architectural digest logo- AD on the right, alba amicorum  Indian art  scarf by Babuji Rajendra Shilpi on the left

AD India

London Craft Week 2021:
Darshana Shilpi Rouget's 'wearable art' uses fabric as its frame


Atelier Alba Amicorum’s limited-edition scarves are inspired by an unlikely muse, founder Darshana Shilpi Rouget's father Babuji Rajendra Shilpi's original paintings.

The Covid-19 pandemic has witnessed a unique flowering of creativity and renaissance among the artistic community. The ongoing London Craft Week (LCW) 2021 is a perfect example of the collective cultural response from craftsmen, artists and artisans in the post-pandemic era. The LCW 2021, which kicked off on October 4, will be on view until October 10 across multiple destinations in London's Chelsea, Belgravia and the Seven Dials neighbourhoods. Now in its seventh edition, this year's LCW has been billed as "the largest and most ambitious" yet. The LCW will host roughly 383 events over 7 days across London, showcasing 452 independent makers and 241 programme partners from 31 countries. From gun-finishing demonstrations at Purdey and Art Deco Beaumont Hotel's glamorous leisurewear secrets to Le Labo's art of slow perfumery and a glimpse into the world of superyachts at Winch Design, the LCW 2021 has an itinerary catering to every taste.

The Indian Connection at LCW 2021

One of the Indian connections at this year's LCW is Darshana Shilpi Rouget's showcase of her wearable art and luxury scarf series — some of which, interestingly, were inspired by her father, the artist Babuji Rajendra Shilpi. A graphic designer, artist and collector, Darshana's Atelier Alba Amicorum (located in London’s historic quarters of Belgravia) will remain open to visitors throughout LCW where she will personally present her limited-edition series made in collaboration with the May Ray Trust. Heavily influenced by the Indian miniatures and ancient arts, Babuji Rajendra Shilpi’s (1927-2016) practice was defined by its minute detailing, rich colour and a vivid celebration of Indian life in all its contradictions. One of Amicorum's scarves, titled Indian Carousel, aptly captures Babuji’s zest for Indian forms. Originally painted using gouache in 1943, the Indian Carousel depicts his observation of Indian society prior to independence. The horizontal narrative draws on Jain and Buddhist paintings, and concludes with a vision of India at peace. Printed on fine silk, this scarf can be both worn and framed.

Speaking to us from London, on the eve of the LCW, Darshana says her father has been her lifelong inspiration. “I find his work has spontaneity while also being very detail-oriented. I admire the versatility of his style, especially his abstract and surrealistic paintings. He always had a story or an idea to share through his art,” she explains. “Technically, his brushwork is stunning and his use of colour, while bold, is still terrene and calming. The use of negative space or the handling of the background in his compositions is well-considered.” One of Babuji’s quirks was that he tucked in a small self-portrait in most of his paintings as a form of personal signature, perhaps to remind viewers that the artist was an observer but also the one being observed. “Small touches like these about his work still delights me,” laughs the proud daughter. Her father’s original paintings are no longer available to buy, but, as she points out, “I could offer them through scarves.”

The Gandhian Connection

A lesser-known contemporary of MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta and other post-Independence artists, Babuji Rajendra Shilpi was a multidisciplinary man whose broad range of interests spanned textiles, furniture design, architecture, jewellery and even handicrafts like toy-making. As the honorary director of the All India Handicraft Board’s Educational Toy Centre (from 1958 until approximately 1964), he developed concepts and designs for toys as a learning aid. He went on to run one of the most successful toy factories in India. “As a young man, he took part in Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom movement,” informs Darshana's mother, Hemlata Shilpi who is also an artist and was one of the few Indian women to study Fine Arts at Boston University in the mid 1950s. ‘Many of his paintings documented events or envisioned this struggle for independence. One of which still hangs at Mani Bhavan (Mahatma Gandhi’s former residence in Bombay, now a museum). He would secretly distribute hand-painted pro-independence leaflets with cartoons and had narrowly escaped arrest.”

The Shilpis are a family of artists including Darshana's brother Ajit Shilpi who works as an architect in Mumbai. “Art and all aspects of our lives were united as one. Our parents involved us in all their creative projects. We tagged along, visiting painters, sculptures, musicians, dancers and the workshops and studios, watching, listening, learning, and often participating,” recalls Darshana who founded Alba Amicorum (Latin for 'book of friends') with the idea to make art wearable — to free art from the frame and bring it into the fluid fabric form, as she puts it. “When I started Alba Amicorum it seemed natural to include my father’s work,” says Darshana who had previously worked as a creative director in New York for 20 years. “When I moved to London, I wanted to continue to bring together like-minded creatives, with Alba Amicorum providing a salon environment for nurturing a community of artists. I wanted to do something, not about the brand or me but the art and artists—a studio of collaborators, if you will – which is the core of Atelier Alba Amicorum.”