January 2015–Architectural Digest India
Australian architect and designer Sian Pascale first arrived in Maheshwar in July 2012 with a commission to convert a disused bus shelter into a handloom school for young weavers. Pascale had only recently relocated from her native Melbourne to Mumbai, where, through a series of off-hand introductions, she met Sally Holkar, the American woman who had spent the last 40 years revitalizing Maheshwar’s rich handloom traditions. “I met Sally at the Bombay Gym expecting to design a handbag or something for [Holkar’s NGO] WomenWeave,” Sian remembers. “I walked out with my first solo architectural project.”
She had her work cut out for her. “The space was really depressing,” Pascale remembers. “Structurally it was fine, but it was leaking, things weren’t finished.” Holkar’s assessment of the space was even less charitable: “It was covered in graffiti, there were bat droppings everywhere, there was nothing on the ground but cement rubble. That’s the way she saw it, but in that she immediately saw something exciting.” Within six months—and a budget of just over 2 lakh rupees—Pascale transformed the bus shelter into a multifunctional space where up to 25 young weavers could learn business and marketing skills to help them rewrite their role in the drama of 21st-century India.
During that first exploratory visit to Maheshwar, Sian sat down with several of the weavers who would later participate in the school’s inaugural session to discuss their vision for the space. “With the help of an interpreter, I asked them, ‘What kind of materials do you like? What kind of colours?’”
“The whole design of the handloom school was created by the young weavers,” recalls Ganga Kanere, a 30-year-old weaver from Maheshwar who, over the course of the design and construction process, became Sian’s right-hand-man. “We needed a simple school, a simple look. We wanted to sit on a mud floor. Most of the weavers are students, too, and we only had time after six o’clock, so the lighting had to be good.”
The completed building, devised and executed by committee, is both airy and utilitarian, a grassroots architecture built around unexpected details and the intuitive, yet dishearteningly rare, imperative to create a space entirely for the people who will use it.
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When Holkar first conceived of the Handloom School, she hadn’t envisioned a space quite like this one. The original idea was to build a full campus on a plot of land near the banks of the Narmada River that would include class-rooms, residency spaces, a shop and a café: “an NID for weaving,” as Holkar describes it. With limited funds at her disposal, a proposal still waiting for approvals from the state government, and a forthright American determination still untarnished by four decades working in rural India, Holkar decided to press on with the tools she had at her disposal.
Those tools were not inconsiderable. Holkar’s experience working with weavers dates back to the 1970s when she first came to India with her then-husband Richard Holkar, a Prince of the Royal Family of Indore, whose 18th-century fort palace on the banks of Narmada is still Maheshwar’s most significant landmark (and, thanks to Sally and Richard’s efforts, its best hotel). For centuries the royal family of Indore had patronized Maheshwar’s weavers, famous for their exquisitely delicate silk-cotton saris. With the accession of the Princely State to the Indian Union, that patronage dwindled, leaving the town’s weavers without a livelihood.
In 1978, at the behest of a group of weavers led by Ganesh Bicche (he now owns one of Maheshwar’s best handloom shops, Cheer Chaya), the Holkars started the Rehwa Society with a mandate from the government to train twelve women—never mind the fact that Maheshwari weavers had traditionally been men. Bicche helped assemble a group of women from weaving families who were willing to leave their homes to earn their livelihoods, no small task in the Central India of the late ‘70s. Nearly 40 years later, the Rehwa Society continues to train local women to weave traditional Maheshwari saris. When Rehwa Society began there were maybe 300 weavers remaining in Maheshwar. Today, official government estimates put the number at over 2000.
After 25 years with the Rehwa Society, Sally left to found WomenWeave, a charitable trust again focused on textiles and women’s empowerment, but otherwise wholly different from its predecessor. The Gudi Mudi project, one of several established under the aegis of WomenWeave, launched in 2009 in the half-finished office space alongside the bus shelter using a grant from the MP Government Handloom Department.
“The goal was not to compete with the traditional Maheshwari product at all and to use a very, very tight chain, so the cotton is locally grown, locally spun, locally dyed,” Holkar explains. “And the weavers were never weavers at all. They’re what we call the shadow poor women of this town. They were doing work that was below their dignity to support their families. None of them were traditional weavers, so this has been a teaching and income generating project.”
