Button Masala talks to the soul

Sukol made this tree of lights

Sukol, Derrida and Solitude
It’s been a year that Sukol took his life, and his dreams and ambitions with him. A year in which we discovered his desperation to belong to a society he believed in. A poor Santhal tribal dark complexioned boy in his late teens who stood at 5 feet height had been secretly taking pills to grow tall and fair. No one knew of this. He even had a social media profile where he had posted photos of himself – selfies also. He’s gone and we will never know why he did anything he did. His 8-year-old niece Debosmita (Debi) had howled on learning of his death and said but he was taken to a hospital so why couldn’t the doctors cure him. Many unanswered questions. Sukol left behind a devastated family, and an excruciatingly painful void.

The French Algerian philosopher, Jacques Derrida, credited with the Deconstruction theory wrote in ‘The Gift of Death’ – “We are given over to absolute solitude. No one can speak with us and no one can speak for us; we must take it upon ourselves, each of us must take it upon himself.”

But how do we do so? Through language? Whose language? Is it something that has been imposed on us through a complex system of centuries old traditions? Where was Sukol searching for his speech and solitude?

Santiniketan, by the river Ajoy

Sukol was a Santhal so Bangla, English or Hindi, any language other than Santhali was alien to him. It had taken both our families several years to reach a stage where we somewhat understood each other. His three elder brothers and widowed mother took years to juggle with multiple worlds, though Rabindranath Tagore had created several collaborative opportunities for the local communities to coexist peacefully. Tagore had always insisted that the Santiniketan and Sriniketan educational institutions exchange knowledge, language and expressions.

I met Debi a year after the tragedy, since we were always very close I was dreading the meeting. Apparently, the joyous child had retired into a shell and would rarely laugh. She missed her uncle a lot, would rarely speak of him and everyone was worried for her.

Button Masala workshop participants, Africa. Photo courtesy: Anuj Sharma

Button Masala speaks to Debi
Sukol and Debi would make all sorts of clay dolls, paper flowers and experimental toys to carry back with me. But this time she wouldn’t even draw. She quietly sat beside me and smiled. Just then, my phone beeped a social media notification of Button Masala’s professional page. When I showed it to her, there was a small spark in her eyes. On showing her the Button Masala posts, the lovely child in her suddenly peeped out from a dark cloud.

A typical Santhal mud hut

Immediately, she looked through all the posts exclaiming her favourites. She asked many questions and decided to attempt something right then. Being fully aware of my creative inabilities, Debi figured she would have to take the lead. She ran to her tiny mud hutment and returned with some old sweater part and I searched for some buttons and rubberbands. She made a sample small bag, chattering non stop. Since the tiny phone photos were not enough to satiate her curiosity she said she would come back early morning so I should be ready with more buttons, rubberbands and a larger screen for her to check more.

While we wait for dawn, which is around 5 am in eastern India, lets find out about this mysterious Button Masala.

What is Button Masala?
A joinery technique of creating new garments without stitching, Button Masala is the brainchild of the NID and University of Derby trained designer Anuj Sharma. He strongly believed in turning the user into the creator. With just buttons, rubber bands and fabric Button Masala informs how one can design their own garments. Starting with garments, Anuj gradually experimented with footwear, accessories, furniture, even theatre props.

Only roses, no thorns!

Button Masala has redefined the way we know of fashion and garments. It has taken a close look into the very definition of garments. What if you deconstruct the garment? You will be left with the fabric, stitches, thread, needles and embellishments? For centuries, we wore garments through multiple drape variations of the fabric. Then, came layers of constructs leading to numerous interpretations of the stitched garment. The more we could afford, the more luxurious our garments became. Somewhere, we forgot that the garment is basically for covering the body, we gave it our meaning borrowed from society.

Living without and not having
Growing up in an intensely patriarchal small city of Rajasthan without the patriarch does not make for a childhood one aspires for. The young mother had to barter dreams in her beautiful eyes with harsh reality, she crossed the threshold of her home to pave the way for financial and social independence – something difficult to aim for even in 21st century Jodhpur.

Babloo by Navleen
Many more journeys on roads not taken Anuj Sharma? Photo courtesy: Navleen Kohli, Vashisht

In such difficult circumstances, Anuj remembers growing up with not having, though his mama (maternal uncle) was always present for unconditional love and support. There were times in his childhood when he wanted things which children usually do but not getting them. Without being overpowered by things beyond his control, he always searched for fulfilling his needs with what was around him. That made him tough. That made him fight. That made him understand several versions of void. He discovered the joys of creating with what was available around him. He has attempted to extend this exploratory spirit into Button Masala.

