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Jaisalmer Schoolkids Get Uniforms Designed by Sabyasachi

Indian designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee designed the school uniforms in collaboration with an American non-profit.

When it comes to big-ticket Indian weddings, Sabyasachi Mukherjee is the designer du jour. From film stars Anushka Sharma to Deepika Padukone to Priyanka Chopra Jonas, he has dressed them all.

But now, it is the turn of little girls of the The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, to feel extra special in their Sabyasachi Mukherjee-designed school uniforms.

The designer was roped in to design these uniforms by CITTA, a New York-based non-profit organization that focuses on building and supporting development in economically challenged, geographically remote, and marginalized communities in the world.

Mukherjee has designed a cotton frock-like kurta with front fastenings teamed with churidars (leggings). Each uniform is slightly oversized so that girls can grow into them and use each outfit for at least two or three years in school.

Mukherjee’s uniform uses Ajrakh textiles, which were produced by the women of the same cooperative initiative. Ajrakh is traditionally a double-sided resist block printed cotton textile that is mordanted and dyed in madder and indigo. Due to the increase in the use of synthetic dyes, Ajrakh textiles have almost reached the point of extinction.

“We wanted to make the outfits beautiful; something that the girls could feel empowered in, and something that reflected the region in which they live,” said Mukherjee. “My hope is that, by incorporating Ajrakh into the design, the girls wearing the uniforms would be able to celebrate this craft and feel a sense of community and connection to their home.”

Indian Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee. (Courtesy of Sabyasachi)

Mukherjee, who works with intricate embroideries and rich traditional Indian textures, is a big name in the fashion industry globally. Earlier this year he designed jewelry for the New York-based luxury store Bergdorf Goodman. He also collaborated with the global street fashion giant H&M on a collection. In the past, he has also worked with the luxury shoe designer Christian Louboutin on an exclusive collaboration.

American artist and founder of non-profit organization CITTA, Michael Daube recently visited Jaisalmer — a city in Rajasthan, after hearing about the dearth of education opportunities for girls in the region.

Rajasthan is India’s westernmost state which is largely taken up by the Thar desert making droughts and famines constant in the region. Despite the barren land in Rajasthan, it is known for its vibrant colors and handicrafts which are famous for their intricate designs and a sharp eye for detail. It is also one of the lowest-performing states in terms of average literacy rate in the country. The people of Rajasthan, therefore, often lack the knowledge, awareness, and skills to present the riches of their handicrafts to the modern world.

Daube discovered an important link between the need for education and the rich handicrafts of the region. At the same time Christina Ong, a Singaporean businesswoman, wanted to start product development with underprivileged women in a venture with Como Shambala in Bali. “They asked me to create some embroidered yoga bags for their first products. Since I had recently visited Jaisalmer I thought I’d initiate the project there” says Daube.

That’s when Daube discovered the artwork of Ajrakh in the community.

The locals of the region warned Daube that the orthodox communities wouldn’t allow him to work with the women. Understanding the situation, Daube first spoke to the elder men of the village.

“I told them I can bring work for the families through their women, and they can work from home as well,” said Daube.

“After discussions, I found myself the only man in a room of about 25 women gossiping, laughing, and developing these products! That’s when I realized through an economic avenue I could entice these communities to send their girls for education.”

The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School and Women’s Cooperative is an initiative of CITTA. Courtesy of CITTA

He felt that building a center of excellence for these girls and women will provide them with a sense of pride as well as create a place where visitors could gather to discuss the issues faced by women both in India and throughout the world we live in.

“I decided to build a girls’ school and a women’s economic development center focused on educating girls and preserving the dying handicraft traditions of the region of the Thar and the Sindh. The entire complex will be called the GYAAN Center.”

The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl’s School and Women’s Cooperative is going to start operating officially in December this year. Initially, it was going to start functioning in April, just around the time pandemic related lockdown was announced in the country. The center has a capacity to take in 400 girls, it also includes a place for training where women from the local communities will be professionally trained in the traditional skills of the region such as Ajrakh.

There are a number of people on Michael’s team who are working for the welfare of women in this region. Diana Kellogg, a New York-based architect has worked on the three buildings in the center.

Harmeet Bajaj who is a fashion consultant and education specialist is also a part of the team. She met Daube in Jaisalmer during his visit and was introduced to the project. Bajaj will be closely working with the girls and their mothers and provide them with vocational training in handicrafts. She is keen to include local crafts and handiwork for the training of girls and women.

“We will then associate ourselves with designers, students, and colleges to include that as a part of their curriculum for designers to base their collections on.”

Over the years fast fashion trends have pushed some traditional handiwork like Ajrakh to the threshold of extinction. Designers like Mukherjee are taking an initiative to bring back the forgotten arts and push them to a wider platform.

“I always encourage the leaders in our communities — be they teachers, business people, or government officials— to stress the importance of local heritage to our younger generations,” says Mukherjee.

“What I like about Ajrakh is that it’s very visually distinct. And while it is an ancient craft, and its production is complex; its simple graphic patterns evoke a sense of modernity and timelessness.”

He believes that if school uniforms all over India started incorporating a bit of local craft, it would become a platform for great cultural exchange amongst the pupils and the communities-at-large.

“It would bring the focus back to local production, and give a boost to these struggling micro-economies across the country.”

(Edited by Uttaran Das Gupta and Gaurab Dasgupta)

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