Designs to revive the traditional weave
This is not the first time it’s happening – earlier too, the prima donnas and primo uomos of the Indian fashion industry have joined hands with...
From adopting weaver clusters to unveiling exclusive creations, designers have pulled out all the stops to reinvent and showcase the Banarasi weave
This is not the first time it’s happening – earlier too, the prima donnas and primo uomos of the Indian fashion industry have joined hands with grassroots weavers to spin couture magic and revive dying textiles. Be it the Paithani from Maharashtra or the Pochampally from Andhra Pradesh or Kanjivaram from Tamil Nadu, individual, designers have picked their favourite to create remarkable collections that showcase the handcrafted fabrics in all their glory.
Nonetheless, this is certainly the first time a select group of the country’s best-known designers have pooled in their creative energies to catapult the fantastical gold and silver Banarasi weave to the international runway. Couturiers like Ritu Kumar, Ritu Beri, Anita Dongre, Rina Dhaka, Krishna Mehta, Gaurav Gupta, and Varun Bahl, among others, have stepped in to identify and restore forgotten motifs, source fine handspun silk from the countryside, and establish a marketing chain.
In fact, they recently showcased some exquisite outfits made from the ancient weave during the Lakmé Fashion Week Winter/Festival 2015 in Mumbai.“I want to revive the fabulous tradition of gold and silver weaving of Banaras through my designs, to make a comeback to mainstream fashion.
Banaras weaves are almost like a monument worth preserving, like none other in the world,” says Ritu Kumar, the 70-year-old Delhi-based designer, who is known for her revivalist projects centred around the traditional crafts and textiles of India.
Today, Varanasi, the ancient holy city situated on the banks of the River Ganges, is home to more than 1,00,000 handloom weavers, while the region, which includes the small towns of Bijnor, Barabanki, Mubarakpur, Ramnagar, Lohta and Kotwa, has 45,000 active looms. Although they mainly spin rich Banarasi saris, there have been some efforts to expand the product base to dresses, furnishings and fashion accessories as well. The annual turnover of this home-based industry is Rs 400 crores.
Unfortunately, over the last few decades, the hardships faced by the talented Banarasi weavers, not unlike their counterparts elsewhere, have been mounting steadily, something that is clearly reflective in their fast dwindling numbers – till as late as 2009 there were nearly 3,00,000 weavers, though now they are less than half that number.
Several factors have led to their decline which, incidentally, started way back with the rise of the British Empire. Motifs such as badaam (almonds), kairi (mango), the shikargah (hunting scenes) and various stylised floral buti’s (flower clusters) were replaced by rosettes and more geometric patterns, essentially influences gleaned from British designs.
Apart from that, the raw material and technique too, underwent a decided transformation. Indian silk gave way to gleaming reams from China, instead of pure gold and silver zari, its plastic counterpart became the thread of choice and later even the weaving technique was altered. Consequently, the Banarasi sari, once known for being soft and luxurious, became stiff, rough and remarkably plain.
Now it is time to reclaim the lost heritage. Not only are designers making concerted efforts towards identifying weavers that are familiar with the 400-year-old original weaving method, they are also sourcing handmade yarn from the long-established silk centres like Bhagalpur in Bihar and other small towns in neighbouring Jharkhand.
All this hard work and attention to detail has not gone unnoticed. Change in attitude of the customers is already noticeable. Another Delhi-based fashion guru Tarun Tahiliani, who is well-known for his bridal wear and is a self-confessed aficionado of the Kanjivaram and Banarasi, shares, “I’m definitely seeing people, including my own wife, going back to wearing handlooms.
As part of my design house, I have created a separate line called ‘Help Our Heritage’ under which we use native weaves with some of our signature detailing so that we can promote the work of local weavers and make sure they have access to wider markets.”
Indeed, proper marketing can make a world of difference. “Our aim is to throw the spotlight on the weaving tradition of Varanasi. This will, in turn, ensure the continuation of the legacy and much-needed monetary benefits. Even as power looms remain functional, we want to make sure that our handloom legacy and culture is protected,” says Mumbai designer Anita Dongre, who has been teaming up with handloom workers from states like Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra for her label, Anita Dongre Grassroots.
Delhi-based designer Rinku Sobti, who has adopted the Bajardiya weaving cluster in Uttar Pradesh and showcased her latest collection, Tassels, at the Lakmé Fashion Week says, “Through the Ministry of Textiles, I have been working closely with the Banarasi weavers for eight months now and find them extremely receptive to incorporating any suggestions or changes to their designs. Most of them are ready to experiment.”
Nonetheless, the foremost challenge before them all is to find a way to woo young fashionistas to pick up the rich and often expensive weave. According to Ritu Kumar, “The Banaras weaves are heavy and don’t come cheap. So they can’t be used on daily basis in the traditional form. Whereas people are willing to pay the price for quality, in order to attract the young, designers will have to give it a contemporary spin.”
Like her contemporaries, Mumbai designer, politician and social worker Shaina NC, best known for her designer saris, is committed to bringing back the Banarasi. She says, “This entire initiative of reviving Indian textiles, especially the Banarasi, is more of a way of giving back to society, where designers give back to the artisans.”
By:Surekha Kadapa Bose