The Genteel
February 25, 2021


Designing by Adventure; Learning Through Loving

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Bandhani - Tie Dyed Fabric (Photograph courtesy NorBlack NorWhite).

Having a sudden urge for adventure, two friends from Toronto, packed up their belongings and moved to the hustling city of Bombay, their new home base, for what would become the treasure hunt of a lifetime. Amrit Kumar and Mriga Kapadiya have been exploring India with a contemporary eye for fashion, documenting and designing, in an ongoing project called NorBlack NorWhite. For each collection, the pair focuses on a different region of India, showcasing that region's unique skills in textile creation and art. The real magic happens along the way as they learn life lessons and the rich history of Indian culture yields a wealth of knowledge waiting to be digested step by step, stitch by stitch.

Amrit Kumar and Mriga Kapadiya
(Photograph courtesy NorBlack NorWhite).

The label's name, NorBlack NorWhite, can represent their use of the full colour spectrum in their work. It's also metaphor: of not defining the outlines of the project, the area between work and play, the blurred boundaries between old and new or even two worlds, East and West. NBNW will release its third collection early next year and those who have followed them closely are eager to find out what they've been up to as the first two seasons were picked up quickly by bloggers and retailers.

For the first collection (Spring 2011), the duo traveled to a village in the Kachchh region of Gujarat known for its intricate tie-dyed fabrics called Bandhani (derived from the Sanskrit word "to tie"). Amrit and Mriga experimented with techniques, and their relatively unorthodox methods were fully welcomed by the artisans of the Khatri community who had been accustomed to creating only classic patterns and prints. The first step towards the success of the collection was choosing fresh colour swatches and bold patterns. The second was allowing the heavily patterned natural fabrics to speak for themselves, in cuts of dresses and tops that may never have seen Bandhani before. No two pieces are alike and the story of the artisan villagers of Kachchh is now donned by those who discovered NBNW early on. The first collection opened the villagers' eyes to the infinite possibilities of reviving age-old traditions that are fading in light of new age textiles and machine prints.

As they travel throughout India, Amrit and Mriga are also experimenting with their own collection of vintage pieces, searching for one of a kind fabrics, perhaps not even woven anymore, which may yield a handful of garments. Amrit discusses the Bolero piece (which was in very limited production) constructed from mashru silk/cotton ghagra (skirt) worn by Rabari tribal women. The embroidery on the arms was done by Rabari women who usually create designs for their dowry and their daughters' trousseaus. Mriga adds, "When we showed the Bolero to Hansu ben, a Rabari lady, she couldn't stop staring at it with a smirk on her face. She even tried it on and smiled." The feeling of getting Hansu ben's approval of a garment that, for generations, she had seen used in only one way was yet another sense of accomplishment for Mriga and Amrit, and more reason to keep doing what they do best.

Making friends in villages, communicating life philosophies over broken hindi, home food, starry nights and having access to ancient family knowledge, that artisans are sharing with us, little by little every time we adventure.

For the second collection, Autumn/Winter 2011, Mriga and Amrit invited their mothers to take part and see the two at work - especially needed after witnessing their two daughters suddenly move countries, leave behind their steady jobs, friends and family. The four of them traveled to the regions of Banaras and Lucknow known for their handwoven brocades and embroideries. Chikan, a intricate needlework on fabric technique, was popular in Lucknow. Chikan was said to have originated from the courts of the Mughal emperors, such as Jahangir the Great. It's extremely difficult to work with this textile as the needlework must be kept intact even after the fabric is cut and constructed. Traditional patterns in Chikan are often shaped like leaves, grains, plants and fruits. The needlework provides an orderly pattern on one side, however once flipped inside out, the chaotic frayed appearance is revealed. The reverse side, as beautiful as the other, was used on a piece in this collection, something not normally done.

Preserving traditions has become a new objective of the NBNW project. NBNW has had the privilege of connecting and working with many handloom societies, many of which fear that the days of traditional handiwork are numbered. The societies are concerned that people are quick to label the techniques as historical, without allowing them an opportunity to be rediscovered or reinvented in contemporary fashion. Often textile treasures of extremely limited quantities are found in museums, and the creators, for lack of demand, did not pass on its knowledge. Mriga expresses her wish for more people to have access to such textiles so that a resurgence can be started.

Documenting the collaboration and witnessing an ancient tradition give birth to a fresh, bold new look is only part of the journey. The other part, says Mriga, is feeling the love. "Making friends in villages, communicating life philosophies over broken hindi, home food, starry nights and having access to ancient family knowledge, that artisans are sharing with us, little by little every time we adventure." One can only imagine such beautiful hospitality, and when creative minds collide over passions, beautiful relationship can spawn quickly. Mriga and Amrit come back from their adventures even happier as they've forged incredible friendships with their more than welcoming hosts.

Mashru Bolero 
(Photograph courtesy NorBlack NorWhite).

Traveling throughout India alone does come with its hurdles. Remote areas are often very traditional and rarely do two women travel alone. "This has its own issues altogether," adds Mriga, "dealing with the unnecessary attention that comes with adventuring as women in India." What they are attempting to do is not always understood and doing business can often be very tiresome, as is explaining to locals what their mission is. Still, the life lessons come steady, and slowly it becomes easier to deal with the invisible forces against them that arise from a largely male dominated society. All of it just makes them stronger; learning Hindi was the first hurdle, and in the face of potential design miscommunications, they soaked it up at an incredible pace.

The core of this design by adventure project is a way of life that the two subscribe to: an ongoing pursuit of what interests them and learning through an appreciation of the world around them in order to reveal the knowledge they need. This knowledge is what they want to share with generations ahead, being connected with nature, appreciating of the arts of their heritage, satisfying their inner travel bugs and, most of all, pursuing their dreams - doing what they love. 


Amrit and Mriga have been documenting their journey in video journals.



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