Looming Horizons

The Indian woman gets a new look with elegant motifs, traditional weaves and reinvented fabrics created by designers exploring their roots. 
Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan
Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan

The glamorous Ivanka Trump conquered the hearts of many at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, but it is India’s handlooms that conquered her heart. She must have been delighted with the Pochampally saris made by weavers in Yadadri Bhongir, Telangana.

The Pochampally’s singularity lies in its ikat design known as patola or chikti, where patterns and colours are delicately imprinted on the warps and wefts after the sari itself is woven.

Ivanka has reportedly flown back with a boxful of handloom saris, which she is expected to wear at the White House some time, which include Bathukammas woven by Sircilla powerloom weavers and a Gollabhama sari distinguished by its  special inlay figure work and motifs. The Gollabhama has even received the Intellectual Property Rights protection.

There are around nine crore weavers and artisans in the country. In a context where tradition and contemporaneity meet on the handloom scene, bespoke weavers are spinning a fascinating story, working with indigenous textile artistes to revive and create magnificent fabrics, lavish saris and chic separates as the world celebrates textile-oriented creations as a return to sustainable fashion.

Swati & Sunaina, Ekaya and Vidhi Singhania infuse extravagance into the world of saris. Haute creations of Abraham & Thakore, Madhu Jain and Shades of India are minimalist and edgy. The Silk Tree and Bageecha are attracting the young and restless with weaves that give them a peppy makeover. With Indian handlooms becoming influencing fashion choices, native textiles craft the future with journeys into the past.

Anika Gupta Bageecha, Delhi

USP: To retain the essence and classical traditions of Varanasi through a fresh, youthful module by uncluttering them for a contemporary get-up

When Anika married Akshay Gupta two-and-a-half years ago, she wouldn’t even consider wearing a handwoven Banarasi sari or lehenga for any of her wedding functions. “I wondered why I did not identify with them. Then I realised that they were too heavy for my taste. But the fabric, the intricacy of the weave, the zari and the stories behind them were fascinating,” says Anika from her studio in Shahpur Jat. She sat down with the weavers in Varanasi, with whom her family had worked for the past 150 years, and charted a new design blueprint. There has been no looking back since.

At Bageecha, the ideology is uncomplicated—to retain the essence and classical traditions of Varanasi through a fresh, youthful module. The vintage glass chandelier, the colourful bangles, the plate of small bindis and the pictorial depiction of their wares carry the old-world charm. Anika’s family is one of the oldest to work with Varanasi’s weavers.

Banaras House in Connaught Place is their old retail showroom. The idea of Bageecha was conceived when Anika suggested a younger line. “We have retained old designs but uncluttered them for a contemporary get-up,” elaborates Akshay.

While many of the old weaves carried labyrinthine jaals, junglas and bootis, Anika’s designs are minimalist for a frothy effect. Initially, the weavers were sceptical. But when prospective brides gravitated towards the final garment, they were motivated to innovate. “In all our motifs, we ensure that the detailing is retained because that is what heritage is all about. The finer the weave, the more luxurious it is,” she explains.

Vidhi Singhania Delhi

USP: Indian at heart, the designs also toy with new patterns and the saris can be teamed with jackets and shirts for an edgy makeover

The recurring complaint among Delhi’s handloom fanatics about Vidhi Singhania is that she’s hardly seen at social dos. While one can witness her marvellous work at her artfully curated studio in Greater Kailash, at posh textile exhibitions or on social media platforms, it takes a while to track her in person.
Then when you witness the quantum of work that goes into those breath-taking saris, you realise what’s kept her away from the glare. Draped in a pristine handwoven organza, Singhania’s excitement is palpable as she gives us a peek into her new collection. A riot of colours in soft silks with zari motifs, each and every piece is a sight to behold. “No two saris are similar,” she smiles.

Lauded for reviving the Kota weaves of Rajasthan, the designer had stumbled on the wondrous world of handwoven textiles while living in Kota. Since then, she has been working in tandem with weavers in Kota, Sultanpur (Uttar Pradesh), Mangrol (Gujarat) and Kaithun (Kota), apart from the ones in Varanasi. “There have been innumerable times when the weaver would lament that his son did not take any interest in the trade because the notion is that it isn’t paying enough. That was when I decided to put my energy and efforts into this so that the weavers feel proud in doing what they do,” says Vidhi.

The Kota sari has evolved from being a simplistic cotton six-yard in bagru print. “Inclusion of silk increases the fluidity. Our saris can also be teamed with jackets and shirts for an edgy spin,” she adds.
Vidhi’s inspirations are Indian at heart but she has also toyed with new patterns. We notice a white, cyan and lemon yellow Banarasi inspired by the tartan checks. The Gajanan sari in purple has a zari border with four rows of elephants near the pallu. “Our saris glide with you. After all, as Coco Chanel famously said, luxury must be comfortable in order to be luxury,” Vidhi concludes. 

Palak Shah Ekaya, Delhi

USP: The focus is on the versatile and global appeal of heritage weaves. The quest is to redefine conventional perceptions about textiles and do more.

