“The artist sits there.”

I’ve always found a sense of comfort and familiarity working with artisans. Perhaps in a previous life I was one, though my drawing skills surely belie that notion. I’ve had an atypical trajectory as far as my career is concerned. Upon completing my undergrad in finance, I was sure to want to become an investment banker on Wall Street. As things turned out, I found myself immersed in something rather detached from the world of power suits and high rises: Handicraft. My family has been in the business for the better part of three decades and although I have grown up in this environment, I never had any real sense of how things operate. Without much thought, I decided to give myself two months to visit the many manufacturing sites mostly in/around the state of Uttar Pradesh. It was magic. All of it. From the very first day, I knew this was what I wanted to do. To see my ideas come to life with such ease and nonchalance was almost bewildering. I remember this one time there was a wine box I wanted to develop and it had a botanical hand etching pattern on the sliding lid. So a young fella takes the lid from the carpenter, tells me to hop onto his bike and drives us to a curbside not too far from us. I asked him whom we were meeting, and he casually said, “The artist sits there.” Literally, the artist was this old man, probably in his 60s sitting square on a small rag cushion and a wooden countertop with nothing more than a metal hammering tool and some old scraps of paper. He looks at me strangely because I’m wearing basketball shorts. If you’ve been to rural India, you know what I’m talking about. He asks me where I’m from, to which I reply, “Dilli”. With a beedi in one hand, he starts handing me out the scraps of paper he had on his “table”, turned out those were his “design files”. In that moment I felt I was transported to a different era. This kind of interaction I just wasn’t used to. I believe it has until date, been the most genuine interaction I have ever had with another human being. Perhaps in the top 5 but you get the point. I explain to him what I need and he tells me to come back in two hours to approve the sketch. “Inshallah”, he says. Sure enough, the sketch was perfect. This guy was about to, with his bare hands and a scrappy little hammer, place a sketch on a plank of wood, chip away little pieces millimeter by millimeter, with somehow the ideal amount of depth to make it look three dimensional, in a repeat pattern. I knew these guys were good but this was something else. I told him I need 6 of those done and he tells me he can do them by the evening. Of course he can. I still have the last of those 6 boxes with me. It reminds me why I started. It reminds me of the importance of weaving stories in my products. I haven’t stopped making boxes since.

 

 


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