In Bengal, during Durga Puja, a lal-paar-shada sari (white sari with red border) is as much a part of pujo rituals as it is of the fashion code on Dashami. One of Banerjees early collections, Laal paar and other stories, gave it a distinct sartorial twist. It rolled out a red-and-white collection: shift dresses, Mughal achkans and the jama with bits of embroidery, some with paisley and chintz motifs. What we try to do is to contemporise the silhouettes and make them more global so that the handlooms are not just restricted to one age group, she says. Banerjee has worked with the plebian gingham for her latest collection.
The handloom revolution has been brewing for a while. But while most designers use it as a base material on which to play out variations of Swarovski and gota work, those like Rahul Mishra and Aneeth Arora stand out for their minimalist interpretations of this indigenous heritage. A well-cut white shirt from Pero by Aneeth Arora is different from others simply in the way it codes a cultural continuity. At each stage of its creation, from the yardage to the finished product, the materials pass from one craftsman to another, ensuring that no two pieces are alike. In his seven-year-old career, Mishra has worked largely with Chanderi, spinning a new story every time, yet rarely resorting to surface embellishments and never to bling. Like Mishra and Arora, newer designers like Banerjee are finetuning Indian fashions understanding of handloom. They are letting the fabric be the star of their collections, keeping the look unfussy and everyday, adopting weaver clusters for sustained periods of time or even setting up studio looms. Handlooms dont have to preclude embroideries, gotas or an overkill of any other handicraft. It is entirely possible to have a quiet but discerning presence without resorting to over-the-top embellishments, says Gaurav Jai Gupta, 32.
At his studio in Delhis Lado Sarai, Gupta is overseeing master craftsmen spin a fabric using cotton, silk and wool that will be woven into a complete ensemble. In another corner, samples of a fabric blend of cotton, mohair, Angola and steel lie ready for the pattern-makers. His collections have thrown up unlikely, often eccentric, pairings trousers woven out of Chanderi and stainless steel, Ikat shirts and dresses, some with a cotton-wool cape. Hes cut out the shimmer of Swarovski by blending it unobtrusively in handlooms like Fulia and Banarasi, Chanderis and Ikats. The concept of studio weaving is rare in India. When I set up Akaaro in 2007, I decided to have a studio loom. We work on that for our design and capsule collections. And then we have a skilled weaver workforce who do batch productions, he says. His studio is almost an atelier where the customer can choose between various fabrics and discuss the finer points of design.
Working with cluster communities was also how textile designer Swati Kalsi started her career after she graduated from National Institute of Fashion Technology, Delhi, in 2002. The 32-year-old was working on a World Bank-run project Jiyo under Rajeev Sethi that had her interacting with traditional artisans. It was profoundly educating to learn how crafts are closely intertwined and deeply rooted in the economic, social, cultural (and) spiritual aspects of an artisans life. I like it more when women artisans look at it as a source of empowerment and self-determination, she says. Kalsi has since tied up with Sujani craftswomen (Sujani is an embroidery tradition from Bihar that uses simple running stitches) and used handlooms like tussars, muggas and cottons as the base fabrics. Each of her garments is a stand-alone piece that uses the quirks and anomalies both of weaving and stitching as embellishments rather than as lacks. Its also a reason why her products are made-to-order and do not retail from chains. Its a challenge to interpret the same craft differently, year after year. But its also immensely satisfying, she says.
Sally Holkar, one of the pioneers of weaver rights in India and whose organisation WomenWeave in Madhya Pradesh works with women weavers at the grassroot level, says she has noticed a change in how designers approach handlooms in the last few years. Some of them are able to work with weavers because they have been trained in the elements of weaving and can explain their designs carefully to the weavers, she says.
Designers like Kalsi, Banerjee and Gupta are taking forward the work started by stalwarts like Neeru Kumar and David Abraham and Rakesh Thakore, revivalists and assiduous promoters of indigenous fabrics. Each of them work with dedicated clusters for a period of time, ensuring business for the older ones even when they move on to newer clusters. If Banerjee has worked extensively with the Fulias in Bengal, Mumbai-based Vaishali Shadangule has, over time, worked with Madhya Pradeshs native handlooms like Paithani and Chanderis. One of the difficulties is to encourage them to experiment with fabrics that are traditions in themselves. Many weavers are unwilling because they fear that it will be a short-term arrangement, says the 34-year-old Shadangule. Her clothes stand half-way between Western and Indian asymmetrical maxi dresses can just as easily be worn with a churidar or a pair of trousers, kediya tops that can be fitted with dhoti pants or cigarette trousers.
But Mishra, who has worked with weavers dedicatedly since 2006, is also clear that the recent experiments in handloom are not merely altruistic. Its too simplistic to imagine that we are trying to push the cause of handloom alone. Its also because handlooms make good business sense and we want our collections to sell, he says. The international market has changed: the moneyed Middle East still
prefers its bling, but the West is quietly moving from blingy, zardosi-heavy clothes to handlooms and handspun fabrics. Its this market that each of them are eyeing or have made inroads into.
There are, of course, other challenges of working with handlooms. Being handspun, production time is lengthier and designers need to plan up to a year ahead. Then there is the question of uniformity. Mishra has moved on from reversibles to multi-coloured woven fabrics, a difficult enterprise considering the imperfections intrinsic in hand-dyes. While most designers working with handlooms use monochromes, he has just turned to colours. All of these make handloom an expensive enterprise. Arora,who, following the populariy of Pero, has started another mini-label called Labour of Love that has 100 per cent handmade clothes, sums up the dilemma of the handloom designer: We are expensive because of the techniques we use. Over time, I have realised that the European market is better, they get it. For Indians, its ghar ki murgi daal baraabar.
With inputs from Somya Lakhani