Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Craft Call | With her art in the right place

It had been over two decades since Radhi Parekh first left India in search of a job. The National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, graduate had hopped across three continents and dabbled in illustrating children’s books and game design before finally settling into her role as manager of a small team designing consumer experiences at the online payment portal PayPal in the US. Long commutes between her San Francisco home and the Silicon Valley office led to Parekh questioning her next career move. The real clincher, and a move back to Mumbai, came when her father began contemplating the sale of the family’s heritage building in Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda.

In September 2011 she opened Artisans’ gallery in this space. Just as the building’s vernacular architecture, dating back to the old Fort area, stands out among the cluster of 1880s neoclassical structures, Parekh’s Artisans’ gallery too is a stark contrast to the all-white art galleries in the neighbourhood. The loft’s warm wood interiors are designed to play host to rare, indigenous handicrafts and handlooms outside what’s exhibited and retailed in government emporia or craft fairs. Artisans’ pays homage to retro modernism by emphasizing that luxury is about one-of-a-kind, handmade creations that may defy production precision but celebrate uniqueness. And that we must sustain them.

Mata-ni-Pachedi—ancient shrine cloth from Gujarat
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Mata-ni-Pachedi—ancient shrine cloth from Gujarat

Even at the planning stage, Parekh was convinced that Mumbai needed a space like this. At the same time, as a first-time entrepreneur she also understood the risks of selling craft products that people were used to paying so little for. “I wanted to provide an alternative to the city’s malls, which mostly have Western luxury brands and look the same anywhere in the world," says Parekh, who consciously dresses for work in the labels she showcases at Artisans’. “I wanted a counterpoint—to showcase the handmade Indian luxury products that we need to support before they become obsolete."

Parekh’s family background helped mould her ambition—the Parekhs have had a long-standing association with local textiles. Her grandfather Chamanlal Girdhardas Parekh and his brother Mangaldas had an important role to play in what she calls the “Manchesterization of Ahmedabad" in the 1880s. In the 1970s, her mother Mita Parekh successfully ran Artisans of India, a designer label of block-printed salwar-kameez suits.

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A ply-split braided artefact designed by Errol Pires

Right from the get-go, Parekh has played the role of gatekeeper at the 1,000-odd sq. ft exhibition space, letting in only those artisans, designers and social enterprises whose work brings a high level of skill to offer products that are luxurious by way of being handmade, one of a kind, imperfect because of inconsistencies common in handmade products and often highly personalized. She states that functionality is at the heart of every show, especially since the design language during her time at NID (1980-86) was deeply rooted in mid-century modernism.

A framed label of Finlay &Campbell
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A framed label of Finlay &Campbell

This stringent measure also works as a brand-building exercise for the gallery. Parekh conducts workshops and lectures by master-craftsmen as well as documentary film screenings and live craft demonstrations to keep her patrons informed. She argues that only when Indian handicrafts lose their “Third World, cheap and cheerful" tag will craftsmen be able to work against the easy-money factory jobs.

Since Artisans’ has a stake in the success of every exhibition, each event is promoted rigorously with custom-designed press releases, e-mails, flyers and postcards.

Exhibitions uphold the context of the craft displayed. For instance, in December, Parekh not only designed the keepsake dupion silk-lined boxes in sacred colours for the Godhuli: The Art of Picchwai And Chandi ki Chhapai show, but also filled the entire pyramidal loft with mogra, jasmine and lotus flowers so the space “smelt like it should". While Pandit Jasraj’s performance ensured that the opening “sounded like it should", Parekh went one step further, providing traditional snacks (an attempt to break away from wine and cheese receptions).

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A shawl from Andraab. Photo: Raju AK

Even though Artisans’ is the first to launch many labels in the city, its rotating roster means other boutiques and designer exhibitions quickly snap them up right after the week- or month-long exhibitions. In order to offer a sustained marketplace for such artisans and designers, Parekh hopes to launch a permanent gallery shop, both in brick and mortar as well as online, in the coming months. Also on the cards is a studio space in the building where Parekh hopes to collaborate with artisans and designers directly.

In 1993, Anna Molinari of Italian fashion brand Blumarine used the stiff Elizabethan lace collar as her collection theme. In the same year, Chloé presented crocheted, wide, swinging coats and embroidered tulle tunics while Dolce&Gabbanareinterpreted the muslin dress and boa, a long scarf made of feathers.
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