Text by Mallika Chandra. Images by Hansraj Dochaniya (courtesy Jaipur Rugs)
One positive change the pandemic effected was to bring city dwellers closer to natural rhythms. For one, we started to look up. No longer was the rising sun just a mundane fixture signalling the start of a hectic workday. No longer was the moon a mere orb in the sky, which one only saw if one remembered to look away from a screen and out of the window. Stars were visible (again) and the clear, pollution-free skies became a daily respite from the harshest of lockdowns.
For architect-designer Ashiesh Shah, the starlit night skies inspired age-old questions about the mysteries held within them, which he explored through a series of watercolour paintings. Over the course of two years, these original paintings laid the foundation for his first collection of luxurious hand-knotted carpets in collaboration with Jaipur Rugs — Brahmaand. The collection launched in Milan at the Salone del Mobile 2022 on June 7th.
Dyed in hues of deep indigo, the rugs become cosmic portals to the vast universe; subtle gradients pull you into their depths, organic forms recall ancient geometries, and textures are carved or embossed into each piece through the 15th-century art form of gultarashi. Each rug also holds within it celestial motifs such as the phases of the moon, as seen in Chanda, and the constellations, in Nakshatra, which are intricately woven in or crafted with zardozi embroidery. Dwaar and Mathan complete the core collection.
We caught up with Shah and Yogesh Chaudhary, Director, Jaipur Rugs, just before the unveiling of the collection in Milan, and it was evident that this collaboration had been a long time coming. Shah, who is known for his high-profile interior projects, simple design aesthetics and revival of traditional techniques in contemporary ways, recently added product designer to his repertoire via his latest venture, Atelier Ashiesh Shah, a contemporary crafts studio of limited-edition design objects. For a design-led, artisan-centric company like Jaipur Rugs, collaborating with Shah was a no-brainer because not only does he understand and value the work of the artisans, but he is also able to bring them immense exposure to current trends and innovations from the industry. The resulting collection is a testament to the creative synergy between Chaudhary’s human-focused approach and Shah’s meditative lens that, together, nurtured fine craftsmanship and pushed new boundaries.
Edited excerpts from an interview with the two collaborators:
You made the original “meditative” watercolour paintings during the lockdown. What was the starting point? Did you revisit them often during your design process?
Ashiesh Shah (AS): Through the progression of my practice as an artist over the years, the watercolours resonated with my aesthetics as a designer. They helped ascertain the overarching form of these hand-knotted rugs, which in turn served as an extension to these meditative paintings.
This isn’t the first time you have designed rugs. Were there any new learnings? What was most challenging this time?
AS: Certainly. Through the process of designing these rugs, we tried incorporating cut-outs and hand embroidery techniques to highlight the intricate details, thereby pushing boundaries in terms of process and technique.
As with everything that arises from time-based decision-making, we faced a few challenges — mainly, the two waves of COVID impacted the pace of the process.
What kind of synergy do you hope for between a designer and your community of artisans? What are some of your considerations when you decide to facilitate these collaborations?
Yogesh Chaudhary (YC): Every designer whom we have collaborated with till now understands the effort and long working hours our artisans put into weaving a rug. Fortunately, we have never faced a situation where there is a lack of synergy between our artisans and our collaborators. We have always believed in the knowledge and experience of our weavers. They have the potential to execute any new development and can create design wonders if given proper guidance.
As a practice, we invite each designer to the villages and have an ice-breaking session with our artisans. Then they discuss the various facets of the collection. It is almost like taking a holistic approach towards a new product innovation — from knowledge production, application and, lastly, diffusion and absorption.
We provide every opportunity to our artisans to be part of this industry and broaden their horizons. These collaborations give our artisans not only the opportunities to interact with leading designers but also the requisite exposure to understand current trends and what is happening in the industry. Several of our artisans went to global platforms to meet and interact with people and even collected international awards like the German Design Award, European Design Award, etc.
Tell us how the designs evolved once you interacted with the artisans?
AS: The process revolved around several conversations and exchanges with the weavers, including their stories and beliefs about the cosmos.
