From Heirlooms to HAUTE COUTURE

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Traditional Indian handloom textile is no longer just an integral part of a bride’s trousseau but is being reincarnated by designers into a trendy avatar

The gorgeous Banarasi silk and zari weaves were considered an integral part of every bride’s trousseau and the most iconic of Banarasi weaves – the jamdani, kadhwa, rang-kaat and dampatch particularly, were de rigueur for an Indian woman’s wardrobe. With the passage of time and the advent of fashion weeks in India, the slant of sartorial stylishness shifted strongly away from traditional Indian handloom textiles towards designer garments. Fashion pundits decreed that hand-woven saris were no longer fashionable, which led to the decline of Indian handloom industry in the wake of the power loom takeover. Most of the best, skilled weavers who were capable of creating saris with complex techniques that took months to weave, eventually took up employment in factories or at power looms to keep the kitchen fires burning. For the discerning few, who sought to acquire these hand-woven treasures, the dearth of genuine silks and zari brought with it the realisation that hand-woven Indian silks were soon becoming extinct.


It is true that fashion is cyclical and the, once near obsolete, silk sari is being heartily embraced by the fashion world once again. Concerned about the fading popularity of hand-woven silk, Kolkata-based Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan, who sought to possess the exquisite saris worn by their elders, soon realised that there were almost no feasible sources. The duo set-off on a mission to resurrect and modernise the 400-year old weaves. “We were very keen to recreate works we had seen in the possession of our ancestors. However, it was not all that easy to do that. Finding weavers was not difficult as they are legends in the weaving community. The challenge was to convince them to sit on the looms to create these exotic textiles all over again,” recalls Agarwal. It took five years to make the rang-kaat, a personal favourite of the duo. For them the challenge was to reignite the spark of creating something unique rather than the mundane.

The duo began working on their dream project in 2007 to revive the ancient Banarasi weaves. They brought out their first collection in collaboration with several generation old weavers in 2008. The contemporary handlooms are a fusion of classic patterns with an array of very modern colours and design placements. Each motif conveys a story, set against a backdrop of new hues like peach, teal, aqua and lavender in a marked departure from classic shades like vermillion and rani pink. The line of real zari saris that the designers launched in 2015 was a far more painstaking process as there was no archiving of these weaving traditions. The art stayed in the mind of the weaver and passed down from father to son like a family jewel. There was very less written material available and the designers had to bank upon swatches of vintage textiles, books and museums, locally as well as internationally to understand the woven art forms of India. “Conceiving complex designs and trying to recreate weaves was only possible if the weaver thought it was. The final step for us, thereafter, was to take this beautiful handwoven creation and present it in such a way that it appeals to every modern young woman,” says Agarwal.

The Calico Museum of Ahmedabad proved to be a treasure trove for the pair, both in terms of textiles available as well as books they had printed over the years. The Weavers Service Centre, set up by the Government of India, also provided invaluable help and insight. There were also some passionate collectors of old books and catalogues who came to rescue. The ladies also inherited a lot of textiles from their families and brought them from other patrons who had some exemplaryantique textiles to share.

Equipped with an arsenal of knowledge and samples for reference, the duo set about their objective of reviving the glorious tradition of weaving the most stunning natural yarn silks. “One of the saris we designed, called the ‘Mehrab’, was inspired by the Mughal architecture of the windows in the zananas. The shape of the bootas was inspired by the shape of the windows and the flower in the boota, by the shape of the etchings on the walls,” elaborates Agarwal. Incidentally, this is the same sari that Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai wore for her special luncheon early last year with the French President, Francois Hollande.


Each sari takes a minimum of four weeks (which can extend up to nine months) to weave on the loom depending on the intricacy of the design and number of shuttles employed to create the design. The process includes timeconsuming creation of design on graphs and then punching cards by experts to go up on the jacquard loom. These cards guide the weaver to create the design. After it comes off the loom, a beautiful jaali is created on the pallu with leftover threads of resham from the warp. These silks use the finest quality of mulberry yarn, the jaamdanis require fragile 100 count single ply cotton yarn and the very soft, malleable real zari is used to weave the special tissues. The resultant effect of the natural mulberry yarn is a silk with a very understated sheen and a surprisingly nubby finish from being hand-woven as you feel the uniquely textured fabric with your hands.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make In India’ movement gave an unprecedented impetus to the Indian art. The highly publicised initiative by the visionary Prime Minister has re-instilled a deep pride towards all things Indian amongst people of all ages, in great degree to the indigenous textile sector as well. These silks today are the cynosure of global buyers and media attention alike as they make regular appearances on the runways at various fashion weeks.


The future is certainly looking bright with the weaver, as well as others, creating handlooms and turning them into covetable fashion. Mainstream designers today are embracing handlooms and adding a creative twist to them. The contemporary customer is also gravitating towards organic hand-woven material. Young wearers are adapting them in a new avatar by accessorising their saris with out-of-the box blouses like the cold shoulder blouse, crop tops, sheer organza blouse as well as collared shirts, jackets and boots. Another hugely popular trend being seen is that of the sari gown, wherein a classic sari is transformed into a stunning ensemble with a western silhouette.

Text: Anjali Arjan Vaswani

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