On my last visit to Bagru, Jeremy and I went to visit the Titanwalla Museum which opened in 2019. It is a celebration of the ancient technique or block printing still practiced in this small village, about an hour from of Jaipur. Mr. Suraj Narayan Titanwalla, now in his eighties, proudly showed us through his museum documenting his achievements as an acclaimed master craftsman of this art form. Whilst impressed with the exhibits and the awards, my lasting memory was Suraj and Jeremy in conversation and at some point Suraj announcing that he was the history of the craft and Jeremy the future.
Jeremy first came to India in 2009 as part of his anthropology studies that he was undertaking in New York. He returned on a Social Entrepreneurship Fellowship in 2010, working and living in Bagru, and became committed to preserving what was then considered to be a dying craft. He stayed until 2013, when he returned to the USA for his Masters studies. By 2015 Jeremy was back in Jaipur and established his own business, Studio Bagru, a grassroots initiative to pursue a more equitable business model for the artisans and foster design innovation. Over the years I have come to think of the studio as an entrepreneurial bridge to the artisans, where Jeremy and his local team provide support to designers wanting to work ethically and sustainably, helping them with sourcing, production and quality control. An example of Jeremy’s innovative approach is Mahila Print, which recognises the artisans design rights and ensures they receive compensation for their design as well as their production work. Studio Bagru sells Mahila Print fabric, licenses product design and is open to co-design and collaboration initiatives.
Studio Bagru offers workshops to travellers wanting to visit the village and learn about the craft culminating in a hands-on experience creating something to take home. Jeremy’s fiancée, Nirmali, offers wonderful cooking workshops in Jaipur and together they are planning to open a Bagru homestay in 2021.
Our conversation took place leading up to Diwali, in late October during the Covid-19 Pandemic.
What were you just thinking of?
I was thinking about my new morning yoga routine and what a transformative three months that Nirmali and I have been through. We spent three months immersed in yoga in Mysore, South India, and have only just got back to Jaipur a few days ago. In the last decade of living in India I had always put work first, so now because of the pandemic I finally have had the time to explore yoga in depth. I really feel it has created a deeper connection with myself and also with India.
What are you doing for the rest of today?
I am catching up with work and making sure that we are on top of all the orders and also doing some more work on the online workshops we have created, where people can do block printing at home watching our films and use our materials pack. Later in the day NIrmali and I are planning to head to our favourite café, Tapri, for a chai and also for some North Indian food that we have been missing.
How "real™ does the threat of the virus feel? Do you know any one personally who has contracted the virus?
We know a few people here in Jaipur that have had Covid-19 and have recovered. In the USA, my dad is a doctor working at a hospital and despite a few close scares, has not caught the virus. Nirmali’s dad is also a doctor and her sister is a dentist, both are in Assam. The Covid cases in Assam are pretty low but they have seen some people with the virus. In Mysore there are less cases and people seemed very relaxed and normal. In Jaipur there is a greater sense of fear and concern.
If your own health and that of your family/friends is ok; then what is the greatest impact on your life (and on your work) of the pandemic?
The economic impact of the pandemic and the lockdowns and downturn in business has affected lots of people. We have noticed quite a few local cafes and small shops that have closed down here in our neighbourhood in Jaipur. People are still out and about, however, those that relied on tourists and travellers are really impacted. Some travellers from Delhi are coming to Rajasthan again, but there are very few travellers compared to pre Covid.
Overall,the greatest positive impact has been the immersion in yoga in Mysore and learning so much. The greatest negative of the Covid has been the dramatic reduction in our business, with no block print workshops and Nirmali has not done any cooking workshops. We plan to use the time to refocus, revaluate and reorganise what we do and, at the same time, it is important to look after our team and not lose them through this time.
What are you looking forward to post pandemic?
I am looking forward to connecting with people again, sharing experiences here in Jaipur where people can be hands on with a traditional craft, or learn about spices and regional Indian cooking and now, we plan to add yoga as an offering. We are also planning to open a homestay in Bagru so people can wake up and see the textile printing fields.
Has there been anything positive from the pandemic?
On a personal level, yes for sure. I am far more aware and committed to a healthier way of living and yoga is an important part of that. Nirmali and I both feel that most people have increased their appreciation for nature and want to be more sustainable. We are planning on growing our own vegetables now for example and have heard others wanting to do the same.
We have also become even more aware about who is the most vulnerable. We started an Artisan Fund for the artisans in Bagru and were super-grateful for our community stepping in to assist our artisans at the beginning of the pandemic, it really helped in those early days. We will now need to think about how to build resilience for a future crisis.
Is there an innovation (service, product, science, media) that you have been impressed with? Have you made any changes or thought of any that you will implement going forward?
For us, the move to virtual events and workshops has been really interesting. We participated in the Selvedge World Fair and had participants from around the world learning about Bagru block printing. At a more macro level, it appears many people shared knowledge and skills and took a less proprietary perspective than before.
What does your personal future of travel look like? When and where will you go first? What are you dreaming of?
Sadly, because of the pandemic we had to delay our wedding from this month to March in 2021. So later this month we will head to NIrmali’s home place of Assam to make preparations. We will then return to Bagru and stay for the winter until the wedding, which will be in Assam. After the wedding we would like to travel within India to somewhere in the Himalayas, perhaps Rishikesh or Manali. We will be back in Jaipur for April and then in early May we plan to head to the USA to see family and also to travel, including a road trip across the States. We will be back in Jaipur by the end of October.
What are you finding inspiring now?
Yoga has not only made me feel healthier it has also allowed me to focus on myself and not feel bad about that. Previously I was far more outwardly focused, on work and on other people, this last three months in Mysore, has made me realise I can do both.
What has made you laugh out loud most recently?
I think I am a bit quieter than before, yet Nirmali and I both feel more joyful.
Given we are about to celebrate the festival of lights, what has brought light into your life in the last 12 months?
It absolutely has been Nirmali who has brought light into my life. I really feel supported by her and am excited about our accomplishments together so far and our plans ahead.
If a reader would like to make a contribution, can you recommend a specific organization/initiative that could do with the support?
Our artisans fund is now closed, in terms of a financial charitable donation. What our artisans need now more than anything else is work, so we would really appreciate orders be they for masks or the new block printing kits we are doing. Buying a mask pack supports a family of four for a month, so it really makes a difference. https://www.studiobagru.com/masks
If you would like work with Studio Bagru, please take my reference, and contact Jeremy via email firstname.lastname@example.org or via WhatsApp +91 99297 10239. You can also buy masks and block printing home kits on the website. Courier and postal services are working within India and internationally, just allow a little more time.