This story was first published in Design Online December 2014.
For Dharma Buk, sustainable design has a human element too. She launched her textile business HARANA, a Hindi word meaning ‘to conquer or succeed’, in October this year. The collection includes table linen, kitchen towels, bags and totes, bed linen and scarves that are made in India by traditional craftsmen. “I chose to use a small community of block printers who rely solely on printing as their livelihood,” Buk says.
Her love of Indian textiles stems from childhood. Her father travelled extensively through India in the 1970s and 80’s and at the end of each trip he returned home with rugs, cushions and other hand woven textiles and stories of what he’d seen.
“I used to love looking at them, seeing how different the patterns and colours were. Other cushions I used to see at friends and family’s homes seemed so dull in comparison,” she says. “He loved it there and I loved to hear all the exotic stories he would tell me of his travels. It all sounded so magical and mysterious. That’s also how I came to get an Indian name.”
“As soon as I finished school I planned to visit India. I wanted to feel the connection my father had felt there and to see why he loved it so much.”
Buk admits that when she first arrived in India she did not feel an instant attraction. She was overwhelmed by the contrast between the Indian culture and her familiar western lifestyle. “But I quickly fell for India. I would buy textiles on every trip and with the weight of them have to send them home.”
Prior to establishing Harana, Buk was studying Chinese medicine but a sense of dissatisfaction and restlessness continued to niggle away at her. Up until then, she had dismissed her need to find a creative outlet. “Over time I began to ask myself what I really wanted to do and it was on a trip through India that I decided I wanted to make my own high quality bed linen.”
Inspiration struck when she discovered beautiful hand carved wood block printed textiles in Jaipur and suddenly realised it was a perfect fit for her business idea. “I didn’t want mass produced machine made products but I wanted to help out India in whatever way I could.”
Block printed clothing is not popular with Indian youth. They prefer “cool and fashionable” western style clothing worn by their Bollywood idols who they “treat like gods,” Buk explains. And now a lack of demand for traditional block printed clothing has resulted in an industry that is quickly dying out.
After a false start two years ago with one manufacturer, Buk returned to India six months later and found another supplier who she has since developed a close working relationship with. In Indian society the caste-based system means that the cloth printing business is typically handed down from generation to generation. Buk says that because of the popularity of western style clothing and textiles, the loss of the community’s traditional livelihood means that many families have to find another industry to go into or hope to find work elsewhere. “It’s tough for them,” she says.
Buk has tried to learn Hindi over the years and is relieved to be able to communicate with Deepak, one of four sons in the family and the only one who speaks English. He is 27 and recently married. Deepak helps Buk to source material and acts as her translator. “He has taken on quite a job!”
“He is very willing and is very grateful that his family is getting business from western customers otherwise it would be mainly smaller Indian orders,” Buk explains. “It is hard though. If he is busy I have to nod and smile a lot with the other family members but they are very welcoming.”
Deepak’s family have been printers for generations. They can trace their line for at least 200 years but it probably goes back further than that. Extended family and cousins also work in the business and when required, they employ other printing families to fulfil large orders. The local community is very willing to help out.
The printing process is labour intensive. In the past, the printers would have used only natural dyes but as this aspect of the industry has evolved, they now have easier access to brighter pigment dyes. Buk says there are a lot of women in and around the factory who help out with the washing and drying of the fabric while the children are at school.
Her aim is to represent Indian wood block printing in a contemporary way that suits the western palate. “I have chosen prints that aren’t necessarily considered typically Indian, but also are traditional block prints.” She has so far managed to keep her love of paisley patterns under control as she knows it is a design that doesn’t appeal to everyone. “On their own I think they can be quite striking. I couldn’t do a whole collection of paisley but I think it needs to be included.”
Sorting through 100’s of wood printing blocks for her first collection of textiles was a huge task but one she found very interesting. The evolution of patterns and discovering what prvious generations have considered to be a good looking print was an eye-opening experience.
Buk has at times selected wood blocks that the printers would never have thought to use. “They think, ‘why are you using it this way?’ They don’t see it the same as me and then they see the product come to life they say, ‘Oh we would never use it like this but this is such and interesting way to use the prints’.” But there are hits and misses and sometimes the experiments don’t work.
“The blocks are hand carved so it is difficult to get little details. I narrowed it down from 50 prints and then a few more,” Buk explains. She tries to select designs that appeal to local consumers but acknowledges that this can be difficult. The designs and colours that look good in India and suit the climate may not translate well to Australia and Australian interiors. Sometimes the colours may be too bright. Buk understands that not everyone enjoys Indian style prints so her collection has a contemporary flavour with a minimal “bohemian” influence.
The base cloth for each Harana product is the best quality cottons and natural fabrics she can source which includes fabrics that are not commonly used. “For example my kitchen towels are made from a hand spun traditional Indian cloth called Khadi. It is highly absorbent and used for many things throughout India, but mostly for its absorbency. And my summer sheets are made of high quality voile which is lovely and light and ideal for hot Australian summers.”
Since launching the Harana website and social media pages, product inquiries and sales continue to grow. Several retail outlets have shown an interest in stocking her collection and sales are valuable in determining the popularity of specific patterns. This information will inform her next visit to her supplier in Jaipur.
After almost a dozen trips to India for both pleasure and business over the years, Buk has finally found an opportunity to blend her love of the country with a creative business that sustains both her and the families who rely on regular orders. “I get to help keep a traditional craft alive, help to support a rural community and also get beautiful handmade products.”
Buk is also looking at ways she can give back a portion of her profits to assist these communities. “When I get back there I will be meeting with a couple of charities to see if I can support their projects.”
Harana will appear at Decor + Design in Melbourne for the first time in 2015.