Skillstourism — how this Australian couple is striving to put Mysore on the craft map of the world

Jubin Mehta     posted on 26th September 2016

“We’re not here to take over the world or create some dent in the universe,” Varis Lux tells me over a phone call we got on to discuss Slow Tech and his explorations with Skillstourism. An ex-navy personnel, Varis has travelled the world and had come to India as a traveller many years ago, marking the beginning of his fascination with the crafts that exist in the country.

Time flowed and a lot of water passed under the bridge. The navy takes a toll on the human body and mind, whichever country you represent. Varis moved on from the navy and there was a period of unemployment when he and his wife Catherine started thinking about life and the things they could do in the future. The idea of working with the body and nurturing the innate human desire of creating something with the hands resonated with them, planting the seed for Skillstourism.

Catherine’s longtime experience as a travel agent and her understanding of hospitality management helped the couple merge their skill sets to build the initiative. “Our combined dream is to provide an escape plan that is reproducible by happy dreamers everywhere, people wanting to leave their gridlocked lives behind and proceed towards their full potential as human beings, citizens of the planet, and in sync with their inner creator,” believe the duo. They say that one of the ways to make this happen is to start by making something with your hands and then make it a livelihood.

Tryst with India

“I started dreaming about a sort of skills training boot camp, where anybody could get away from it all and just for a short time have a break and concentrate on learning a skill — a holiday, actually,” says Varis. Accordingly, he came up with the motto Travel * Learn * Create. Meanwhile, Catherine was diligently working away as a travel agent, witnessing the rise of adventure tourism and the explosion of all kinds of niche holidays.

“People were asking for things like helping out in an elephant orphanage in Thailand, or travelling overland in home-stays in Mongolia. People wanted to have more connected, immersive, and conscious holidays. They were not satisfied just with sightseeing and taking photos; they wanted to become involved with their head and their heart,” says Catherine. This hunt led them to India in 2013 and here, they saw people making stuff on a daily basis. So much handwork was going on! “We were overwhelmed by the multitude of sincere and humble people taking pride in making things from the simplest bucket to the most ornate puja-mantap,” says Varis. This was when the realisation that this was the India they want to show their Western friends dawned upon them…

Another thrilling discovery was that upcycling is a part of life in India. “We saw that old oil cans were flattened and made into steel trunks, rebar was being made into horseshoes, waste wood was being cut into slivers and shapes and formed into beautiful paintings. So many people back home are interested in how to practically reduce consumption,” says Varis. The duo saw great opportunities in India and zeroed in on Mysore as their base owing to its rich heritage and good weather.

Skills + tourism = a more fulfilling holiday

skilltourism_client“All we have to do is connect the traveller with the artisan, and learning with leisure. The big thing was that this was something more than any instructable video on the net could deliver — this was real training in a real workshop, holding real tools, with a real instructor,” says Varis about their initiative.

Be it yoga, cooking, metalworking, textiles or anything else, the duo started designing eight, 12, and 24-day packages of daily crafts in the morning and activities in the afternoons or evenings. Weekends would be free to do some sightseeing further afield or just relax.

Registered in Australia and in the process of formally setting up shop in India as well, Skillstourism has been operating since early 2016. Their philosophy is that creativity is the essence of being human. Everything falls into place when we are making beautiful things for the pleasure of others or our own selves, or practical things that help others, or even playful things to amuse others. This helps us to become balanced, personally as well as on a community level. In terms of the traction, the initiative is only picking up and travellers are coming onboard to see what Skillstourism has to offer.


An outside perspective

Skillstourism is an interesting play on how the world of automation is shaping up. The world of manufacturing and other sectors as well are quickly moving towards centralisation. In a future  where most things will be automated, what will humans do? For the core of humankind, work on the self is very important and initiatives like Skillstourism are thinking on these lines.

When we speak of India as a whole, an automated world seems like a distant possibility as even  basic needs are not being taken care of. Cities are crumbling under the weight of urbanisation but capitalistic pressures still force India to move to make smarter cities instead of smarter villages. Amidst all the euphoria of ‘development’ in the traditional sense, it is good to have alternative voices.

As of now, there are a lot of foreigners from western countries coming to India to set up conscious initiatives, which is understandable considering they have seen the effects of rapid capitalism. A lot of Indians are also realising the flipside and are moving in a more conscious direction where we keep a check on growth at all times. Skillstourism is one of the representatives of this conscious voice which points towards taking things slow and being conscious of our actions.

Exploring Traditional Skills in Mysore Part 1 – making flower garlands | Multimodal Me

My first trip to India, some 30 years ago, was a backpacking experience: three months that began with a few weeks on a houseboat in Kashmir, several bus trips across the north east to Manali, Dharamshala and Macleod Ganj, time in Delhi before a train trip to Nepal to trek the Annapurnas, returning for the Taj in Agra and a visit to Pushkar via Jaipur. Exciting and exasperating, India is a place of mystery and magic.

This time I spent an immersive two weeks in Karnataka: primarily in Mysore, but also visiting Hampi and Bangalore with Skillstourism, to learn traditional crafts. My main focus was block printing fabric, but I also took flower garland making and basket weaving lessons. Whilst the holiday and total tourist experience far exceeded my expectations, this post (first in a series of three) will focus on my time as a student and reflect on the different learning strategies used by my teachers.

My first Mysore morning began with a crisp red apple and cup of tea on a balcony of the Metropole. I watched a small squirrel scurry across tree limbs as the traffic horn chorus began. Later, Catherine, principal and host of Skilltourism, introduced our driver and we stopped to purchase flowers from a street stall on our way to the garlanding class.

