Please tell us about yourself

Textile artist and naturalist Medha Bhatt has worked with environmental organizations in developing solutions toward zero waste and has worked to empower women through training programs in reusing of discards. Her own label, First Forest, considers discarded materials as a resources for creating innovative and aesthetically rich handmade products.

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How does your work benefit the community?

“With the current issues of climate change confronting every part of our planet, she believes, sharing efforts made by individuals can strengthen the campaign of conserving resources and biodiversity,” said professor Santanu Majumdar. “Medha will be sharing her journey and experiences of working in the area of sustainability and innovation, and have interactive and insightful discussions with the students as well as faculty and staff. This exchange of ideas holds great significance in developing a road-map for a greener tomorrow.”

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

My mother and my uncle had a strong creative influence on me. The fascination with art started early at our village in Gujarat — we would take fun rides with my uncle to a place where cattle drank water. My cousins I used to bathe there in the same tanks! These vacations in the village were quite contrary to life at Pune. I was inclined toward everything cultural and colourful.

“The focus of sustainability probably runs in my veins as my mother has been an energetic upcyclist all her life. Further, during my design education years, I spent many months in rural salt pans of Gujarat where I saw and studied the sustainable way of life of traditional tribes amidst dearth of basic resources. I grew up reading Gerald Durrel, and Jane Goodall has been my guiding star,” Bhatt said. “My early professional years were spent with a group of environmentalists fighting against pollution, poison farming and urban waste. Many walks through forests where the bird numbers have dwindled, strolls through rice farms where the butterfly populations have been wiped out, brought a deep sense of pain and concern. Creating awareness about effects of pollution on biodiversity seemed to be an utmost priority. Hence, bridging sustainability and biodiversity through art began as a passionate attempt to address issues of environment.”

What did you study?

I did my BA in Textile Design from National Institute of Design. Passionate about doing something for the villages, I graduated from NID as a textile designer. I worked at Thanal, Kerala on the Zero Waste Kovalamproject for couple of years.

Zero waste Kovalam is a part of a world wide initiative, focusing on reducing waste. Since Kerala is a travel destination, waste production is a big problem.

One day I saw a banner in an exhibition about Kovalam Zero Waste Program done using cloth waste; without thinking twice I joined. We asked tailors to give us the waste material instead of burying it on the beaches. We trained women to make craft products with the collected waste.

Intrigued by Jane Goodall’s idea of living in a forest I started FirstForest as an ode to art & nature.

What does ‘design’ mean to you?

Design as a form of creative thinking began with early humans. It was an approach of holistic thinking with people and their environment at its epicentre where they created products from materials in nature, which had a short span of life. Today, design to me represents, initiating dialogues in society about the environment by studying our past and making it relevant for the future through not only product innovations but also developing design methodologies at grassroots and creating innovative means of communication. Nurturing a deep sense of love for the forests has evoked a unique synergy of ecology and design in my work. Design has laid strong foundations in my understanding of conserving traditional knowledge systems embedded in the cultural traditions of indigenous communities.

How did your education at NID shape your outlook in the world of design?

Many childhood vacations spent in the villages of Bhavnagar exposed me to the cultural, literary and historical aspects of rural life. My education at NID equipped me with various tools and perspectives to understand these socio-cultural aspects through keen observation, study and practice. In the absence of Google, Pinterest, and Instagram, I evolved a world view of design, art and aesthetics through books, magazines, films and interactions with teachers, visiting artists, designers and professionals from various walks of life from the world over. My graduate diploma project The Gardens of the Rann at Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, Bhuj enlightened me about the importance of preserving and conserving cultural identities and how design interventions can play a pivotal role in empowering and uplifting communities and their material culture.

How did First Forest come about? What is its driving philosophy?

My graduate diploma project in Kutch focused on traditional appliqué textiles of Rajput communities that are created from their old traditional garments. The seeds of First Forest lay here. After graduating from NID in 2000, I was fortunate to work with the Zero Waste Kovalam Programme formulated by Thanal in Thiruvananthapuram. I formed the Patchworking Womens Lives Initiative to empower women of this impacted coastal community of Kovalam through innovations in product development and imparting training in design methodologies and building awareness about market research. In 2009, I established First Forest with the focus of up-cycling tailor discards into art and craft products. I began developing design strategies to address this problem of wastage starting with my neighbourhood. Quality and quantity of discards dictated production processes. Cornflakes boxes were woven into refillable notebooks, plastic bottles with paper mache became pencil holders, discarded knick-knacks like beads, buttons, wires were handcrafted into jewellery and fridge magnets. Discarded fabrics were up-cycled into furnishing products and accessories. I began designing products that catered to all economic strata of society, focusing on the functionality and economical pricing of the product.

What are the most exciting aspects of working in the design field?

The strong relationship I share with environmental groups at the grassroots level has always motivated me. My workshops with under-privileged women are always challenging in the beginning when one has to break barriers of communication and creative expression. I always consider each of the participants as unsung heroes with stories to tell. Each scrap of waste fabric finds a new meaning in their stories, transforming the products into works of art and them into artists. To witness this gradual transformation has always overwhelmed me and has in return, instilled a sense of identity, pride and strength in their lives. Most of the commissioned works done by First Forest are created on a strong foundation of trust. Unlike in other design fields where the client has absolute clarity of the end product, the anonymity of a sack of waste fabric always renders an element of surprise. Hence, it is essential to get absolute clarity on the brief and explain the unique nature of working with fabric discards to the client. First Forest products hold me in a sense of awe after following its journey from scrap to its completion into a work of art. This also illustrates its singular uniqueness and renders it nearly impossible to replicate.

Any words of advice for those who’d like to enter the industry focusing on a niche market?

Design is about being simple, honest and ingenious. It is also about reinterpreting design as frugal, of impermanence, of socio-cultural value, of economic efficiency, ecologically viable and which conserves biodiversity. Our competitive spirit and individualism in the fields of art and design should not hamper our values of compassion and solidarity for forming collective bonds to address environmental issues. Those who wish to enter the design industry need to widen their horizons. I conclude with Jane Goodall’s words, “We have the choice to use the gift of our lives to make the world a better place – or not to bother.”