Rupa Trivedi is the founder of Adiv Pure Nature, a social enterprise based in Mumbai that creates artisanal, hand-dyed organic fabrics. With no knowledge of organic fabrics or natural dyes, Rupa educated herself in both realms, creating a business that draws clientele like internationally renowned labels Eileen Fisher and Anthropologie. In a decade, she has built a sustainable fashion brand known for artisanal textiles and a commitment to reducing the carbon footprint in an industry that has been criticized for encouraging conspicuous consumption.
The sustainable fashion movement was pioneered by clothing manufacturers Patagonia and ESPIRIT in the late 1980s. The leaders of these companies had a strong connection to nature and the outdoors, and had the integrity to examine if their practices were consistent with their values. They led the way in sourcing materials and production methods that were more environmentally friendly. These also took a stand advocating for quality merchandise that would stand the test of time, rather than promoting never-ending seasonal purchases.
The inherent nature of fashion is that it is trend-based and therefore constantly changing. Thankfully, consciousness has evolved such that while styles and colors may change, sustainable fashion practices are increasingly a baseline requirement for buyers. By and large, today's consumers care about how clothing is produced, and are aware that organic fabrics and natural dyes can combat air pollution, water pollution and overall climate change. Indeed, Rupa credits a desire to connect with nature and natural materials as the impetus behind developing her unique sustainable fashion line.
Adiv is Rupa's "second act:" she and her husband, both engineers, have a family business designing and manufacturing ultrasonic instruments. In this intimate conversation with Rupa, she shares the circumstances that were the catalyst for creating her homage to nature, color and empowerment. Rupa also reveals her inspirations, including an "empty nest", the Goddess Lakshmi, Paulo Coelho, and a belief in the mythology of rural artisans.
Rupa credit's Adiv's success to the artisans she brought together--who are also self-taught. The company's flagship initiative is the Temple Blessings Project, which gathers floral offerings from local Hindu temples and recycles the colorful blossoms into dyes. Petals from marigolds, coconut husks, hibiscus, and roses are used to create hand-dyed silk and cotton textiles made by handweavers from Maharashtra, Bengal, and Maheshwar.
I know you'll enjoy Rupa's story of bringing her dream to fruition. In telling the story of Adiv, she offers insights into India's culture, as well as shines a light on themes universal to us all, such as a need for connection with Nature and each other!
Temple Blessings Project
Meg: Your flagship project is “Temple Blessings” in which offerings at local Hindu temples—including marigold, coconut husk, hibiscus, and rose—are recycled into dyes and materials. How did this idea come to you?
Rupa: Adiv was born out of my desire to connect to my own creativity and to nature. Unlike the open and picturesque rural countryside urban Mumbai is challenging. Our pace is relentless and there is little opportunity to connect with nature let alone the privilege of open space and free flowing water. It was a huge challenge as I embarked on this journey!
From the feet of the Gods, these flower blessings bring in an aura of serenity that we transfer onto the cloth like beautiful poetry. The Temple Project aimed to create a dye palette that is 100% based on recycled temple waste applied in a scientifically controlled manner to achieve beautiful textiles with excellent fastness properties.
Sustainable Fashion Inspired by Ganesh and Navratri Festivals
Adiv and its Temple Blessings project are pioneers in this craft and its aesthetic. Ours is a small but unique example of sustainability. We have not only recycled the flowers but also implemented organic composting of the dye wastes by setting up a unique water recycling system at the studio.
It was at this time that I came across info on marigold dyeing. Interestingly it coincided with the Ganesh festival and since I stay by the sea, the immersions of the Ganesh idols along with the offerings which include the flowers took on a new meaning. The days after these immersions were always very disturbing as flowers and half broken idols lay strewn along the shore polluting the water bodies irreparably. It broke my heart.
