India Interior

Art on a drawstring

Preeti Mehra | Updated on January 24, 2020 Published on January 24, 2020

Nalas design samples

Threads of revival: Women making nalas under Project Azarband

Chandigarh-based entrepreneur Shyamli Chaudhry

Village women in Punjab are being nudged to revive the dying craft of weaving the ‘azarband’

When you think Punjab and handmade craft, the art of phulkari embroidery comes to mind. It is intricate needlework that was passed on from generation to generation and seen in elaborate form on the typical Punjabi dress — salwar kameez and chuni, a dress that is now worn across the country in several forms by women.

But unseen, and yet as innovative and elaborate in the same dress, was another handmade craft that was passed down the generations — the art of weaving the drawstring. Known as the azarband or nala, it holds the lower salwar (or for that matter the churidar, the pajama or the ghaghra) at the waist and is woven by hand or on a tiny loom, with different techniques.

Explains Chandigarh-based Shyamli Chaudhry, who is running Project Azarband to try and save the craft from vanishing: “Before the advent of the machine-made nala, every woman twined, plaited and knitted her own nala and these skills were passed on from mothers to daughters. Creativity was used to make patterns in the weave of the nala. The weaving became so much a part of the inter-generational social experience and connection that songs were written and sung about famous cities where azarbands of silk thread were made. So, when family members visited that city, they were asked to bring back nalas from there. This is now a dying art that we are trying to revive.”

101 nalas for wedding trousseau!

It all started with Chaudhry getting interested in the initiative after her teacher and mentor Swatantar Mann, a scholar in Museology, inspired her to work on reviving the art. “During the initial steps for revival of the drawstring and its weave, I discovered that women living in Khuda Ali Sher, a village close to Chandigarh, showed considerable interest in participating in the Azarband project.”

This is a community of underprivileged women who, after getting married, continued the tradition of making 101 nalas for the trousseau during weddings. And, unlike urbanites, they are attached to their cultural tradition as it gives them a sense of belonging. Their childhood was spent creating this craft along with the adults of their community in their parents’ homes, but after getting married they settled here.

The women of the village have no education and hardly any income. But they were very interested in the project and girls and women from 18 to 87 started to weave, with the older ones imparting the art to the younger ones. With interest catching on, Chaudhry started ‘The Dialogue Collective’ (TDC), a turnkey consulting and thought-development firm that works with artisans, designers, thinkers and social entrepreneurs, egging them to work and grow together.

Through the enterprise, she promotes design development and production and brings together the craft and designers who have the imagination to use the traditional craft to embellish garments or use it for accessories for modern wear. Today, the women are being trained in making quality goods using traditional and contemporary nala designs. For them, of course, it is a work opportunity with scope for expansion in the future.

For Chaudhry, making interventions in design and technology was part of her training, having worked in businesses like Fabindia and CSR projects of established companies. But the project threw up a lot of challenges as well. She needed buyers to take care of the monthly bills. After an initial surge, she found that the revival project was not sustaining itself. They were building inventory against a product that was not getting enough of a market. “The best solution was to do order-based work, unless a big retail brand like Fabindia picked up the product,” she says.

This encouraged her to start developing some new prototypes based on the craft and weave to generate orders, as a potential market for the craft could be found in wedding gifts, souvenirs, fashion and garment accessories. To keep her azarband revival work going, the young entrepreneur has started another brand, Cupro, which, she says, has made her understand quality.

“I am on a mission to change consumer behaviour on handmade products at the global level. My aim is to create projects of lasting value that will not only bring new products and design in the world of craft but also help many marginalised communities to go forward,” she says with strong conviction, hoping designers and fashion brands will come forward to help rekindle the craft.

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Published on January 24, 2020

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