While obediently following his parents’ dreams of chasing for a medical school seat, a young boy was fascinated by a painter’s brush. Finally, when he talked about his desires, the family threw a canvas before him. Within years he emerged with Raffughar, a new upmarket Kashmir brand, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
More than three decades ago, a little boy would routinely linger around signboard painters and watch keenly how they moved brushes, choose colours and created designs. Now, Wajahat Hussain Rather, 39, is a Delhi-based designer, known more for his label, Raffughar. With specialisation in textiles, Rather is an Associate Professor at Pearl Academy in New Delhi.
Rather has the routine story that almost every second young man in Kashmir has – his parents encouraged him to study science after he passed his matriculation. But averse to become a doctor, he wanted to be a painter.
“Initially I used to sketch portraits and draw paintings. I continued to be rewarded and encouraged at various competitions,” Rather said. His parents had other plans. They would consider his painting and sketching pursuits as his hobbies, at the best, or time-wasting pursuits, to the worst. “My elder brother is an engineer and they wanted me to become a doctor.” He had no option but to oblige his parents.
After passing his twelfth, Rather summoned the courage to tell his parents about his painting dreams. “It was a shock for them and initially they were unable to come to terms with it. It was not their fault as we are conditioned to think about professions in a stereotypical way,” he said.
Somehow, he was granted permission. First, he studied painting. Soon, he started pursuing education in design. He enrolled in a Jammu Institute for a degree in fine arts. He specialized in painting and simultaneously spent hours in the library studying art and was engrossed effortlessly in art books. There, he found his mentor, Padamshri Rajinder Kumar Tiku, a renowned sculptor, a Kashmiri migrant Pandit who guided him to reach where he is today.
Rather graduated with a gold medal in painting from the Jammu University. His love for painting metamorphosed into an interest in design. His multicultural background, inquisitive nature and an interest in behavioural science drove his inclination towards a scientific approach to design; the latent potential in whose realization his guide played a pivotal role.
“He invited me to his home and introduced me to his library,” Rather said about Tiku. “He gave me all the literature I needed and provided the guidance and encouraged me to prepare for the National School of Design (NID), in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.”
In NID Finally
While Rather was studying painting he felt the objects he created lacked use. In the art school, it was more about aesthetics and philosophy, he said. Instead, he wanted to create products.
“It has partly to do with my innate curiosity and the fact that I come from Kashmir which is known for beautiful textile crafts world over,” Rather said. This, he insisted, was acknowledged by Tiku, his mentor at the Institute of Fine Arts in Jammu.
But he still had to confront strange questions at the extended family and the society level. “Will you become dyer, weaver, or a tailor?” people used to ask him. He said it discouraging as people made their own attribution, traditional verbal creativity that Kashmir is historically known for. But he decided to follow his heart and appeared for the three-tiered national exam of NID.
Parvaaz: Birds of Paradise
Collection Parvaaz signifies unhindered flight, a metaphor for achieving one’s ambitions. It celebrated the myriad forms of birds found in Kashmir. “Freedom of flying has always inspired as well as fascinated me,” Rather said. “Birds cannot be caged. They can traverse difficult geographies. The same holds true for humans, who hold the immense power to overcome life’s challenges. This collection is a tribute to human freedom”.
Hakeemo: The Healer
A zero-waste sustainable range by Raffughar as it believes in reusing and recycling to the fullest. Hakeemo collection was aimed at repurposing textile waste and use upcycled fabric.
Tarakh Maal means star constellation patterns. “The wondrous night sky has inspired generations of humans to imagine what lies beyond,” Rather said, adding that the patterns have inspired the Islamic geometric art or Alhambra.
Inspired by Kashmir’s Khatambandh craft, Tarakh Maal collection assimilates that thought by assembling the fragments together into textiles and closely observing the literal, symbolic, and poetic aspects of the craft. India’s 1998 Miss Universe, Sushmita Sen wore from his collection for her web series Arya.
