Meera Dureja, Founder and Creative Director of Banjaaran Studio, shares insights with Business Traveller India on the art of shoe design, entrepreneurship, her inspirations, and the rich tapestry of Indian craftsmanship that weaves through her innovative creations.

Can you share more about your initial experiences in the craft cluster and how they influenced your perspective on design, human needs, and ecological balance?

Craft clusters typically consist of small communities engaging in traditional handicrafts that historically served as expressions of identity, reflecting religious beliefs, personal experiences, and community lineage. This junction embodies the intersection of art passed down through generations and the contemporary utilisation of these crafts. My experience with craft clusters revealed the inclusive nature of design—it transcends societal classes and is deeply woven into our culture. Formal training isn’t a prerequisite for understanding design; it’s an inherent part of our being. When an artisan in a remote village selects harmonious traditional colours or creates small drawings and prototypes, their contribution holds as much significance as designs crafted within large corporate teams. Another pivotal lesson I learned was that traditionally these clusters prioritise environmental impact, historically favouring sustainable materials in our handicraft industry. However, with the advent of urbanisation and commercialisation, there’s been a rise in the use of synthetic materials in many processes.

How did your time as a teacher, particularly working with women inmates at Tihar, shape your approach to design and resource utilisation?

Working at Tihar is one of my most cherished memories and it revolves around celebrating my birthday there. Despite the inmates not having access to a functional kitchen, they ingeniously crafted a delightful cake and snacks for me using raw materials on hand, showcasing their resourcefulness within limited means. This experience profoundly impacted me, inadvertently shaping a fundamental design principle: the ability to create meaningfully even in times of scarcity. It highlighted the power of resourcefulness and ingenuity. It also highlighted for me the therapeutic value of creative processes in high-stress environments and for improving mental health. Teaching basic sketching and illustrating skills to the inmates proved incredibly rewarding as it enabled them to channel their energy into something productive.

What inspired the founding of Banjaaran Studio, and how does it reflect your vision for unique, wearable art?

My journey into shoe design and the inception of Banjaaran Studio unfolded organically. Without formal training in footwear design, my passion led me to immerse myself in the world of traditional artisans. I sought guidance from skilled craftsmen in local workshops and factories once I realised my aspiration to pursue this craft. Seven years ago, I wandered the lanes of old Delhi with a shoe sketch in hand, on a quest to find a leather worker who could transform my design into a tangible wearable product. Little did I anticipate the profound experience that awaited me – witnessing my vision materialise in the practised hands of a 55-year-old shoe artisan. This moment marked my true initiation into the euphoria of product design. This encounter laid the cornerstone of Banjaaran Studio, marking a pivotal moment in my personal and professional creative journey. Banjaaran Studio was conceived as a rebellion against fashion norms by standing out and creating art that could be worn on us at all times. Our brand appeals to those who recognise this artistry in shoes and embrace them as a centrepiece of their unique self-expression. 

As the sole Indian label featured in the Virtual Shoe Museum, how do you see your role in promoting Indian craftsmanship globally?

Our mission is to redefine Indian footwear design by creating exceptional, handcrafted shoes that encapsulate the pride of India and gain the recognition our craftsmanship deserves. In our culture, feet hold immense symbolic significance, revered for their connection to the divine earth. This goes beyond just making shoes; it’s about supporting these marginalised artisans and preserving their long-standing traditions. We’re blending innovation and dedication into every pair we create. Regrettably, the art of crafting handmade footwear is dwindling, overshadowed by the rapid influx of fast fashion and machine-made goods, stripping livelihoods from communities deeply rooted in shoe making. Now more than ever, we want to stay focused on creating products that offer deep emotional attachment to the wearer- something that tells a story of the art and the artisan on a global stage. 

How do you balance timeless aesthetics with the ever-changing trends in the fashion industry?

I see my work as residing at the crossroads of art and design. Drawing from the essence of art, it finds roots in self-expression and the timeless nature of artistic endeavours. On the design front, it remains attuned to the present and contemporary, striving to strike a balance between old and new.  My inspiration comes from diverse influences—art, culture, nature, and often, my creations stem from personal emotions and experiences. These elements form a sturdy foundation upon which I craft my work. Simultaneously, I delve into emerging styles, materials, and colour palettes, gaining insights into current preferences. By harmonising my foundational principles with these contemporary elements, my final designs exude a sense of self-expression while seamlessly aligning with the ever-evolving outlook.