I began my experiments with the flowers and it was during the Navratri festival (the nine nights Durga festival following the Ganesh festival) that I conceived the idea of the temple offerings. Now I was “pregnant” with the concept of Adiv, and on the sixth day of the festival I went to seek the blessings of my Goddess at the Mahalakshmi Temple (dedicated to the Goddess Lakshmi). It was these blessings of Feminine energy that merged in me and inspired me to walk on this chosen path and the Temple project was born!
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From Sonic Engineer to Social Entrepreneur
Meg: Before founding Adiv Pure Nature, you were a sonic engineer. What led you to go in a new direction?
Rupa: Following an early marriage in 1978 when I was barely 18, in 1982, against all odds, my husband and I set up our business of ultrasonic products. My initial years were completely focused laying the foundations of my family and the ultrasonic business. It was a journey filled with excruciating challenges and unending struggles.
This was also the beginning of my first global exposure as I traveled to State College Pennsylvania for my very first technical training. As time went by, my travels for work frequently took me to Europe where I met and made many friends.
Very often our conversations revolved around some pet subjects like the slums and poverty in India, as well as the overwhelmingly beautiful handicrafts. I was very fascinated by their strong conviction that India was intriguing and definitely overwhelming (most of them had only a tunneled vision based on stories heard). We would always talk about the exquisite handmade artisanal products and their mystical elements. Invariably, there was a unanimous conclusion that India’s artisanal creations are not really about subtlety and consistent quality.
The Allure of Natural Dyes is Unpredictable Outcomes
All through this, however, my fascination with nature was unknowingly making me gravitate to natural dyes, even if it came at a very late stage in my life! When I was 43, my daughter married and moved to the U.S. The vacuum was unbearable and there was an intense need to channel my motherly love and let my passion flow.
As time went by I became acutely cognisant of the human struggle, filled with the harsh challenges of living that really made it much easier to live a mechanical life. These thoughts really fueled my desire to set up a business which could touch the soul of the restless humans we become! I deeply related to the idea that the human quest for inner peace could be fulfilled with nature’s beauty and color. I strongly believed that we needed to turn to nature, its beauty and color as it evokes our senses to look, feel, listen, touch, and smell.
My family business is highly technical and scientific and needs to have predictable outcomes. I believe I am drawn to dyeing, in part, because dye outcomes cannot be entirely predicted and are fluid adventures in collaboration with water. I enjoy creative exploration. This is the opposite of my former work in ultrasonics, which was highly precise and calibrated. Adiv is based on a foundation of solid scientific knowledge and our natural dye formulas are as stable as possible. I enjoy the fluidity of patterns and the joy of untying each textile to see what comes.
Inspiration of Ganeshpuri
Meg: Were there any early life experiences that might have left you with a latent inspiration?
Rupa: I come from an educated Brahmin family based in Mumbai. Visiting temples and taking blessings of many spiritual masters was an inherent part of my early childhood. I remember going frequently with my parents to Ganeshpuri–an ashram village close to Mumbai which is a powerful energy centre. This is a small sleepy hamlet a few hours from home and very rich in medicinal flora and fauna.
I loved participating in the rigorous rituals at the ashram, and felt drawn by the natural environment which was simple yet intense. It was so different from the city. Over the years after I got married, there must have still, in the back of my mind, been an idea of working with nature and handmade things.
I began researching ancient Indian natural dye formulas. I also searched out khadi weavers and other specialized weavers in Bengal. I still had no idea I would become an artisan myself soon, and train others to learn India’s tradition of natural dyes. I suspect the Temple Dye project was somewhere incubating in my mind way back in the Ganeshpuri days.
Though I was actively involved in our family business of high tech ultrasonic industrial applications, I had always dreamt of setting up a business of my own. Most of my friends always perceived me as a rich fancy woman whose family was magnanimous enough to allow me to indulge in my hobby. All believed that the fervor for this hobby would soon die and I would have given up. Nobody believed in me. It was difficult to comprehend ‘Why would a mature woman who has all going well indulge in this irrationality?’
