It was a journey that began more than 30 years ago. Despite leading a fairly low-key existence away from the Page 3s and cut-throat competition of the fashion world, Madhu Jain had been quietly working and earning for herself an enviable reputation as a craft revivalist and textile conservationist. And last year, coinciding with her landmark third decade in the fashion business, she unveiled a brand new fabric created by her — bamboo silk ikat.
“It’s the first of its kind in the world. The birth of a new textile is always something special, so, I am glad that something that took me 15 long years to create is being cherished and will be part of my legacy,” says the 57-year-old who has worked relentlessly with artisans in Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Tamil Nadu besides collaborating with BRAC in Bangladesh and has been instrumental in bringing the focus back on weaves such as Dhaka muslin that the country had lost after the Partition. “This needed to be done — we couldn’t have let these fabrics die. They needed to be resurrected, given a fresh lease of life and preserved for posterity,” she says, sitting in her tasteful home in Noida as a craftsperson who has come a visiting from Ahmedabad nods in agreement.
With no formal background in fashion design, Jain knew she had to put in effort that was several notches higher. And there were moments, she confesses, when she felt dejected and “really apprehensive about moving on” in this field. “But my friends who had seen me design and wear my own creations to college were determined that I will not give up,” she smiles.
And so her journey began. Honed by her mother’s exquisite collection of saris and father’s taste for all things fine, her aesthetic sensibilities zeroed in on handwoven textiles. “I started work with ikat and was the first to show it on the ramp in 1989. It was a big hit,” she informs. Needless to say, the creators of this fabric, who were there at the event, were thrilled with the response. “This was particularly great because many among them were almost giving it all up to take to some other profession,” says Jain who has since worked hard to revive fabrics such as nakshikantha, kalamkari, upadas and Dhaka muslin (in India), among others by giving them a contemporary touch.
A fabric is created
The bamboo story began more than 15 years ago when she, together with her partner, actor-model Milind Soman, who joined hands to create a new label, Projekt M, was asked to create bamboo textiles for the VIIth World Bamboo Congress to be hosted in Delhi in 2004. “As we put our heads together, a new set of creations emerged with the use of bamboo fibre woven with chanderi, khadi and wool and we presented them before international delegates,” she says. However, she says that convincing the craftspeople and weavers was no mean task. It was only after she placed an order of more than a thousand metres that they started creating exactly what she wanted.
Six years later, among the high-points of the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010 was the 115-feet high installation, Tree of Life, which Jain created with bamboo fibre and raw silk together with kalamkari craft.
After she launched the bamboo silk with ikat last year, there’s been no looking back. “As we are the second largest producer of bamboo in the world, we need to make full use of it as it will help provide immense livelihood options for its growers. Being biodegradable, it has so many advantages. Also, it does not leave any carbon footprint, is soft on skin, easy on the pocket and is sure to be the fabric of the future,” says the designer who is constantly working to create new patterns and designs by taking inspiration from similar genres originating in Thailand, Uzbekistan and Indonesia.
Through her work, and seeing a growing interest in handspun fabrics among the city folk, she hopes that the younger generation of weavers who are mulling over moving to other more lucrative streams to earn their livelihood will continue to do the work that’s been part of their families for generations. “The government needs to chip in its bit too — and just as the way countries like Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan take pride in their own heritage, ensure that our countrymen do too,” she adds.