The red-hued soil of Tagore’s Santiniketan has created a fashion genre all its own. From leather bags and accessories to footwear and macramé jewellery, and to apparel and accessories in batik, the Santiniketani style is unique. Kunal Majumder travel to the varsity town and discover Amar Kutir, a Rs 1.30 crore brand that pioneered the style movement some 84 years back, and, of course, the typical handcrafted jewellery.
Lush green sal trees, swampy canals, water patches and the legendary lal maati (red soil)… no eye, for sure, can miss the young men and women in their batik print kurtas and kantha embroidered saris, golden brown footwear, beaded jewellery, and black and brown leather bags. This is the land that Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore nurtured as his karma bhoomi, or the soil of his toils. The ambience, here, is unmistakably Bangla – steeped in the lore of its rich tradition and culture. Of course, old timers will always maintain that the winds of change have wafted away what was once the core of Santiniketan, translated as the ‘abode of peace’. There is, of course, another Nobel Prize winner after Tagore, Amartya Sen, who has made this land proud. However, without digressing much, let’s go back to the streets of Santiniketan, where temporary bamboo structures and many a tinned roof sell jewellery, apparel and footwear – in typical Santiniketani style.
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Moving further into the interiors, you discover, among other entities, an organisation of elderly women who meet every Tuesday to create new designs and colour themes for Santiniketani saris; a design department that is involved in researching and creating contemporary art; scores of villagers involved in creating innovative designs from simple things like seeds and grass; and an association of artists, painters, architects, teachers and scientists that organises weekly bazaars to preserve this evolving genre of fashion and to promote its makers. The worth of the Santiniketani fashion and lifestyle industry is estimated at Rs 4 crore. Apart from voluntary bodies, there are around 30 mid- and small-size businesses with turnover that varies from Rs 50,000 to Rs 10 lakh.
On the banks of the river Kopai, among the hutments, the eucalyptus rows and the milestones, stands a statue of Tagore surrounded by a cluster of red–and-yellow single-storey buildings. A peep into these buildings reveals an unexpected wealth of rural craft and fashion – kantha stitch, dokra, terracotta, silk, bamboo crafts, macramé, batik, solapith craft and woodwork. Scores of rural artisans are at work – cutting, dyeing, stressing, weaving, painting and creating some of the most beautiful leather bags, jholas, bedsheets, saris, dress materials for blouses and salwars, headgear, footwear and even beanbags. These are sold at the 2,000 square feet store next door, at prices that range from Rs 5 to Rs 5,000. Amar Kutir, now a Rs 1.30 crore brand, is the pioneer of Santiniketani fashion and lifestyle products.
“Amar Kutir represents Santiniketani fashion in its true sense. It is the cradle from where an entire fashion cult emerged. Both are synonymous with each other,” Prof Raj Kumar Konar, principal, Shilpa Sadana, Visva-Bharati, told IMAGES BoF.
The famous leather work that Santiketan is renowed for, was introduced by Tagore’s daughter-in-law, Pratima Tagore, who learned the art in Java (Indonesia). Block printing techniques from Orissa were also taught for increasing the commercial value.
“The Santiniketani style was born out of the swadeshi fashion struggle. Mahatma Gandhi’s call to boycott foreign clothes and accessories captivated the creative imagination of an entire generation. His visit to Santiniketan in 1923 catalysed this movement,” informs Bikash Roy, manager, Amar Kutir. At present, Amar Kutir is managed by a board of directors of 15 members, with PK Sarkar as president and Rabishankar Bhattacharya as secretary.
Established in 1923 as a leather workshop for rural artisans by freedom fighter Sushen Mukhopadhyay, Amar Kutir was transformed into an institution for revival of village arts and crafts after Independence.
“Amar Kutir is not just a cultural or social institution. The commercial interest was very much in the minds of the founders. At the end of the day, it is about becoming self-sufficient,” asserts Roy.
Amar Kutir went commercial in 1939. Demand for more swadeshi goods led to an expansion of the product portfolio. The area has been home to many traditional crafts, some of which are on the verge of extinction. Amar Kutir has tried to revive some of these. “The original inhabitants who know the art, refuse to share it with others. We are trying to learn as much we can and incorporate them in our organisation,”
Spread across 100 bighas, Amar Kutir designs, manufactures, retails, distributes and exports a wide range of fashion and lifestyle products, and is growing at a steady rate of 20 per cent per annum. It exported goods worth about Rs 14 lakh last year and earned Rs 10 lakh from its products sold at cottage emporia around the country.