My madly passionate desire to explore something new took over and I began my research for two things: colors and fragrance from nature and a keen yearning to mix essential oils from flowers to blend “love, peace, romance and serenity." Like Paulo Coelho said in the Alchemist 'And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.' This became my motto and my focus and I began my beautiful eventful journey in earnest!
Natural Dyes a Feature of Traditional Indian Arts
I was deeply convinced that an artisan was a true representation of nature and used all that was naturally available in his pristine countryside environment. Like most of us, I sincerely believed in the rural artisan mythology— an artist who lived only in nature and whose art was handed down over centuries by ancestors who evolved the art at every stage! Such artisans evoked images of rural bliss living by a flowing river with green meadows and birds singing melodiously to aid and enhance his work!
Soon I began exploring our country’s rich plethora of traditional arts. I wanted to facilitate artisan work and also became a realistic imperfect mortal! I could never ever have imagined a new artisan without the crown of ancient wisdom could exist, let alone in a city!
In 2006, I aimed to resurrect the ancient and ignored Indian folk art of natural dyes. The 2nd century Ajanta Buddhist caves murals in the Aurangabad district were my inspiration. Consumed by my mad passion and firm belief in the colors of nature, I started small, with 2 pots in a kitchen and one trainee. As the thoughts of natural dying crystalized in my mind I began active experiments in the pantry of my high tech ultrasonic office space, working on the various experiments during my lunch breaks or post office hours. A passion that became an obsession as I delved deeper and deeper into its research.
Adiv's Eclectic Band of Urban Artisans
Meg: You’ve said that the force behind the organization is the hand-dyers themselves. Can you walk us through how you found the Adiv team and tell us a little bit about them?
Rupa: I was soon joined by our eclectic motley of self-taught urban artisans who are the force behind Adiv. This small group of self-taught young adults who come from challenging socio-economic backgrounds in Mumbai and survival was their only goal. As a child I was enamored by the book Oliver Twist and had been passionately keen to work with such destitute children. As I grew up, little did I know that I would provide opportunities to under-privileged women!
At the time, these now-expert dyers had no conscious connection to nature, let alone the Indian textile heritage that is historically theirs. With help of skeletal information from the internet, we began a fascinating journey into the world of natural dyes.
Our talented team of Urban Artisans came from the lowest economic strata of the city. At Adiv, they have discovered a natural home for their latent creativity. These youngsters have embraced natural dyes with supreme enthusiasm despite having little education or technical skill. They have not only mastered the fine art of natural dying but have also reinvented many shibori techniques with their creativity.
What began with two pots in a kitchen has today grown to foster this small but enthusiastic group of young men and women who have become steady income earners for their families. Together we discover beautiful mysteries of the art of natural dying and preserve this traditional Indian craft.
At Adiv we are a family. A family that dyes together and plays together to the tune of nature’s “living colors." I have a deep sense of respect for them and I lovingly call them the “Urban Artisans,” a designation they have strived hard to earn!
Beautiful Souls and Self Made Artisans
Meg: Can you describe a couple members of the Adiv team?
Rupa: Each member of Adiv has such beautiful and soul stirring stories really… Let me share two of my favorites.
Mukhtar…an upstart? A rogue? an unconscious artisan? He is all of this.
Mukhtar came to Adiv at the end of 2007 as quite an angry man who had no ambitions of his own. He was quite an emotional boy. He was barely in his early 20s and seething with many pent-up emotions and a sense of being useless. He was an unemployed motor mechanic who also doubled as a household painter. He was addicted to alcohol and drugs.
Coming to Adiv he found a venue to pour his intensities into creativity. He changed for the better. He became clean and today he is a master dyer. Over the last few years, Dye Master Mukhtar and I have conducted many successful workshops internationally such as STF the Zurich college of Fashion and the Textile Centre in Minneapolis. These workshops have been an amazing learning experience and often our participants are knowledgeable and experienced natural dyers!
