Urmila Upadhaya Garg

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Nepal
Fellow Since 1989
This description of Urmila Upadhaya Garg's work was prepared when Urmila Upadhaya Garg was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1989 .

Introduction

Urmila Upadhyay Garg, one of Nepal's foremost artists and almost certainly it's leading textile designer, proposes to create an advanced Textile Institute that would institutionalize and spread her repeated successes in improving the country's textile techniques and in introducing new but culturally sensitive product lines.

The New Idea

Urmila is devoting her considerable talents to two goals - giving poor women a chance in life and helping her country develop an independent, successful, culturally true textile capacity.She has already launched the Nepal Creative Art Trust. It gives it's disadvantaged students skills that will give them independence while also building a high standard of skill to underpin the country's traditional crafts. She takes in poor rural women for a three year course in all design and production aspects of textiles and ceramics, including tapestry, rug and cloth weaving, wool and cotton spinning, macramé, knitting and sewing, and dyeing. At the same time she ensures that the women get a solid basic education, When these students graduate she follows up, encouraging them both to take up work and to train others. To help finance the Trust she is now also planning a direct production unit.Having begun this entry level unit, Urmila is ready to take up the next step -- the creation of the Textile Institute. It will train the most able, creative textile designers in the country, including the Creative Arts Trust's most talented graduates. Like the Trust, it will integrate design and production techniques. However, Urmila will expect the Institute and it's graduates to do what she has done as an individual before - provide Nepal's textile workers with new or improved products, innovations true to the culture that will give it both an economic edge and a highly visible element of national identity.

The Problem

The textile industry, so obviously important to Nepal, is overwhelmingly dominated by Indian firms and professionals. There are almost no Nepali designers and virtually no place where they might be trained. Vocational training programs typically operate as production units where trainees copy and reproduce existing designs. The problem is even worse for an apprentice entering a production unit, be it a cottage industry or manufacturing firm. He or she works full time at one aspect of the process, e.g., spinning, weaving, or dyeing. Nor is such an apprentice likely to have access to broader education.Both individuals and institutions are thus left divided into a narrow specialization which seldom permits creative adaptation. It also traps artisans in low-paying, repetitious jobs without the mix of skills necessary to start up on their own.

The Strategy

Urmila is testing and demonstrating new methods of training people - from the most basic entry level recruit through to the most advanced and creative designer. She mixes a rigorous and broad understanding of materials and techniques with design, and adding in basic education and follow on field help as appropriate.Her decision to launch the Textile Institute represents a fundamental strategic step. While still concerned with the individual trainee, Urmila is now setting out to recreate the field nationally. She will end up creating far more jobs, not to mention far greater cultural impact, by giving Nepalese textiles a growing institutional capacity to adapt. Urmila has already shown what a difference even one part time applied designer can make. Whether it is color fast quality sweaters or an array of new macramé products she has introduced, a good many Nepalese workers owe their jobs to her practical creativity.She defines her role and that of the institute quite nationally. She has already been visiting Nepalese textile manufacturers urging them to invest in Nepalese design capacity. She also is very willing to help other institutions. She and her colleagues have given training sessions at a wide range of interested groups. These include the Mother's Club, various schools in the Kathmandu Valley, the Ministry of Labour, and S.W. Tara Biskash Sanitti.

The Person

Urmila's first experience in making textiles was in 1948 when she was brought to Mahatma Gandhi's ashram at Warda for a training and education program. Later she attended the J.J. School of Art in Bombay and the Ecole Nationale Superieure de Beaux Arts, Paris, France. Urmila says her most formative years were those spent in the ashram. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of The Nepal Charkha Pracharah Gandhi Seva Rah Nagagutti, the only Gandhi ashram in Nepal.Urmila has had her own exhibitions in India, Nepal, Canada and France. Her paintings are included in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Montreal, Canada, Paris and Kathmandu collections. Although primarily a painter, she has also exhibited her own photography, textiles, and ceramic work. Urmila recently appeared on a television series on women in Nepal where she was dubbed Nepal's first woman artist.