Inspired by Pinjarakari, another Kashmir architectural art form, Qurbat collection weaves the craft of assembling the fragments together into textiles by closely observing the literal, symbolic and poetic aspects of this craft and using techniques that thoughtfully translate them – like patchwork, embroidery, layering and gradation. The motifs too are inspired from the craft; the pohar, rista, muraba, sash etc.
Dastawaiz: Documental Evidence
Rather said this collection is a tribute to the nostalgia, Kashmir’s memories of literature, art and culture. This collection uses calligraphic block printed textures.
“I was new to the designing field and people around me from different places were already in the field and had relatively better exposure and experience,” Rather admitted.
NID, the premier designing school, he said, instilled sensitivity of surroundings in him.
Once he completed his education at NID in 2009, his next goal was to start his own label but financial constraints and responsibilities at home compelled him to take a job as a teacher. Soon, he started teaching at Northern India Institute of Fashion Technology (NIIFT) for two years. Soon he became one of the founder faculties and headed the department at State University of Performing and Visual Arts, at Rohtak, Haryana for four years.
The Raffughar Rises
It was during his final year project at Craft Development Institute (CDI), Srinagar, where he was working with Kashmir’s master soznikaar. They had told him that their forefathers were raffoogars or darners and would mend or ‘heal’ clothes once they got torn or old. It was this thought of “healing clothes” that stuck with him and he decided that whenever he starts his own label, he will dedicate it to the darners of Kashmir.
Hussain founded Raffughar in 2013 and started with Namda rugs and Pashmina stoles. Later in 2018, he expanded and upgraded it into an apparel label.
“It is not easy to set up a label that too which tries to contemporize traditional crafts which already have a market,” Rather said. “When you try to innovate, you have to start from scratch and establish your own identity. One has to fight to get noticed in a crowd of labels that come up every season.”
Lately, titled Hakeemo, Rather launched his fourth collection of mens’ and women wear. It traces its origin to the healers, hakeems and was a result of collaboration with Paiwand, an up-cycling studio. Earlier in October 2018, he exhibited his women’s wear collection Qurbat at the India Fashion Week and Lotus India Fashion Week. He was one of the participants of the First Cut programme for ELLE India and in 2020; Vogue India named Raffughar among top five emerging fashion brands of India.
Rather said the garment is just not a piece of cloth but it carries stories about the place one comes from, stories of the crafts of the Kashmir, and what the designer want to convey.
“It is a piece of art,” Rather said, insisting, as poets use words, he uses fabric to express himself. “My work is based on a deeper study of the ethnography and demography of Kashmir.”
Brand building is expensive. So, Rather continued with the design education as a job to keep his brand floating financially. It eventually paid. In Delhi, Good Earth and Vayu at Bikaner House, keep his collection. India apart, Raffughar label is acknowledged abroad too. He said his clientele is spread across Europe and the Middle East.
Before he comes up with a collection, there is a lot of brainstorming that goes into designing. “Commercial feasibility of the work apart, we decide about the techniques, fabrics and the aesthetics of the collection,” he said. He said he prepares textiles two seasons in advance and works closely with handloom weavers and artisans. “The production is done in small batches, unlike the mass-produced garments.”
Drawing inspiration from nature, culture, and heritage, Rather said he uses them as contemporary design elements. “Kashmir’s and the different dimensions of the Himalayan region’s themes are evident in my collections,” he said, insisting a juxtaposition of the past and the present reflects his work. He defines jis works as “Museum to Barcode,” asserting design does not happen in isolation. It happens through a synergetic and collaborative approach, instead.
“I want to collaborate with people and give due credits to the artisans and skilled people of Kashmir who are a very important part of the design thought process,” he said. This is how he foresees Raffughar rallies forward with DNC (Design, Nature and Crafts) as its motto.
“I value knowing the touch, the weight, the hand, the smell, and the colour of the materials I use,” Rather said. Craft develops your ability to work with your hands and transforms the knowledge in your body of how you play with the materials. This is an intimate knowledge and can be fun.”
Raffughar’s ideology, he said, revolves around studying traditional silhouettes and translating them into contemporary clothing.