The Chanakya School of Craft and the House of Dior Continue To Bring The Artistry Behind Indian Embroideries Centre Stage

Text by Shirin Mehta. Photographs by Naomi Shah.

Chanakya Atelier — The Dior Retrospective

A visual and sensual treat was in store for us at the Chanakya Ateliers, which opened doors for the very first time to visitors from India and across the world, a day before Dior’s Pre-Fall 2023 show at the Gateway of India. Earlier, a press conference at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel had introduced Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior’s creative director of women’s collections, and Karishma Swali, who directs the Chanakya Ateliers and the Chanakya School of Craft, to local and international press. The synergy between the two women as well as their commitment to endorsing India’s artisanal heritage became apparent as Swali reiterated, “What she (Chiuri) is talking about is creating a new language for craft together…. One that people are able to celebrate since it is more contemporary….” Earlier, in an Instagram post, Chiuri had referred to Chanakya as “the treasure chest of Indian craftsmanship”. Both the women displayed a strong will to preserve the craft of embroidery while imbibing it with modern savoir faire.

Chanakya Atelier — The Living Museum

The Chanakya School of Craft, co-founded by Swali in 2017 and supported by Chiuri, is a non-profit institute that aims to create a platform of multidimensional learning. It particularly attempts to empower and provide autonomy to women artisans by providing them with an education in hand embroidery and craftsmanship. A 25-year-old friendship, a shared “sisterhood”, and the desire to empower other women, while projecting artisanal techniques into the modern world, are the foundations on which the Chanakya School of Craft was built.

Chanakya Atelier — The Dior Retrospective

Exceptional collaborations between Dior and Chanakya, have extended the boundaries of embroidery and blurred the lines between craft, art and couture. The amazing virtuosity of traditional Indian practices have been underlined while ensuring that these have been expressed in contemporary ways. A monumental feat of textile art, for instance, was witnessed at the Dior Spring/Summer 2022 Haute Couture Collection, where the set design created by Chanakya reinterpreted the artworks of renowned Indian artists Manu and Madhvi Parekh.

Interestingly, Dior has had a decades-long relationship with Chanakya. For visitors to the Chanakya School, therefore, the presentation that welcomed them, was indeed an eye-opener. An exclusive Dior retrospective featuring pieces from 50 haute couture and prêt-à-porter collections made in collaboration with Chanakya, a curation of Chanakya’s private archives (with a focus on rare global art, antiquities and craft objects some spanning over 1,000 years), a living museum of 13th-generation ustads (master artisans) demonstrating live the savoir-faire from the Dior Pre-Fall 2023 show and a preview of the soon-to-be-opened Chanakya Cultural Centre were the showstoppers.

Chanakya Atelier — The Dior Retrospective

Chanakya Atelier — The Living Museum

Excerpts from a conversation with Karishma Swali….

What does the association between Dior and Chanakya mean to you? It has led to Indian embroideries and artisans finally getting the acknowledgement that they deserve for their work for various European fashion houses, something that luxury brands have avoided talking about until now.
We are so deeply honoured to have been able to share this collective celebration for craft excellence with Dior and Maria Grazia Chiuri, and to be able to have this aligned vision coming to life. And also for this deep reverence that we together have had for craft through the decades. For all of us at Chanakya, it’s a momentous coming together that we will cherish forever. For the artisans who watched the show with us, it will be etched in their memories and hearts forever.

How do your artisans and our age-old crafts benefit from Chanakya School of Craft’s association with Dior?
My father [Vinod Maganlal Shah started the business in 1984 creating fine hand embroidery for international fashion houses] wanted to share India’s impeccable craftsmanship with the world. And so, over the decades, our vocabulary (at Chanakya) has always been one of contemporising it to keep it alive for future generations. When something like the Dior show happens in India, where our artisans are acknowledged for their skills — and lauded for being the finest at what they do — it obviously plays a huge part in being able to keep the crafts alive for our future generations. This is because it becomes aspirational. It is a culture that we are standing for, it’s a culture that we are taking forward…and so, of course, you are talking about a larger benefit.

For years we have had global compliances in place. But this is about so much more, isn’t it? It’s about being able to stand together for a global vision for craft and express a deep reverence for our artisanal legacies. We work very closely with the artisans. Most of my time is spent in the atelier and most of my inspiration comes from there.

Chanakya Atelier — The Dior Retrospective

How has Chanakya been contemporising traditional embroideries?
Let’s say that I look at a Lucknowi ceremonial jacket from our archives — we are very fortunate because my father started collecting antiquities and textiles and my husband’s (Shyamal Swali) family has been doing so as well. Earlier, the zardozi work on it would be heavier. If we want to make it relevant for the generations of today, we consider making it more fragile, more poetic…. It’s really about taking a technique and a skill and making it adapt to a new language so that it has a fresher perspective. It is also an exercise in revival….

What does embroidery mean to you personally? Have you tried your hand at it?
While my skills are very poor compared to that of our artisans, I am aware of how to do it. For me, embroidery is a very personal reflection, something that I learnt from them. I see their approach to it and for them the riyaaz (practice) of embroidery is also a way to align with yourself — there is a certain discipline and excellence that comes along with it…. So, for me, craft and diving deep into a craft, is really associated with not only the cultural aspects that inform me hugely but it’s also about your own personal journey.

Chanakya Atelier — The Living Museum

And how has that been for you?
I feel very fortunate to be able to do something I love every day. And it’s something that I can learn from every day. It’s exciting because every season you are able to find a new language and you discover how to look at it through a different lens. So, craft is infinite.

What are the principal techniques used in Dior’s Pre-Fall 2023 collection?
For this season, we have created geometric grids with the micro bullion technique, which is part of the zardozi school. We also used appliqué where we created the toile de Jouy. We ended up celebrating Indian symbolism so we had the elephant or the banyan tree worked with the appliqué technique. We also used mirror work; we treated mirrors like little jewels, and the colourful mirrors were placed all over jackets and dresses. We also had zari embroidery….

What has it been like working with a brand like Dior and with Maria Grazia Chiuri in particular?
Maria Grazia Chiuri and I have known each other for over 25 years so it’s been a long relationship. She began working with my brother Nehal [Vinod Shah] in 1992 and I started working with her a few years later. We have constantly tried to celebrate craftsmanship together. She has also been a mentor and someone that we founded the Chanakya School of Craft with. She really is a champion of crafts throughout the world and inspires us tremendously.

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