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Laila Tyabji: Crafting lives of Indian artisans

Written by Shruti Misra

Celebrate Handloom Day – Remove GST from Handlooms, says the Facebook post of Laila Tyabji, the chairperson of Dastkar, an Indian non-government organisation working with craftspeople across India, for promotion and revival of traditional crafts of India. As we celebrate the Handloom Day, Haalo pays a tribute to a woman, who has dedicated her life to providing a number of opportunities to traditional rural artisans from training, design to providing professional marketing infrastructure.

Daughter of Indian’s first ambassador to Belgium, Laila was among the six women who had formed Dastkar in 1981. The other five founding members moved on with goals of their own but Tyabji stayed on with Dastkar because the plight of the rural artisan not receiving economic gains and social acceptance has been very close to her heart. She thought this attitude has to change and these artisans and their art should be treated like any other profession.

After studying art in Vadodara and working with Japanese artist Toshi Yoshida,   Laila, in the late 1970s,  got a three-month assignment from the Gujarat State Handloom & Handicrafts Development Corporation Ltd’s Gurjari outlet, to go to Kutch as a visiting designer. Three months became six as Laila documented the work of craftspeople and prepared them for an urban clientele.

Kutch became the hotbed of work and inspiration for her, its crafts evoking a lifelong quest; its craftspeople, her friends, and protégés. “Beyond her image as a sophisticated and a stylish woman, Laila could make and hold a bridge with craftspeople. She has been there for them through calamity and crisis; from teaching them how to price their products to value themselves. The respect and affection they have for her is rare,” says Archana Shah, founder of the chain of Bandhej stores and author of Shifting Sands, Kutch: Textiles, Traditions, Transformations.

After working for a while for Taj Khazana, the store known for finely curated Indian arts and crafts, at New Delhi’s Taj Hotel, Laila decided that rural craftspeople needed new and commercially viable markets and a bridge to meet their customers and sell directly to them. The result was the first Dastkar crafts bazaar that was held at the Triveni Kala Sangam in New Delhi in 1981. And as they say, the rest is history.

Today, the Dastkar is working with more than 250 grass-roots producer groups and approximately 36,000 artisans all over the country providing a variety of support services to traditional artisans – including training, credit, product development, design and marketing. Dastkar’s objective is to help craftspeople (India’s second largest employment sector) regain their place in the economic mainstream.

Helping craftspeople, especially women, learn to use their own inherent skills as a means of employment, earning and independence is the crux of the Dastkar programme.

Laila’s work with artisans over the last two decades includes the chikan workers of SEWA Lucknow, Kasuti embroiderers in Karnataka, Mahubani painters and sujni quilters in Bihar, regurs in Rajasthan, and Banjara and Rabari mirrorwork craftswomen in Kutch and Maharashtra, pastoral communities displaced by the Tiger Reserve in Ranthambhore, and women victims of terrorist insurgency in Kashmir.

Laila, who switched to wearing sarees exclusively at 50. writes and speaks regularly on craft, design and social issues.  It would not be wrong to call Laila Tyabji and Dastkar as the guardian of Indian arts & crafts.

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Shruti Misra

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