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GUEST STORIES: Designing for a More Harmonious World

Carol Miltimore is one of the many designers travelling through India whom we have had the pleasure to host.   She works with natural fibres, natural dyes, and traditional craftspersons to create beautiful clothes that satisfy, both, the urge for fashion and the yearning for harmony with nature and ordinary people.

When she arrived at Savista, she quickly won everybody over by speaking in Hindi and  smilingly namaste-ing everybody by way of greeting accompanied by her tinkling laughter, and amazed – and endeared herself to – the kitchen staff by asking for rotis with her breakfast egg instead of toast!

But beneath that lightness of being, one could discern a tremendous clarity of focus, steely work ethic, and relentless search for richness of meaning.  Every day she would return from her day’s work in Bagru, tired but happy, hands deeply coloured and hair filled with the grime of the day’s printing labours.   At the communal dinners, she was always ready for serious conversation, always asking questions, always seeking to engage…

On the last day of her stay when she showed us the results of her experiments that she had systematically documented, we extracted a promise from her that she would write something for Savista’s blog about this watershed trip, which marks a bend in the river of her life…a transition from being a designer for a large studio to being a designer with her own label…a promise that she gave willingly.

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Carol Miltimore

December 15, 2013

Savista Retreat, Bagru, and India

Since my years in college, something in me always had an urge to travel to India and more specifically work with artisans there. Something drew me to the culture as well as to the long history and trade of textiles. For years I made some small attempts, but honestly it remained but a dream for I was equally as scared of the journey.  Finally, I decided that enough was enough. I left my job and bought a one-way ticket. Though I in no way find that to be an original start to a journey to India. It seems that it is one of those countries where, if the undefined pull exists in someone, it inspires a ticket there for an undetermined amount of time.

I ended up in India for three months on my first trip, where I participated in a month long artist residency, met with some artisans, and traveled a great deal. I still got equally challenged as well as inspired along the way. In the end, after a car accident, infection of my intestines and stomach, and a traumatic motorcycle accident that resulted in a trip to the government- run hospital, I ended my journey earlier than originally planned, yet still sad to leave all the same.

One might think that after all of that I wouldn’t want to journey back, at least for some time. Yet I knew I had to go back. By the time I returned about a year later, I was on my way to starting my own business working with various artisans, in particular the block printers of Bagru, thus this is what brought me to Savista Retreat.

Staying at Savista Retreat while working in Bagru felt incredibly special and was an experience unlike any I had had in India thus far.  What first stands out to me are the people who took me in so warmly.  In the evenings we would walk down to dinner past jasmine and hydrangea bushes and throughout the meal I’d always learn something new about the history of India, textiles, Savista, or any number of topics.  It’s true for most places and experiences that it is the people that last the longest as part of the fond memories. People and places that touch you have a way of becoming a part of you and you in turn take a piece of them with you.

India is such a place of extremes; wealth and poverty, beauty and garbage, insanity and serenity, noise and quiet. While there are always going to be people to be wary of, one thing that instills such love of India for me is the people. For, when you meet the right ones, their warmth and kindness exceeds all else as they make you feel a part of their family. This is true for several people I’ve come to know in India, including the community at Savista.

A particular experience that felt unique to any other I had yet in India was being able to go for a walk before sunset into the surrounding countryside of Savista. Along the way, passing an old goat herder and then happening upon a village that felt removed from anything else going in the world, though I’m sure they probably all still had cell phones. The people were indifferent to the presence of my friend and me, not particularly caring about us wondering into their space, hanging out, taking pictures as well as talking and laughing with the children. We became mesmerized by how adorable the baby goats were trying out their legs with jumping and the children became equally as mesmerized by us taking pictures of what seemed like everyday life to them. The hazy sun was glowing red on the parched land and our nostrils were filled with the smoky and spicy Rajasthan air. In no way did we idealize the harshness of life in the village but their smiles were magical and we left feeling deeply touched by them.

Not far from Savista is the community of Bagru, which is famous for it’s block printers who have been doing work there for over 350 years. There’s an area there where nearly every house has some sort of block printing facility or table so it really is ingrained within their way of life. I work with a group of artisans who go by Bagru Textiles, the head of which is Vijendra.  Vijendra, his wife Santosh and his two children, Yash and Chehika, are another family who make me feel incredibly welcomed.

When I went last time, the block carvers in town had carved my designs out of wood so that when I arrived I could immediately start printing. I was taught about the process and technique but really spent the bulk of my time experimenting with the different outcomes of natural dyes.  While chemical dyes are most common in this day in age, the truth is they are toxic and pollute the water and land.  Natural dyes limit you in color range as well as to results of color placement on prints yet it all began with these dyes made from various roots, flowers, and metals so it feels more authentic.  In addition, it causes much less harm to the environment and the people handling them.  Like India, they never cease to challenge you, but in that the results feel more rewarding.

My background is that of a painter and for the last 10 years a fashion designer in New York City. I feel happier, more alive and more inspired by being in a place like Bagru where I am accepted into homes and peoples lives with numerous cups of chai, am challenged, learn something new in the process, and get to utilize crafts that date back for many generations which are embedded into a culture and world. Thus I’m beginning to create a line that collaborates with artisans to produce goods for the western market in a way that brings transparency and consideration to the process, community and people involved.

I never know how a day will unfold in India or what results will yield from a natural dye batch. Nothing ever seems to go according to plan and in that space there is room created for the unexpected.  It’s not easy but if it was it would never be nearly as fulfilling or expanding.  It is the people, the unexpected of every day, the textiles, the color, sights, sounds, and textures and the rawness of being which continues to draw me to India. Through all of that, it becomes even more of a blessing to stay at a place such as Savista Retreat.

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