Moved by the plight of artisans trying to eke a living through a dying craft, Atul Johri moved from Bengaluru to set up his design studio in Channapatna, 60 km away, and revive the craft tradition, which is said to have begun in the 18th century. He recalls artisans, who had taken to driving autorickshaws, left with little confidence to return to the craft, besides taking a woman artisan to an upmarket showroom which was selling her products, where she naively enquired if the “extra zeroes” in the price tag were a mistake! He talks to us about his journey.
What brought you in contact with lacquerware?
I happened to be in Bengaluru when my brother went to Channapatna with a friend to meet an artisan for a shoot and on his return heard about Channapatna craft. It made me curious enough to visit the very next week, in November, 2004. It made me want to go there again and again, for the next 18 months, till I put together a team of artisans to develop my first collection, which was launched in 2005.
Tell us more about Channapatna’s heritage and the tradition of lacquerware. What makes it special?
The craft was patronized by Tipu Sultan, who brought a few families to this hamlet. It’s a very special craft for the simple reason that it uses only natural materials, such as shellac, vegetable colors extracted from plants and minerals. The lacquering sheen comes from palm screw leaves. This craft is practised nowhere else in the world.
What are the materials you work with? What is the technique involved?
The initial years of my training focused on architecture, but I was driven towards crafts, which led me to start working on handcrafted elements. Lighting was my first love and that remains till today. Initially, I developed paper sculptures as lights, which was a first for India on that scale. I specialise in this currently as well. The other materials I enjoy working with are steel, paper and wood.
When I went to Channapatna in 2004, it was really sad because the master craftswoman I met told me that I had reached too late, and she was ready to preparing to shut down her unit. She believed the craft had no future and was moving to Bengaluru. I requested her to give it another six months. It has now been several years since then and the craft tradition is well appreciated and getting back to its glory days. It’s just a matter of time, since people the world over have become more aware of environmental issues and are moving away from favouring cheap Chinese toys.
What are your future plans?
I want to bring back its glorious past and create a line of products for architectural use. Besides, products made of recycled wood or waste wood for bathroom and kitchen accessories for a much larger market, encouraging sustainable living for all of us, while generating more work for craftspersons, so that the migration for odd jobs stops. I have created a line of products for the hospitality industry, which is going to create lots of work for Channapatna artisans, like never before.
(Photos courtesy: Nithin Sagi)