EFF CORRESPONDENT SARAH MURPHY
I met Samant Chauhan last Friday, on a hot afternoon in his South Delhi studio. Since 2004 he has been winning all sorts of awards and showcased at Esthetica, The Ethical Fashion Show Paris and Fashion Week in India and Singapore. We discussed a range of issues including his practice, certification, NGO’s, India and Fashion, and The Media.
Bhagalpur, in the state of Bihar is synonymous for producing the finest quality silks, and this happens to be where Samant is from. Working with 5000 weavers in Bhagalpur, using Non Violent Silk, his main focus is developing skills and creative diversification. He encourages weavers to broaden their talents and contemporize traditional techniques, through the provision of workshops, the introduction of new materials such as linen, and encouraging entrepreneurship.
Three years ago Samant brought two block printers from Rajasthan, an area famous for its block printing, holding workshops in Bihar to educate weavers and craftsmen about the techniques of block printing. Now there are over 300 block printing facilities in homes and business around Bhagalpur. As the skills base diversifies, confidence improves, giving power to those who once did not have it. As a result, job security has improved and individuals have become empowered to offer their skills without the use of a middle man.
I asked Samant about dye, certification, transparency, waste, electricity use and the answers were surprisingly straight forward. Only the natural colours of the silk are used, cutting out the need for preparing the fibre for dying, and adhering to dye standards. Certification is not required as the colour, fibre and fabric texture can only be achieved by hand. There is nothing to prove. When it comes to waste, all the excess fabric is used in embroidery or used as patchwork to create a garment. Electricity use is also minimal, as the silk is woven on a handloom and the embroidery completed by hand.
I asked other designers including Samant, what they thought about NGO’s, and was surprised at how negative the response was. Due to the fact there is no hard line government monitoring in India, it seems some groups are using NGO status as a means to cream money from those who they are supposedly supporting. In response to my shock, I was told that around 80-90 percent are doing a good job promoting Indian Textiles and marketing their products, tying up with retailers and selling to multi brand stores.
I agree with Samant when he says the UK media puts a negative face on Indian garment workers. For instance, when the media has exposed stories in the past about Primark, rarely is there any follow up information about the situation, stating what the company has done to solve its problems (whether the garment workers have lost their jobs entirely and the contract has moved elsewhere or their working situation has been improved and regulated to a higher degree).
He suggests that representatives from the companies should base themselves onsite while their garment production is happening, putting them in control and unable to blame others for their problems. If the media was interested in researching or improving the effects of the fashion industry, maybe the companies would improve business by guaranteeing a sustainable plan for the future.
Yet, contrary to this, I also understand the ‘problem’ in some cases is normality. In conversation with one exporter, he suggested Indian workers were less concerned about air quality, working conditions, and long hours compared to their western counterparts. Even the students I taught didn’t mind the toxic fumes that filled their library and corridor from a nearby waste burner. One student commented ‘it’s not a problem for us, we are used to it’, even suggesting I shouldn’t be such a wimp.
India’s media are unsupportive of the fashion industry; at present its just high society ‘fun’, with a few highly respected designers and not much consideration for the rest. Samant suggests a fashion media graduate or equivalent, with an eye for fashion should be reporting.
Sometimes I feel the developing world tends to cherry pick from the world’s problems and in some cases fails to see if it’s truly a problem in the developing society. There are methods of working that other nations would question, and here pass as every day life, and are deeply rooted because of the caste system.
There is hope! The government has placed signs all over the cities and in many rural areas also, saying ‘no honking, noise pollution’ and ‘plant trees, give life’ to state a few. Environmental awareness is increasing.
When I was guest teaching in April, I was telling the BA Fashion students about Organic Cotton and Ethical Fashion, they all hastily nodded and I knew then that it was very unclear. The students understand Ethical and ethnic to be the same thing! How will the industry improve its ethics if even the students, the leaders of tomorrow’s fashion industry in India fail to understand the importance of standards, life quality, and prospects? Also, much of the coverage for India Fashion Week by the media over here was incredibly unsupportive: how can one improve how this sector is looked upon if every person reads how ‘ugly’ and ‘stupid’ creativity is?
If only the image of creativity as a gift can be improved, then families and students alike will be more supportive and passionate about their ability to change and shape the future. And as the government begins to display public art on a larger scale, and encourage water harvesting and respect for one another’s homes, I hope in time the general consensus will change to respect this beautiful country.
Catch the next blog for a look at the women and men who produce up to 10million handmade shawls, mufflers and stowls a year for Bhuttico and a co-operative of weavers from Kullu, Himachal Pradesh.