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Daughter Leaves US Job, Keeps Mom’s 45-Year Organic Printed Fabrics Legacy Alive

From gorgeous silk saris in the 1980s to exporting fabrics for home furnishing and sustainable fashion brands today, Bengaluru’s Tharangini Studios, by Lakshmi Srivathsa and Padmini Govind, has practiced sustainable fashion long before it became a buzzword on Instagram.

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For nearly 45 years, Bengaluru-based Tharangini Studio has specialised in ethically-made and organic hand block printed fabrics. Established in 1977, it’s the oldest and last surviving hand block print studio in the city, which prides itself on social and environmental responsibility. After all, Tharangini is India’s only artisan studio compliant with ISO 26000 standards for the same.

Two generations of women, Lakshmi Srivathsa, and her daughter Padmini Govind, have overseen the growth of this unique venture, which has practiced the tenets of sustainable fashion long before it became a buzzword on social media platforms like Instagram.

“We are not here to compete with fast fashion. We are from a family of art and culture lovers. My grandfather was a Dewan of Gwalior State who also worked with the Wodeyars of Mysore. Our family grew up with a great appreciation of fine arts. Lakshmi Srivathsa, my mother, was studying art in the 1960s at the Triveni Kala Sangam, a renowned institution of the arts based out of Delhi. That’s when she was first introduced to hand block printing. Decades later, she decided to make this her full-time profession and open Tharangini Studio in Bengaluru,” says Padmini Govind, Partner at Tharangini Studio, speaking to The Better India.

It was challenging being a woman entrepreneur in a male-dominated textile industry. But Lakshmi was a visionary, who showed real courage in her decision to move forward with this venture. Along the way, she was fortunate to have had some stellar mentors like Kamaladevi Chattopdhyay, the doyen of Indian handicraft and handloom. Kamaladevi was Lakshmi’s personal mentor and spent many days teaching the craft during her formative days. Support also came from Padmini’s father, a corporate engineer, who supported her dreams.

(Image above of Padmini Govind, Tharangini Studio)

Preserving Family Heritage

Tharangini started in a garden shed with two tables and a team of five artisans. “Our mainstay was printing gorgeous silk saris for various boutiques, individuals, and stores. We were always B2B and focused entirely on the domestic market. Bengaluru’s silk industry was in its heyday, and we had good demand for hand-printed silk sarees. In fact, our biggest order was from the Royal Nepal Airlines. We also dabbled in the export market in a small way,” says Padmini.

Although she admired her mother’s work from afar, Padmini initially followed her father’s footsteps and studied computer science engineering in Bangalore University before leaving for the United States for her Master’s degree. For about 18 years, she went through the rigours of corporate life working across different sectors like fintech, media and even defense. However, a part of her was always connected to Tharangini.

“My mother and I would have museum workshops when she visited the US, and I used to connect interesting textile enthusiasts to our studio. Having said that, we had not started exporting in earnest. My mother’s health, unfortunately, took a turn for the worse in 2007, and she passed away in 2011. I returned to India with my husband and two boys in 2008. By then the entire silk industry had changed completely. Indian silk saris were replaced by less-expensive Chinese variations. Mechanised printing was much cheaper than block printing and wearing saris had also become more restricted to special occasions. By the time I took charge of Tharangini Studio it was barely breaking even,” she recalls.

Once Padmini got back to India, it took her some time to figure out how she would take the business forward. At no point did Lakshmi force her daughter to take up the reins. In fact, Lakshmi told her daughter that it was alright to close Tharangani down if she wished. But Padmini could not bring herself to allow a valued part of her family heritage to disappear.

The first two years after she took over were very difficult as they recalibrated every part of the business to move towards new lines of business like export fabrics for home furnishing and sustainable fashion brands. They had tied up with garment brands and fair-trade certified garment units in various parts of India.

“We now own one of the largest collections of woodblocks in India, which we started in the 1970s, and we have an amazing team of versatile artisans. Our capacity has also grown considerably and continues to expand into new ecosystems with clients in India, United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Western Europe and Japan. We are ranked among the top 10 global eco-artisan studios in the world in an industry disruptor programme launched by United Nations Women for the sustainable fashion sector. We were selected among more than 400 entries from 59 countries. I was also the only one from India recently selected to be a part of a UN Women, DO School initiative to design a global platform for Impact Entrepreneurs,” claims Padmini.

Nonetheless, she credits the set of “very talented” artisans on her team for the preservation of this traditional craft in this era of fast fashion. Many of them were trained by Lakshmi and legendary experts like Kamaladevi and her team.

“Our main sustainability goal is sustaining the handcraft itself in our region. There used to be many more large block print units in Bengaluru, but they have unfortunately all vanished one by one. While maintaining the craft in its true form, we feel it is important to find new interpretations to reach a millennial consumer. This adaptability has been key to help us grow the business. Through training and workshop programs, we have tried to connect with the next generation of designers in various design colleges throughout India and overseas. The idea is for them to see new potential in traditional craft,” observes Padmini.

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Padmini Govind working in the studio where her team makes hand block printed fabrics. (Image courtesy Tharangini Studio)

Sustainable, Eco-Friendly, Traditional

Tharangini employs Ready for Printing/Dyeing Fabric (RFD), which is obtained from businesses that place orders with them. They also use natural yarns like cotton gauze gloth and mulmul (fine, soft muslin) for both printing and padding used in colour trays during block printing.

