Usha Bora, a cultural entrepreneur has traversed multiple pathways, geographically and professionally, before she founded Jamini in Paris. A Franco-Indian lifestyle brand, Jamini situates Indian crafts and heritage in the French notion of art de vivre or the art of living well. Usha’s quest is to establish an everlasting dialogue between the two cultures and make Indian crafts relevant as well as relatable across countries.
I met Usha at a quaint homestay in Jaipur, tucked away from the sounds of the city, and that was the beginning of the many stories from Assam to Paris. She is on an aesthetic adventure, seeking beauty in everything that surrounds her. In this conversation, she shares her thoughts and experiences on working with Indian craftsmen, fashion as a language of communication and creating an Indo-French cultural dialogue.
Jamuni, the bright and elegant colour of lotus that blooms during the monsoons in Assam, gives its name to Jamini. The flower itself signifies the founder’s roots to this Northeastern state of India, a connection that she has carried forth for almost three decades now.
A dynamic entrepreneur and a creative visionary, Usha’s journey began from IIM Ahmedabad where she mastered business acumen that took her to Hong Kong for her first career stint. Little did she know then, that she would shift homes to Paris and start her own venture until a life-changing incident happened. Usha became a mother.
As she started a family in Paris, away from home, she looked back at her ties to India and what she had left behind – the legacies she had carried with her until now and what she would like to pass on. The one thing that she was convinced of was that her legacy would be beyond family and friends, beyond herself. She wanted to create a “living bridge between India and France, that would constantly grow and flourish.” Usha found her answers in textiles, prints and craft traditions of India. Thus, Jamini was founded in 2007.
Jamini, the brand
Home decor by Jamini
Over the years, Jamini has grown tremendously, carving a niche for itself in the French luxury space. A country that has nurtured fashion and defined luxury, has also cultivated an appetite for Indian aesthetics. “Indian designs and crafts have always been present in the French market; they were just never marketed as Indian. Jamini is the only Indian-origin and India-proud lifestyle brand in France.
However, Jamini particularly caters to a very distinct audience. It is meant for conscious individuals who are interested in knowing the story of the product, its significance and its roots. "My customers not only look for beautiful products but they want to involve themselves in this journey. The younger generation is also seeking to explore new cultures and Jamini helps them in bringing the Indian experience home.”
The brand by itself is a creative adventure into India and a discovery of its heritage. The Jamini experience “takes the visitors away from their own life and transports them into another reality.” This is a reality of land where textile traditions and crafts have been continuing for centuries.
The language of Indian fashion
Eclectic designs, bold prints and fine weaves, combined with a vivid and sophisticated colour palette make the collection at Jamini. The products including home décor, fashion and accessories are made with different techniques from across India – from the weaving traditions of Assam in the east to block printing from Rajasthan in the west.
Block printing from Rajasthan
“Our craft heritage is unparalleled in the world and our fashion is bold and eternal. The block prints remain an all-time favourite amongst the Europeans. Taking away the mood from minimalist, black and white design sensibilities that prevail in the West, the bright motifs, often inspired by nature, convey happiness and life. We are not afraid to use colours. In fact, we celebrate colours and experiment with them very well. This is a huge identity statement conveyed through Indian fashion in general.
Colours have been an essential component of the Indian cultural aesthetic and also complete Jamini’s design philosophy. On being asked what would be the one colour that defines India, Usha instantly replies “Haldi” or turmeric yellow. Drawing attention to the old chaarpai laden with bright yellow and blue pillows and the complementing ceramics around it, in front of us, she tells how this “turmeric yellow is one of those rare shades that can go along with anything and enhance the beauty of the surroundings.” At the deeper level, this colour signifies our roots like none other – being used in all celebrations and festivities, in everyday lives and being abundantly present around us, only if one can notice this. It transmits energy and positivity, taking away gloom and giving hope.
Another important message that is communicated through our crafts is the emphasis we lay on recycling and preserving artifacts. “From the silk sarees of our grandmothers to even kitchen jars, we celebrate heirlooms and acknowledge what our ancestors have left behind. While we see vintage and sustainability as becoming trends in Europe only now, in India this was never an artificially imposed practice but something that became our innate nature. Indian fashion never loses its charm and our lifestyle also becomes naturally sustainable.”
Creating a Cultural Dialogue through Crafts
Indian crafts and fashion are not just an end goal but a means to communicate our values, heritage and cultural wealth. As individuals look towards adapting these, India must rise to the occasion and build more brands that position Indian culture in a more exciting, relatable and attractive manner. “We need more citizen cultural ambassadors who tell the story of India to the world.”
Usha passionately talks about telling the Indian story through crafts. “I believe in the soft power of our crafts, and want to show my customers where the beautiful crafts really come from, who are the people behind it and what is the skill involved. Patrimoine! It is our heritage that cannot be replicated on machines and be confined to books.”
Usha (left) with an Assamese weaver
In the past, Usha has led two travel groups from Europe introducing them to Kantha work in Shanti Niketan, West Bengal and craft practices in Kutch. She has also partnered with one of the largest French travel companies, Les Maisons du Voyage, and co-curated a trail through Gujarat and Rajasthan to explore local crafts, storytelling and traditions.
However, there are many challenges that come along the way and need to be addressed. Citing the example of the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad, Usha shares a love for the collection. “It is stunning and as good as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Unfortunately, it is not well preserved and presented. This is the kind of place we need to be showing. The involvement of central institutions and a well-oiled mechanism involving multiple stakeholders becomes important here.”
“India is all about its people and telling the stories of the incredible work they have done, be it in the field of science, health, creativity, performing arts, cuisine or even academia. These are the people who keep the Indian civilization alive and moving and we need bigger platforms to showcase them. My purpose in doing crafts-based travel is to make the western audience understand what India is all about. Some of them would learn the techniques and then share the Indian story in their countries, becoming cultural ambassadors of India as well.”
“We are lucky to have such an immense and diverse cultural wealth that most countries don’t. We must be proud of our heritage.” As Usha says these words, packages of linens and apparel arrive from Assam and Gujarat. With child-like enthusiasm, she opens the boxes one after another, and with each box comes a new story for us to immerse ourselves in.
Image courtesy: Jamini