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Auroville Adventure

December 2003

Eco-consciousness through Fashion

- by Priya Sundaravalli

Upasana, an Auroville business unit whose focus is on representing India through its textiles and clothing, hosted a workshop on recycled couture for students of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai


“The Gandhi top creates zero waste.” Uma's authoritative voice pierces the dimly lit seminar room; the projection screen flashes a still of a well-fitted lavender-shade upper garment modelled by an Aurovilian beauty. Twenty seven young faces appear to be hanging on her words, listening in rapt attention. She is referring to the newest product on Upasana's line. “No waste at the first level when the piece is cut from the bolt.” She is speaking about the wastage of fabric that is cut ‘on bias' (diagonally). Uma's voice takes a reassuring tone. “You are the ones who will be doing the design. You are the ones who will be telling the industry – this is it. This is going to sell, and that is the process. It all depends on you.”

Left to right: Kakoli, Uma and Katel

In an interview in early May, Uma confessed that she was still ‘trying to find her unique mantra in textiles' [AVT issue June_July '03]. Has she perhaps hit upon it now? A recent four-day workshop titled ‘Recycling, Fashion, and Creativity' hosted by Upasana for the graduating class of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), the premier educational institute for fashion and design in Chennai, may hold an answer to that.

The event was set in motion by an unexpected e-mail to Uma from a designer from Amsterdam. Katel Gelebart, is a French eco-activist who had branched into the world of fashion in order to bring her activism to a new audience. She had heard about Auroville and of Upasana through a friend, and wondered if she could intern at Upasana. Two weeks later and much to the surprise of Uma, she arrived in Auroville along with samples of her work. Creations fashioned out of recycled material – inner tubes, tyres, old parachute canopies, ships' sails, army blankets, French and Dutch post bags, Turkish towels, men's ties, recycled wool yarn knitted by babushkas in Ukraine – all turned into products that had found successful niche markets in Japan, Italy, Belgium and France. Products that hung comfortably in boutiques next to designer labels, under their personal brand name Art D'Eco.

Katel's arrival created a stir in Upasana. Immediately sensing the significance of the work, Uma felt it her duty to share with her colleagues in the Indian design world, the wisdom that Katel brought. With Katel's approval, invitations were sent out to a select group of young designers to participate in a Fashion Recycling workshop at Upasana.

Student designers at work in the CSR garage

Everyone showed up. Recalls Uma, “At the beginning of that workshop, I presented the philosophy behind Upasana, and for the first time I said in public, ‘There is only one user; the divine Self who dwells in all.' This is the line I have been constantly trying to translate it into our products, and upon which my business is based.” The workshop was a resounding success, and everyone was affected deeply. Final creations, such as the subtly stylish patchwork bags, made their way into Upasana's summer collection.

A professor of design from NIFT, Chennai, who attended the workshop, at once felt that an exposure of this sort would be an invaluable experience for her students. It was something that the regular curriculum did not provide – a sensitivity to waste in the fashion industry (on average 30%), exposure to concepts of sustainable development, and ultimately, a more holistic approach to design. With Uma's encouragement, she submitted a proposal to her institution to have the graduating class participate in a hands-on workshop in Auroville as part of the practical off-site training requirement. It was approved. And so, the first week in November saw the arrival of a bus-load of young twenty somethings in Auroville for their four-day stint at Upasana.

This model, one of the participants, makes a chic statement in garments and acessories all made of waste cloth“From the beginning, their enthusiasm was boundless,” says Uma. “Besides hundred percent attendance on all days, students were pleading that they be allowed to work beyond the hours we had slated – until 10 p.m.!” Uma's goal was to get the students ‘intoxicated and immersed' in the Auroville experience. “Once in a lifetime, everyone should get this experience, especially when they are most receptive and idealistic and when they are not yet in the system. These students in their final year of college are ready to step into the world, and you are putting in the final seed into them. For me it was a very precious moment, and I was very conscious of it. We took care of them very nicely, we filled them with our love, and the whole arrangement was very down to earth but pure in its substance, and they learnt something too.” Anandamayi, an apprentice at Upasana and part of the organizing team says, “The atmosphere became suffused with an intense concentration and energy. The enthusiasm of the students was so contagious that even Surabhi, our PR person, forgot her duties and got down to making a few pieces herself!”

The workshop had begun with three professional designers, Katel, Kakoli (a visiting designer from Delhi), and Uma sharing their deepest motivations and aspirations as practitioners in the field. Though they shared an overall philosophy, each of their approaches was unique. Katel's work was focused on giving waste material a second chance or a longer lease of life, Kakoli's leanings favoured an ideal where the creation of the fabric would happen simultaneously as the garment took shape, and Uma believed that the absence of waste at the very thought level would inevitably lead to an absence of waste in action.