The dyes they use are natural, which take about one week to three months to prepare, depending on the colour and shade. For example, their black dye takes about two months to prepare, which is prepared by fermenting a mixture of iron liquor and palm jaggery. Depending on the shade of black sought, the process of fermentation can be increased or decreased. Similarly, the red shade is prepared using Indian madder (a species of flowering plant in the coffee family called Rubia cordifolia), while the brown shade comes from mixing extracts of the same plant. The red pigment is derived from the roots of this plant.

“Any leftover dyes are sent to be used at autism centres. For any steam treatment they have to do on their printed fabric, Tharangini uses Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) for fuel and newspapers for insulation. The newspaper is returned to the same vendor from whom it was bought for recycling. The effluents generated due to washing block prints, gum-arabic from fabric when discharge dye printing has been done, and natural dye from saris, are safe as the materials used are natural or certified as safe to use. However, as an added precaution the effluents are still treated in an effluent treatment plant,” notes this 2019 report on Tharangini in Vikalp Sangam publication.

At Tharangini, the dyes are prepared by their in-house resident colour mixer, Bhanuamma, who has now been working there for the past 36 years, alongside her apprentice Yashodhara. An important element of the dyeing process is the building of wooden blocks used for printing designs on fabric. The wood used for making these blocks is sourced from Timber Layout, a vendor in the city. But the type of wood used for this local Teak, which is of good quality.

 

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A post shared by Tharangini HandBlock Prints (@tharanginistudio)

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As the Vikalp Sangam report goes on note: “Block printing at Tharangini predominantly uses wooden blocks, carved with designs on them, to make an impression on the cloth. This is done by first dipping the block in the dye and then carefully placing it on the cloth. The procedure requires the cloth to be washed free of starch so that the colours can stick on them. The cloth is then stretched on a flat surface and fixed on it with pins. The dye that has been prepared is kept in a tray, beside the printing table, and contains glue and pigment binder.”

It adds: “The block is not directly dipped in dye but pressed against a layer of wash cloth soaked with this dye so that the block does not pick any extra colour. The teakwood blocks, once prepared, are also dipped in oil for a few days before being used. After printing has been done on the cloth, the block print is first allowed to dry, and then the cloth is covered in newspaper and is steamed. Only when the discharge printing is done, the cloth is washed to rinse off any resin (gum Arabic) that is sticking to it, dried again and finally ironed before it is ready…skilled block printers combine multiple overlapping blocks to arrive at complicated designs.”

The venture currently has about five skilled block printers, some of whom have been with them for over 40 years like Krishnappa Bhat and Mallikarjun. This process requires precision and focus for long hours given that the smallest mistake can ruin the entire fabric. To print an entire stretch, it can take a couple of hours, depending on the type of print of colour needed.

In addition, all the effluents generated through the process even though the materials used are natural or certified safe for use are treated in an effluent treatment plant set up in 2000.

Meanwhile, elaborating further on the venture’s sustainable practices Padmini says, “When you look deeper into processes in any traditional craft you find that they are inherently low waste. For instance, all our dyes have been organic certified since inception. Yes, they are more expensive than conventional dyes but we do not want to compromise. We always used organic, earth-friendly dyes, and believed in making quality items over quantity.”

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Left: Karigars learning how to mix colours; Right: Intricate vintage motifs handprinted in silk (Image courtesy Tharangini Studio)

Relationship With Artisans

From the very beginning, Lakshmi and Padmini have always believed in treating their artisan team like extended family which is why they have been with them for many decades.

“One of the biggest lessons for me growing up with my grandmother and mother is a deep respect for karigars, irrespective of their role. I only see myself as a facilitator. Most decisions are done in collaboration with the team. There is no conventional hierarchy in our working space. We have a profit-sharing system, annual increments and everyone gets ‘óffice’ benefits like private medical insurance and paid leave. Without this, the artisan community, more so in a tech city like Bangalore, would not be able to stick with this as a profession. With God’s grace, we were able to support everyone financially through both pandemic lockdowns,” she says.

Central to Tharangini’s mission besides the business of preserving traditional handicrafts has always been their social outreach programmes that began with Lakshmi.

“In the 1990s, we had collaborated with the Karnataka State Women’s Welfare board to impart free training to women in natural dyes. Several other smaller NGOs have also trained with us over the years. In 2016, we started a wonderful collaboration with youth from Asha Foundation for Autism and Navprabhuti Trust. They are one of the oldest organisations in Bengaluru focused on their education and vocational training. The city has several such community centres, primarily run by women (mothers, volunteers, teachers). Our flagship collaborator Navprabhuti Trust now has several talented women block print artisans and specially-abled artisans. We hope to expand this to many more,” says Padmini.

Moving ahead, in May 2022, the venture will be celebrating their 45th year of existence. Given how technology and business practices have changed rapidly in the garment industry, it’s quite remarkable that an entity like Tharangini Studio continues to stand tall.

“Since the pandemic began, there is an increased awareness among consumers in all things organic, natural and handmade, especially among conscious consumers. I feel the world of Instagram has made people more aware of the people behind the products they purchase, and the process involved, which will benefit our venture,” she adds.

(You can follow Tharangini Studio on Instagram here.)

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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