Traditional Banarasi fabric can attain an international feel through clever styling and design, said Palak Shah, CEO of Ekaya, last month at the unveiling of Thaan, Ekaya’s fabric label. At the event, she sported an edgy pantsuit crafted out of an exquisite silk and zari fabric woven by one of the 8,000 weavers who work for Ekaya. “We all revel in the allure of saris, lehengas and anarkalis but heritage textiles can do more,” says Palak, taking us around Thaan, a museum-like space that houses about 1,000 woven fabrics from Varanasi. 

While Ekaya has been regaling women with a yen for handwoven Banarasi saris, Thaan’s quest is to redefine conventional perceptions about textiles. “The store highlights the mastery, art, and narrative represented within the fine textures of each hand-woven fabric, but in a different way,” she smiles.
Palak returned to India six years ago with a business management degree from King’s College, London, and entered the 70-year-old family wholesale business of handloom saris and fabrics. 

Ekaya presented an all-pervasive experience to the fashionista and Palak’s modish outlook resulted in collaborations with fashion bigwigs such as Abraham & Thakore and Archana Rao, and peppy labels like Play Clan. The collaborations with Parsi gara pundit Ashdeen Lilaowala was a sell-out. 
Palak reiterates, “If we keep using the same old methods, the craft will continue to struggle to sustain itself. The focus needs to shift to the versatile and global appeal of heritage weaves.”

Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan Swati & Sunaina, Kolkata

USP: From reviving timeless treasures to coming up with concept saris merging quirky motif with age-old designs, there is something for every eye

It’s like a precious jewel tucked inside a curio box. This gem, handwoven by a weaver in Varanasi, bears the hallmark of exquisite craftsmanship, heritage and intricacy. These six-yard wonders are charming the discerning today, courtesy the labour of textile designers Swati Agarwal and Sunaina Jalan. Doggedly reviving the moribund weaves of Varanasi with a fresh design perspective that is both luxurious and versatile, these sisters-in-law have infused renewed vigour into forgotten warps and wefts. 

Swati and Sunaina, based out of the City of Joy, noticed the dearth of quality handwoven saris in the market in 2003. “Even in the most upmarket boutiques, nothing caught our fancy. When my brother-in-law was getting married I failed to find a sari close to what I was aspiring for. That was a wake-up call,” recalls Swati.The two journeyed to Varanasi to enlighten themselves about the procedure and the craft. “When we implored an award-winning master weaver to create a sari using an ancient pattern, he lamented the lack of demand for such elaborate weaves. These brilliant craftsmen fell prey to skewed-up market mechanics,” elaborates the duo.

Determined to revive the old treasures, the duo launched their label in 2003. The designers wrap each piece in a muslin cloth, put it in a wooden box that also contains a diary, an authentication certificate of the zari used, a spool of the shimmering thread and a description of the handcrafted piece when it’s sold. “These essentials stretch its longevity, as these are one-off items,” maintains Sunaina.Swati and Sunaina are popular for their concept saris too. An ivory silk sari with zari raindrops is helmed by a woven ivory border. Quirky motifs such as Sufi singers, Persian vases and jhumkis are found in abundance.

Madhu Jain Noida

USP: A variety of traditional ikat motifs from different countries have been blend together and woven in India incorporating the present into the past with the help of historical patterns

Textiles are rich in history; with each weave and motif chronicling the stories of its place of origin. This belief is ingrained in the mind and works of crafts revivalist and textile conservationist Madhu Jain. She has travelled into India’s interiors to discover the artistry and brilliance of weaver communities.

Madhu is known for incorporating the present into the past by weaving together historical patterns through the textiles.Working mainly with ikat, Madhu says, “I’m

fascinated by the geometry inherent in this extremely complicated ancient weave, and am chuffed by the fact that several countries across Southeast and Central Asia, Central and South America, and Africa are home to this ancient weaving technique, each with its distinctive motifs and patterns.”

Though, double ikat is found only in four countries—India, Japan, Indonesia, and Guatemala. Interestingly, what is common across all regions is that ikat has traditionally enjoyed the patronage of the wealthy and those in power. In Uzbekistan, ikat was worn only by nobility and the rich for ceremonial occasions. In Thailand too, ikat was the preferred choice of aristocrats. In Indonesia, ikat garments were viewed to be sacred and were imbued with sacred motifs.

Madhu’s passion has led her to blend a variety of traditional ikat motifs from different countries—but woven in India—attaining a cultural confluence that has served to advance this weave. For her, textile is the king and does all the talking. Madhu showcased recently at the just concluded Amazon India Fashion Week 2017.

Mandeep Nagi & David Housego Shades of India, Delhi & Gurgaon

USP: The label explores the subtle show of elegance with muted shades and has revived vintage embroidery using stones and glass beads

For someone who loves the artisanal approach to fashion, Shades of India is like a treasure trove. The minimalist interiors of the studio at Meherchand Market in Delhi, and Gurgaon perfectly foil the beautiful collection there.Led by the elegant Mandeep Nagi (design director) and amiable David Housego (former UK journalist), the brand, two decades old, sells around the world including at Harrods and Conran Shop in the UK, Gumps in the US, Le Bon Marche in Paris, and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong.The label explores the subtle show of elegance. Even when the hues are bright, they are a tone muter. Everything is soft, minimalist yet charming.

