Our New Roots: The new hues of tradition – Nisha Vikram, Craft Canvas

Nisha Vikram from Craft Canvas talks about reinventing Indian art forms to suit modern day decor.


“Have you been to the Starbucks at CP, Delhi? They have used the simplest jute weaving technique, like the ones used to weave charpoys, on their walls and ceiling. It is so rustic, yet so modern!”

It isn’t hard to see the enormous passion Nisha Vikram of Craft Canvas shares for ‘all things handmade’. Believing firmly that there is a place for tradition even in the most modern of homes and offices, Vikram has been working hard to transform ideas, with local artisans and crafts ranging from Kalamkari to Madhubani, into products combining a high degree of artistry, contemporary aesthetic and quality. We talk to the craft entrepreneur about her journey, crafts, getting kids involved, craft bloopers and more. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Nisha Vikram

‘I jumped in because it involved a lot of travel’

It wasn’t love at first sight. I wasn’t even sure of what I was getting into. The brief for my new role in a craft research firm I co-founded started with ‘a lot of travel involved’, so I jumped at the opportunity. The daily boredom of a regular job was clawing its way into my life. I believe that most life changing things happen to us when we are busy making other less important decisions.

Amieda Spa art

It isn’t difficult to love pretty hand-woven fabric, meticulously woven to perfection or a piece of mythology colourfully painted on a canvas. Over the next 4 years, I can say with conviction that I fell deeply in love with what I did, whether it was travelling to little known places, unearthing interesting crafts, tasting a bit of something that not many have before. The exploration that goes behind every craft slowly drew me towards the beauty of it all. Plus the myriad possibilities that arise in bridging the rural-urban gap which was the biggest motivation to start CraftCanvas.

‘We wanted to introduce craft in everyday life’

With crafts slowly becoming obsolete in everyday life, I wanted to translate that age old technique into something that is relevant to us. Today, we have come to offer customized interior solutions for every space, using carefully curated, handcrafted products made by artisans.

Computer mock up of a mural

For survival, crafts need to adapt. When the need arose, we did switch to email from letters, didn’t we? Though it takes away a little from the original, it provides a whole new way of looking at an old idea. There is a need for crafts to cater to the modern urban sensibilities and we are starting to see interesting options in that space. However pricing is still an issue – no economies of scale here and high quality standards cost a lot more – we need more consumer education in this space.

On training traditional artists into thinking ‘modern’

For the artisan, it is easier to understand new concepts when he/she is involved in the entire process. However, we are trying to see how to maximise output in this. Training new artisans, standardizing the process and yet keeping the soul of the craft alive is a lot of jugglery.

Artisans working on a mural

The first couple of projects were disastrous. I gave the artisans a very basic idea of what we expected and then let them do the rest of the work. The result was a very raw version of the art on the walls of a high end building! Our creative process is a lot more structured now – we get a client brief, a filled questionnaire that gives us an idea of their aesthetic senses, and then go to our designer-artisan in a box team.

We go to the detail of giving the artisan measurements, key symbols/motifs cut out in 1:1 scale and colour swatches done.

Memorable craft moments

‘Colours are always a cause for debate where the artisan prefers a bright shade and the designer the lighter ones. Once it got to such a big clash that the resolution was to paint 2 birds in the brightest neons and 2 in the dullest!’ –  the combination is quite sought after now.

Shadow puppetry workshop

‘A lady artisan working with us for the first time refused to continue after a day – she could not wash her huge lehenga in the tiny hotel bathroom and wanted to head back to her village. She was looking for a river, but I managed to convince her to use a bathtub!’

On working with bizarre customer needs

‘One of my customers feel in love with hand block printed tiles. Due to the fragile nature of the tile, we do not supply it to locations outside Ahmedabad. She was so adamant that we had to find an option. So we transported it to her location from Ahmedabad using a series of car drivers because shipping was not an option. The 150 tiles consignment finally reached her without a single broken tile.’

Mata ni Pachedi – public art installation

‘We once wanted to highlight a very prominent place (situated about 30 feet from ground level) and it had to be something never done before. So we blew up the size of every motif (we used the local craft Mata Ni Pachedi) to twenty times its original size, made computer mock ups and were ready with the design. What we did not anticipate was that the boiler was not big enough to accommodate a 20 feet by 8 feet piece of fabric.The outcome was a cause for celebration!’

5 ways in which you can re-imagine craft and bring it into your home

A. Get to know more about traditional crafts. How can you adopt something that you don’t know about?

B. Choose handcrafted serving bowls and spoons. Start with terracotta from your local potter.

C. Upholstery is the easiest. You can add a few handcrafted cushion covers and curtains

D. Avoid wall paper, use a traditional craft in a modern colour scheme on your wall

E. Switch to natural dyed and hand-woven fabric for your clothes

Making it cool for kids

We regularly conduct workshops, both for young children and students in design schools. This sensitizes people towards the art form and the artisan himself. They understand the complexity involved. Our recent shadow puppetry workshop with 7-12 yr olds at a local school inspired them to use the technique to work on one of their school projects. This is another way to adapt the art form, isn’t it?

I am working on a series of 15 workshops for kids this summer, starting from age 3 and upwards, everyone gets to try their hand – from crafting comic strips using Jadu Patua to painting your everyday at school using Warli.

Your wishlist for Indian craft

A. A crafts curriculum in every school

B. Everyone substituting one non-craft item with a craft item in their everyday life

My current favourite craft piece

My home can very well be a craft museum, but here are 2:

A Madhubani dining table.

A restored swing.

Our New Roots is a special series featuring entrepreneurs, artists, visionaries and youngsters who are forging the old and the new in exciting and innovative ways.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aarti Mohan is the Chief editor of The Alternative. more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aarti Mohan is the Chief editor of The Alternative. more

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