February 9, 2021

Architect-turned-designer Atul Johri is taking Channapatna lacquer craft into homes across India, with his edgy designs

It’s a misnomer to say that the crafts are dying. Yes, resources are shrinking and skilled artisans do not know how to market their craft. But it is the responsibility of the designers to step up and show how the crafts can be used to fulfil the demands of the contemporary market and come up with products that are useful, well-designed and marketable,” says Atul Johri, architect and product designer. Atul should know, given that he lives in Channapatna and is developing interesting interior products using the Channapatna lacquer craft. Think glass and wood vases, lacquered salt and pepper cellars, LED light fittings, fashion accessories and more. Atul is an architect who was working in Delhi, when his attention turned to crafts. “I was designing Dr Naresh Trehan’s residence when I was exposed to what traditional crafts had to offer. I travelled extensively during that period to pick up stuff for the project,” he recalls. One thing led to another and after attending a conference on paper, he was hooked on to the potential that hand-made paper had. He attended an international conference on paper and got involved with the National Paper Research Institute. Architecture took a back seat and he was soon developing paper products. “Now, we have many options. But fifteen years ago when I was doing this, there was nothing much on the market. My first exhibition was opened by Pupul Jayakar in Bombay and I went on working with the medium,” he says.

In 2002, he left Delhi and had already made up his mind to settle in a craft pocket. A chance visit to Bangalore and a conversation with people who were doing a documentary on Channapatna prompted him to visit the place and there was no looking back since. “It took me almost a year to understand the craft. I could see many skilled artisans, but they were not doing much beyond the typical napkin rings and such products demanded by the export houses. And the traditional lacquering technique had almost died out. The beauty of Channapatna lacquer work is in the tonal gradation of the colour and the export houses would have none of it. They wanted monotones and prompted the artisans to fall back on synthetic dyes,” he says. Atul went back and forth over a period of time and then bought land, settled there and set up a product centre. With the motive of cutting out the middle men, he started providing the design and got the artisans to work from their own units, working with the traditional methods to produce edgy, contemporary objects. The results are evident for all to see, right on the shelves of Grasshopper in Bangalore or Good Earth in Bombay or in Fort Kochi. “People’s lifestyle and aspirations have changed dramatically. They want new things every six months and designers have to ensure that they get those. That’s the only way for crafts to survive. And instead of individual products, it helps to work on entire concepts. Say, the living room. Instead of offering just a candle-holder which may or may not go with the overall décor of a home, why not help create a look for the entire room with lights, vases, fittings and the whole works,” he asks.

And to keep traditional craft forms going, he feels design schools and the media also have to step up and play a role. “The media should talk about the actual craftsmen. The design schools should ensure that when their students come to a craft pocket, they contribute something to the growth and marketability of the artisans. You can’t sell the tragedy of the craftsmen and retail their products in isolated fairs and forums. Show them how to survive in the market, show them how to innovate and thrive,” he argues. For now, he certainly is showing the way at Channapatna. Article from DNA