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Fri, Nov 01, 2013
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Tradition is back
by Sarita Alurkar-Sriram

The recent surge of interest in Indian textiles, especially the handwoven sari, is being drawn into the limelight by a number of Indian designers who have become champions of the rich heritage of Indian handlooms and craft.

In the recent past, revivalists and designers such as Sanjay Garg, Gaurang Shah, Bappaditya Biswas and Rahul Mishra and brands like Ekaya have experimented with the warp and weft of various weaves, to give the handwoven sari a much-needed impetus.

A "return to roots" is slowly emerging as the new trend.

Sanjay Garg of design label Raw Mango says: "The idea behind Raw Mango is to make young women wear saris. Women have often looked at handlooms as something they wear 'to help the poor'. But if the saris are modern and young, you are giving young women what they want and what they don't have."

His saris are a perfect example of innovation in the handwoven sector that stay true to tradition and are set apart by their simplicity, emphasis on traditional weaving processes, bold and bright Indian colours with eclectic colour combinations.

Garg shot into prominence three years ago, when he won the British Council's Young Entrepreneur award for giving the humble Chanderi weave a fabulous contemporary edge. In fact, in a recent interview, well-known designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who is known to have pioneered the use of Indian textiles in a modern context over a decade ago, called Raw Mango saris "the new intellectual Birkin".

Bappaditya Biswas, founder of the Byloom store in Kolkata, echoes a similar sentiment. "Over the years, the gap between the end user and the weaver had widened, because of huge changes in lifestyle so that the weaver did not know what to weave for the market. Our contribution was to link the need and requirements of the market and the skills and versatility of handlooms and that is why our saris have a wide appeal."

Biswas has been working on the traditional handlooms of Bengal and pushing the boundaries of weaving, using techniques like Jamdani and double cloth weaving to create textiles that blend contemporary design with traditional style.

At the Lakme Fashion Week (LFW) Winter 2013 in Mumbai, fashion designer Gaurang Shah launched the Stridhan collection based on the Patan Patola weave from Gujarat.

This is a double ikat fabric woven by a highly complex weaving process requiring a high degree of skill, dexterity and time. Unfortunately, there is now a very limited number of weaver families carrying on this priceless tradition. Shah's collection took eight months to conceptualise and create.

He says: "This sari takes 1-11/2 years to make with yarns dyed in intricate patterns using dyes extracted from nature.

A single piece takes months of precision and years of experience.

Amalgamating this exotic fabric with my signature fabric khadi, I wanted to give a whole new dimension to the patola."

In an interview with The Hindu in August last year, Indian designer Rahul Mishra, who has made a mark in the Indian fashion industry for integrating Indian craft heritage into global fashion, said: "India is like a mood board where every few hundred kilometres you travel, there is a new textile or craft. I have worked with organza, khadi and digam silk, with traditional weaves from Kerala, Chanderi, Maheshwar, Benares, Bhagalpur as well as ikat weaves, bandhani fabrics and cottons from Coimbatore."

The Ekaya brand describes itself as a union of the timeless love of saris and pure, rare craftsmanship, rooted in the rich textile heritage of Benaras.

Started by the Shah brothers, who ran a textile business in Benaras, the Ekaya store in Delhi specialises in handcrafted Benarasi saris and textiles and caters to the modern woman, presenting an ancient art in a modern context.

Bollywood, too, has turned its wattage up on the handloom sari and sightings of celebrities in Kanjeevarams, Chanderis, Banarasis and Bengal weaves at national and international events are widely reported.

"I could live in a sari. I was born to wear a sari. I'm so glad I wear it so often now. It never gets boring, it's sexy and it shows just the right amount and hides the right amount, too! It's the ultimate tease, I think," said actress Vidya Balan in one of her recent interviews.

She can be credited with having brought handwoven saris, "almost singlehandedly", back in vogue.

Thanks to this industry, a large number of people are gainfully employed in textiles in rural India - second only to agriculture.

Biswas sums it up well when he says: "There has been an increased demand for the handwoven sari because people are slowly becoming conscious of what they are buying and whether it makes any difference to the society.

Women often want something different and unique and this is possible with handlooms, which are also value for money. Then there is the huge feel-good factor associated with feeling a part of this movement."

