Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Keya Vaswani and Nidhi Kamath: Weaving their magic on screen

The designer-turned-filmmaker duo is on a mission to help the centuries-old tradition of Indian crafts regain its place in the sun

Published: Mar 4, 2019 10:55:11 AM IST
Updated: Mar 4, 2019 10:57:11 AM IST

Keya Vaswani and Nidhi Kamath: Weaving their magic on screenKeya Vaswani (left) and Nidhi Kamath hope to collaborate with other filmmakers to tell stories of talented artisans
Image: Mexy Xavier

Keya Vaswani & Nidhi Kamath
Ages: 28, 29   
Co-founders and managing partners, Storyloom Films

During their four-year journey at the Indian Institute of Crafts & Design (IICD), the product designer duo of Nidhi Kamath, 29, and Keya Vaswani, 28, realised that city dwellers like them had a preconceived notion about India. “Fact is only 30 percent of us live in cities, while the rest of the population lives in villages and towns or what we call ‘rural India’,” says Kamath. Adds Vaswani: “Our education helped us break that notion. It drove us to explore the place we are living in, through crafts. We travelled to beautiful villages, lived with the craftsmen and were learning from them. We experienced ‘rural’ India first-hand.”

Kamath and Vaswani were concerned that India’s centuries-old tradition of craft has been forgotten and undervalued. The second-largest occupation in India after agriculture employs nearly 70 lakh Indians in 744 craft clusters. The pair wanted to go beyond a product and celebrate the story behind it.

In 2013, Kamath and Vaswani, who were trained in Hard Material Application, deviated from the normal course in their graduation project. Instead of creating products, they worked on a short film called Threads of Banaras, which focussed on the crisis in the traditional silk craft sector of Banaras. The world famous banarasi silk, which flourished in India since the 18th century, is now under threat because of changing trends in fashion, government policies and laws against child labour. The 10-minute short film portrayed views of artisans, traders and researchers.

Says textile designer and historian Rahul Jain, who was consulted for the project: “Their film became a wider inquiry into India, into culture, into change and things that defined India as a civilisation. And a lot of it was present in a timeless setting like Varanasi, where everything is 100 times more intense than what you would find in a metro. I thought it was wonderful coming from somebody who had no background in films.”

The film marked the beginning of their journey to showcase the crafts of India via films. Soon after graduation, Kamath and Vaswani launched their filmmaking career with Storyloom Films. They honed their filmmaking by following YouTube tutorials and seeking feedback from filmmakers whose work they were inspired by. The advantage of being designers first and then filmmakers was that, as designers, they were able to understand and appreciate how much time and effort goes into creating the product they were filming, and also under what circumstances it was created. This helped them represent the craft in the best light they can.

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In 2016, Weaves of Maheshwar won the Rajat Kamal at the 63rd National Film Awards as best promotional film for crafts in the non-fiction category. The film was part of a fellowship under Pari, or People’s Archive of Rural India. A story about craft revival in the city of Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh, the documentary revolves around various journeys of people who have made this change possible. In an era in which machines are taking over the world, India is the only country that still produces 90 percent handloom. Weaves of Maheshwar portrays this strength of Indian textiles and the country’s rich craft sector. The protagonists are a group of people who have facilitated this change. The film has various perspectives of a businessman, an entrepreneur, migratory weavers, young weavers and a craft expert.

“It was the story of the journey of a craft on the verge of extinction. Also, the story is not just about how it survived but a lesson for us—the filmmakers, as well as viewers—as to how we can all contribute to the craft sector and save it from extinction. And more than all this, it gives us a sense of pride, of who we are and where we belong.” says Vaswani.

There is an unhurried pace to their films, with the soothing music and visual treatment allowing the audience to immerse themselves into the subject and understand each process. “And this is exactly what we want our films to be in today’s digitally-driven fast-paced world, because this is what craft is all about: Patience,” says Vaswani.

Despite their personal commitments, Kamath and Vaswani travel extensively to shoot in different locations. As women, they find it easier to be allowed into the homes of craftsmen where sometimes they have to live with their families for several days. The villagers are warm and welcoming and always concerned about their safety. In turn, the duo is sensitive to their comfort and space, and is able to start a conversation more easily.

In their six-year filmmaking career, Kamath and Vaswani have produced 35 short films and one documentary on various crafts of India for clients such as Anantaya (a Jaipur-based craft and design studio), Good Earth, L’affaire (a brand launched by Shri Satya Paul that celebrates Indian textile heritage), IMG Reliance, British Council and Flipkart, among others.

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Films such as Risa, Chandrani The Pasra Weaver and Weaving the Lost Tradition that showcase women weavers and the crafting techniques of Tripura were recently screened at the 2019 Lakme Fashion Week in Mumbai; Namda, the short film on the Rajasthani craft of namda (felt), won a Special Jury Award at the Heritage Film Festival in 2014.

Among the many things the duo has learnt from their filmmaking experience is how knowledge sharing is a common trait among these skilled craftsmen. They have the warmest hearts and are always ready to share the nuances of their craft, their delicious food, folklores and their rich experiences. “If we broaden our understanding of education, we will realise that the traditional art and craft practices were always a part of the guru shishya parampara. In today’s context this can be considered as home schooling and maybe that’s why India is still producing 90 percent of the world’s handloom,” says Kamath.

During one of their trips to Bhuj for a film on bandhani (a tie and dye textile), they asked the craftsman, Abdul Khatri, to share some folklore on the technique. His reply (translated from Hindi): “It is believed that a Sufi saint tied many tiny strings on a silk cloth with a wish. To this day each string on a bandhani is tied with a prayer.” Vaswani found that inspirational. “Imagine if all of us worked with such noble intentions, how enthusiastic and positive our lives would be,” she smiles.

Drawn to spirituality, meditation offers the duo some much-needed respite from their hectic schedule. Spirituality percolates through their work in the form of beautiful pauses. Their films reflect the same softness and femininity.

Vaswani and Kamath look forward to learning from other talented filmmakers and hope to collaborate to create meaningful films that show the unique craft and talented artisans of India. “We share a common belief to weave unforgettable stories on the warp of time,” says Kamath. With their films they want to spread the message that the living traditional art mirrors a living culture and that, when we lose an art, we lose people, we lose a culture.

(This story appears in the 15 March, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)