Last year, after Lakme Fashion Week’s Summer/Resort edition, a senior textile designer suggested I look at designer Swati Kalsi’s capsule collection of eight garments that had walked the ramp. Swati’s work, a contemporary but complicated take on Bihar’s Sujani embroidery got booked- marked as a reference but I thought no further.

Last month, I met the designer for the first time at a function at Jiyo, an initiative launched by cultural guru Rajeev Sethi’s Asian Heritage Foundation, under which creative grassroots enterprises are self-managed by the skilled poor. A fashion student from the National Institute of Fashion Technology in Delhi, Swati, now 33, was one of the Jiyo designers who, after working for a few years branched out on her own to pursue what I now see as an unusual design penance. Jiyo is where her complex tryst with Sujani artisans of Bihar work began.

From Swati Kalsi’s capsule collection at Lakme Fashion Week.After that meeting, she wrote me a mail asking if she could bring her work to show reasoning that was how she worked—she carried her creations to customers or those passionate about design. We would finally meet at the Mint office in New Delhi, she with her promised stroller stacked with her designs.

As stories of struggle go, this one befuddles me. Not so much for Swati’s “struggle” to find buyers and monetize her design experiments but for her insistence to stay with what she’s chosen to do despite the fact that there is no business model in sight.

In the last year, she brought 15-20 women artisans from Bihar spending on their tickets, lodging and boarding in Delhi so that they could live here in a workshop situation for some weeks and create Sujani embroidery patterns (conceptualized by her) on silk. She describes the work as “design that develops without a khaka or a pattern and progresses freely as the craftsperson works along.” Sujani is similar to the Kantha stitch of Bengal and only when you see it closely, its abstract patterns become distinct. These silks, some sparsely embroidered, some densely but without any overwhelming effect of decoration have been stitched into ensembles—jackets, palazzos, straight pants, capes and trousers. Some jackets are reversible—with different embroidery on the inner side because when the needle stabs the reverse side of the fabric, it makes an altered pattern. In black, white, beige, orange, aquamarine or Indigo blue among other hues, Swati’s garments are priced rather steep starting from Rs.1.5 lakhs to Rs.3 lakhs a piece.

Who buys these? I ask. “I am still looking for buyers though I do stumble into a lot of people who get interested in my work online but are still waiting to see it physically,” she says adding that she had sold other simpler pieces which were better priced. “For these I only want to take personal orders so that I can develop one piece at a time”.

Swati agrees that fashion’s tangible appeal is not easy to communicate without mounting clothes in a retail environment for people to touch and feel (despite the online presence). “But I am trying to see if there is space for a product category like this. I don’t like the way embroidery exists in Indian fashion and I got attracted to Sujani because it can take its own form,” she adds.

Swati works entirely on her own in West Delhi even as the pile of “despites” in her life grows bigger. Even her otherwise supporting family gets periodically overcome with indignation whether what she’s doing is viable at all. “I know this kind of work doesn’t fit into any business model,” she says, admitting that it is a nightmare to sell the clothes at those prices and she knows it may be better suited to the non-Indian consumer of art and craft.

I wondered about the feature value of Swati’s work at the stage it is now, as it is difficult to speculate about her future success or if there is indeed a market for such abstract embroidery on anti-fit garments. That is if she stays out of the organized retail scenario. But then that would be like saying that the lone artist working in a garage doesn’t contribute to the art movement of a particular era; that all singers must know how to sing Jai Jagdish Hare to be popular; that all contemporary dancers can entertain only if they manage the ‘Lungi Dance’ or that the only designer worth writing about is the one with a film celeb as a showstopper.

Swati is clearly a lone ranger for now, a designer working far from the madding crowd ironically waiting for her odd customers to become a crowd. She pays for her passion by earning from freelance design work. You could call it a struggle. Design penance may be more apt.