Rakesh Thakore’s Towering Textile Legacy

Rakesh Thakore’s Towering Textile Legacy

And why it matters today beyond his much-known roles as the torchbearer of late Martand Singh’s vision and the founding half of A&T

It is dusk, godhuli—when cows come home—on a July evening in Noida. Rakesh Thakore’s tall, imposing form, underlined by restraint and outlined by his black garments is enigmatic. The backdrop of natural dye artist Ajit Kumar Das’s artwork with mesmerised cows in shades of earth on the drawing room walls of Thakore’s home adds to the tranquillity of the evening lights.

Thakore is a ponderous man. His introspection runs deep. At this moment, the designer is perhaps probing himself, excavating delicate fibres of memory and previous learnings to unravel a rich part of his resume. The part which holds early lessons from an exceptional and optimistic design mind, who became the late textile guru Martand Singh’s mentee and collaborator for many years. The co-creator and kartadharta of the Viswakarma exhibitions from 1981-1991 and other expositions of Indian textiles and Khadi.


Old photographs of Rakesh Thakore working with weavers from the Weavers Service Centres in the 90s’; Mapu setting up the design for a Viswakarma Exhibition.
Courtesy Rakesh Thakore

This is that part of Thakore’s work which many in India’s crafts ecosystem know about, yet only a few recognise its echoing depth. The part that doesn’t take a front seat for a majority in the mainstream fashion industry. It brims with lesser told stories of Thakore’s modernist legacy in textile revivalism—before he applied himself full time at A&T, the company he co-founded with fellow classmate, friend and designer David Abraham.

Thakore’s work, its nuances and his ways of applying design thinking are particularly relevant today given recent interest in the contemporarisation of traditional Indian textiles. A growing number of handloom-invested fashion designers, curators, patrons and patternmakers bringing new thought to history and the ascendance of South Asian design in the global scenario make Thakore and others like him—persons of interest.

The Boy from Ahmedabad was the Boy from Africa

In 1990, when Martand Singh, fondly known as Mapu began travelling across the country to curate textiles for the Viswakarma exhibitions, he heard about a ‘boy’ visiting weaving clusters in Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh to learn Ikat weaving. Tasked with the handloom revival projects initiated by the late cultural activist, writer and revivalist Pupul Jayakar, Mapu believed that weavers could be urged to recreate museum-quality handlooms. When the mention of this boy bobbed up again in Warangal, Mapu, as the story goes, was amazed that someone had been to places even he hadn’t as director of Ahmedabad’s Calico Museum.


Thakore working on textiles with a weaver; A Khadi yarn spinner photographed by Manuel Bauer for Khadi Textiles of India catalogue, 2002 by Volkart Foundation.
The photographs have been scanned from the catalogue.

The curious boy was Rakesh Thakore from the National Institute of Design (NID) Ahmedabad. His craft documentation project on the Telia Rumaal of Chirala had provoked in him a fascination for Ikat. It became the subject of his diploma project after submitting which, he went to Nalgonda to learn Ikat weaving so that the innovation he envisioned in his young mind could be realised. After living in Nalgonda for a while, Thakore moved to Warangal where he introduced weft Ikat dhurries. He says he couldn’t have done so without learning the technique first.

By the time Mapu sent a message for Thakore through mutual acquaintances to explore if he would join him in his curation and creation journey, Thakore was winging back to visit his childhood home in Africa.

The sprawling farms in Tanganyika at the foothills of Mount Meru, where Thakore was raised with his twin brother Umesh and older sister Rashmi, remain etched in his mind. Sharp and vivid as a new painting. His jaw works as his face softens when he stumbles into this thread of his personal story. “We boys were born in Delhi and taken to Africa when we were six months old,” he says. Thakore’s grandfather had migrated to Africa from Bharuch in Gujarat and his father grew up in Nairobi before planting hope and hearth at a farm in Tanganyika.


Thakore’s craft documentation project on the Telia Rumaal of Chirala had provoked in him a fascination for Ikat.

When Rakesh returned to Delhi from the home he had to leave as a young boy because the parents had decided to school them in Bombay, he was given Mapu’s messages.