At present, Amar Kutir employs around 54 artisans at its 13 manufacturing units. Ten of these concentrate on leather work. “Artisans are trained in different craft forms according to their capabilities and interests. They are given every possible facility and help. They even have share in the profits,” claims Roy.
Each employee of Amar Kutir gets an equal share of the profits. On an average, each artisan is paid Rs 2,500 per month, apart from other allowances like medical and provident fund. Artisans also have the facility of leave on pay and get Rs 1.5 lakh whenever they decide to leave the organisation.
In 1978, an autonomous Amar Kutir Society for Rural Development was formed.
The profits are divided equally under four categories: rural development, profit sharing, repair works and capital development. Exports are managed through Fair Trade Organisations (FTO) like SASHA, Kolkata, and ASHA, Mumbai, to get an honest price for the products.
Customers and design
The average footfall per day at the Amar Kutir store is around 90; this increases multifold during the festival season in Santiniketan. The demand for Santiniketani work has seen a surge after 1995; in particular, demands at distribution centres, like the state emporia, have gone up considerably.
“Previously, customers were mainly the Tagore followers. Over the last decade, we saw the customer profile change. Santiniketan has become a weekend holiday destination, bringing in more customers. Everybody, from the low to high income group, finds something of their choice here,” claims Roy.
The revival of ethnic fashion in the Nineties is another factor for the increase in demand for Santiniketani products. The fashion-fusion culture, especially among the youth, encouraged Amar Kutir to experiment with design.
Amar Kutir stresses on design development and engages in market survey to check the popularity of, and demand for, the products. Designers are hired from National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) and National Institute of Design (NID). The ministry of textiles also organises biannual workshops for computer-aided design development.
Threat and challenges
With no copyrighting involved, Amar Kutir designs face a major threat. “Design theft is a big challenge for us. Every season, some of our designs are stolen and they reach the market much before we come out with something,” laments Roy.
One of the biggest challenges for Amar Kutir, according to Roy, lies in the attitude of the management and the employees. The organisation is run with a typical government psyche. The ‘commercial’ attitude is lacking and the need of the hour is a business sense for the institution.
Another challenge is the use of raw materials. A lot of these are wasted, and this needs to be stopped. Duplicate products manufactured in Kolkata and sold at a cheaper rate also threaten sales margins at Amar Kutir.
Being situated in Birbhum, the district which is largely populated by Santhali tribes, the designs and motifs engraved on the jewellery, bear a mark of rustic ethnicity. It infuses the mystery of tribal art with the sophistication of modern styling almost seamlessly. And pricewise they epitomise ‘value for money’.
Essentially, dokra is the most popular of all other tribal crafts. This lost wax process of metal casting is still practiced here by the traditional metal smiths. Being one of the ancient metal-casting systems, this wax process is implemented in casting brass, bronze and other noble metals. And tribal craftsmen in Santiniketan replicate their religious symbols, cultural motifs in Dokra jewellery. In recent times, a touch of modernity has been added to the designing sense to cater to the trendier and younger target audience. To give it a more casual and trendy look, craftsmen often team it with colourful wooden and glass beads.
Apart from the local market, dokra jewellery has a huge demand in Kolkata, Orissa and also in the other metros like New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad. But, it is the overseas market that provides the much needed profit to the small time dokra craftspeople. While in the domestic market the price ranges from Rs 35-3,000, the price overseas starts almost at the double mark-up. “We do get good response from abroad. We generally supply through the non resident Indians and their relatives settled here as we know most of them personally. They come here once or twice in a year and pick up the stock from the comparatively big vendors,” says Sujata Chanda, a supplier of Dokra jewellery. They also earn a considerable share of revenue by supplying to the local lifestyle retailers like Amar Kutir and the Vasundhara Art Museum.