The goal of the weaving school, then, was to combine key elements of these earlier models to create something entirely new: A space that would help young craftsmen and -women from ancestral weaving families to view their work as an art form rather than mere labor, and to help them develop the skills necessary to connect directly with the market. “Before the school, we didn’t think of weaving as a career,” Ganga told me one afternoon over a chai at his brother’s roadside shop. “After leaving the handloom school we realized we had a treasure in our hands—and we [had been] losing it.”
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Though the Handloom School, unlike Holkar’s previous endeavors, does not focus specifically on women, it has nevertheless created a platform for several young women to find equal footing in a mercantile world generally occupied and controlled by men.
While in Maheshwar, I met Bhavna Sonere, one of four young women to have participated in the first session of the School, at her family home in a village just outside Maheshwar. Bhavna, who started to learn weaving from her grandfather at the age of 17, joined the handloom school at the suggestion of her old friend, Ganga; in 2014, a year after completing her training, Bhavna was nominated by the Mumbai-based craftsmen organization Paramparik Karigar as Weaver of the Year.
“Without the Handloom School,” she told me, “I wouldn’t know about business skills or photography. If I’d wanted to do online business, how would I have done that? I wouldn’t have known about proper dying, texture, quality checking, costing.” Now, Bhavna and the other weavers are empowered to make decisions based on instinct and know-how. “Before we would work for master weavers, they would say ‘do this design,’ and you would do it. Always.”
That process of empowerment began with Sian’s design. After completing their session at the school, the students formed two small weaver consortiums, Weavers Creations and Fab Creations, both of which have seen considerable success with large commissions received directly from their clients. Most recently, Fab Creations received a commission from FabIndia for more than 800 stoles and 400 saris. Nasir Anzari, one of the weavers from Fab Creations, remembers the design stage as one of the first signs that the Handloom School would be a different kind of space. “Asking the students what we want: No other schools would do that,” he told me.
That first nod toward a spirit of trust and collaboration carried over into a curriculum that, as Ganga put it, “changed 23 lives.” The students who participated in the school—a number that fluctuated between 23 and 25—grew with remarkable speed into a group of young entrepreneurs, remarkably savvy in their ability to plumb the depths of their local traditions while also exploring the possibilities opened up by the democratization of technology across the Subcontinent. When I asked Bhavna, for instance, what were the inspirations for her designs, she told me, “traditional designs inspired by nature and atmosphere,” then added: “I also search Google for new design ideas, colors, textures, yarns.” When asked the same question, Ganga told me he liked using the patterns that he began learning from his father at the age of 10; for colours, he likes to explore the Pantone catalogue.
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After their fist session together in July, Sian and the young weavers met frequently to discuss different possible design routes and solutions moving forward. After gathering preliminary impressions from the group, Sian asked them to create a formal list of demands for the space. In addition to requesting a traditional mud floor (an idea Sian loved as it made it easy to hide electrical conduit while also making it easy to unearth—figuratively—and repair should that be necessary), the young weavers wanted to explore ways to keep flies and bugs out of the space; they asked for shade, for display options for their work and for a space that would be thematically built around the idea of weaving.
Sian returned to Mumbai with these instructions and developed a pair of design options: “one inspired by the wrapping of thread, the other by a sort of flat weave.” She returned to Maheshwar with these two plans and sat once again with the weavers to pick and choose the elements from each that they would execute in the construction phase. In the coming months, Sian traveled back and forth between Mumbai and Maheshwar, working not just on the design side of the project but also getting deeply involved in construction and execution. “She just did so much of it herself,” Sally says, “with her own hands.”
Together, Sian and Ganga patrolled the bazaar for unusual materials and personally prototyped each of the handful of design elements that would eventually constitute the school. A combination of chains and mosquito netting became a gauzy, translucent curtain to close off the front of the open bus shelter without blocking natural light. Elastic bands became tools for displaying completed pieces on the shelter’s structural columns, the only decorative element in the whitewashed space. Tall earthenware jugs combined with shallow metal basins became elegant outdoor sinks. “We would go looking for something specific and we’d never find it,” Sian remembers. “We were out looking for paint and I saw these metal things and said, ‘I love these jali cages! What are they for?’ Ganga said, ‘They’re for rats.’” Those rattraps became ingenious light fixtures.
For her part, Sian—like the weavers themselves—valued the collaborative element of the process above all else. “When you’re working architecturally with craftspeople, when they’re working creatively, it’s incredible the stuff they can produce,” she says. “And then you know, as a designer, that the work you’ve done is only half yours.”