Can you tell us a bit more about gultarashi and its history in the craft communities that you work with?
YC: Gultarashi is an art of carving and embossing, which was introduced in the 15th century. It has been passed down from several generations in traditional weaving families and gradually spread over to significant regions.
Khadi gultarash is also known as carving. This is a method to give cuts in the design. During this process, the artisans hold the scissors straight up and make a cut in the design.
Put gultarash is also known as embossing. This method is used to give a high-and-low effect on the rug. During this process, the artisan keeps the scissors bent and moves it around the design to provide a three-dimensional look.
The collection challenges the archetype of a rectangular rug. How has your experience as an interior designer, as well as your transition into a product designer, fed into the design of these innovative forms?
AS: While the meditative watercolours were a point of departure for these rather organic forms, they also drew inspiration from the ancient geometry of India, the cosmos and the architecture of the Jantar Mantar. The rugs, with their distinct forms, lend their environment a sense of calm and can be seamlessly plugged into interior spaces.
It is interesting to observe the evolving vocabulary used to describe rugs as “contemporary works” or “masterpieces” — terms that elevate them from ubiquitous household objects to works of art in every sense. Is that a deliberate effort on the company’s part to encourage consumers to perceive them as such? Or do you find that for most people, purchasing a rug has always been synonymous with purchasing contemporary art?
YC: We want our consumers to understand that rug-making is a painstakingly long and tedious process — it takes months to finalise a rug. Besides purchasing wool, creating yarn and dyeing, 18 different processes go into making a final product.
At Jaipur Rugs, we have always strived towards creating a distinct brand identity and presented it as a piece of art rather than a ubiquitous household object. Earlier, buyers used to look at it as a household object, but over the years we have been successful in changing their perception. Now, they look at it as a piece of art which can be savoured and passed down to the next generation. We have devoted years to giving them the best in contemporary and modern designs, and today, people only expect world-class designs and aesthetics from Jaipur Rugs. The journey was long and hard, but we are proud to be in this position.
Sometimes, certain designs work well in our minds but end up being almost impossible to make. Out of the core collection — which piece was the most complex to execute and why?
AS: The Nakshatra rug, inspired by ancient Indian astronomy, architecture and constellations, unveils a blanket of stars foregrounded by sun signs. This thought-provoking piece, although complex, was a result of a series of meticulous processes. The radiant lines, the gultarashi process along the steps on the rug were inspired by the cosmic architecture of India and particularly that of Jantar Mantar — I incorporated the staircases seen there, which seem to work towards reaching the stars, in the rugs — and the intricate zardozi embroidery, although challenging, ultimately helped us push boundaries in terms of form and technique.
What was the creative process like when it came to shooting the collection campaign? Did the exhibit in Milan recreate that universe?
YC: Brahmaand is a concept that speaks about our positioning in the widest context of all. To shoot it was to realise the idea of talking to and interpreting the messages from the universe — its signs — and reciprocate with beliefs and connections. Each woven rug opens a cosmic door that transcends us into the vastness of the universe. It tells a story from “why to why not”. The team has tried to showcase the artist’s [Ashiesh] mind and weave a surreal story with varied sequences of dreams and reality.
Do you think presenting bold, culture-specific concepts like Brahmaand are sure to be well-received at events like Salone, or is it a risk? When it comes down to it, what are international buyers looking for?
YC: Organisations that are serious about engaging with consumers on a global level need to offer more than just a product. There is a need to move away from repeated concepts, and the focus should be on what works with the audience. Bold, culture-specific concepts are very popular with the international audience — they prefer contemporary designs — and we are sure to be the cynosure of all eyes. Events like Salone are a perfect platform to showcase such collections, as they attract audiences from across the world, and we believe that this unique concept will be a major draw for buyers.
What does it mean to be a design-led producer in India today?
YC: Since our inception, we have focused on two things: first, we want to be a human-centric organisation, and second, we want to be recognised as a company that focuses on design.
Today, we are very fortunate to have global recognition as a design-led company. We always strive to present new designs to our target audience. We currently have more than 20,000 designs, and we are constantly working to increase that number and come up with new concepts and designs every day.