The jewellery in macrame can startle even the most fashion-savvy around the world. Originating from the Persian word for fringes, macrame refers to a type of jewellery made of half-square knots or double-half hitches. Millions of such thread-knots are intertwined to give a decorative effect of a high fashion jewellery. There are chokers, earrings, pendants, bracelets in a wide colour palette ranging from off white and deep saffron, bluish grey and deep red to white and pink combinations. Interestingly, macrame finds takers in both teenagers and middle aged woman. This wonder craft had earlier enthralled the world in the Sixties and it is back again with the trendiest designs ever. The craftspeople nowadays team up their cotton and hemp twines with metal, wooden or glass beads. Almost 60-70 families of different Santhal villages, are engaged in this wonderful craft.
Beading it right
Till even a decade back the dressing sense of the people here was concentrated only on the traditional dokra or macramé. Today, the new generation also prefers trendy beaded bracelets, anklets and earrings. Though Santiniketan does not claim to be the cradle of beaded jewellery, it sure can take the credit for influencing design patterns. Since the spirit of the town is closely associated with tribal culture and the fashion sensibilities of the legendary Tagore family, even a simple neckpiece bears a classic stamp. Unlike the beaded pieces generally available in the market outside, Santiniketan’s beaded jewellery reflects a careful and artistic play of colours and style. Wooden, glass and metal beads are mixed and matched to lure one and all, across age groups. “The designs that are available here have a strong influence of the tribal folk art. Many students from Viswa Bharati’s art wing are now engaged in this business. Therefore, each piece is as good as an artistic item. They also supply to local road side hawkers in front of the university,” says Kuntal Murmu, a local hawker who sells funky jewellery in front of the university. Prices vary between Rs 15-45 mostly, but in case of glass beads it even goes up to Rs 65 or more depending on the quality of the beads.
Among the traditional crafts, terracotta is another favourite here. The art of terracotta dates back to 2500 BC and it still exists in Birbhum in its full glory with a few modern elements added to it. These burnt scarlet clay pendants or earrings are ethereal yet earthy. While in other states terracotta epitomises the religious sculptures of Hinduism, Santiniketan is one place where the art refers to clay jewellery. Square clay pendants with a tribal goddess or a folk motif engraved on it, earrings in various shapes or hansuli-shaped neck pieces reflect the splendour of our rich tribal culture. Only the original rustic designs have now been toned down to match contemporary tastes. The market price ranges from Rs 10-30 only. The jewellery is preferred by teenyboppers and classy women alike. Browsing through the streetside stalls at Bhuban Danga and the Viswa Bharati campus, the wide collection of terracotta art is bound to invoke the shopper within.
Of dry fruits and seeds
The Santhali village women also use dry fruits or dry seeds available locally to make exotic pieces for their dailywear. These colourful seeds are mixed and matched with beads or dry fruits to come out with a very trendy and rich looking jewellery piece. The natural bena grass or sesame seeds, which grow in abundance in this part of the world, are used as the raw material. The grass is intertwined to give the shape of a bracelet, neckpiece or earring, and often added is a terracotta or shell pendant for just that touch of glamour.
“The market size of the handcrafted tribal jewellery has potential worth Rs 4 crore,” says Roy of Amar Kutir. “The huge manpower engaged in making these most coveted jewellery is very much scattered and unorganised. There is no retail brand or label in this segment. We need corporatisation and a proper marketing strategy to churn out maximum business from these age-old crafts. They have a huge market value globally but it needs to be made suitable to contemporary lifestyles,” he adds.
The business here is seasonal and tourism centric. Though a considerable share of revenue comes from Kolkata, it is during Poush mela, Durga Puja and Vasant Utsav that sales pick up and provide profit to sustain for the rest of the year. Moreover, the ‘fat promises’ from the government for tribal development is restricted to pen and paper. In reality, only a few local artists and intellectuals are striving hard at an individual level to help the craftspeople survive. “There used to be a Saturday Haat or market at a nearby place where these craftspeople got the scope to sell their products to the customers directly. They did business worth Rs 6,000 almost each day. But of late the forest department has objected showing some legal implications. Now they don’t have any substitute place where they sell and earn on their own,” says Ashish Chatterjee, a painter and social activist.
Today, in spite of having been acknowledged all over the world, these timeless crafts await the attention from young entrepreneurs and the government. It is time to utilise the expertise and dedication of these villagers to reach their art, both in the domestic and the overseas market. This can happen only through proper research, training and marketing.
Published in IMAGES Business of Fashion