India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
May 18, 2018

Enter The World Of Embroidered Nature With Medha Bhatt’s First Forest

Text by Huzan Tata

Meet the NID-educated designer whose endeavour is empowering women artisans one stitch at a time…

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What does ‘design’ mean to you?
Design as a form of creative thinking began with early humans. It was an approach of holistic thinking with people and their environment at its epicentre where they created products from materials in nature, which had a short span of life. Today, design to me represents, initiating dialogues in society about the environment by studying our past and making it relevant for the future through not only product innovations but also developing design methodologies at grassroots and creating innovative means of communication. Nurturing a deep sense of love for the forests has evoked a unique synergy of ecology and design in my work. Design has laid strong foundations in my understanding of conserving traditional knowledge systems embedded in the cultural traditions of indigenous communities.

How did your education at NID shape your outlook in the world of design?
Many childhood vacations spent in the villages of Bhavnagar exposed me to the cultural, literary and historical aspects of rural life. My education at NID equipped me with various tools and perspectives to understand these socio-cultural aspects through keen observation, study and practice. In the absence of Google, Pinterest, and Instagram, I evolved a world view of design, art and aesthetics through books, magazines, films and interactions with teachers, visiting artists, designers and professionals from various walks of life from the world over. My graduate diploma project The Gardens of the Rann at Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, Bhuj enlightened me about the importance of preserving and conserving cultural identities and how design interventions can play a pivotal role in empowering and uplifting communities and their material culture.

How did First Forest come about? What is its driving philosophy?
My graduate diploma project in Kutch focused on traditional appliqué textiles of Rajput communities that are created from their old traditional garments. The seeds of First Forest lay here. After graduating from NID in 2000, I was fortunate to work with the Zero Waste Kovalam Programme formulated by Thanal in Thiruvananthapuram. I formed the Patchworking Womens Lives Initiative to empower women of this impacted coastal community of Kovalam through innovations in product development and imparting training in design methodologies and building awareness about market research. In 2009, I established First Forest with the focus of up-cycling tailor discards into art and craft products. I began developing design strategies to address this problem of wastage starting with my neighbourhood. Quality and quantity of discards dictated production processes. Cornflakes boxes were woven into refillable notebooks, plastic bottles with paper mache became pencil holders, discarded knick-knacks like beads, buttons, wires were handcrafted into jewellery and fridge magnets. Discarded fabrics were up-cycled into furnishing products and accessories. I began designing products that catered to all economic strata of society, focusing on the functionality and economical pricing of the product.

What are the most exciting aspects of working in the design field?
The strong relationship I share with environmental groups at the grassroots level has always motivated me. My workshops with under-privileged women are always challenging in the beginning when one has to break barriers of communication and creative expression. I always consider each of the participants as unsung heroes with stories to tell. Each scrap of waste fabric finds a new meaning in their stories, transforming the products into works of art and them into artists. To witness this gradual transformation has always overwhelmed me and has in return, instilled a sense of identity, pride and strength in their lives. Most of the commissioned works done by First Forest are created on a strong foundation of trust. Unlike in other design fields where the client has absolute clarity of the end product, the anonymity of a sack of waste fabric always renders an element of surprise. Hence, it is essential to get absolute clarity on the brief and explain the unique nature of working with fabric discards to the client. First Forest products hold me in a sense of awe after following its journey from scrap to its completion into a work of art. This also illustrates its singular uniqueness and renders it nearly impossible to replicate.

Who do you admire and where do you find inspiration?
Jane Goodall has been my guiding light since my student years at NID. Her environmental and humanitarian work has consistently fueled my thoughts and ways of working. I was greatly inspired by her Roots and Shoots Program where she believed that “every individual can make a difference,” and that “today’s young people are some of the most compassionate, creative solutionaries our world has seen”. I find my peace in the forests. Many years of living in Kerala and being surrounded by environmentalists and nature lovers offered me opportunities to understand ecosystems and the mysteries of nature. I always find retreat in Mary Oliver’s nature poems or David Attenborough’s natural history films when I am not able to seek out the forests.

How much would you say things have changed in the space of Indian design since you started out?
I consider Mahatma Gandhi as a designer who used hand spinning of cotton and khaddar as a vehicle for breaking the shackles of poverty and imbibing social equality and self-sufficiency. Extending this thread of recent history, the field of hand-crafted design led to large industrial set-ups employing large sections of society. Liberalisation of the economy in the 90s, while I was a student at NID, brought in a wave of exports. Today, online market spaces and retailing has led to a vast trend of start-ups focusing on individualistic styles and expressions. It has widened the horizons of Indian design, exponentially leading to an increase in opportunities. Indian artisans and craft communities are better equipped to increase their business opportunities due to mobiles and internet. Individuality in design has found visibility and enhancement due to the presence of social media platforms.

Any words of advice for those who’d like to enter the industry focusing on a niche market?
Design is about being simple, honest and ingenious. It is also about reinterpreting design as frugal, of impermanence, of socio-cultural value, of economic efficiency, ecologically viable and which conserves biodiversity. Our competitive spirit and individualism in the fields of art and design should not hamper our values of compassion and solidarity for forming collective bonds to address environmental issues. Those who wish to enter the design industry need to widen their horizons. I conclude with Jane Goodall’s words, “We have the choice to use the gift of our lives to make the world a better place – or not to bother.”

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