We need to engage more with communities, says designer Aratrik Dev Varman

His new book is on the risha—Tripura's indigenous textile

160-Aratrik-Dev-Varman Aratrik Dev Varman | Rohan Doshi

Excerpt from 'The Risha: History in a Narrow Weave':

Visuals can be a tell-all. To understand the centrality that risha weaving had in the lives of the Tripuris and how the garment's use and importance changed with changing political dispensations and migratory inflows, some photographs from the 1970s, showing women of all ages in risha-s and rignai-s, give historical context.

Retrieved from the archive of the Tripura government's publicity department, these were among the few that were still intact prior to their digitization, as yet untouched by the region's humidity. Many old textiles, heirlooms and artefacts in the state were also destroyed when clashes broke out between the "tribal" and Bengali populations in the summer of 1980. Mobs burnt down entire villages. In the colossal damage to life and property that resulted, several alam-s or glossaries of motifs consulted by each tribe were tragically lost. Such violence is particularly inconceivable in the face of photographs which tell of a gentle and leisurely tribal way of life, with its rhythm of routine activities-winnowing grain, weaving and fetching water from a stream. In this volume, however, we stay with the material's history more than political allegiances per se and the cultural contexts of risha weaving and wearing.

Interview/ Aratrik Dev Varman, Designer

Designer Aratrik Dev Varman of the label Tilla has long been a lover of history. One could comfortably call him part-aesthete, part-archeologist, for his clothes dip into vintage styles of the Kutch, Sindh, Balochistan and Afghanistan, bringing alive antique styles and crafts. Tilla, the store and atelier, are situated on a tree-lined avenue in Ahmedabad. There is also a small, chic cafe in its courtyard that serves the best coffee in town. Tilla repurposes old pieces of textile into festive, celebratory, and high-end garments. Its clothes tell stories of many hands and many histories, using old mirror work, tinsel, or cowrie shell embellishments, just the way Varman intends it to be.

Craft capital: A Tripuri woman wearing a risha | B.K. Deb Barma Craft capital: A Tripuri woman wearing a risha | B.K. Deb Barma

Varman―an alumnus of NID, Ahmedabad, and EnsAD design school, Paris―has lived in Kolkata and Chennai, two cities steeped in tradition and culture. His family hails from Tripura, where he spent his summers growing up. He initiated The Tripura Project a few years ago, in which he collected several pieces of the risha, or a breast cloth worn by Tripuri women woven from an indigenous textile. The project has now turned into a book, The Risha: History in a Narrow Weave, published by Marg (an art book publisher) and released this month. Varman speaks exclusively to THE WEEK about his work and his book:

Q/ Tilla is now 12 years old. Yet it is a relatively small and niche label that functions out of sleepy Ahmedabad.

A/ It is small and niche, because we take time to do things. When one scales up one has to be responsible for the quality one has envisioned. We are a high-end luxury, boutique brand and we like that. That said, we have grown from two tailors to 30. We stay away from techniques that simulate handwork. We believe in handmade luxury and that belief is never going away. We also work with the same set of people, so we have grown as a family.

Q/ What is at the core of Tilla?

A/ Well-crafted and handmade clothes and objects, often with a contemporary interpretation. Authenticity is at our core. From here on, we may do something more revivalist in spirit or interpretive, like a derivation. But we spend time with the community that makes the craft, and this makes us internalise it. We retain the authenticity it was created with. Our brand is not about me or my creative expression, it is about understanding the traditional form. This is where we are different.

Women of all social strata, including princesses, wove their own rishas up until the 1990s.

Q/ Tilla means a hill.

A/ When I created the brand, I brainstormed, and after much hemming and hawing, arrived at the name. My family home in Agartala is built on a hill. I have spent all my summer holidays there. It is my grandma’s home and my parents live there now. It's important to me.