Tabassum, aka Tabu, is a master dyer and one of our oldest members, as well as a self-made artisan at Adiv Pure Nature. Her creativity and latent talent bloomed as she worked with nature’s colors. A superb natural dyer, not only has she been acknowledged by Adiv’s buyers globally but has even walked the ramp for a fashion show! Her innovation of the Arashi shibori technique has been renamed as 'Tabu Texture' as a recognition of her talent.
A dedicated worker she was one of the first to come to work as soon as the lockdown was eased in June. It has been very heartening to watch her journey with us as she manifested her strength and bloomed from a very petrified, confused girl to the self-confident, independent woman she is today.
It was a warm summer day in 2009 when Tabu's father, a skilled embroidery master himself, bought a fragile and frightened girl barely 20 something to the Adiv studio. He requested we help his girl, who totally broken and depressed. Her world had collapsed with the dreaded three words from her husband of “Talaaq, Talaaq, Talaaq." Triple talaq is a form of divorce practiced in Islam, whereby a Muslim man could legally divorce his wife by pronouncing talaq (the Arabic word for divorce) three times.
Her husband had destroyed her small world irreparably. She returned to her father’s home with her two boys who were barely toddlers. She was mercilessly left to fend for herself. Her father wanted her to just come to Adiv and be amongst the other youngsters. An illiterate herself, she was very determined to stand on her feet to earn for herself, to fend for herself and educate her two boys. Meek Tabassum grew to become a fiercely independent woman as she gained her financial strength and respectability. Though life was always a struggle, she always relies on her own strength to plough through the challenges as the sole bread earner for her family.
Hindu Myth of Durga and Feminine Energy
Let me share with you a legend from Hindu mythology that depicts the contribution of the feminine energy, depicted as Durga the Mother Goddess. Lakshmi is one of her eight manifestations. Legend has it that the Gods were on verge of a terrible defeat in a long battle against the Asuras (demons) and their leader, the undefeatable Mahishasur who had badly battered them!
They approached the Ultimate Trinity (Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh) for help: On the advice of Lord Vishnu all the gods got together and called upon their innermost powerful energies (interestingly this represented their feminine aspect) to come together and a ray of blinding light burst forth and from it emerged the most magnificent Mother Goddess Durga. She was invoked to fight against evil and teach the language of love.
Durga, along with her eight manifestations, overpowered and defeated the entire army of demons and established peace and harmony in heaven and Earth. It is time for these feminine energies of all humans to come together once more and protect mother earth Nature.
Temple Project Blossoms
Meg: How did you apply your feminine energy to get started?
Rupa: By 2008, the Temple Project became my focus and I began approaching the many temples that dotted my city. I wanted to honor that connection of nature and the temple, and see the blessings carried by the flowers flow into the universe. I know that people can feel the power of nature in our dyed textiles, even if they are not entirely sure what is conveying the emotion. Beyond this, I always want anyone appreciating our work to see that underneath something beautiful is someone’s love, someone’s effort, someone’s heart and someone’s life. However, the inherent business woman in me knew that I had to make Adiv a commercially viable project and set its logistics in a system though organically. It cannot remain a mere passion based on an emotion.
So, began the next leg of my journey. I had presumed that getting these flowers would be an easy job! But no, it was not, and the new challenge began. It was so fascinating that no temple was willing to really give me the flowers. The smaller local ones had too little as flower offerings and were also not willing to give them to me because of the religious implications. I did the rounds of quite a few temples and after a long trudge I finally had a breakthrough in 2009.
A dear friend recommended my project to the world-famous Siddhi Vinayak Temple dedicated to Ganesha. It was the first of the miracles of many! A meeting was set up and I went with loads of apprehensions! This was the most prestigious temple, where the daily offerings exceeded more than 500 kgs of flowers daily. Amazingly in ten minutes of the meeting I was out with an agreement to take the blessed flower offerings and the temple project was formalized! Thus, the Temple Project became a reality!
