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Drawing Kangra paintings with wild silks of India

In an interview, the designers behind Swati & Sunaina Gold talk about their new collection that uses ‘muga’, mulberry and ‘eri’ to celebrate the weaving traditions of Varanasi

Swati & Sunaina Gold's Vanya Champa Saree.
Swati & Sunaina Gold's Vanya Champa Saree.

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Swati Agarwalla and Sunaina Jalan have always been drawn to the weaving traditions of Varanasi, using the floral repertory of motifs and patterns and creating thematic collections for their label Swati & Sunaina Gold.

In their latest collection, Vanya, which launched late September, the designers have celebrated the use of wild silks (muga, tussar, mulberry and Eri) in ornamental Banarasi saris, drawing inspiration from the night garden as depicted in the miniature Kangra paintings.

The collection, from Krishna’s rich dark blue with subtle green hues, to the royal colours of magenta, are drawn from the contrasts and highlights seen in Kangra paintings. 

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In an interview with Lounge, Agarwalla and Jalan talk about their new collection and the importance of India's wild silks in the country's design history. Edited excerpts: 

What inspired the collection?

Vanya is a collection that is very close to our hearts. During times of covid when we all had time to pause, deep dive, reflect and explore, many thoughts and possibilities crossed into our minds.

One such thought that we began to explore deeper was the limited use of indigenous wild silks. Muga, tussar and eri are silk yarns that have diverse characteristics and properties. Once we started to delve deeper into these, we were awe-struck by their raw beauty. 

As for the miniature paintings, they are a vast visual treasure. They are a canvas to study interpretations of artists of earlier times when they had only nature to draw inspiration from. We wanted to use the wild silks in their natural form, and the colour and texture of Eri silk, and our desire to depict the white fragrant flowers of Indian origin as they have been done in Kangra miniatures, to present the concept of “the night garden”.

In the press note, you talk about Vanya being the first ‘extensive exploration of contemporary Banaras handlooms in such silks’. Could you talk about the process of creating them and the challenges you faced while doing so.

Banaras has traditionally favoured the use of mulberry silk and even though they are very open to innovation and experimentation, working with yarns of differing characteristics in one textile was a challenge technically. For example, the thickness, softness and natural colours are all different. We have used muga and Eri in their natural form and only tussar has been dyed and used.

What draws you two to Banaras handloom, a part of India’s textile history that has been explored extensively over the years?

Banaras has rich history of textiles and both of us grew up among women wearing the most beautiful Banarasi saris. It was a natural progression for us to wear them ourselves and eventually create them. Another reason was that Banaras offered versatility and the craftspeople there were never shy to experiment or innovate. This fell in sync with our goals.

Could you talk about the wild silks of India and their importance in India’s design history?

In the history of silks around the world, mulberry's presence has been the most predominant. Believed to have originated in China, mulberry was historically a preferred fibre for both sacred, ritual purposes and among royalty and nobility, for their ability to be hand-spun into fine yarns, for being naturally glossy. It informed the evolution of sophisticated weaving techniques, giving rise to specialised cultures of textile design and production. Through the famous Silk Route, Europe and Asia were brought closer through trade, bringing wealth to the regions. Only in recent decades has mulberry silk moved into a relatively more mainstream, large-scale sphere of cultivation. 

However, little is known about wild silks from the Indian and global perspective. They have been kept alive primarily by communities living in close contact with nature, often geographically distant from the mainstream rearing of fibres, whether in mulberry silk, wool or cotton. In the Indian subcontinent, wild silks have been widely associated with the eastern to central parts, from the North-east, Assam and Bengal to Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. In Indian historical textiles, they appear in the most imaginative ways in the 15th century Vrindavanai Vastra, fabrics woven in the complex lampa technique with devotional themes from the life of Krishna, and in embroideries referred to as the “Satgaon Quilts”, exported from India to Portugal in the 17th century.

In the country’s early, post-independence decades, tussar emerged as a fashionable fabric among a niche, urban clientele, with wild silk fibres lending themselves ideally to hand spinning. They were also preferred by those who liked to wear khadi. This was a part of a revival of minimalism in design and textiles, where designers borrowed equally from its roots in ancient India, rural references, as well as international modernism.  

In recent years, there has been a beginning of experiments to extend the traditional ways in which tussar, eri and muga are used, led by small, artisanal studios working in the  Himalayas. Those in eri and muga have remained limited, but the promotion of tussar has been the focus of consistent efforts in states where the possibility for its rearing, spinning and weaving is viable. Perhaps because of wild silks' natural colouration, which prevents them from being dyed in bright colours and their small batch production, their use hasn't been too much. 

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