When Indian textile designer Kamala Murali of Kambli Studio first started making quilts, people told her that her designs were too simple and not Indian enough. Among her inspirations, she certainly counts textile traditions outside of India, such as Japanese boro patchwork and Korean jogakbos. But, Indian textile history, local craft traditions, and the city of Chennai have always been an inspiration.
Kinship + Craft connected with Kamala over Zoom and spoke with her about the personal connection she has with Chennai, the rich textile traditions of India, and the ways her work is resonating with people in India and abroad.
P.S.— Don’t miss the story about that one time when she landed an archival job with a private textile collector in New York City…(Spoiler: it was through Tumblr!)
This is the first in a two-part series, so be sure to check out the second interview portion with Kamala about her process.
A quiet multicultural city
Chennai, nicknamed the Gateway to the South, is situated on the Bay of Bengal in southeast India. Described by Kamala as “a quiet city,” it is a coastal metropolis where the present converges with the past, quite noticeably at times. Other times as naturally as the waves rolling onto the sandy, golden shoreline.
Charismatic, swathed with greenery, and home to the world’s second-largest beach, Chennai is located where a collection of small fishing villages once stood. With the arrival of European and English traders in the 1600s, those fishing villages became a port settlement called Madras. It remained so named until it officially became Chennai in 1996. Now, the area is more known as the automobile capital of India and a software hub, but not much of a design city. Nonetheless, Kamala feels there are many advantages to starting her textile company there.“I really like working in Chennai. It’s a slow city. There’s not a lot to do. It’s not as fast-paced as Mumbai, or as New Delhi, or even as Bangalore, so in terms of creativity, it allows me to work at my own pace,” she reflects. And although Chennai may be calmer than other cities in India, that hasn’t stopped it from becoming a multicultural one.
The area’s cultural diversity dates back several hundred years due to its use in the past as an outpost for Portuguese and Armenian textile traders and the British military. Both traces of this history and contemporary influences are recognizable in the city’s architecture, cuisine, and population. Passersby can discover ornate and brilliantly kaleidoscopic Dravidian-style temples from the7th and 8th centuries in the same neighborhoods as colonial Indo-Saracenic, classical Palladian, or more contemporary designs. Local dishes, such as nethili fry (spicy fried anchovies) or sundal (a chickpea-based snack), are mixed in with others from abroad, including atho, a fried noodle and cabbage dish brought to Chennai by Tamil refugees from Burma (now known as Myanmar), or Korean bingsu (sweet shaved ice) found close to the Hyundai production facilities or in the upscale Boat Club neighborhood.
It isn’t necessarily the architecture or food that makes visitors feel the city’s vibrancy, though. With an estimated population of between seven and ten million people, it is not uncommon to come across multiple languages, creating a buzz in the air that mixes with the coast and city life sounds. The majority that live in the area speak the native language, Tamil, but with four percent of the population believed to be from outside India and another thirty-four percent from other parts of India, language diversity in the city is considered high.
Yet, according to Kamala, whose family has lived in Chennai for generations, one aspect many people in India aren’t aware of is the variety of craft traditions in or around the city and the surrounding state, Tamil Nadu — a point she finds liberating for her own creativity and, likewise, kambli studio.
I like it here [in Chennai] because my grandparents have lived here, my parents have lived here, and it’s a feeling of being home…[that’s] what I bring to my practice.
Just getting started
Working directly with local shops, textile suppliers, and sewers, Kamala has become part of a network in Chennai that saves and exchanges leftover local fabrics, which would have otherwise gone to waste. From those, she produces stunning quilts, pillows, table runners, and wall-hangings that she either sells on her website or creates specifically for commissioned projects. Success has been steady, with recognition from Quiltcon in the United States and The Festival of Quilts in Europe over the last couple of years. She also recently launched two small batch collections of patchwork and embroidered pillows due to collaborations with local shops.
When asked if she had always imagined starting her own business, Kamala shakes her head, no. She does count herself lucky, though, to have both her father and grandfather as business mentors. “My dad had his own business. My grandfather had his own business. So this is something in the family, and if I ever needed any help or was confused, I could look to someone to sort of help me understand that.” Yet, when it comes to design, she feels confident. “The creative side is completely mine,” she declares. It’s a sentiment that comes from the heart, rooted in Kamala’s love of heritage textiles, of making things, and the deep joy that comes from holding a handmade textile in her hands and recognizing it is an example of human beauty.
No one finds a job on Tumblr! It’s ridiculous!
She starts giggling as she recalls an experience that clarified and heightened these feelings for her. Fresh from completing her Masters in Design Studies at Parsons, The New School for Design in New York City, Kamala was at a loss of what to do. “It was kind of funny because I did not want to work as a textile designer in any of the fashion firms. I wanted to work with textiles, but I wanted it to be in a museum or [something like that]. You know, I love going to museums. I love heritage textiles. I love old textiles, and somewhere in my brain, I think I was like, ‘How do I make this work?’ because I was living in a city like New York, which is more fashion-driven.”
On a lark, Kamala did a search online and landed on Tumblr.
