By Marlena Chavira-Medford
Tucked into a garden off Highway 101 is Amba, a cottage-like gallery filled with Indian textiles, arts and crafts. Everything here was handcrafted by artisans who live in India’s remote countryside, where basic necessities like access to clean water can be hard to come by.
Though rural India is a world away from this small gallery in Solana Beach, owner Nirmala Jagannath has found a way to use this space to help improve the lives of those Indian artisans. She is using Amba as a marketplace for their goods, but not in the traditional sense.
“With most imports, the middle-man makes the most profit and the crafter only gets about 2 percent, which keeps them in perpetual poverty,” she said.
But that’s not true at Amba. All of the profits here are invested back toward helping to improve the lives of Indian artisans.
“I go to India and look these crafters in the eye,” said Jagannath, who travels through the country’s rural outskirts at least four times a year, for about a month at a time. “I see to it that these crafters have all the materials they need, and I see to it that the profits are used to bring them out of poverty.”
Jagannath, who grew up in Southern India, has been running Amba for five years. In that time, she’s seen it provide things like more food for families, education opportunities for children, and an empowerment for women who can now make a living.
“These crafts also date back thousands of years. So this is also about preserving a heritage.”
For example, Jagannath sells clothing that has been embellished with designs that were applied by hand using an ancient block printing technique. The result is a beautiful embossment that cannot be mocked by machine — though sadly, this art is dying.
“This is one of the oldest art forms, so it isn’t just about preserving India’s heritage. It’s about preserving the world’s heritage.”
Amba also features coats made from hand-woven wool, and scarves made from hand-woven silks that are dyed with brilliant pigments found in nature, such as pomegranate seeds and lavender flowers. And because India’s cotton is harvested from organic seeds with a lineage that goes back thousands of years, it has a softer, finer texture, Jagannath said.
“These are things you cannot find at the mall,” Jagannath said. And in fact, the gallery is filled with clothing, jewelry, art, linens, bags, carvings, and crafts that are not easily found elsewhere. But perhaps Amba’s crown jewel is its “jacket room.” This area is filled with brilliantly colored quilted coats that have been made from reclaimed vintage cotton saris. These saris were once-upon-a-time used for swaddling babies and lining village huts, but women living in West Bengal take the material and hand-embroider it. Because of that, each jacket is truly one-of-a-kind.
“Each of these is a piece of art,” she said of the jackets. “These people are artists in their hearts, though they are not artists in the sense we think of in this culture. In India, it’s about creating art that is for use.