For veteran Indian designer Ritu Kumar, it’s the past that takes handloom into the future. Kumar, whose ideas have led the world of couture for five decades, has been instrumental in reviving the Banarasi sari. And that has involved stripping away crude changes that have made their way into the weaving culture over the decades and creating something for the future built upon the Banarasi’s strengths: its suppleness, richness and beauty.
She felt the storied weave, which has been a part of Indian tradition for centuries, had stagnated. So it was up to Indian designers like her to support artisans and make the Banarasi weave richer, purer and—to use a much abused word—more “authentic”.
“I was trying to recreate the old Varanasi sari and take out the stiffness we now associate with it. The traditional Varanasi sari was such that you could wrap it and put it in your handbag. It was so pliable (because) it was often meant for 16- to 18-year-old brides who were petite,” says Kumar, who has been working with Varanasi weavers to create more refined versions of the silk fabric since the early 2000s. “Today’s Varanasi saris look like wall hangings,” she says.
It took Kumar some time to figure out what had gone wrong—the weavers had started using Chinese silk. Traditionally, the fabric was woven using Murshidabad silk, which was hand-twisted. “Hand-twisting toh gayi (it disappeared). What does this hand-twisting do?” she says, rubbing her thumb, index and middle fingers together to show the movement. “It creates pores between the weft and the warp and these pores give the sari that suppleness.”
During the long years of colonialism, the commodification of Indian textiles and their subjection to market forces beyond the weavers’ control had forced various, mostly undesirable, changes on old textile traditions. “It’s true of a lot of crafts in India—there was a break of 200-300 years,” says Kumar. “What happened was that the chain of knowledge distribution from father to son was broken. What was left was the imagery of what the sari should look like, which is why they started using Chinese silk and gold lurex.”
Attempts by designers, textile historians and curators to revive Indian textile traditions are not new—they go back to at least the 1980s, when the late Martand Singh’s Vishwakarma exhibitions broke new ground in how textiles could be presented to audiences—and need sustained effort to undo decades of neglect by governments and the market. Over the last few years, these efforts have been intensifying. Along with projects that seek to work with weavers and restore quality and pride, there has been an increase in the number of projects focused on documentation, archival and interdisciplinary work. Artists are working with weavers, curators are finding new ways to take handlooms and their history to larger audiences, designers are breaking away from traditional forms while using traditional weaves. There is an intent to share the sometimes esoteric processes of weaving and other practices with the public—the first rule of revival, after all, is that you preserve what you know and love.
Take Lekha Poddar, co-founder of the Devi Art Foundation, who has organised exhibitions and projects such as Pra-Kashi: Silk, Gold And Silver From The City Of Light (2019), Fine Count: Indian Cotton Textiles (2022),VAYAN: The Art Of Indian Brocades (2023) and will be holding a show on ikat in January 2024. The Devi Art Foundation has tried to build newer perspectives around handloom and textiles and make the discourse more accessible. “We decided to do three separate exhibitions, in collaboration with the Crafts Museum in Pragati Maidan, Delhi, instead of mixing them up,” says Lekha, who prefers to be referred to by her first name.
“The focus of the last one will be on ikat. That would bring together all the genres and different techniques of weaving. We wanted to make it very simple and not have jargon. We want the uninitiated and younger people, who haven’t seen these kinds of textiles in the public domain, to be able to view and interact with them. Even in museums, all textiles are not displayed, and we only get to see what is in the gallery, which is not easy to understand if you haven’t been properly explained to.”
The series of three exhibitions drew from the collections of the Crafts Museum and the Devi Art Foundation, representing nearly 150 years of history from the late 19th century. Each show was curated by textile historian Mayank Mansingh Kaul and designed by Reha Sodhi, with a view to creating sensual, memory-laden experiences of Indian textiles without diluting the importance of the knowledge systems behind them. Such collaborations are mutually beneficial to the institutions and museums as they bring about newer ways of engaging with collections.
Lekha’s shows have not looked at handloom in isolation, showcasing interconnections between textile and poetry, painting, trade and more. Beginning with the show Fracture: Indian Textiles, New Conversations (2015), which saw designers, visual artists and a film-maker creating more than 30 works in collaboration with master weavers and artisans, this multidisciplinary approach has dominated each show.