Ahmedabad Diaries

Eventually, the two met in person in Ahmedabad in January 1981. The same city where Thakore had trained as a design student, at an institute pointed out to him by his mother in a letter she wrote while he was at Gwalior’s The Scindia School for boys. The twins had been moved from Bombay to Gwalior. “I used to feel betrayed in some way, growing up at the foothills of Mount Meru, living on 4,000 acres of farmland then being sent by sea to a three-bedroom house in what was then Bombay. Later I began to adapt to life in a boarding school,” he says. The art and design pull of his acorn and NID’s promise as drawn by his mother beckoned.

The design institute, moulded then in the scientific yet culturally rooted temper of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision for post-Independent India was a melting pot. It was here that Thakore met David Abraham, as well as model maker and fashion choreographer Prasad Bidappa and  Archana Shah who later founded the Bandhej store. They remain close friends today.


An Abraham & Thakore creation at Colombo Fashion Week, showcased in March 2017.
Lakruwan Wanniarchichi/ AFP

“Mapu introduced me to the vision of the Viswakarma experiments at the Calico Museum. We had government backing and that meant a lot especially for the weavers. Technically this was about the revival of Indian textiles envisioned by Pupul Jayakar,” recalls Thakore. “Some textiles were being revived after 75 years, others after 100 years,” he continues.

The Yarn of Commitment

For the next ten years, as Mapu visualised, planned, curated the “Viswakarma experiments” and the Festival of India expositions across different countries, Thakore as his disciple sketched, designed and implemented his ideas. The latter concerned himself with changing scales, altering textures, and colour palettes of the handlooms for the exhibitions. The two, goes the lore, became a team. They worked with weavers, designers, exhibition curators and artisans, rummaged through the country’s obscured handloom legacies to experiment and modernise.

The first Viswakarma experiment called ‘Master Weavers’ had textiles woven in Weaver Service Centres (WSCs) in different clusters set up by Jayakar. It was held at the Royal College of Art in London in 1982. A chance visit by Gopal Gandhi who then headed Co-optex led him to invite Mapu and Thakore to revitalise Tamil Nadu’s handlooms, especially saris. New design expressions from traditional techniques of weaving were fused. The headquarters of this churn was a beautiful design studio that Thakore says he set up in a beach house in Madras inviting six textile artists to work with him. Mapu and Thakore travelled across Tamil Nadu identifying the region’s diverse weaves which lent to modern interpretations. Reviving and reinventing was fast becoming the tagline and commitment for this duo. “Every design was a success. The potential of Tamil Nadu was fully realised,” says Thakore, adding that it led to the next Viswakarma experiment, Pudupavu, which means “new warp” and was held in India.


Woven and embroidered textiles for Viswakarma expositions.
Image scanned from the German book Thar The Desert Kings of India: Art and Treasures of Nomads and Maharajas. Published by Autorenkollectiv

After that, Rasa opened Paris at the Musée des Arts décoratifs and travelled to other countries. Jaali (focussed on architectural patterns in textiles) and Earth and Sky (on tribal art and textiles from Northeast India), opened in Russia before going to Japan and other nations as did several other exhibitions. India’s unparalleled closet of fine handlooms and their elasticity for experimental creativity was thrown open.

Thakore says this was his biggest learning. He moved from his fond Andhra Ikats to the Bandhinis of Gujarat, the double Ikat Patolas of Patan, then Jamdanis and Dhakais of West Bengal, tussars and Kotpads of Odisha to Paithanis of Maharashtra. To name just a few.

The Weft of Thakore’s Legacy Beyond Mapu

Thakore worked on creating concise design directories of textiles as well as hand-block printing and other crafts techniques. Captured in catalogues for the exhibitions, they documented interventions brought to traditional weaving practices. Today, these catalogues can be used as go-to guidelines for interventionists.

As Thakore bridges the past with the present through his textile insights, his student-like thrill at learning to dress mannequins at The MET, New York, during the Costumes of Royal India exhibition, his retelling noticeably omits lament, ulterior motives of handloom lobbies, if any, or the politics of the crafts ecosystem. He speaks with literary singularity without a camp mentality. Expressions such as “us versus them”, “handloom versus powerloom” or “then versus now” do not figure in his conversations.