Says Mandeep, “When we launched our home furnishings abroad, we made the look extremely fashionable with plenty of textures, details and layering. In India, no one was aware that bedspreads could be designed and showcased in this manner. Gradually we extended our design senses to clothes but retained our characteristic look… subtle but glamorous. We revived vintage embroidery using stones and glass beads that added muted bling to the garments. I am a proponent of the classic dreamy look and use a lot of lace to achieve that.”

The blouses, with handprints in vegetable dyes, are quirky and cool, yet extremely wearable. They give a fun and edgy feel when paired with the handwoven saris. The separates, shifts and dresses boast a peasant chic aura. The embroidery is indigenous and subtle, lending a delicate shimmer to the clothes that are baby soft in feel. 

Darshan Dhupia The Silk Tree, Delhi

USP: The label is crafting silhouettes that eschew the baggage of overt ethnicity. The core idea of the brand is to match the modish mindset.

Darshan Dhupia’s love for handwoven textiles was imbued during the teenage years when she witnessed her mother and aunts dressing up in rich silks, jamdanis and brocades. “I don’t remember wearing anything that wasn’t handloom. But when I launched The Silk Tree, I realised that the youth needs to be shown how versatile these textiles can get,” says Darshan, taking us through the colourful textile-driven garments at her pretty little store in Shahpur Jat.

Darshan’s strength lies in translating age-old weave traditions into a modern design language. By reviving the dying motifs of Varanasi, her label is crafting silhouettes that eschew the baggage of overt ethnicity. The core idea is to match the modish mindset. Bright colours play with sombre monochromes as rich Banarasi brocades, jamdanis and Chanderis form exquisite wedding and festive wear. The craft is old but the execution is new, peppy and effective.

The label crafts draped dresses, jackets, lehenga skirts, crop tops and beautiful dupattas out of woven fabrics. She has also created edgy capes and jackets out of the Uzbeki ikat atlas textile that showcases the complex dyeing weave technique from Central Asia. “It’s all about clever styling so that the ethnic weaves transcend the traditional platform to attain a modern vocabulary. Every piece is treated as a separate as they can be mixed and matched,” she says.

David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore Abraham & Thakore, Delhi

USP: Diligently experimenting with techniques, designs and patterns to infuse a new perspective into the art. The creations are fresh, stark, edgy and universal in appeal.

The joy of working on a handloom creation right from inception to its maturity is something that drives the ikat revivalism in India. David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore call it a complete process.Revered for their work, the duo has been diligently experimenting with techniques, designs and patterns to infuse a new perspective into the art. The ikat creations of A&T are fresh, stark, edgy and universal in appeal. “Ikat has always fascinated us because you can experiment. But double ikat is more challenging,” explains Rakesh.

While Rakesh’s knowledge on textiles was in place, David was prodigious in the design department and ideated about how to make the clothes subtle, innovative and luxurious. Says David, “We often restrict production to a few numbers. Exclusivity is what luxury is about.”

Their work was also displayed in an exhibition on contemporary Indian design at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London a few years ago and the label sells in USA, China, Japan, France and Russia. 
The duo simplifies traditional motifs and play with proportion to achieve a modern take. “There are challenges in working with only handloom. But once you are able to align the weaver’s thought process with yours, they become sympathetic towards your outlook,” they elaborate. There is a richness to natural fabrics that no power loom can attain, they believe.

Rahul Misra Designer

“I’ve often been asked why the weavers are still living in their desolate villages. Why are they not brought to the city to work with us? An artist creates the best work when he operates out of his own comfort zone. And for me to get the best out of them, I’d rather let them breathe that clean village air than stifle them amidst the city din. The homeland eggs him to do stunning work. A weaver wants to be in his home.”

Jayshree BurmanArtist 

“I love my handloom saris as well as my fusion separates created out of sustainable fabric. The beauty of today’s textile designers is that they are merging heritage and contemporariness in a beautiful way. Youngsters are embracing the trend of handwoven attires as well.”

Sandhya Godey Owner,  The Grand Central Hotel, Vizag

“There is a new-found love among youngsters for handloom as corporate wear. This is also because of the popular 100-sari pact. Entrepreneurs have embraced this not as a trend but as something that is here to stay. Because a beautiful sari is any day better than western wear, which the Indian body might not be the best to carry off. And with smart styling options, the scope is extensive.”

Rohit Salvi Weaver of Patan Patola

“Our entire family has been immersed in creating these saris and many of them have been award-winning. If we did not receive love for our work and product, why would even my son and nephew carry on the lineage? We cannot think of doing anything other than this and there are takers for our craft not only in India but we have people coming from abroad to buy our wares as well.”

Laila Tyabji Founder, Dastkar

“With all branded products in the market, the younger generation might not be interested in handmade things like a shawl or sari. They might also have a mind-block about wearing them thinking those are for people much older. This is where the connect between weavers and the market should be established. And these luxury weave labels have done that. Interestingly, they have packaged their wares so beautifully that youngsters can now relate to heritage textiles.”

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