At their official meetings, Jaipur-based fine-jewellery designer Sunita Shekhawat would often coax Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje to help develop the city into a ‘design hub’ to showcase India’s creativity to the world.
“This is India’s epicentre for craft and design,” she would insist in their high-powered woman-to-woman discussions. Not only gems and jewellery but also textile, architecture and interior design, other entrepreneurs would add. Raje promised to consider the idea.
In the meantime, two other Jaipur residents, well-known architect Ritu Khandelwal and event-management maven Shalini Agarwal, decided to get on with it.
In April 2016, they launched the first edition of Nine Dot Squares, a unique design festival held at Diggi Palace Jaipur to “bridge the gap between the artisans and design professionals practising in the field of architecture, interiors, product and lighting design”. About 30 of them turned up to showcase their wares and concepts at what Khandelwal calls the “trial event”.
At the second edition held over three days in late September this year, the festival was amped up to 70 participants, which included 12 sponsored startups and nine local artisans. Inaugurated by Diya Kumari, BJP MLA and the daughter of the last maharaja of Jaipur, and Mitchell Abdul Karim Crites, who has been working to revive Islamic and Indian art and architecture for almost half a century, the idea was to create more opportunities for artisans to be integrated with the design community, to the mutual benefit of both.
And going by the enthusiastic response from visitors – many of whom were design students from across India – the idea of Jaipur as India’s quirky-quaint design capital seems to have caught on.
Carefully curated installations set the tone for the hybrid event, from a special bamboo stage made by Manna Roy and his team from Bamboo Enterprise United in Agartala, to a sculpture of two hands by Pawan Kumar Bhatt to symbolise the hands of artisans trying to keep their traditions alive.
A ‘kani’ shawl-maker from Kashmir demonstrated his loom-work next to a futuristic 3D live installation by visual artist Sandip Gomay. India’s most famous puppet-maker Rampal Bhat invited visitors to sit on the floor next to him as he chipped away wood to carve a kathputli and narrated his fascinating journey across the world; across him lay Art Deco-inspired designer furniture by Attitudes.
“So far, there hasn’t been much interaction between the craft and design community, at least not on a commercial platform. There are no design festivals with a craft focus,” says Khandelwal, who has been designing luxury residences, schools and palaces for 25 years, including Sunita Shekhawat’s studio, and who wanted to do for design what the Jaipur Lit Fest has done for book lovers.
“Free accessibility to well-known names in one’s field is an invaluable tool to inspire students and apprentices,” she believes, explaining the ‘open model’ of Nine Dot Squares – named after Jaipur’s nine-square grid.
Workshops were arranged to keep kids and grownups busy – from traditional arts such as miniature painting and aainakari (mirror work) to modern ones such as the Big Head Project, which uses cardboard, geometric grids and paints to make giant cartoon heads. Leather craft and blue pottery were also taught in batches at a nominal cost, while rangoli-making and carpet-weaving were demonstrated to all visitors.
A special area marked for ‘Chai and Chat’ sessions was the hub for invigorating talks by prominent names in the industry. These included the founder of Studio Lotus, Ankur Choksi, and fashion designer Anupamaa Dayal, who had a discussion with Jaipur-based interior designer Ayush Kasliwall about the nuances in their respective works.
Another session hosted product designer and artist Alex Davis and visual merchandising guru Ashmit Alag, who talked about being inspired by the environment. A keynote presentation by interior designer Lekha Washington and sculptor Arzan Khambatta left the audience enthralled as the two presented an entertaining conversation on ‘fluidity in design’. Other talks emphasized the need for sustainable architecture and eco-friendly building materials, besides the need to encourage artisanal practices.
The exhibition space had stalls by a range of design professionals and businesses from home-ware to furnishings. A special display by the iconic Jaipur Rugs Company included their famous ‘Anthar’ rug made by three weavers who had not been given any pattern – it starts out unaligned at the bottom and becomes more synchronized at the top as the three developed a personal rapport during the months-long weaving process. It had won the 2016 German Design Award for ‘illustrating a beautiful story of human connection’.
For those who enjoy walking tours, the organizers had arranged a ‘craft trail’ with Swapnil Saxena, who gave visitors a glimpse into the varied arts and crafts of the city, from performing arts, metal-work to painting traditions, ending with tea and Jaipuri kachoris.
“Though Jaipur is a World Craft City, we need to make a special effort to sustain and incentivize traditional crafts, else they will go extinct over the next couple of generations as youngsters move to other trades,” says co-organiser Shalini Agarwal. Born and brought up in Kolkata, Agarwal moved to Jaipur over 30 years ago and considers this her hometown.
Having launched the very successful Aspiration series of lifestyle exhibitions across India – they do about 10 shows a year in Jaipur, Udaipur, Surat and other cities – she was the perfect organizational partner for Khandelwal, who focused on bringing in participants from the design industry.
Neerja Palisetty, the founder of Sutrakaar Creations, participated for the first time this year. Her small Jaipur-based firm makes eco-textile lifestyle products using recycled paper and natural materials with a team of rural women. She believes it is her duty as a designer to protect traditional techniques by incorporating them in contemporary products.
“There is a lot of exploitation happening at various levels on this front,” says the environmentalist, adding that Nine Dot Squares was a good platform to help her connect with like-minded people who appreciated the concept and process behind her sustainable range. “Crafts can be promoted only when the common man is explained the process behind every hand-crafted product,” she avers. Jaipur’s design doyennes would agree.