and black were traditionally used but now there are more options in colours. I look for Inspiration in other forms of art as well like looking at books and museums. During my mother’s time, they used to pull out threads from old saris to embroider but now I use anchor thread. I also collaborate with other artisans like Kashmira, who I have worked with for 16 years is in the craft for tradition and that’s a skill that get her money.
She has trained artists further and taught as well to preserve the art. Speaking of innovation, Mahamaya likes to experiment with the base fabric like cottons and tussars. There is a lot of scope where the artist could bring themselves in the work with experimentation within the technique. Some of her new projects include graphic inspiration and also a mix of techniques like applique. A new series being developed is the Kamasutra panels. Mahamaya shares that most of the works are commissioned art pieces like recently sold to Reliance foundation at the swadeshi bazaar, but some orders of wearable art in dupattas or bed linen keep the workshop running.
Part 3: A Roadtrip to Jamdani Village of Shantipur
About 4 hours north of the city of joy, lies Shantipur, a village of jamdani weavers who migrated from Bangladesh during partition. Traditionally these weavers made dhotis, a drape worn by bengali men, but now that the men have moved to pants, mostly they weave saris for local women of bengal. A master weaver, who hosted us at his workshop, shared that all his family members (his wife and brother’s family) weave 6-8 hours a day. Sometimes it takes upto a week to make one sari and they sell it for Rs 1500 (18 USD). An average of Rs 10,000 is what a weaver makes per month (130 USD) ,which is slightly above the minimum wage. The big question, is what is the fair price for a traditional craft and where does the difference lie in skilled labour and an artisan? Our host, explains that mostly him and his wife visit mela organised by the ministry to sell to direct customers or sometimes boutiques from the city commision them pieces. He explains that for him this is the best kind of job as he can stay close to the his artisanal tradition as well as stay close to family as supposed to working in the city would have meant him being alone.
I was leased to see the community spirit in the weavers and also to see that women held an equal position in the trade. There are 50,000 weavers in shantipur who mostly work on handlooms, but the market demand has moved some to power looms as well. He says, we use natural dye only on request or when we are provided with naturally dyed yarns by the boutique. Chemical dyes are cheaper to produce, thus making it a competitive product. The community has now formed a weavers society to bring more structure to the craft village where they try to solve issues of daily running and hope they could soon achieve some support from larger organisations to buy more looms and buy more raw materials like threads. For the weavers, the biggest challenge is the money circulation, as they are only paid end of the month, but most of their cash is invested in raw materials. The weaver complains that the larger buyers also work on consignment and would not pay for raw materials in advance, which for them is a big risk. On our way back, we spotted some jute fields and trucks of jute being taken to the city, another fibre craft of Bengal. I have all these ideas and questions on how to make this model work for them, but for now I have treated myself to a naturally dyed blue and white jamdani.