The princess of silks is still beautiful, but her sheen now wears a tired look. Her glory has frayed and faded. And younger rivals have since become the new darlings of the evening. But the old beauty is slowly stepping out of the shadows now, and all set to dazzle again — with fierce pride and haute hauteur. The spotlight is now on the lustrous Banarasi weave that has long been the cornerstone of Indian handloom industry but, over the years has been fading into oblivion with dwindling numbers of weavers and looms. In an effort to revive and sustain it, BJP leader and designer Shaina NC has brought together some of the country’s top designers to embark on a project to repopularise Banarasi textiles in India as well as overseas, with assistance from Narendra Modi’s Make In India platform. The designers, including Ritu Kumar, Manish Malhotra, Sandeep Khosla, Shruti Sancheti, Anita Dongre, Rohit Bal, Rahul Mishra, Rina Dhaka and others — who recently met textile minister Santosh Gangwar in the capital to chalk out a concrete course of action — will be traveling to Banaras and working with clusters of weavers for the project.
“Banarasi textiles are fading in our country on account of a lack of skill since many of the weavers are moving towards other occupations,” says Shaina NC, adding, “Under the Make In India platform, I’ve brought together designers to manufacture in Banaras and create designs that are world class, which can then be promoted through museums and art exhibits across the country and overseas. We’re working with the belief that if we really want to give back to India, its crafts and its artisans, we need to venture out and appeal to more and more designers to manufacture in Banaras.”
MAKING SOME SERIOUS NOISE
Designer Rina Dhaka points out that this isn’t the first such initiative, but the major difference and definite cause for optimism is that the politician (Shaina) handling the project is a designer herself. She says, “Over the past 15 years, every minister of textiles has attempted something like this. It has been a routine that all us designers are really tired of, to be honest. The change this time is that Shaina is handling the project and she is one of us. The whole idea behind bringing the top design force together on a single concept is that you’re looking to set a trend. It can influence everything from what people sell to what people wear. When you put all of us together and have us endorse a Banarasi weave sari, you’re making some serious noise. That’s the trickle down effect we’re hoping to have.” She adds, “The problem usually lies with government machinery, which is most often too complicated to function smoothly with things like this. You’ll normally find that the minister is baffled, his teams are baffled, under him the handloom commissioners are baffled, and under them the weaver centers are baffled too.”
LOOMS OF OLD
Globally renowned designer Rahul Mishra feels a project like this is truly the need of the hour because Banaras is no longer the strong textile hub it once was. “Theoretically, Banaras is one of the oldest handloom hubs in our country, but as we stand right now, it is also the hub that is struggling the hardest to survive. It is high time it received the extra attention it deserves, and I’m not only speaking from a design point of view. Over the years, even the artistry has gone down, which is really sad. Initiatives taken before proved insufficient in terms of how much is actually required there,” he says.
He is both enthusiastic and guarded about his plans to reinvent the Banarasi weave. “I’m working on one or two pieces using Banarasi handloom, and will most probably be unveiling them at the next fashion week in India. I’m also looking at using the weave when I showcase in Paris, for which I will need to make sure the supply chain is in place. I want to showcase Banarasi silk at international fashion weeks too so that it gains greater international exposure. I feel handloom adds a lot of character to me as a designer. This project is, therefore, not just about us sustaining or reviving a craft. It is also about how that craft sustains design in our country. We’re helping the textile as much as we’re helping ourselves here.”
A CHIC EDGE
Banarasi silk has been the pride of every Indian woman’s wardrobe and an integral part of trousseau and festivities, says designer Shruti Sancheti. “In the contemporary scenario, cheap Chinese yarn, advent of powerlooms and government-imposed taxes have made this magnificent fabric almost defunct. By providing fresh and au courant design inputs, luxurious thread counts and new motifs and elements, designers can impart a chic look to the fabric that can make a statement globally with the Made in India tag. A lot can be done in terms of trendy motifs, compact weaving, metallic visual effects, placements and colour schemes that can make it relevant to today’s wardrobe.”
REVIVING AND RECREATING
Designer Ritu Kumar — who started working in Varanasi about a year ago with 50 looms — shares, “We are doing revival saris, lehengas and specially created fabrics keeping in mind the mood of the late 19th century, when Banaras weaving was at its peak. I was requested by the handloom board to start it last September, so we formed a committee to look into the revival of this fabric. The first piece from this loom was shown at the Amazon India Fashion Week. The yarn itself had to be revived first, also the embroidery has changed from pure gold and silver to a synthetic substitute, so the result is very stiff and shiny. I have been trying to recreate the old, vintage look.”
Designer Manish Malhotra believes in not only promoting Indian crafts, but also showing the world what India has to offer. Speaking about the revival of Banarasi silk, he says, “Silks and our traditional weaves depict the richness of India. I want to maintain the old charm and essence of the Banarasi sari but revive it to suit today’s world. I will be giving it a very contemporary and modern look while keeping it very Indian. I feel, the challenges that weavers face today is lack of infrastructure and confidence. We can overcome this by giving the needed infrastructure for them to work better. I can empower the weavers by giving them more work, a platform and confidence to be independent and self-sufficient.”
For designer duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, classic is always chic and they follow the philosophy of reinventing the traditional using new motifs, colours and accessories. “As designers we also play a role in making the classical hip. The more we incorporate Banarasi silks, brocades and cottons into our collections, the more current they remain. Today’s weavers are disenchanted and struggling financially. They work in pitiful conditions and both the quality of their product and their own enthusiasm for excellence is missing. One must revive the weavers, up their skill sets and create a consumer demand for high quality Banarasi weaves. Crafts die out when it is no longer financially viable to practise them, so as designers we can ensure that weaving remains a lucrative and satisfying profession,” the duo says.
A HOLISTIC APPROACH
While the rich Banarasi silk sari is part of a deep-rooted tradition, there is a whole gamut of products that can come from the Banarasi woven textile, says Shilpa Sharma, co-founder of Jaypore.com. She says, “Why can’t the Little Black Dress be silhouetted from a Banarasi weave? Or a range of stunning home textiles. The need to make a traditional textile contemporary need not move away from its special motifs and characters. However, the revival of the past glory of this weave requires a holistic approach through the entire value chain of design-weaving-marketing. A model cluster can be created for Banarasi weavers with access to easy procurement, design and sampling base, funds for loom upgradation, small saving schemes, craft training, etc.”
With the nation’s top designers coming together to recreate the magic of Banarasi weaves with a contemporary twist, the princess of silks could well be the star of the evening again....