Getting To Know Laila Tyabji

In the late 1970s, a young, wide-eyed urban designer got off a train and found herself in Kutch, thrown into the heat, dust and color of an exciting new adventure. An adventure that’s still alive and taking her places. Laila Tyabji, the face behind Dastkar, shares with us her inspiring journey so far.

 Please tell us about your journey (from choosing to study Fine Arts, going to Japan and freelancing as a designer to visiting Kutch and eventually, creating Dastkar)?

I think my life has been shaped by a fortuitous series of circumstances –making quite random choices of “this” over “that” and flowing with where that took me, rather than a pre-determined career choice with clearly defined goals! When I finished school, I knew that if I went to college to do a BA like most of my classmates, I would end up fulfilling my father’s dream of sitting for the Civil Service exams, and joining the Foreign Service, so I chose Fine Arts instead.

A friend’s last-minute persuasion took me to Baroda rather than my initial choice of Commercial Art at JJ School in Bombay, then a choice of Japan rather than Paris shaped my attitude to the arts. Returning to India and the need to earn a living, I started doing freelance design assignments, and discovered I really like working with people and making things that were functional rather than Art on a wall.

Before I knew it, the decision to be a designer rather than an Artist with a capital A had been made for me! I gradually chose handloom and hand craft to work in rather than lycra, perspex, and stainless steel, and having chosen them, got more and more involved in the maker as well as the product. That took me to a six month assignment in Kutch, and led eventually to the creation of Dastkar.

  How would you describe some of the challenges youve experienced during this journey?

I’m tempted to say, “Working with the Government of India!” and it wouldn’t be entirely flippant. That’s one aspect of my work with crafts and craftspeople that is both time-consuming and frustrating. The other is of course fund-raising for a sector that is generally expected to be sustainable on its own resources. I don’t know how many times I have heard that “craft is a commercial activity” so why does it need funding?

The answer of course is that like all economic activities it needs investment in the first stage – both in human resources and money. And since one knows what just a little money would achieve, it’s very frustrating to not have it.  Sometimes too, one is impatient at the reluctance of craftspeople to try new things (this is generally the men rather than women!), sometimes one is maddened at the urban consumer’s determination to bargain for something that a craftsperson has made by hand with pain and love. Otherwise, the rewards far outweigh the challenges.

 Would you consider an important incident or a turning point in your career?

As I said, my life has been shaped by a series of small incidents rather than a sudden Eureka moment. But my six months in Kutch were certainly a revelation to a hitherto very urban designer, and the contrast of my subsequent two years with Khazana at the Taj showed me the huge gap between the rural craftsperson and the big high-end retail store. Dastkar was created to bridge that gap.

 What led to the origin of Dastkar and according to you, what role does it play in the Indian crafts and textile industry?

Dastkar began 3 decades ago because 6 of us, coming from a variety of professional backgrounds, all realized from our very different perspectives, that though Indian craftspeople still had extraordinary skills and potential, they were not able to deal with the huge changes in their potential markets and patrons. Their products were becoming tacky and irrelevant, and they themselves were getting increasingly marginalized. They desperately needed market information, design assistance, linkages to appropriate raw materials and finance, professionalization of their production and delivery mechanisms, and of course access to the new emerging urban markets.

 With the penetration of so many international brands in India, where do you see the Indian crafts heading?

One feared the worst but in the last couple of years one has seen a consumer realization that it’s not an either/or situation, and that true style can be combining West and East, eg teens wearing Levi jeans with a bandini tiedye top and a mirror-work jhola bag, or a socialite teaming her classic Paithani sari and pashmina with a Chanel clutch and Louboutin heels. And this is even more so in the interiors and artifacts of their homes.

 In 2012, you were awarded the Padma Shri. What does this accolade mean to you?

Frankly, it took me totally by surprise. When the gentleman from the Home Ministry rang I thought it was someone playing a prank, and told him to stop pulling my leg – he was most affronted! What’s pleasing is that it gives recognition to the craft sector and Dastkar’s work, but the affection, fun and fulfillment I have had working with craftspeople over the years is a MUCH bigger reward in itself.

 With your busy schedule, how do you maintain a balance between your personal and professional life?

I feel very strongly that people MUST have time and space for their personal lives and interests, and not allow them to get subsumed in the demands of their job. So I have always tried to find that balance, and also give it to my Dastkar staff. To be able to travel, to interact with friends and family, to read, to cook, to listen to music, go see plays and movies is an important part of human development. It is sad that for so many people all this ends when they start their first job.

 What makes you want to get out of bed each morning and continue to do the work that you do?

Just the sheer variety and creativity of each day! And of course working with crafts and craftspeople is a double whammy – on one hand one works with unique and beautiful skills, and the other one can actually see the difference it makes to their lives – especially the women, who now can take decisions about their families, earnings, bodies, without being dependent on others.

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