Interestingly, the covid-19 pandemic and its lockdowns gave curators and historians the opportunity to look around, reflect and find newer ways of telling these stories. “During covid-19, I would keep discovering textiles in my cupboard, not knowing exactly what they were. I would photograph them and send them to Mayank (Mansingh Kaul), asking: ‘what kind of cotton or silk is the textile and where does it come from?’ In between the breaks we would get from lockdowns, he would come over and we would discuss these textiles in depth. I also took the help of textile designer and art historian Rahul Jain,” she says. Jain founded the ASHA workshop to revive Indo-Iranian weaving techniques in Varanasi and the dying art form of silk weaving on drawlooms.
Currently, the Devi Art Foundation is creating a digital archive of Martand Singh’s collection of Sarees Of India. “I have been made the custodian of the Sarees Of India collection, which are woven saris worn by people on a day-to- day basis,” says Lekha.
There is also an attempt to take textiles out of sterile exhibition spaces and galleries to more contextualised spaces. Last year, a Bengaluru-based textile research and study centre, The Registry of Sarees, collaborated with Kaul to create Red Lilies, Water Birds—The Saree In Nine Stories, an exhibition in Anegundi, near Hampi, in Karnataka. This year, a new exhibition, hosted by the JSW Foundation and curated by Kaul again, has chosen Hampi as its location. Being held at Hampi Art Labs, a space created by the JSW Foundation, the exhibition, Woven Narratives, is timed to coincide with the G20 summit that will be held in India in September.
“India has diverse textile traditions and they are all part of our great living heritage —it is quite challenging to be balanced while showcasing a vast collection with each work so rich in what it represents. Placing a jamdani sari next to a zari shawl, installing different textile pieces adjacent to each other in the same space, for instance, is a challenging task,” says Sangita Jindal, chairperson of the JSW Foundation. As part of the activities at Hampi Labs, the foundation is also working on ways to document and archive handloom practices, says Jindal.
Being site-specific has increasingly become a way to create new frameworks for telling the textile story, as has using fresh materials that push the boundaries of the magic that can be created on the loom. Take Nauraspur, a 30x25ft metal installation for Bengaluru International Airport’s Terminal 2, by the weaver and textile artist Pragati Mathur. A handwoven metal installation, it depicts the navarasas, or nine emotions, in the Natya Shastra. In keeping with its expansive theme, the hanging installation uses a range of materials, including copper wire, silk yarn, cotton yarn and organza, and a variety of techniques, such as plain weave, tapestry and the shag-pile carpet knotting technique. The project involved working with a family of fifth- and sixth-generation master weavers, as well as a group of women artisans in Bengaluru and Turuvekere, in Karnataka’s Tumkur district, whom Mathur has trained. They created all the hand detailing, moulding and shaping work for the installation.
It is the functional, practical aspect of revival that brings all the separate threads together. Designers across the country are taking traditional forms and using them in interesting ways. Before the turn of the millennium, the daily wear of women in remote areas of rural Assam was a long-sleeved, waist-length cotton blouse paired with a simple woven cotton mekhela sparsely dotted with floral motifs. “I am bringing back those blouses and using the design of flowers for my woven saris and table runners. You can call it revival,” says Assamese designer Anuradha Pegu, who started a weaving space in the early 1990s in Dhemaji, Assam.
Her weaves were noticed by the Crafts Council of India and she started holding exhibitions, hosted by them, across the country and abroad. Pegu’s biggest strength is design intervention, sticking to natural dyes, yarns and examining how motifs from indigenous communities can be used in modern ways and rendered timeless. For instance, Dingkhia Mohor is a luscious fern pattern, commonly found on Bodo stoles or gamchas, that Pegu uses to intricately adorn the borders of her saris and sador-mekhelas. It has now become one of her signature motifs. Pegu’s creations have been showcased at the Lakme Fashion Week in 2017, worn by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi and flaunted by several celebrities.
“My one wish is that people would engage a lot more with handloom fabrics,” says Lekha. “What is encouraging is that when we did Fracture, there were a handful of textile practitioners who were working with the handwoven tradition. Today, if I sit down, I could give you a list spanning three-four pages of people who are now engaged with our textile traditions.”
Inputs from Avantika Bhuyan, Mahalakshmi Prabhakaran, Jahnabee Borah and Pooja Singh