The journey of craft, from Byculla to Paris: How embroidery from the Chanakya School earned space in a Dior show
Dior’s chief designer Maria Grazia Chiura is personally invested in Mumbai’s Chanakya School of Craft, established by Monica Shah and Karishma Swali.
‘Top Notch’ is a fortnightly column where journalist and editor Namrata Zakaria introduces us to fashion’s elite and erudite club.
Paris Couture Week took place last week, and with much brio and spectacle. It’s almost as if our sumptuous clothes, which had been banished to our wardrobes for the past 18 months, decided to wreak revenge on us with a reminder of the beauty, artistry and utter gobsmacking awe a dress can evoke.
This couture week that celebrates Paris' landmarks as much as it does its sartorial flair, was the first to have physical fashion shows since the COVID-19 pandemic. It allowed for only eight runway shows (the rest were digital) with limited guests. The first day belonged to one of France’s oldest and most renowned labels — Dior. The set for the show, which took place in a room at the Musée Rodin, had all its walls embroidered right here in India — in Mumbai, at the Chanakya School of Craft.
The Chanakya School is a very young space. It was launched just a few years ago by two women, sisters-in-law Monica Shah and Karishma Swali, whose family has been making embroideries for international labels like Fendi, Gucci, Valentino, Lanvin and Prada since the 1980s. The school was the brainchild of Maria Grazia Chiuri, the chief designer at Dior.
“Maria Grazia has been our mentor, she is a torchbearer for the preservation of craftsmanship and cultures world over, while lending her support to women’s empowerment. In 2016 we were reminiscing with Maria Grazia about the incredible journey we have had over the decades, and how crafts are in peril of being lost forever,” Swali says. The women researched and found that embroidery skills, like many other crafts, were passed from father to son, and women were kept out of it. “We discussed the idea of the school with Maria Grazia and she immediately endorsed our plan,” Shah recalls.
The Chanakya School is housed in Mumbai’s Byculla, coincidentally right next to the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, or the city’s costume history museum. It’s a large, white-cube, air-conditioned shed, like a modern art gallery, inviting women from underprivileged homes to train with them. Not only does it offer these women respite from Mumbai’s year-long scorching heat, but also pays them a small conveyance fee to free to them of the costs of transportation.
“The vision of The Chanakya Foundation focuses on cultural sustainability and all-round development through education, skill development and women’s empowerment while investing in the preservation of our heritage and promotion of the crafts. Our mission is to provide women from low income communities with high-quality education in hand embroidery, enabling them to maximise their potential and enhance their lives,” says Karishma Swali.
The school enrols a hundred students every year, and has taught 300 women so far. A one-year certificate program is offered to all the underprivileged women free of cost, including course materials and educational tours to museums and crafts centres. It’s only three-and-a-half hours a day, and functions in two shifts, so the women can come once they've finished their household chores. An advanced course takes six months. The women learn technical skills, but also the harmonious use of colour and balance. They have access to a library of over 6,000 books on textiles, embroideries, art and fashion.
The Chanakya embroidery house had its first taste of international stardom when Suzy Menkes visited in 2017 and did a wide-ranging story on them for Vogue international. “Suzy visited India on a quest to understand the master crafts that our incredible country offers. Her offices got in touch with us as they identified us as creators of fine luxury craft. It was an honour to have her with us, her passion and curiosity both certainly rubbed off onto us,” the duo mentions.
Now their set design has brought them international fame once again. The art work, a 350 square metre panel, was designed by artist Eva Jospin as a forest landscape. Called Chambre de Soie or the room of silk, it’s a museum-worthy room panelled with intricate thread work. “Dior’s request to us was to realise this work of art of Eva’s landscape and forest much like a work of art in the museum: The work was thought of as an altar piece, but the scale was that of a real forest. The embroideries have a lot of minute detailing but there is also a play of layers that adds to the realism of this theme, while still keeping it contemporary,” Swali says. “Our finest artisans were oriented on the different aspects of the project and then allowed to explore this theme to reveal different embroidery variations. The first step was to create real-size artworks which ran into 350 square metres. This was a very critical one because we needed to ensure we stayed completely true to Eva’s design.”
In 2018, the women celebrated a decade of their own couture label, Jade, as well as one year of the Chanakya School. Maria Grazia flew down for the event, a lavish party at the city’s Taj Mahal Hotel, with every well-heeled Diorite lining up for a picture with the famous designer. “But it was an honour to have her visit us at our school,” Shah says. “She spent time understanding and adding value to the program and interacting with our students, inspiring them all with her presence and positivity.”
The work of the students of the Chanakya school may not be used for professional assignments such as Dior, but it’s only a matter of time when the women trained here will be launching their own fashion labels. For the school’s mentors, including Chiuri, that will be real gratification.
'Our individual traumas are our collective traumas as well': Supermodel Nidhi Sunil on her activism and journey
Nidhi Sunil slipped from the cracks of a social structure that would have stifled her to become a global beauty ambassador and a voice against femicide.
Jyotika Jhalani’s label is a testament to women entrepreneurs finding success by marrying the personal and professional
Jhalani’s luxury cashmere label, Janavi, retails out of 100 department stores worldwide, like Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nieman Marcus in the US, Harvey Nichols and Liberty in London, and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and China.
Refashioning the sari, repurposing lives: How Stefano Funari brought together gender empowerment and success
A profitable enterprise that employs underprivileged women from Mumbai’s slums, to make contemporary fashion from recycled saris, has Gucci supporting it too.