Results of the workshop

Considering the students had only three days to design anArt to wear – waste strips of silk chiffon braided together to create a piece which can be used in many different ways – as clothing, as a wrap or to throw over a sofad create their products, the output was staggering, both in number and the sheer novelty of the creations. Shirts were turned into skirts, coca-cola bottles into trendy pouches, old t-shirts into moccasins, Upasana's silk wastes into braided stoles and drapes and magazine holders… The final day saw the students presenting their work in 10 minute slots. They were evaluated by a three panel jury of Katel, Kakoli, and Uma, based on four considerations: how they responded to Auroville, how they understood the concept of recycling and reusing, the creative process they journeyed through, and the aesthetics and finish of their product(s).

“We kept asking them the first question throughout their stay,” stresses Uma. “What it is for you to be in Auroville? Do you think that Auroville has influenced your state of being at any level? We waA haute couture skirt where the designer has used knots to merge waste cotton voile and silk fabricsnted them to let go of the designer part; we would come to that later.” So how did Auroville affect them? “You could see that all of them had been touched by the environment and it has had a big impact on them,” observes Katel. “It helped them concentrate, open their minds, and I'd go even so far as to say to find themselves! On the last day, there was a student, Elizabeth, who said: ‘People say I am always too emotional. Well, today I am really emotional. And I have a poem to share!' And she read her poem where the last lines ended with how she found herself in Auroville! Another girl observed that she felt that there were no rules in Auroville, and that Aurovilians did not seem to speak much. And if one stopped and really looked at the Aurovilians, there seemed a kind of quiet dignity amongst them.” Uma adds, “And almost all of them were constantly repeating as if mesmerized – ‘Maam, Auroville was a barren land. And a bunch of people from all over the world came down over here and transformed the land into a thick forest. What other proof one needs in life that there is nothing that is impossible!' And this was from somebody so young from deep within their heart; and you knew they got it. Then they were expressing their gratitude to the entire community for teaching them the real team spirit. And we Aurovilians – some of us who were listening to this – wished we had it.”

What it means for Auroville?

So what did this all mean for the Aurovilian participants? Uma comments, “Three of our trainees, Anandamayi, Leah and Vidya, who have been witnessing all this, have used all the waste of Upasana and created carpets, cushions, and coverlets! – functional office décor with a fine aesthetic sense. We use these here now, and we are already having people coming in to photograph them!” Uma believes it is essential to let the young generation of Auroville, including children, get maximum exposure to fresh ideas through activities hosted in Auroville. This can be done with a lot of dignity,” she explains. “They can be made part of the host team, so they get to do the background work, and participate in the activity. And just by the fact that they swim in that atmosphere, they get what is essential; and get it in the shortest time. And then there is still a whole life ahead to decide what they really want to do.”

Upasana does its bit in incorporating this attitude into its way of business. When Uma is invited to exclusive events in the fashion industry, she takes the entire design team from Upasana with her. “Now with the people who invite me beginning to understand Auroville, they are telling me that I should let them know in advance how many from Auroville would like to come – they will issue that many passes!” Uma strongly believes that this is the level of connection that Auroville has to have with the outside world, and it is here that Auroville's true potential lies.


Origins of Upasana

A professional fashion designer comes to Auroville – what happens? For many months and days she feels isolated. There is nobody to talk to. Nobody to listen. She sees a lot of creativity in Auroville where beautiful things are happening. But to her, it doesn't make sense to get into fashion in Auroville. She feels it's the last thing one should be doing there…

Uma's story tumbles out. “In Auroville, for the first time in my life I was haunted by the fact that I am Indian. Never in my life had my identity been an issue. It was something I had just taken for granted. You are born in this country and that is it. But then, you come here to a small patch of land where there are people of at least 35 nationalities who are living all together, whom you interact on a day to day basis, and suddenly you realise that there is something fundamentally different about yourself. It took me a couple of months to realize that I am Indian.

“It was in Auroville where I was put in a situation where I felt that India has not been understood. For some, India represents the country of cheap labour, of very low quality goods – for example in clothing, things which run colour or have poor finishing, or are ill-fitting. And one day I heard someone say, ‘What else to expect – it is like that! One does not and cannot expect great things from the India – it is like that!' It was so painful to listen to, and that was the moment I decided that I had to represent the country India to Auroville – through its textiles and its clothing.

“And for the first time, I realized that I could not do it. I did not know the clothing or the textiles of my country! The best design school in India that I had graduated out of, the National Institute of Fashion Technology, hadn't taught me that. I could whip up a jacket or a pair of trousers in a minute, but not my country's own clothing. I didn't know how a salwar-kurta pattern looked, or how the ubiquitous sari blouse was made! And I was supposed to be the best student in my class in the area of ‘Patterns'. And there I stood saying ‘I can't do it.' I felt so empty and the big certificate that I had seemed so meaningless. It was a raw reality I had to face. And Upasana was born out of that.”



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