By Lalita Sriram
when ecology inspires art and aesthetics in an entrepreneur, the urban eye of the beholder is refreshed
It could have been just another store in the suburbs, but step in and you’re drawn into a little corner of our cosmic village. Imaginatively styled, of course, with technology’s blessings. There’s a lot that an enterprising 25-year-old can do within the extensive parameters of world history and an innate ability to design. Aradhana Nagpal, at one point, studied Liberal Arts in the USA, and for the last couple of years has been running a charming, intriguing craft shop, Dhoop, Crafts of Asia, in suburban Mumbai. Why intriguing? Well, simply because this is no ordinary mirror-frame-dhurrie-folder-handbag shop. Yes, you will find all of these here, but they are imbued with the sense of purpose that defines this young woman’s personality. She understands ecology through aesthetics. Utility from the unwanted. She’s turned waste, or the unlikely, and even the strange, into objects of utility and beauty, with its simplicity intact. And the materials used are not just cane, bamboo or dried grass; there’s also a range of items made from newly discovered natural wonders with a potential for adaptability. Kerala, for instance, has a weed which is the bane of most water-front property owners. It clogs the waterways, suffocates the fish and attracts and breeds mosquitoes. Yet, it has a beautiful, delicate name- the water hyacinth. And today, thanks to the state government’s efforts, this stubborn weed is being used to design the most attractive hand-crafted items, an experiment which a talented girl with an urban mind has used to great commercial and aesthetic success. ‘I have used it to make handbags, office stationery, lamps, runners and rugs… it is wonderfully adaptable,’ says Aradhana. And wait, while the weed comes from the southern end of the country, the designs for these bags have come from Calcutta because, ‘I like to put ideas and people together, mix and match across cultural borders.’
Not every item in the store is made by her. Much of it is sourced from various crafts-people, though most of these are her designs executed by them. ‘I still can’t get myself to use artificial dyes. And vegetable dyes are not suitable for many of these materials,’ she explains. She is experimenting with screwpine currently. Banana fibre and coconut shells are the materials used for some other products. There are dhurries, cushion covers, laundry bins, and even a camisole made from banana fibre on its way to a store in New York. Aradhana has an explanation, ‘My parents were travellers. As a family, when we were children, every year we had a mission. We didn’t go to towns, cities or go abroad. We would travel to one interesting holiday destination in the interiors of our country. So we saw the richness and the diversity firsthand.’ Growing up, she opted for a course in anthropology and ancient history, did a stint at the Morarka Centre for Crafts, and while there, imbibed the sensibilities involved in making indigenous skills adaptable to a cosmopolitan, urban market.
Meanwhile, there were other forces at play. Her father had helped run a centre for drug addicts in Nagaland. His experiences there aroused her interest and very soon, with plans for her store underway in 2003, Aradhana took a trip to the north-east for her first consignment of merchandise, and returned with a harvest of simple creations in pinewood, bamboo, cane and wild grasses. The store opened- her wares sold out in three days. She felt encouraged and renewed with a sense of accomplishment. The businesswoman was born. Later that year at a seminar, Aradhana met some members of New Zealand’s Maori tribe and invited them to visit her store. Through them she learned that many of the Naga designs were stunningly similar to Maori designs in the same crafts- ‘The rain jackets were made of the same kind of grass, although they told us that the Naga designs they saw in the store were far superior. The weave in the bamboo baskets were also found to be similar.’ Cosmic village, remember? Which also means that there are others with a similar consciousness moving towards a similar understanding; according to her, there is a Japanese designer she discovered on the net, who has done remarkable research in the use of all these natural products, the same ones that inspire her- bamboo, banana fibre and water hyacinth.
Essentially, the success of her store reflects a return to the basics for people in general, including her customers. To admire, or perhaps then acquire, what is natural, unmatched and unique, not necessarily flawless.
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