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Apr 25

Kala Raksha, 20 Years Preserving Traditional Art and Empowering Artisans

Call it comforting, enriching and soul-satisfying. That’s what it felt like upon entering Kala Raksha, an Indian handcraft artisan center in Kutch, Gujarat. Hearing the chatter and laughter of the women as they sat in a circle stitching, listening to their strong voices as they told their stories about creativity and designing, and just sitting here, watching the movement of their hands, as the needle with thread created designs, epitomized the hand and heart making a slow-cloth journey. Kala Raksha was our last stop before the arduous trip back to the U.S., but being here, made me wonder why I wanted to leave.

The women embroiders stitch together at the Kala Raksha center.

The women embroiders stitch together at the Kala Raksha center.

Kala Raksha

Kala Raksha means “Art Preservation.” Started as a grassroots effort, it was officially established in 1993, as a registered society and trust by co-founders Judy Frater and Prakash Bhanani. It aims to preserve the traditional arts of the region by making them culturally and economically viable.

Raniben explains the stitched story of her quilt.

All activities are artisan driven and Kala Raksha encourages community members to work together toward the goal of self-sufficiency. Generating income through their traditions, community members can realize their strengths and maintain their identity as they develop.

Comprised of artisans, community members, and experts in the fields of art, design, rural management, and museums, Kala Raksha today works with nearly 1,000 embroidery artisans of seven ethnic communities. Artisans produce some of the most exquisitely hand embroidered and patchworked garments, accessories, and home furnishings made in Kutch.

Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya

In November 2005, Kala Raksha launched Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya (KRV), an institution of design for working with traditional artisans of Kutch, the first such institution in India. Evolved from years of design development based at the Kala Raksha Museum, KRV is an educational institution open to working artisans of Kutch, conservatively estimated at 50,000. It aims to provide knowledge and skills directly relevant to the artisan’s traditional art to enable market appropriate innovation, while honoring and strengthening the tradition.

The KR Museum’s collection is used as a primary resource for artisans during their design training.

As working artisans can rarely leave their homes and work for long periods, the course is a series of modular classes conducted in a local residential setting. Situated on eight acres in a rural setting near the Gulf of Kutch, the campus houses craft studios and a computer-aided-design center. The curriculum is continually revised to address the needs of both artisans and market.

Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya artisans work on developing their theme for designs.

The coursework includes six intensive two-week sessions on color, basic design, market orientation, concept and communication, finishing and collection development, and presentation. Together these form a comprehensive process for developing tradition-based products suitable for contemporary markets. Between sessions, the students implement classroom learning in their respective crafts.

KRV artisans learn how to mix colors in paint for their design boards.

The seventh class just finished at the end of 2012, and the emerging Artisan Designers are blossoming. This year’s graduates presented collections of contemporary styled traditions, ranging from the bold to the beautiful.

Artisan Design

The brandArtisan Design” was launched in 2010.  In many crafts, an artisan executes a product designed by someone other than herself. An Artisan-Designed product is created entirely by the artisan. For Kala Raksha, the designing process is as important as the product and this trademark certifies that a product is an artisan’s own creative innovation.

The leading Artisan Designers are graduates of Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya. Each graduate has invested a year of hard work and incredible creativity, to embark on a unique artistic path. One clear benefit of KRV is the diversification of crafts. Each graduate has found his or her own voice. Copying has never been a concept at KRV.

Deviben Samat Rabar models on of her designs to fellow students. She won the award for Most Promising Artisan of the year. in 2006. She has served as a mentor at Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya.

Fostering Engagement and Exchange

Kala Raksha continues to focus on building links through which KRV graduates can develop their capacity as designers and find new and better markets.  In December 2012, Kala Raksha and the Vidhyalaya hosted the seventh workshop with faculty from Kansas State University.  These artisan workshops foster exchange and appreciation focused on building long term global relationships. In 2011, Kala Raksha instituted workshops for anyone interested in learning the textile arts of Kutch. These workshops foster exchange, and a hands-on appreciation of the regional artisan talent.   You too, can learn these traditional handcrafts.

How could you not fall in love with Meghiben, the twinkle in her eyes and embracing smile?

 Got the Traveling Itch?

Mark your traveling calendar to celebrate Kala Raksha’s 20th anniversary on August 26. Or the next Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya annual Convocation Mela, November 23-24 taking place in Kutch, India. You can also meet Kala Raksha at this year’s Santa Fe Folk Art Market July 12-14. To learn more, visit www.kala-raksha.org, their online museum at www.kala-raksha-museum.org, or KRV at http://www.kala-raksha-vidhyalaya.org.

I hope you will share some of your Kala Raksha stories and congratulate them on 20 amazing years in the comment section below.

Special thanks to Judy Frater for providing information and many of the images for this blog. But really, far beyond that– a deep gratitude for all she has manifested with the Kala Raksha community. 

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