Re-connection with Ganeshpuri
By the way, almost 30 years later, after the “Temple Blessings" project was pretty well-established, I returned to Ganeshpuri and was reconnected to its energies once again. This area is primarily inhabited by the Adivasi, aboriginal tribal people who were living in India before the arrival of the Aryans in the second millennium B.C. They are largely nomadic but adopted these uninhabited lands as their home and turned farmers.
However, in the last decade financial woes increased tremendously for these farmers who began giving up land to brick factories which was irreversibly destroying the ground soils and impacting the flora and fauna. I was inspired by an idea that we could use this beautiful fertile land to grow some dye plants. As a possible diversification prospect, I wanted to develop another meaningful source of the flowers and herbs. It inspired me to identify a farmer and support him and encourage him to go towards organic growing.
Temple Blossoms Meet Shibori Technique
Meg: I think of India as having very long standing traditions and techniques of dyeing fabrics but I understand that the ancient Japanese art of Shibori is part of your process. What does that technique involve and how did you discover it?
Rupa: Since I had no background in textiles or art, my access to such learning was extremely limited and most of my initial lessons were based on intense research on the internet. My Adiv babies (who are barely educated) and I were totally passionate about learning natural dyeing and the art of shibori to enhance its beauty. I was desperately looking for someone who could teach us too. Around that time someone lent me the book Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now by Yoshiko Wada. At that time, buying books online was a great challenge as there was no access to Amazon, etc. I actually xeroxed the entire book and thus began our experiments with shibori.
Many years later I met Ms. Wada in La Rochelle and related the story to her. She was so touched that she actually gifted an Autographed copy of her book dedicated to my young dyers.
We reinvented many shibori techniques as the talents and creativity of our team took wings and their free spirited interpretation of the traditional shibori techniques like Aarashi, Rusching, Itajime and became some of the standard textures offered to our buyers.
They now came to be known by the names of the dyers who had successfully innovated it. For example, the Tabu texture named after our Tabassum. Mukhtar our master dyer even invented “Mukhtar one litre pipe texture” using a pipe in pipe dyeing technique which also made minimal use of water.
Organic Fabrics But Non-Edible Ingredients
Meg: I understand that Adiv does not use organics that are edible. Can you explain the thinking behind that?
Rupa: All of us are aware that India is a country of a large population which means so many hands for work and mouths to feed! Poverty and hunger makes one aware of the value of anything edible that would feed the hungry and provide nutrition too. As I aimed to make Adiv a viable commercial venture I was totally clear that any dyeing with edible ingredients would take that much away from the deserving mouths to be fed.
The primary aim of Adiv is to create work for the hands and avoid machines to substitute and abstain from using any raw material that could be food and nutrition for the hungry.
Achieving Serenity Through Colors of India
Meg: You have referred to seeking to fulfill the human need for serenity by evoking the senses. What are some of the ways you personally find serenity?
Rupa: I believe that the present time is potentially the most enlightened of all times! As a species we have evolved to the most amazing material and spiritual dimensions. The internet has made the entire globe into a singular world and the humans all around can connect at a unique level. Yet We are becoming more and more singular and moving more into a private solo world.
Despite the amazing modern world of comfort and ease, the soul universally seeks the elusive serenity and the human quest for this inner peace is even more intense. With Adiv’s gifts I have always aimed to fulfill the void with nature’s beauty and color. Nature evokes our senses to look, feel, listen, touch, and smell. This natural synthesis is Adiv, my passion, my work.
So creating magic of these beautiful living colors, thus reflecting the beauty of natural dying and reinventing shibori, an inspiration for our latent creativity.
Even today, it is very important for me to be hands-on as I continue to dye, and I miss it a lot when I am traveling or tied up with the inevitable paperwork of running a business. Sometimes I wake up thinking about a technique or pattern I’d like to try, and it is exciting to go to Adiv to work on it. The dyeing team carries out production, better than I could do myself, actually, but I do work on the development of new ideas and always feel reinvigorated working on the dye floor.
