Rajeev Sethi: Master of all trades

I cannot be objective about Rajeev Sethi. I became his admirer over 40 years ago, and I am proud to be his friend. People describe him as a visionary. I see him as a philosopher. Rajeev will chuckle when he reads this. But any person who has the innate capacity to transform lives like he does, is not a mere scenographer, revivalist or crafts king.

Talk to the weavers and artisans who are part of Jiyo and you will understand Rajeev’s deep and abiding commitment to keeping our traditional skills alive—not by showcasing them in museums, but by finding markets for the products. These are true repositories of our heritage and traditions. Rajeev has extended their life lines, by providing a valuable framework through Jiyo. Rajeev emphatically repeats, “Jiyo belongs to a million hands.” It does. Every craftsperson is a stakeholder. Profits from the sale of their products go directly to the person. Rajeev and his dedicated team are key facilitators who identify skills, provide funds and encourage craft communities to give a contemporary twist to their work. It is this twist that is changing the commercial future of people who had all but given up on their ancient knowledge base (from basketry to herbal medicines) and switched to city jobs that had nothing to do with their precious legacy.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Jiyo was registered ten years ago. But Rajeev himself has been on this path for four decades. I remember many visits to his tiny office/studio in New Delhi years ago, and meeting the most extraordinary people in the course of  long afternoons. They would drift in and make themselves right at home—jugglers, acrobats, balladeers—while Rajeev divided his time and attention between visiting ambassadors, international designers, and global celebrities. His world embraced everybody! And what a rich world it was—and still remains.

Decorated by the German and French governments, Padma Vibhushan Rajeev Sethi is extraordinary and unique. The early Festivals of India, staged in America and France, provided a glimpse into what was achievable if the right platforms were provided. More recently, his incredible feat in creating all the massive artworks inside Mumbai’s iconic T2 air terminal has been widely appreciated.

 Despite all his stupendous successes, Rajeev’s current dream remains incomplete. Jiyo is one accomplishment that requires a massive amount of engagement in order for it to grow. When Jiyo came to Mumbai, the response was tremendous and the craftspeople who participated went back with their pockets full and many orders to take forward. This edition featured skilled crafts communities from 22 districts representing the Red Corridor. Rajeev has meticulously mapped similar communities in over 600 districts across India.

A weaver spoke feelingly about his experience and described Rajeev as the rain that fell on his parched land and gave birth to a large, fruit-bearing tree that sheltered so many under its shade. Throughout these heartfelt tributes, Rajeev stayed in the background, making sure to call a shy person by name, urging him or her to share their beautiful creations on stage, in the presence of a very high-profile, informed and supportive audience. It was a pleasure to hear Jaya Bachchan interviewing a Jiyo member.

The message is clear: We must never forget the hands, eyes, hearts and minds that narrate our stories and proudly share them through their exquisite creations. While chatting with Rajeev’s team, my own sensibilities were further sharpened. Ever since then, each time I drape a sari, I silently thank the weaver behind it and seek a blessing for those magic hands. May they grow stronger and stronger with each passing season.