Upcycling and ‘jugaad’ have always been a part of Indian life and economy. Torn saris or dhotis are often stitched up to make new saris, baby layettes (kantha), and quilts (rajai and godhadi), with the end result an attractive new piece for the family.

In Maharashtra, godhadi quilts are a necessary piece of bedding in every household. Yet, until Richa Kulkarni and Aparna Jagtap came together, hardly anyone thought of godhadis as a creative commercial product.

Around five years ago, on a visit to Alochana, a women’s group in Pune that organises women to share ideas of common concerns, visual artist Richa Kulkarni chanced to meet Aparna Jagtap, an ex-journalist and social activist. Jagtap was keen to start something that would economically empower women in her rural neighbourhood on the outskirts of Pune. A walk down Ambedkar Nagar village, in the Kondhwa-Budruk area of Pune, where Jagtap lived, gave the two women an idea about how godhadis were an essential part of every household. Realising that there existed a big market for these simple quilts, Kulkarni and Jagtap came together to launch Quilt Culture.

Starting from a community hall in the neighbourhood in 2014-15, Quilt Culture began training women with some background in stitching and tailoring to make colourful godhadis. People were encouraged to bring in waste fabric, clothes and drapes, and the women would make beautiful godhadis for them. Jointly providing a service, the women started earning a modest income from the sales. Soon, there were nearly 30 women working for the venture.

In 2017, Quilt Culture decided to upscale and started buying scraps and discarded, defective material from textile factories, dealers and tailors. There was also the need for bigger premises. Jagtap’s family pitched in to help. “Two extra floors were being built. They offered us the space, and Quilt Culture was formalised,” recalls Kulkarni. The organisation also moved beyond godhadis to producing handbags, laptop bags and purses for urban consumers.

Since a godhadi is an essential part of one’s memory, Richa, as a visual artist, thought of incorporating intangible memories in designing the quilts. For this, she got the craftswomen at Quilt Culture to draw objects from their memories. Understandably, what emerged were drawings of tulsi vatikas , the sun, cups and saucers, nutcrackers, and the like. These were then incorporated into the quilts, resulting in some unique memories captured for posterity.

A year ago, Kulkarni had the opportunity to accompany her husband on his posting to Amsterdam. This was when she got to meet art historian and curator Edith Rjinja through another Indian artist, Sharmila Samant. Recalling the encounter, Rjinja says, “I had been involved in organising an art residency, the Rain Artistes Initiative, some years ago. This is where I got to meet artistes from all over the world, and set up an Open Circle for the exchange of ideas. Community art particularly fascinated me. When I saw what Kulkarni had been doing, I wanted to help out since it involved upcycling of discarded fabric, and was a major step towards a zero-waste economy as a tool to fight climate change.”

Their plans took definite shape when the Netherlands-based Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie and Stichting Stokroos decided to help Quilt Culture financially. The resulting research-based project — Beyond Quilting — would not just help expand and give definite shape to what was until then a small community project but also help in organised marketing of the products nationally and internationally.

The funds received saw co-ordinators Rjinja and Kulkarni build a formidable team of several major Dutch and Indian designers for design inputs. There was Rjinja’s husband, graphics designer and visual artist Harald Schole, product and textiles designer Simone Post, graphic designer Richard Niessen, textile designer Mae Engelgeer, as well as Pune-based fashion designer Karishma Shahani-Khan (who runs Ka-Sha) and product designer plus upcycling expert, Dhara Kabaria, who heads Studio Alternatives. ore More neighbourhood women also joined up, and soon the premises were teeming with brisk activity to culminate in exhibition sales.

For the craftswomen, it has been a learning and earning opportunity as no other. Middle-aged sisters Hasina and Salma Sayyad had been tailoring clothes for the family. Quilt Culture gave them an opportunity to make godhadis for the commercial market. Of late, the sisters have decided to work from home. Their daughter, Nazneen, and daughter-in-law, Niloufer, are also now part of the Beyond Quilting project.

Other craftswomen too have similar backgrounds. Tasneem Sayyad had only made the occasional godhadi for her baby daughter before she joined Quilt Culture. Middle-aged Sulabha Manjul had been conducting tailoring classes and stitching clothes for her family until she was introduced to the new world of quilting.

Blend of Europe, India

It is the same passion that directed the focus of Uma Bhalerao and Parvatitai. For each of them, quilting according to patterns set by international designers meant crafting evenly-spaced out stitches, and giving their products an immaculate finish. “It was an uphill task, since most women worked by intuition. Besides, they needed to translate the ideas of the designers and work them into quilts,” explain the coordinators.

The designers too had their own set of problems. In Europe, muted colours are predominant, while in India bright colours rule. Hence, it was extremely difficult to find the right combination of colours from among the discarded, waste fabric for their designs.

But their persistence paid off. One can now see godhadis designed through inspiration provided to designers like Schole and Post, by Indian architectural monuments. Post’s designs capture the interplay of light and shade in the stepwells of Gujarat and Rajasthan, while the architectural layout of Jantar Mantar comes alive in Schole’s design for a bed-runner. Neissen’s design combines the Morse code, and the SOS visual colour code to build an etymology of typographical design, while textile designer Shahani-Khan’s design is a tribute to the intricacy of Kathakali masks. Kabaria, of course, has gone beyond quilting to make lampshades out of upcycled bits.

The year-long efforts of Rjinja and Kulkarni have borne fruit in producing several prototypes and products on display. Following two exhibitions in Pune, Beyond Quilting is scheduled to exhibit at the Nautilus Project Space in Amsterdam in early 2020.

The writer is a freelance journalist