Adiv, Unique and Universal
Meg: People are Culture's tagline is "Celebrating our unique differences and shared human condition." In that spirit, how do you see your work in the cultural sphere as being both unique and universal?
Rupa: Adiv’s work is like a natural extension of the culture and represents our love for nature which has been documented from the Vedic times. Humans have evolved to tremendous levels and in myriad ways yet often our sensitivity is lost. Adiv is love for humans and the environment that heals the world and makes it a better place!! This is universal.
Ours is a small but a unique venture that has come through as a winner through all the trials. It constantly strives to relearn and revive some of these lost treasures of the past that bring immeasurable joy and acknowledgment of nature's infinite gifts. Created in Adiv is a small sustainable world that is a beautiful example of environmental friendliness, a social enterprise for the benefit of its workers and their self-respect.
Rupa on Achieving Connection
Meg: Based on your experience, if you could make one suggestion for readers on a way of achieving connection, what would that be?
Rupa: I think I would say that it was breaking down the walls of so many inhibitions and finding my flow has helped me connect. I believe all of us begin with just flow of love and somewhere we forget to trust this and layer ourselves as insecurities build up. I hope and pray that we can all become positive connectors and connect our dots so that we can make our world a better place! Like your Tagline says, Connecting is the Destination!
I would like to share that I’ve learned that there is a latent creativity and innovative inquisitiveness in all of us that is dormant most of the time as we traipse through life. Adiv was my calling. Having a calling may sound impressive and inspiring but it can be grueling, lonely, frustrating, and overwhelmingly challenging. You can resist, you can question, you can have your doubts–but a calling won’t go away. The calling is going to win, and so it’s best to yield to it and be on your way.
Dream and See the Signs
As a dreamer I have no boundaries. Everything is so possible and it actually is! But even as a dreamer, I am a fragile human artist too!
The initial years of failures, challenges and dejection only reiterated this. Yet walk I did, it was more a sheer grit to hold on to my sanity. Yet there were many signs. I met so many people who were connected to my concept and helped me stay close to my belief in Adiv.
Adiv’s work is like a natural extension of the culture and represents our love for nature which has been documented from the Vedic times.
Ours is a small but a unique venture that has come through as a winner through all the trials. It constantly strives to relearn and revive some of these lost treasures of the past that bring immeasurable joy and acknowledgment of Nature's infinite gifts. Created in Adiv is a small sustainable world that is a beautiful example of environmental friendliness, a social enterprise for the benefit of its workers and their self-respect.
What Is Culture?
Meg: The "People Are Culture" website is based on the notion that while the phenomenon of culture is universal, its meaning is personal. How do you define "culture?"
Rupa: Culture is created by us collectively and encompasses languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, etc and represents our collective identities and memories developed over time to establish meaningful social environments. It arises from tradition which becomes a way of life that is learned. Being transmissive in nature, each generation conceives the cultural practices from the preceding and new elements get added to the previous.
To me culture is like shifting sands. There is the socially relevant culture that encompasses the immediate language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. I would describe that as the embryonic culture ingrained deeply in all of us as a part of our system since birth. There is a shift to a more defined personal culture, which is the conscious adoption of thoughts imbibed more consciously with the intellect. This is what I embrace as my own culture, my way of life and love. Thus Adiv was born as a conscious portrayal of my passion.
Meg: Why does culture matter?
Rupa: It is a way of life that is more defined and gives one the sense of belonging and security. Our behavior, our beliefs, and our values definitely represent the primary aspect passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next. Culture is symbolic communication. Culture is ingrained! There cannot be any existence without it. Having said that, I must also say we constantly evolve culturally.
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Header Image Credit: Tabu and Varsha (left), two of Adiv's main dyers, walking the ramp with models and Rupa Trivedi (right). Photo: Hand in Hand Fashion Show by Asif Shaikh.