As some Indian textile revivalists say, there's nothing more fashionable today than wearing heritage on your sleeve.

The handwoven sari in particular appears to be acquiring a new lease of life in Singapore too. This Navratri, the streets of Singapore seemed extra bright with women flaunting shimmering silks at temple functions, private gatherings with traditional golus, at the Bengali Association's Durga Puja and the numerous other festive occasions.

Ms Maya Bhaskar, one of the partners at Artizen International, Singapore which aims to promote crafts by artisans in developing countries, says: "While not an obvious return-to-roots trend, we definitely see a new sense of awareness in the buyers and a growing sophistication in the weaves movement.

Women understand and appreciate the difference between a woven sari, and a sari that is embellished after weaving."

Ms Rajashri Lele, president of community group Maharashtra Mandal, Singapore is one such person who definitely knows her weaves. She is partial to the handloom sari and says that she has recently seen more Maharashtrian women flaunting their Paithani saris, a sari that is often referred to as a "poem in gold and silk" at festive occasions.

In fact, because of this surge of interest, the Maharashtra Mandal has included a Paithani sari fashion show for the first time in their annual Deepavali event, jointly organised with the Kim Seng Community Centre on Nov 3.

Ms Rashmi Gogna, designer for the wellknown brand Pure Earth, says that handwoven saris have been an inspiration behind her designs and much to her delight, now more of her patrons are seeking saris which showcase the artisan's skills in traditional forms.

Ms Nisha Kerpal, who retails handwoven saris through her label Mogra says that there are more women here now acquiring saris from the traditional looms of India. She says: "Whether handloom veterans or first-timers, the common thread I see in all my customers, young or old is an absolute love for the handwoven fabric."

However, the sari is still taken out for special occasions only.

Ms Bhaskar says: "During festivals, concerts and temple visits, women pull out their saris to wear. So it is encouraging to see women are now modelling our saris at operas, school concerts, art exhibitions, Christmas parties and charity balls. There is no place a sari can't go!"

Longtime Singapore resident Gowri Aiyer says she often wears saris when visiting her Chinese friends during Chinese New Year as they love to see the handloom fabric.

It was a passion for traditional weaves which ignited former BBC journalist Ashwini Devare's interest in saris. Ms Devare, along with this writer, has given a series of talks on the timeless appeal of the Indian sasari which was much appreciated by Indian as well as non-Indian audiences.

She says the talks wove together the various threads of history, tradition, design, weavers and women that bind the story of the Indian sari together.

She says: "We were delighted by the very positive response by a mixed audience to our talks at the Asian Civilisations Museum and the subsequent invitations to speak at various other public forums in and outside Singapore.

"This motivated us to keep this sari movement going with a Facebook page called The Timeless Appeal of the Indian Sari for which we roped in another 'sari sister' Vinisha Kanjilal."

Dr Vinisha Khemani Kanjilal (from Green Dots & Better Breads) says: "The Timeless Appeal of the Indian Sari is a crowd-sourcing attempt via Facebook at preserving the rich and diverse cultural history, folklore, heritage and personal stories of the traditional weaves and motifs of saris from all parts of India.

"It invites a worldwide community to get re-engaged in talking about, sharing and wearing their family legacies and invites them to learn and explore the shared history of the sari, distinct in every state of India."

Highlighting a different weave every month, this October the page focused on the simple sophistication of the weaves of Bengal.

Sadee (Our) Saree is another recent crowd-sourcing and complementary community of sari lovers on Facebook, spearheaded by The Straits Times journalist Deepika Shetty, that invites women to celebrate the sari in all forms - modern or contemporary - while sharing pictures of their individual styles of wearing saris. Ms Shetty says she discovered saris only a year ago after she draped her late mother's sari and knew that "this love was for life".

Today, Sadee Saree receives sari photos from all over the world. Sadee Saree, she hopes, will help women around the world to look at their saris differently and not just as something that can only be draped on special occasions.

With help from sari warriors, sari sisters and friends, the future of this beautiful handwoven drape will only get brighter.

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Sarita Alurkar-Sriram is a marketing professional with a passion for Indian hand woven textiles.

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