The story starts in a warm afternoon under the fierce Rajasthan sun.
We are in Udaipur scouting for our first cloth sources. Circa November 2018, the name Swara has still not been discovered, while our tailor-designer women are still being trained at their houses. Going in circles from large clothing boutiques to intricate bylanes made up of small cottages, we are asking around for wholesale cloth markets. One name keeps being repeated – Akola.
Akola is one of the last places in India where the traditional mud-resistant indigo dyeing survives and flourishes. It houses a concentrated network of artisans skilled in this primeval technique. Belonging to the Chippa family, these artisans keep the original recipe of the mud-resist (the ‘dhabu’) a closely guarded secret. Dabu printing almost died out in the era before independence, due to the influx of cheap machine printed alternatives in the market. Interest in this craft was revived along with the renewed interest in ethnic textiles in the 21st century.
Akola turns out to be one and a half hour from Udaipur in another district in Rajasthan, Chittorgarh. A quick Google search reveals the name and contact details of one of the key artisans – Manoj Chippa. He gives us directions to the location and soon we are being given a complete tour of the processes involved in dabu-printing. We are taken to see the plain cotton cloth received from Andhra Pradesh, the preparation of dhabu mud-resist paste from locally produced materials like gum, limestone, etc., the careful laying down of the carved wooden blocks filled with the mud on the cloth, its drying out in the sun and later dyeing in the indigo vats and washing. The visit is wrapped up in 4 hours. We are spent.
Fast forward six months, Swara has taken shape as a nascent social enterprise producing clothes designed and handcrafted by the trained women tailors of Dungarpur district in Rajasthan. It has a team of five tailors and two full-time employees. The designer-tailors come from the large population of the tribal women who are left behind as their husbands move to take up jobs in big cities. We are reaching a substantial group of people on our social media channels. Our first collection – SA (Shadja) is composed of clothes for women, men and kids. It is based on the organic indigo fabric brought straight from Akola – from the hard-working hands of Manoj Chippa and his family.
Our designer-tailors are provided with training in the latest industry know-how, provide with creative autonomy and compensated with above-market-price payment. But what about the Chippa family making our beautiful cloth, and sending it across 100 km to Dungarpur – what are we doing for them?
Swara is the first clothing brand that became a member of the Cultural Intellectual Property Rights Initiative. Swara recognises the use of Akolan art on all its products from ponchos to reversible jackets, from shirts to shrugs. This appreciation and acknowledge forms a key part of our communications to our external stakeholders.
All our product e-mails contain an informative blog post and video about the dabu-printing indigo dyeing performed by the Chippa family. The artisans are provided opportunities to represent their skills at our pop-up stores and exhibitions. Our design interns are invited to understand and take forward the technique of dabu-printing from the mud houses of Akola to the workshops of The Indian National Institute of Design, the National Institute of Fashion Technology, etc.
We are constantly innovating to improve the lives of the people involved in our production chain. This include not just our village models or our designer-tailors, but people at the back of our supply-chain – the Chippa family in the tiny village of Akola.
Text by Asha Scaria, Founder of SWARA