Untitled design - 1 Vintage Jacket | Rohan Doshi. (Right) Two Rishas | Himanshu Panchal (Rangjyot, Navajivan Trust)

Q/ In an earlier interview with me, you said you believe in self-reliant craft, or continually fine-tuning what we already have. Can you elaborate on this?

A/ Craft in India, in our context, is so sustainable. By its very nature, it is decentralised. It uses local materials and skills that have been around for generations. We can do this at home without a large set-up. It is independent and dignified. As designers, if we make very few changes, we can support many communities, and then the future of craft is very sustainable. We need to engage more with communities, they already have what it takes to make a sustainable product. Concepts are slightly unfamiliar and that is where we come in. Craft is a living tradition. It doesn’t belong in museums. There are people who still have these skill sets and we have access to them.

Q/ You showcased Tripura craft at the Lakme Fashion Week in 2019. Is this what gave birth to The Tripura Project?

A/ The show was the culmination of a grant the British Council had given us. It was titled 'Crafting Futures', if I remember correctly. We worked all through 2018, and presented it in 2019. At the time, the Council’s agenda was to work with women-centric craft. I chose to work in Tripura and thus, the project. I was a textile student at NID, so this was a natural extension of my learning. I had started collecting textiles, and realised I needed to document them. They are well-documented in other states in the northeast, but not in Tripura. I collected a lot of rishas and studied them because of this grant. I travelled with my colleague Jisha Unnikrishnan (a designer and illustrator with Tilla). I also stumbled across a family album that belonged to my aunt. She had documented these prints of Tripura royalty from the late 1800s; they were the earliest prints in India.

Q/ Weaving in the northeast is largely a woman’s activity, unlike in the rest of India. Does this mean they are more empowered?

A/ Women of all social strata, including princesses, wove their own rishas up until the 1900s, after which this disappeared. It was interesting to discover that regardless of status, women would weave. Then, the royals stopped marrying girls from Tripura's tribal communities. The late king Birendra Kishore Manikya married six women, all from Nepal. But in Tripuri villages, people wove and wore the risha proudly. We found a whole set of archived prints from the 1980s, and even the 1970s, where many women in the interiors of Tripura wore the risha. Our second inquiry was why the villagers stopped wearing this garment. We found that there were violent riots that broke out between Bengali and Tripuri communities concerning the resettlement of refugees from Bangladesh. An insurgency followed. The local police managed it, and the centre did nothing. The tribals did not feel safe, and began to migrate to cities. They faced pressure to assimilate into the more dominant Sanskritised culture of the Bengalis. This is told in the way the risha evolved. It used to be worn over a blouse, then it became a little wider. The risha is also worn as a sash, stole or turban now, and is used in ceremonies. In its symbolism it has survived, but it is not so functional any more.

As for women weavers, so the North East is made up of tribal communities where the village functions as a unit and a lot of castes are community-based. Everyone was self-sustainable. They wove for themselves and their family, it was not a commercial activity. Everywhere else in India, weaving was for trade, to be sold. The North East was isolated because of the terrain, but also linguistically and culturally. Within that isolation, they've had to survive. The women or the men didn't have an idea what money meant. Their economic systems were very different, their basic needs were met and they lived life on their terms. This is now beginning to change. Unlike frame looms or desk looms, the loin loom that women of the North East use is made up of sticks. It can be rolled up and is thus mobile. The loom itself empowers the woman to work on her own. In that sense, it's closer to embroidery than weaving, because women can embroider at home. This ensured her agency. But the loom is kept in tension by the body, so it is hard work. You have diversity between 19 tribes so a fantastic, nuanced, design language.

Q/ So this 10-inch breast cloth, symbolising women’s indigenous history, led you to a book by Marg.

I took our manuscript to Naman Ahuja or Marg and I’m glad he took an interest in it. I am a reader and a huge admirer, as they stand for scholarship. It's an institution I look up to. Naman was very encouraging, he played a huge role in the bringing out of this publication. Jisha and I are designers, not anthropologists. Nandini Bhaskaran from their team was so helpful too.