In 2011, when Rahul Mishra began experimenting with embroidery for the first time, he began to work with craftsmen in Mumbai’s notoriously cramped slums. “Initially, they used to come to my studio, I never had to see their living spaces,” he recalls. But one chance visit to the slums — because the designer needed to figure out why the suppliers couldn’t keep up with his demands — shattered Mishra’s ability to stay detached.
“There were 10-15 men living in a 10 X 20 ft room, no toilet and no steady electricity. I realised that they had to walk half an hour to Bandra station to answer nature’s call in the morning. Their basic human requirements weren’t being met,” he says.
And so began what Mishra calls ‘reverse migration’, an attempt to rehabilitate these men from these horrific living conditions they had come to accept as the norm, and give them a chance at a better life. What aided his efforts was the fact that most of the craftsmen came from in and around the Baundpur village in West Bengal — sons had followed their fathers, nephews had followed their uncles to the big city, all in search of opportunities and a way to make a living. And despite the inhumane conditions, many were reluctant to go back. “I had to assure them that they would be paid the same, and that they would get a steady flow of work before they agreed to go back home. Today, they make 30 percent more money while living in the village with their families than they made in the city.”
Mishra has, to date, relocated 300 craftsmen. They ride their bikes to work on a pucca road, execute their craft in a socially audited environment (Saks Fifth Avenue, which stocks Mishra’s designs, conducts frequent surprise checks) and have a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labour.
“We are able to create jobs in the villages, while easing pressure on the infrastructure in cities,” explains Mishra. “Sustainability is not about one handloom, one yarn, one craft. It needs a complete system redesign.”