In Conversation with Asha Scaria
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born and brought up in Kerala, and I did my graduation from Bombay at St. Xavier’s college. I studied Statistics but realised that I didn’t want to continue with that field. So I went on to do the Gandhi fellowship, I wanted to see what is happening to 60% of the people in our country who are living in rural areas. This fellowship was for two years and during this time I was located in Dungarpur which is located in the tribal belt of Rajasthan. During that time I got to interact with the local community, I was very close to the local women there since I was working in the government schools and they were my age. So the primary school kids, their parents were my age. I realised that there was a big lack of employment opportunities there for both men and women. What I felt most strongly about was that there were very smart women there who did not have the opportunity to go outside and maximise their potential. The smart men were migrating to nearby cities and starting their own businesses to avail better opportunities, but women weren’t given that option. So Swara started to provide more employment opportunities for women. The reason we picked the fashion industry was that there were a lot of tailors in Dungarpur. So it was purely coincidental. Once we figured out we wanted to employ the tailors we went from there. it is not very profitable for big businesses to set up manufacturing units in tribal areas, the tribal people are pretty content in their lives and it is hard to motivate them. There are also a lot of government regulations. The big brands I approached weren’t that interested in setting up a unit in Dungarpur. They were interested in a scenario wherein someone else sets it up, and then they can outsource some work to the unit because it’s good for them to have a group of tribal women working for them. but they weren’t interested in investing in it. so that led to the start of an online brand, we used Instagram to start it. The sustainability angle just came about because I feel that’s common sense. Why wouldn’t you go for a sustainable business model when you’re trying to maximise employment for these women in the supply chain. Then the angle of cultural sustainability also came about because we wanted to make sure that we do as much good as we can.
Which past experiences would you say have shaped your work, design sensibilities, & aesthetic?
In Swara we try to follow simplicity. Being really out of the box, unique, and trying something new never worked for me. I would always look at things from the perspective that, would I wear it? In Swara we give artistic autonomy to tailors, so we want them to experiment with new designs and we ask them, “Would you wear it?”, and a lot of the times it’s no when they’re making dresses for urban clients. Another question we ask them is, “do you see women casually wearing it in cities”. So they have been given exposure to cities when we organise exhibitions. We ask them to observe what women are wearing there, what are they comfortable with, what design elements are present in their clothes. One thing that came up was ‘pockets’, so we design them into all of our garments. Also, “would we be able to sell them?”.
Another thing that I’m very curious about is the Indigo in your clothes, is there a story behind that?
We went on a road trip to people who sell clothes near Dungarpur. We asked people what are the sustainable, organic dyes being used nearby, sustainable prints being used. Jaipur is the nearest hub for clothes so we went to the local market and asked, they pointed us to Akola, that’s the closest place where organic dyes are being used. It’s a village which is doing Dabu printing with indigo. We spoke to the artisans there, they loved our cause and we liked their way of working, so we directly started sourcing from a house there.
Swara comes from the ‘Sapta Swar- sa re ga ma pa dha ni’. So we thought that Swara shouldn’t be limited to Dungarpur. There were other girls like me working in other areas of India who were working with local women, weavers, printers, who wanted to be a part of this. So I realised that Swara had the potential to expand. So we thought ‘Sa’ was for the collection from Rajasthan that’d be purely Indigo, ‘Ri’ will be another collection from Kerala because that’s where my roots are. So we are planning an ayurvedic dyed collection to be our next. Then we can have a cultural exchange, so ‘Sa’ and ‘Ri’ can meet for this exchange.
What is your vision for your work?
We started with a very ambitious goal to employ 100 women by the end of 2018. But we realised that it wasn’t an easy task. Currently, we work with five women who work from their homes in Dungarpur. But now we have a more realistic goal, so to employ 100 women in three years and explore six different collections, like clothes for ayurvedic properties which will be good for your health. Quality is an issue, and we are struggling with expansion.
Who are your favourite artists?
I really like Pero, how they’ve combined the Indian embroidery with Western aesthetic. I think that’s really beautiful. We also hope to create something new that people will love. We have experimented with modern silhouettes with Indian prints.
Your favourite activity that motivates & inspires you?
I’m currently reading Sapiens, and I’m learning a lot about why we are the way we are. I’m also able to understand the women I work with a little better. How we are evolved in different ways, and how cultural influences us so much. I also like Shawshank Redemption.
How do you ensure sustainability?
In the beginning, it was about we know where our clothes are from. I know how the supply chain functions, and there is very clear communication across it. everybody treats there activity individually, so I ask them a lot of questions about where this was before it reached them. So it’s interesting to see how they connect the steps.
Secondly, the dyes we use are organic, so organic indigo. We don’t create any waste, whatever bits come out of manufacturing we put into our tote bags. When we send the clothes to our customers, we put them into our tote bags. Currently we are packaging the tote bags in plastic, but we are going to explore organic plastic going forward and replace it.