The crux of Button Masala could be summed up as make the most of what you have. Not to fret over things that do not exist. Dare to confront the void if it exists. Decide if you want to fill the void. Make your own meanings. Create your own speech. Express yourself. Find your own solitude. Discover your own peace.

Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite Tagore song was ‘Ekla Chalo re’ – Walk Alone. The lines from the song that matter here are “…Jodi keo kotha na koi, ore o re o abhaga, Jodi keo kotha na koi, Jodi sobai thake mookh phiraye, sobiye kore bhoye, tobe paran khule o tui mooch phute tor moner kotha ekla bolo re…”

Roughly translated it means, “… if no one talks to you, oh you unfortunate, if no one talks to you, if everyone turns away from you, if everyone fears you, then open your heart out and speak your mind all by yourself…”

Slum children gleefully made their own raincoats. Photo courtesy: Anuj Sharma

Dawn breaks with Debi
Debi rushed in at 7 am on an empty stomach. After a quick breakfast, she patiently saw all the Button Masala images on my laptop. She liked the most complicated ones and sketched some of them. Her other uncle Som had managed to find some buttons but we couldn’t find the right rubber bands she wanted so she adapted quickly to the existing ones. She tried out a few from her sketches and photos but wasn’t satisfied with any. Then, she made a longer garment and kept taking them apart. All the while her eyes sparkled.

Not satisfied with my input, we placed a brief video call with Anuj. He spoke in Hindi, she didn’t speak at all. Debi showed him the garment she had made and he guided her a bit. She just kept beaming ear-to-ear. She was so happy that she could endlessly undo and redo that she even made one for her little sister.

With Button Masala one can keep adjusting and adapting. Deconstructing and constructing. It makes one realise that mistakes are not mistakes as there are no real mistakes. That void and happiness exists in our thoughts. That we can create our own hell or heaven. That we can be tall or short, dark or fair, rich or poor, have everything or nothing and yet find voice and solitude. That we have the ability to make our own speech, language, meaning and words.

Depression and the future of Design
To quote the WHO website, “…Depression is a common illness worldwide, with more than 300 million people affected… At its worst, depression can lead to suicide. Close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds.” Today our world stands devastated by large scale destruction, deaths and migrations due to unprecedented violence and climate change: design is under immense pressure to help society connect positively. Can creative initiatives like Button Masala offer solutions? After all it does leave the individual with the powers of transformation of one’s imagination into reality. Button Masala workshops have already reached more than 30, 000 people globally, from refugee camps to juvenile homes.


Button Masala is not only organic as it evolves from the needs of the user, it is sustainable as numerous variations can be made using the same materials, it is recyclable since used fabric, buttons, plastic caps, cups, footwear, furniture or bags can be transformed into something new. It has recently been showcased as one of the world’s 7 most sustainable projects at the ‘State of Fashion 2018’ exhibition in Arnhem, Netherlands, held to “urge to change the fashion system.”

In a country which has just decriminalised homosexuality by abolishing Section 377 and in the world which is searching for gender fluid solution clothing, Button Masala offers a direction to experimentation with existing systems.

Flying high 🙂 Workshop for refugees, Arlov, 2015. Photo courtesy: Anuj Sharma

The famous American designer, Paul Rand had said, “To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.”

Sukol was studying for a Bachelors in Design and was excited that he would soon become a Ceramic Designer. Just before his suicide, he had created sets of mugs for his favourite people including my parents. Sadly, the course he was in included a lot of physics, chemistry and maths which were beyond his comprehension. He was special in many ways. Maybe he would have discovered the layers to speech, solitude and creation if he would have waited a bit more. Maybe he would have… We live in hope, that’s all we have. And, we also have Debi and her new found joy.


Photos taken by author unless credited otherwise.


2 thoughts on “Button Masala talks to the soul

Add yours

  1. Thanku soo much ma’am for bringing this to us in such beautiful manner. M in those days when m stuck with being little too ambitious in my head and end up doing nothing for our ongoing course ‘sustainability’…. Just got inspired to work further towards it!


    1. That’s so satisfying Suyash! I’m sure Anuj would be very happy to know. Please do keep following him. There are other Indian designers whose work will guide you too… like Rahul Misra and Usha Prajapati Vari


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