Thakore photographed at his Noida home.
Madhav Mathur

Instead, a bible of design experiments, the skill of contemporarisation, the decolonisation of textiles from their traditional matrixes, hope and optimism, opens up. From Master Weavers in 1981 to Khadi: The Fabric of Freedom in 2002 exhibitions (the latter had other textile greats like Rahul Jain and Rta Kapur Chishti work on it too), this writer discovers a man reticent about own his own legacy.

Thakore’s face knits a reflective mood as he searches for words to talk about his work outside Mapu’s evocative mentoring. He is aware of a legacy that is his own, but is reluctant to stand up and shout about it. “The biggest gift Mapu gave me was believing in me and letting me grow. He got me to understand that what I see and what was possible from there on,” says Thakore. When asked what did Mapu learn from him, the word he chooses is “patience”.

It is a wise word. It falls like a stone in water creating ripples. Thakore’s patience and reticence which led, presumably, to inspiring silences adept for design thinking were a foil to Mapu’s narrative talent and verbosity.

What then is Thakore’s legacy, away from Mapu’s shadow? It rests first in his audacity as a young student to imagine design outside existing notions. In decolonising a Patan Patola, for instance, from its birds and beasts motifs to make it graphic, iconic, compellingly modern. In experimenting with a combination of materials—for the play of light and opaque on textiles, of real zari with coarse silk tussar. In reinterpreting temple borders—a separating line so to say on a fabric between the field and the border or pallu of a sari. In revitalising Balrampur saris of Kerala, Odisha’s Kotpads, Mugas and Tussars.


It was Thakore who reimagined the Sickinaikenpet saris from the Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu creating a riot of drapes in mustard, red and black. “In Thanjavur, I found rath (chariot) coverings, temple backdrops and ceiling patterns called asmangiri. These were hand painted applications on fabric. Adapting that, I created saris,” says Thakore. Famed Japanese designer Issey Miyake who was visiting India on invitation from Pupul Jayekar, took these handlooms and translated them into skirts. They were featured on the cover of Time magazine as part of a story on Miyake.

The iconic black and white Ikats that would later ubiquitously filter down to crafts bazaars and handloom emporiums were Thakore’s experiments with Ikat. Miyake was inspired to create his own iterations of these with Thakore.

Decolonising Matters

If patience is a weft borne out of sturdy will, consistency must be the warp. Thakore admits that he worked with Mapu consistently for more a decade and perhaps that’s why some see him as the inheritor of his legacy. “Even though many others worked with us.” He mentions Rta Kapur Chishti’s documentation in the Saris of India books (with Amba Sanyal), with Mapu as the editor and him as the sari designer. He also talks about curator and scholar Rahul Jain’s contribution to Mapu’s Khadi expositions.


The iconic black and white Ikats that would later ubiquitously filter down to crafts bazaars and handloom emporiums were Thakore’s experiments with Ikat.

“It is difficult for me to see myself as the custodian of what is called Mapu’s legacy in that sense. It was all for the weavers first of all, for them to be appreciated, recognised and find better livelihoods. So that people would know who is a block printer, a Pichhwai artist, a Bandhini craftsperson,” says the 60-plus designer adding that many weavers they worked with in the Nineties built good businesses and prospered. “I feel fortunate that at A&T we still get to work with some weavers from that time or their children. This is growth as I see it,” he adds.

Towering over Thakore’s legacy in moving textiles towards a contemporary language, which matters immensely today is his ability to understand the language of the weaver. Verbal, as well as unspoken and at the wheel—the loom. Learning the technique on the ground to revitalise it without unsettling a practice or usurping a practitioner. “The biggest thing is the dialogue between the craftsperson and yourself as a designer,” says Thakore.


Zehn: Decolonising Indian Textiles is a series that celebrates designers, archivists, curators, weavers, scholars, institutions, revivalists and other artists who create modern, relevant connects with textile traditions.

Banner: Rakesh Thakore at home. Photograph by Madhav Mathur.