“You won’t believe it, but I was looking for a textile job and found a [private textile] collector in New York. I said [to myself], ‘This is amazing! Let me just email her.’ I [didn’t] even know if she was working or if she had stopped working. I had no idea. And when I emailed her, she immediately got back to me and said, ‘Why don’t you just come over tomorrow?’” Within a few days, Kamala had visited the collector’s apartment and agreed to assist her with photographing, cataloging, and archiving her private textile collection over the next seven months. “No one finds a job on Tumblr! It’s ridiculous!” she exclaims. Sure, we both concede; it’s one of those stories that basically never happens, but then again, sometimes moments in life align, and those that are lucky enough to be caught in the middle are left with a wonderful experience.
For Kamala, this was certainly the case. As she describes the time she spent working with the collector, she bubbles with energy.
“I loved every day going to her apartment … She had these collections of textiles segregated according to country, and my job was to sort of help archive each collection. So we’d go through each piece, and I would help set [them] up for photography, and then do a little research and write the catalog…She would teach me how to understand what a motif meant in a textile or why someone would have stitched a seam in this particular way, or what the significance of colors are and how to tell [why] a textile feels in a certain area but doesn’t feel in another area…I was learning very organically, but it was just an amazing time. I loved it. It really made me realize how lucky we are to create such beautiful textiles or even just objects. That’s when I realized that there’s a lot of value in making things that are one of a kind.”
Not long after the archival project finished, Kamala returned to India and started working with a home decor company in Mumbai as a design writer. The time there was instrumental as another learning experience, but she soon set her sights on starting her own business and putting the ideas that had started developing in New York to use. Along the way, she developed ties to local quilters in Chennai and India at large. Again, she was overwhelmed by what she gained from the encounters.
“There is a huge quilting community in India. I mean, it’s massive. I didn’t expect that, and I didn’t know it was a community. I knew that people made quilts, but I didn’t know that everyone knows everyone. They get together, they quilt together, they talk about it, and they exchange quilts. I had no idea….So, to have this massive universe open up [to me] was incredible.”
She started to experiment, gathering scrap fabrics to create her own designs and explore various inspirations. Like many who have traveled and studied outside of their home country, her aesthetic is connected to what she discovered along the way. As noted on her website, the pieces Kamala makes for kambli are “[i]nformed by traditional practices of repair and reuse, as well as ways of textile-making in India and other Eastern countries, … [drawing] inspiration from Japanese boro cloth, Korean jogakbos, India’s Siddhi patchwork quilts, and traditional kaantha embroideries.” Initial reactions to her designs were mixed, which she believes comes from differences in what she and the audience she first showed her work to have been exposed to.
“My approach to textiles is very different from someone who lived in the North, and their relationship with quilts or their grandparents making quilts for them — we never had to do any of that stuff. So my quilts, I mean, my relationship with textiles, have more to do with my family, or with my grandmother giving me her old saris, or my mom wanting to buy proper silk saris for weddings. So the relationship changes. It just depends on where you live, what your lifestyle is, where your family’s from. Those sorts of things…I think a lot of people in India, at least one thing that happened to me in the beginning, is that people look at my design and say, ‘This is too simple. This is not Indian at all.’”
“My design work, you know when I look at my cushions, to see little bits of scrap with little bits coming out on a cushion is probably not something that the average person [in India] has seen either, if they’re walking in a mall or if they’re visiting a market, or flipping through a magazine. They don’t see it in there or in their friends’ houses, so I think it’s just a new aesthetic, which is one of my theories.“
However, the irony of this reaction is the way in which Kamala talks about Chennai in connection to her creativity and how the city, and the family ties she has to it, ground her. “I like it here [in Chennai] because my grandparents have lived here, my parents have lived here, and it’s a feeling of being home…[that’s] what I bring to my practice.” Nonetheless, she recognized the difference in opinion or style and decided to embrace the audience outside of India that had started showing appreciation for her approach and aesthetic. It didn’t go unnoticed.
I didn’t realize that winning an award was such a big thing. Until you know, you don’t know.
Recognition outside of India
In 2019, at the recommendation of another quilter, Kamala submitted her “Peach Quilt” to Quiltcon in the United States and won the Minimalist Design category.
Looking back, the experience was a surreal one. She remembers sitting in this small city in India, far away from the United States, and thinking that she would try and see what the response might be, but not expecting a thing. Once the surprise of winning had sunk in, the accolade provided her validation for the designs at first criticized for their simplicity. “I didn’t realize that winning an award was such a big thing. Until you know, you don’t know.” Since then, Kamala has entered her work in other quilt shows where juries have consistently recognized her work in one form or another. In addition to Quiltcon, this includes her quilt, “At Sunset,” being shortlisted out of 655 others at the Festival of Quilts in July 2020.
Throughout, Kamala remains grounded in her intentions to create one-of-a-kind textiles that people can cherish for years to come. She continues to pursue small-batch designs that give a voice to fabrics that others would have discarded. “Everything’s a process. Everything’s momentary. And I’ve found that the minute you put out your work, people see it, and you never know what can happen, so you might as well put it out there and enjoy the process.”
The Photographers in this article…
Kinship + Craft would like to encourage visitors to our website to check out the following photographers who made the publication of the photographs in this article possible.
Murugesh VARAN is a professional photographer, cinematographer, and visual effects producer who works in the Indian film industry. He has completed more than twenty future films in India. Additionally, he teaches Photography at iCAT Design & Media College and Image Creative Education. You may find him through his Instagram or on Pexels.
Partha Narasimhan is also a photographer that works with Unsplash. Please find more photographs by Partha here.