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  • Writer's pictureRami Niranjan Desai

Exploring the love of India through textiles and travelling

Sally Campbell, a renowned textile designer and traveller shares her love for India in this interview with Rami Niranjan Desai.

Sally Campbell recently received the Handmade Textile Award at the Maison D’Obje Trade fair.

Rami Niranjan Desai (RND): Sally I am so happy that you are doing this interview with me and that you are back in India. Sally Campbell (SC): It's a pleasure to be here. RND: How many years have you been coming to India? SC: I have been coming to India since 1970 as a tourist, but my textiles business has been going for twenty years. RND: That's amazing. Why did you decide to come to India, was that as a student? SC: I lived in London and I brought my sister here as a gift. We went to Kashmir and Rajasthan together. And we went trekking in the Himalayas. RND: What year was this? SC: Sometime in early 70s RND: What was Kashmir like then? What was your first perception of Kashmir? SC: I totally fell in love with it. We went to the Himalayas where I was taught to trout fish by a man who was gnawed by a bear. We also stayed in a luxury house boat on Nagan lake.. I was completely in love with it and taken aback by the culture, the colour, the chaos. I adored it all. RND: Is that what made you come back? SC: Yes, I kept coming back and going on different holidays to different parts of India and still loving it more and more. Then I met my husband who also adored it. In 2002 we lived in Delhi for a while while he made a documentary. Both of us were in the film industry in Australia for many years. RND: So Greg travels a lot with you as well. SC: Yes, we are ideal travelling companions. RND: Yes, what was the documentary Greg made and where did you stay in India? SC: We stayed somewhere near Khan market in Delhi. Greg began making a documentary on call centres. He focussed on the training of call centre operators - how they had to adopt a new name, practise a new accent and pretend to be from the country they were calling. RND: So you obviously understand India on multiple different levels and you have travelled the length and breadth of India. But at the time when you started travelling to India, I can imagine that a lot of people must have thought of India as culturally and geographically very distinct. SC: Oh yes, they thought of India totally differently. They were terrified of the food, terrified of actually travelling throughout India RND: What was the perception then, apart from the food? SC: Well, most travellers were middle or upper middle class and lacked any kind of curiosity. So it was very difficult to get around India. There was less infrastructure. There was lots of political instability and unrest at that point. RND: Looking at all of this, you still decided to do business in India? SC: I have no business brain whatsoever, but I do have a passion for India. Also because I was in the film industry designing costumes and sets, I had an automatic passion for textiles. It was just, travelling in India, I would fall in love with a particular fabric. When my sister and I went to Jaipur for the first time, we loved the old pink city and bought traditional twirling skirts and embroideries. We got lost in the fantasy. RND; When you started your business travelling from Australia to India. What did you think about doing business in India? SC: I wanted to change my career after recovering from cancer. I had previously worked in India doing TV commercials. and worked with a group of terrific Indian women One of them invited me to stay with her in Goa during my recovery. She introduced me to some textile contacts. So it all started from there. Greg and I spent two months meeting artisans in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Bengal. RND; You are a very well known and acclaimed designer in Australia. Tell us about the recent award that I read about a couple of years ago SC: I used to exhibit at Life In Style trade fair in Sydney and Melbourne. They gave me a handmade textile award . I was flown to Paris for the Maison D’Objet trade fair. It was marvellous. RND: Do you think that because you got this award and you have been working with handmade textiles, is that a reflection also of the fact that Indian textiles are being accepted? SC: Indian textiles have always been accepted for their craftsmanship and beauty. The crafts were slowly dying before designers started working alongside the craftspeople and gave handmade textiles a contemporary design . When I started my business twenty years ago people didn't really care whether the fabric was handmade, now more and more people care. RND: I think there's more awareness

SC: Oh much more. RND: What do you think, because you have been so closely associated with people and the weavers on ground, going to all these remote places. Usually people don't go so they don't see. SC: Absolutely. When I first went, the weavers and printers were only known among textile people, no one else knew about them. Now some are famous and incredibly appreciated. They travel to fairs and museums all over the world to give workshops. RND: How important do you think are the Indian textiles and handlooms to not just sustain these weavers but also to sustain the art? SC: Yes well there are two different areas. Foundations and patrons are needed to assist artisans in difficult times. For instance Charlotte Kwon who has a business called Maiwa. in Canada has worked with and helped artisans for more than 30 years. She lives. More young designers are required with the artisans to sustain the art. RND: So you need a patron but you also need people to buy and consume these goods. SC: Yes, I know you do and it's always a battle and very difficult. It is so nice for me to see the young people coming in and loving handmade things while trying to make a business out of it. RND: Coming to the India-Australia relationship which for me you are so representative of because you understand India. You have travelled and most of your understanding is first hand observation. How would you say that textiles and small business are a way to bring this relationship closer? SC: More talented designers with modern ideas to work with artisans using traditional crafts.

RND: Have you seen any similarities between the textile work, the handlooms and the craftsmanship or even the designs that you have in Australia with the aboriginals and the Indian craftsmen? SC: I think there's a similarity with the Bandhani with the dots but I don't think there are many similarities. First of all, one of the things that I encourage everywhere are natural dyes and natural dyes have been developing over the last ten years in India. It takes a huge amount of development and it is more expensive. You also have to explain to everyone the process of natural dyes as they have a life of their own. Most people in the business world stay away from natural dyes. RND: Yes I suppose it requires more maintenance. SC: Oh another thing too, I have watched the launch of young Indian designers here. They have now become internationally famous. There are women who are happy to spend more money on hand embroidered garments. Also new designers and stylists have created successful on-line businesses. RND: Also, because you have been coming here for a long time and you have made a lot of great associations here. We have a perception of Australia being a really welcoming friendly country, what do you think you find similar in the people that you meet in India with Australians? SC: Well, quite honestly, there is no difference because there are lovely and warm people in both countries. The cuisine is marvellous. So many Indians have been settling in Australia for a long long time. There are many great Indian restaurants, and Bollywood movies have become very popular. RND: Do Indians watch it or do Australians also watch these Bollywood movies? SC: Well, initially it was just Indians. Now the audience has grown. Greg and I are also great fans. With Netflix, Indian films and series have become more accessible. RND: Let me ask you, because you have travelled very early on to India and went to some remote places. Do you think tourism from Australia to India is changing as well and people are getting more experimental? SC: Well, I am afraid to say that when Australians come to India they pretty much travel just to Rajasthan. It takes somebody who is a bit more curious to go elsewhere because it is still difficult to get around. Many European, Australian and American women take small groups to India, specialising in textile, wellness and cultural tours, promoting them on Instagram and Facebook. RND: So, Sally, where can people find your collection? SC: I have got a website, an online shop under my name- RND: And this ships to anywhere in the world? SC: Yes. It is getting a bit more difficult now because of the prices that are shooting through the ceiling after the pandemic. RND: Yes, that is I think one of the things that India-Australia diplomatic relations need to work on. SC: Yes, it is pretty bad at the moment. Everyone is dealing with it including all the people I am in business with. We are a small business and we are managing to keep going but so many businesses have gone under.

RND: So we are glad that Sally Campbell is still around through the worst years of the pandemic SC: It is just my passion for textiles that drives me on. RND: I really do hope that a lot of young designers take cue from you passion for India, the kind of work that you have done here and they make the effort to go that extra mile. SC: Yes, exactly. It is meeting skilled and talented people like Sheila who can make beautiful clothes. And working with amazing weavers, block printers and embroiderers who all create beautiful handmade textiles. A wonderful recipe for success. RND: [ laughing ] Thank you Sally!

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