Exclusive: Vogue takes the first look inside the Dior retrospective exhibition in collaboration with Chanakya School of Craft

Image shot for Christian Dior Couture. Photo by Sahiba Chawdhary

Prior to the Dior show hosted in Mumbai, the luxury brand’s longtime collaborator Chanakya School of Craft, open their atelier doors to Vogue for a walkthrough.

This is a love story. Between crafts, cities and countries. It is a universal story of compassionate co-creation forged by the threads of life. When Karishma Swali, the founder of Chanakya International and Dior’s Maria Grazia Chiuri, the current and first Italian creative director of the French behemoth–Christian Dior, met 20 years ago, a simple friendship led to a rich creative confluence of art, artisan and fashion. It was easy says Maria Grazia Chiuri, “Embroidery is, very deeply, a part of my creative language as it is for Karishma.”

It is often said in ancient Indian philosophy that to lead a ‘deliberate life’, is to live deliberately with your head, heart and hands. There is, after all, a sacred interconnectedness: the hand that threads the needle, also tugs the strings of our hearts. This is the essence of the humanism of craftsmanship, the outpourings of which we can see in many craft-rich countries of the world. You can hear it in Karishma Swali’s explanations of embroidery that toggles creativity and spirituality in the same sentence. “Embroidery is a form of meditation,” she says.

Chanakya has been at the forefront of cultural sustainability. In the several collaborations between Chanakya and Dior, the variety of embroidery techniques used from different regions of the world, is a veritable new-age Silk Route, reliving an era of cross-pollination and reinvention. From very early on, Karishma Swali has been at the forefront of recognising the influence and hybridity of global craft in the world of luxury. And her Atelier is a homage to the reinstating of an oft-forgotten truism- real luxury is handmade. However, in Maria Grazia Chiuri, an ardent stewardess of Italian and French craftsmanship, she found a formidable and committed ally.

The Christian Dior Pre-Fall 2023 show at the iconic Gateway of India that serenades the Arabian Sea is a culmination of years of friendship and a shared passion for craft between two gargantuan changemakers. “I always want to carry the fashion show, the creativity, to where the craft is,” said Maria Grazia Chiuri at a private dinner hosted in Mumbai by Chanakya. “And here we are.”

But the immersion into craft begins in The Chanakya x Dior Retrospective in the heart of Maximum City. The display-dress after dress, awash with exquisite embroideries that meander and speckle the clothes- is awe-inspiring. You may contemplate -these living, breathing traditions that embellish our clothes, and also wrap around our bodies that live a lifetime of joys, trials and tribulations. The story of embroidery, ensconced in mythology, identity and creativity is indeed the story of humanity.

“The connection between the earth and the sky, the rootedness of creativity, is basically love for the natural world. The Tree of Life appears in different ways in different cultures, but the essence is the same,” says Maria Grazia Chiuri pointing to a Tree of Life coat from Christian Dior Haute Couture Autumn Winter 2022 embroidered in the Chanakya Atelier.

From the time primitive man used sewing to stitch skins together, to our present-day expressions of staggering nuance and elegance, we can perhaps concur that the creative mind has evolved one stitch at a time. This is the undeniable power of what Indians call- hast-shilp or handicraft. “Craft is our ancestral legacy that is honoured and celebrated. What my generation brings to these ancient techniques is a modern savoir-faire. This ensures the longevity of the crafts” says Karishma Swali.

As you make your way through a circuitous maze of galleries, replete with extraordinary craft-embellished designs by Dior and priceless artefacts of Indian culture collected over years by Swali’s father Vinod Shah, the founder of Chanakya, it is easy to reminisce about Mr Dior himself, who in the 1920s was a gallerist.

It is befitting to say now, that this trajectory continues with Maria Grazia Chiuri. With the irreplaceable support of The Chanakya School of Craft founded by Karishma Swali in 2016, Christian Dior’s collaborations have taken place with noted contemporary artists like Judy Chicago, Eva Jospin, Manu and Madhavi Parekh, and Mickalena Thomas. Here a shared belief between Maria Grazia Chiuri and Karishma Swali is that like the canvas, the embroidered cloth is a lyrical fabric of art.

One of Karishma Swali’s all-time favourite fashion-meets-art immersion was for Dior’s Spring-Summer 2022 haute couture presentation in Paris. Chanakya Atelier and The Chanakya School of Craft rendered the art of contemporary Indian artists Madhvi and Manu Parekh in spectacular embroidered tapestries, that not only served as a totemic background to her modern collection, “but through spiritual abstractions celebrated the dichotomy between male and female, real and surreal, action and stillness,” says Karishma Swali.

Action and stillness. That is at the heart of Chanakya Atelier’s practice. “If you look at the way the master artisans–our 13th,14th generation ustaads, as we call them– work you will see the culmination of hundreds of years of riyaz” says Karishma Swali. “Riyaz is a spiritual practice, a sacred discipline, where a teacher will spend years teaching a craft to his student. It is because of this the ustaads, even today, are able to work across 300 genres of craft. I truly believe it is their hands that hold the culture of this country.”

Today, therefore, she says it is important to understand why most master embroiderers are mostly men in India. There is no taking away from a 13th-generation ustad where an intergenerational handing-down of craft know-how has taken place from father to son in a continuum. “While women are hugely dynamic, without the riyaz, we are at the stage of simply welcoming them on their journey to arrive; but it will take a tremendous amount of time, as it should, to gain mastery over the craft.”

Therefore, the long-term vision of Chanakya School with only female students from marginalised sections of Mumbai is just that— to hone the skills of women over generations. Maria Grazia Chiuri’s unwavering mentorship here is rooted in female empowerment and a deep engagement with the community couched in the hallowed words of Maya Angelou: “Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

Says Karishma Swali, “The several commissioned presentations over the years between Dior and Chanakya have been instrumental in reinventing the role of the atelier, artist and couturier; but also igniting a force of change and hope for those less privileged than ourselves.” At every step, the students are guided by the master artisans. Their enthusiasm to share their knowledge and their life lessons to a new generation is nothing short of exemplary.

It is pure joy to watch the ustaads at work in the Chanakya Atelier and the students of Chanakya School of Craft as they embroider the design dreams of Dior. Watch how they root themselves as they sit down to work. There is composure, posture, mindfulness, slowness, awareness and the bliss of silence.

“The creative riyaz or practice of embroidery requires tranquil attention rooted in the moment. For Dior’s elaborate patterns to be executed flawlessly, the ustaads require unfettered presence. Being present is what gives the design the flow.“ says Karishma Swali. The more intricate the embroidery, the more present one needs to be. Repetition in this serene state of creativity is indeed meditation. While this kind of creativity may also be a soothing release, a fading of anxious hearts and minds, delving deeper, embroidery is a teacher of patience. And it is patience that allows them to demonstrate how forthright and free the spirit of creativity can be.

The Christian Dior presentation at the Gateway of India therefore, is a homage to “the complexity of simplicity” says Maria Grazia Chiuri. She says that the Indian sari is a perfect example of this. It is a draped fabric, the manipulation of which is unique to the wearer. “An uncut piece of fabric- pleated, wrapped, knotted- worn by both men and women is also genderless.” And in this simplicity of the silhouette, embroidery plays the role of the effervescent Shakti, the energetic poetess of creativity.

“Embroidery is something of an arterial lifeline that connects the spirit of the people to a higher energy,” says Karishma Swali. Perhaps the tranquil master artisan at work is a metaphor of the need of our times— our present requires presence.

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