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Interview with Designer Sonam Dubal

Recognizing the role traditional handlooms and designs play in contemporary fashion, we are starting a series of interviews with fashion designers. We ask a set of questions to which the designers send their responses. We will intersperse these with interviews with the crafts persons to get both sides of the process being examined.

Sonam Dubal gradated from NIFT, New Delhi in 1990. Beginning his career with designer Rohit Khosla, he worked for the next eight years in theatre design, advertising, all the while exploring new experiences and traveling extensively. He returned to mainstream fashion in 1999 with the launch of his label Sanskar.

Sanskar celebrates the traditional through styles which are clearly contemporary and cosmopolitan. The result: a signature style, seamless fusion of eastern tradition with western aesthetics. His forte lies in creating a combination of Indian and oriental styles. This involves silhouettes that are pan-Asian in nature. Centuries old traditions like the 'bakhu' and the 'honju' are re-invented into chic and contemporary incarnations with surface embellishment through silk-stitched stripes, floral extensions in machine embroidery with 'resham' and encrusted hand embroidery with pearls, zardozi and turquoise.

Inspired by the One-ness of the world, yet enjoying a unique identity - each robe is a natural expansive flow of shape and texture into modern silhouette. 'Chanderi' with silk embroidered jackets, jacquard reversible 'sherwanis', 'pajamas', wrap blouses in contrasting colours represent traditional silhouettes going global. His main fabric is raw silk 'burrey' or Tsen fabric - a hand woven traditional Tibetan textile woven in Assam.

Sonam has presented his collection in Paris (2003), London (2003-5), Hong Kong, Sapin and Los Angeles (2004) and Tokyo (2005). His outfits are retailed from OGAAN (New Delhi), Fuel (Mumbai), Cinnamon (Bangalore), Amethyst (Chennai), Cima art gallery/ Sasha (Kolkata) and CasaGoa/Sosa's (Goa).

We understand that you employ craft techniques and processes in your collections. Which craft techniques have you worked with and why these specific craft forms?
Sanskar as a collection celebrates the traditional through styles which have a seamless fusion of eastern traditions with western aesthetics. Since launching my label in 1999 I have incorporated various craft techniques in my collections.

The principal fabric used is a hand woven traditional textile - colloquially termed as burrey - woven in south Assam .With this I also use silk chanderi , raw silks brocade and hand woven cottons. Fabrics are layered and embroidered both by hand and machine-Beadwork with old turquoise, zardozi with the use of old copper coins, resham with mirrors to create carpet like weave reminiscent of West Asia.

Block printing has also been incorporated using Tibetan calligraphy from traditional scarf printers from Kalimpong in West Bengal. This was our debut collection at the Lakme India fashion week 2003 - fall winter- which not only was much appreciated but through this were able to show case in Paris at L'eclaireur our fall winter line - a trend setting store.

Craft techniques are of utmost importance. Coming from India as we are known the world over for our textiles and crafts. As a designer I seek to create a simple language through crafts that speaks of designs which have universal appeal. In doing so not only does this create employment but also keeps traditional techniques alive in keeping with the contemporary.

You are a NIFT graduate. Were handlooms and traditional textiles included in your formal education at NIFT? How did you develop an awareness and a sense of traditional textiles? Did you instinctively feel that you could use these in your work or were they imposed from without? How do you actually interpret them in your ranges?
A mixed cultural background gave me access to diverse and rich traditions hence was exposed to beautiful old brocades and textiles very early in life. Also the blending of cultures comes naturally to me. At NIFT (batch of 1990) traditional textiles and handlooms were introduced to us via our curriculum but the real awareness came on traversing the real world. Knowledge grew by feeling and viewing textiles, seeing patterns, weaves and color combinations and hearing the stories and folk tales all spoke of the world we come from. It took me 10 years to start my own line and to be able to speak a language through a signature style incorporating all that I had experienced.

Interpretation of a technique is more then the direct employment of the craft for production. It is via a balance of commercial as well as aesthetics that a craft is incorporated in a collection. Design in terms of functionality i.e. comfort and wearability is also of importance here.

Do you feel that an awareness of traditional hand skills is important for today's designers? Why?

Awareness of traditional hand skills is very important today for designers not only in fashion but also accessories products and textiles. As traditions are slowly dying so in order to survive them we need to work in tandem through creative input for contemporary commercial usage. This is also to combat technological control which forces sameness and kills creativity.

Spreading awareness and knowledge of the diversity of India's artisanal resources is an essential part of my work. Mine is a constant attempt at balancing business with a larger social purpose. One must design within a context.

Do you actually employ craftspeople or do you work through commissions?
I do employ embroiderers and also commission printing and weaving from various sources. I work with Sasha in Calcutta for developing my stoles and scarves range as well as my print line. I try to keep handwork as a central element in my ranges.

Do you give them the designs or do you work with the existing traditional repertoire and then modify them within your creations?
I normally work out designs with existing traditional techniques being used though I either rework motifs or styles of the techniques used. I often work out new color concepts and also juxtapose designs rooted in history.

While incorporating craft skills in your design, do you seek to retain the traditional character of the craft? And how much scope is there to incorporate the spontaneity/ creative instinct of the artisan, even as (s)he molds the skill as per your requirements.
I work with various weavers / artisans/ designers in different ways. The creativity of each individual is appreciated and their work is allowed to speak for themselves. I guide the look overall and try to get the best outcome. I keep space for the artist's spontaneity as this is very important in creating a line.

What is your experience with craftspeople? Do they deliver on time? Are they open to ideas and suggestions?
I think the delivery is often a problem when one works directly with them so I often work with an NGO e.g. SASHA for working out delivery dates on shipment. And also I keep this in mind when ordering from them as most often communication and transport are also a problem for they are based in rural areas. Craftspeople are open to suggestions and work well in terms of product but as with most artists problems arise in keeping to time schedules and making delivery deadlines.

Is the debate surrounding the ethics of isolating a living cultural tradition and using it as mere embellishment a valid one? What are your thoughts on the future of crafts in India?
I think a cultural living tradition needs to be functional, user friendly and commercially viable too. We all need to participate in this process. The help of the government is also required in understanding the need to keep traditional crafts alive and to also combat rural migration. Craft traditions in themselves are also important as they inculcate self esteem in the creators themselves and are important for society as a whole.

An essential step towards keeping the crafts traditions alive and progressive is for them to be incorporated in our education system. And this isn't limited to design students but to be taught in schools so that their inherent relevance and contribution to the community at large beyond the production of mere objects is ingrained into our social psyche.



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