I chose blooms for their colour and size, not understanding the process to be undertaken. ‘Be ready’ is an important strategy at Moss Vale High to prepare students for learning – this may involve a verbal link to previous lessons, sharing a model, and an outline of learning intentions.

We arrived at our teacher’s home, and Saraswati completed preparations for the lesson – woven floor mates, cushions, a small bowl of water, reels of cotton thread and flower scrutiny. Separate piles were made and some head shaking occurred: with limited English, we communicated through hand gestures and facial expressions, with an occasional translation from her busy daughter who was also staffing their clothing shop attached to the side of the house. Saraswati gestured for us to sit, and then her position opposing us.

I focused intently on her demonstration, and copied her movements by lining up flowers in my left palm, wetting thumb and forefinger of my right hand before dampening cotton then twisting and looping knots. It all seemed achievable, although tension became the key element that would hold the garland together.

It took many, many tries before I realised that Saraswati’s actions needed to be reversed, and I giggled. I recalled my adult tap dancing lessons where the instructor showed each step slowly, but also while facing us. It is much more difficult to learn a practical skill that is being demonstrated in this manner. This made me more cognisant of my own teaching practice: I demonstrate writing on the whiteboard (back to class) and begin on the left side and write to the right – as I expect students to copy. Moving among students and giving praise and suggestions also builds confidence.

Even with an improving practice, it became obvious that this method of garlanding is quite time consuming, so we switched to the use of needles that quickly progressed the length of garland achieved.

Saraswati also demonstrated another method,

and I stretched out my left leg and looped cotton around my big toe. 

Although I felt quite confident in the skill I was developing, the burgeoning garland fell apart once tension was released. Another hilarious moment. Obviously, much practice was needed, and Saraswati made it clear that she had learned this skill as a young child from her mother, and continued developing her abilities over many years.

My challenge as a teacher is to encourage and remind students that when writing, a first draft is not an end product, but rather a first step that requires practice and revision to be crafted into a satisfying final version.

 Exploring Traditional Skills in Mysore – Part 2 block printing fabric | Multimodal Me

The main focus during my Curious Artisan Tour with Skillstourism was fabric printing using traditional methods and wood blocks. I planned on spending four of my seven days on this activity, but through the skill and assistance of Ravitej who mixed colours, Khan who demonstrated the process and gave thoughtful advice on patterns, and Varsha who prepared delicious snacks and lunch on the first day, I actually finished a day early and chose to spend a rest day by the hotel pool.

I prepared for these workshops by purchasing and pre-washing fabrics in Australia, though I later found the Skilltourism personal shopping trips made fabric buying a delight. I also took two sewing patterns so I could print borders for specific dresses. This was an interesting process for Khan and Kanchana, who owned the studio space and operated a tailoring business nearby. It was a delight to discuss sewing with her, and I was fortunate to visit her workshops where traditional embroidery was being sewn on simple Singer machines, and watch the process of creating beautiful embroidered buttons being made.

Each day, I was met at my hotel by Catherine and our trusty auto-driver, Srinivas, at 9.30 to head toward the workshop. Sometimes we travelled directly, sometimes there were errands to run on the way and this added to my enjoyment of Mysore and the daily workings of this vibrant city. Arriving in an integrated suburb of Muslims and Hindus, we usually parked behind the painted pink police station and greeted locals who are often doing chores – sweeping and washing – on their doorsteps. The workshop itself was two large rooms, accessed up a set of narrow stairs. The Indian-style toilet was located downstairs, past a small room where Fairoz worked with dyes and bolts of fabric.

I shared my fabric printing experience with Karla, a fellow Australian, and Catherine was initially on hand to introduce us to our teachers and facilitate our understanding of the process and practice. This made the workshops fun as we discussed block choices and colours, each making selections for our first attempts at printing. Later in the week, I worked alone with Khan and Ravitej.

As a learning process, my teachers had varying levels of English, but made their instructions clear through demonstrations and simple phrases. Ravitej spoke English well, as did Kanchana and Varsha, but Khan made himself easily understood with words such as ‘push’, ‘here’ as he pointed and simple praises ‘good’ and expressions such as ‘ah’.

After mastering the basic technique of applying paint to a block and pressing, we moved onto the trick of printing around corners. It proved to be an easy method of printing over newspaper folded into a triangle.

We set about learning how to stretch and pin fabric onto the large padded table before printing on practice cloths, then moved to stamping tote bags and later decorated scarf length fabric – all supplied by Skilltourism. This means anyone attending even a one day workshop could complete and take home finished articles.

Next, I worked on a borders for a length of fabric to make into a simple princess line dress.

My next project was to trace patterns pieces onto stretched black cotton/linen fabric

before printing a border on the skirt, sleeves and collar

For my final project, a reversible wrap-around dress, I spent an enjoyable afternoon searching for lining fabric. This gave me the colour pallet to compliment my navy cotton. With colours mixed to match, and after tracing the pattern pieces, I again printed borders using an upturned cup as a spacer. 

Without realising, I had chosen leaf blocks to match the lining fabric that were ‘doubles’. This meant I could overprint the first colour with a contrast. This was, I thought, a next-level skill, but Khan assured me it was easy enough to master. I’m so pleased I took his advice! He also suggested the quicker method of transferring the pattern pieces by simply chalking a dashed line – quick and effective.

After drying, the fabrics were ready to fold neatly and pack away in my luggage. Back at home, it was a simple process to iron the printed fabrics, wash and re-iron to cut out each piece and sew my frocks. 

I am very pleased with the finished garments, and have received many compliments. On my next trip, I plan to purchase locally produced khadi cotton fabric and create different outfits.