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The timelessness of ‘zari’

From Japanese courtesans to Mughal courts, from bandmaster costumes to high-end fashion, an exhibition explores the craft of 'zari'

Mayank Mansingh Kaul at Bikaner House, New Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.
Mayank Mansingh Kaul at Bikaner House, New Delhi. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.

To celebrate King Edward VII’s wedding, Lady Mary Curzon ordered that an elaborate garment be made for her, one that she could wear at the Coronation Ball in Delhi’s durbar in 1903. The Peacock Dress, as the dress came to be known, was an exquisite piece of clothing: its champagne taffeta skirt carried intricate motifs of peacock feathers hand-embroidered painstakingly in gold by Indian zari craftsmen.

Zari, it is believed, came to India from Persia centuries ago. Weaving into India’s rich historical tapestry, it gained prominence in the 16th century during the Mughal reign. In royal courts, emperors like Zahiruddin Babur gifted “robes of honour" to allies as a symbolic gesture. The robes, made in fine fabric, were often woven in threads of gold.

Over the years, pure zari craftsmanship has faded into oblivion. Today, however, Kolkata-based designers Swati and Sunaina (with their eponymous label) are collaborating with a coterie of weavers in a Varanasi workshop to revive the ancient technique. The workshop, say the designers, is the only surviving factory in the world that continues to use pure gold zari in textiles to replicate classic motifs that were once seen in Mughal courts. As a billet-doux to the exquisite craftsmanship, textile designer and historian, Mayank Mansingh Kaul has curated Gold—The Art Of Zari, an exhibition that celebrates the skill. The exhibition, which started at Delhi’s Bikaner House on Friday, features contemporary pieces created by the duo, along with vintage treasures which have been handpicked by Kaul from private family collections.

In an interview, Kaul speaks about the art of zari. Edited excerpts:

Tell us briefly about the history of ‘zari’ in India.

The word ‘zari’ is believed to originate from the Persian word zar (gold). It is commonly associated with the Mughal repertory of hand-woven textiles from the 16th century onwards. It is important, however, to make a distinction: there is zari, used in hand-weaving, and zardozi, which functions as surface embellishment. Historically, we find some of the oldest pieces of zardozi in India only from the 19th century onwards. In literature, the word “zardos" appears more than five centuries ago (i.e. dating back to the pre-Mughal Sultanate period).

Fresh research informs us that some Indian textiles found in Japan from an even earlier period also have traces of such metallic yarn, and have been attributed to the Deccan and south-east coast of India. These textiles might have been used in Japanese tea ceremonies by courtesans and the royalty. The oldest reference to cloth made of gold itself is found in the Rig Veda, dating back to over 3,000 years ago.

The craft was once associated with the upper echelons of society. Why did it fade over time?

Traditionally, in the case of zari in hand-woven textiles, most such metallic yarn that was used by high-end patronage is believed to have been made of precious metals. Apart from its financial value, it also had sacred symbolism. In the early 1960s, the government banned the use of pure gold zari, in order to prevent the hoarding of gold and bullion, in an attempt to control the black economy. From then onwards the art form began to die.

Zardozi, on the other hand, apart from receiving aristocratic patronage, became popular among the mercantile classes, especially among the Marwaris and Gujaratis. In the immediate post-independence period, it seems to have died down. One reason may be that newly independent India was led by socialist ideas; there was a distaste for opulence. Funnily, zardozi survived through this period, existing as patches on costumes of bandmasters and service staff—as we see in the uniforms, even today, at hotels from the British colonial period. It was not until the early 1980s that zardozi was revived by designers such as Ritu Kumar.

Tell us about Swati and Sunaina’s work.

When I first saw their work last year, the thing that struck me was that many of their textiles had a quality of the Banaras industry, which I hadn’t seen in decades. The kind of classic Banarasis our grandmothers and mothers owned, are no longer made. So what intrigued me was that while designers today were experimenting with new designs, Swati and Sunaina were trying to bring alive the old designs, which are very rare to come by—and that too in the purest form of zari, which makes the fabric very light and soft.

A ‘litchi boota’ sari. Photo: Courtesy Swati & Sunaina
A ‘litchi boota’ sari. Photo: Courtesy Swati & Sunaina

What were some of the features that caught your eye?

One of their collections, where each sari took almost a year to weave, used a technique similar to the Paithani in the Deccan. The Paithani weave shows a very restrained use of zari—it’s not very full and it’s not very raised. Very small pockets near Varanasi were known for it, but the last time this was revived was in the early 1980s. In addition, Swati and Sunaina also revisited many classic designs. There was a phase in Varanasi, for instance, when weavers were inspired by a lot of foreign influences. The litchi fruit, which is believed to have come to India from China, was a motif that appeared in the textiles. Swati and Sunaina revived the litchi boota, which is noteworthy.

Do you think that weavers used pure ‘zari’ during the Mughal times because it had a functional quality?

Absolutely. Zari not only had visual and aesthetic qualities, but lent a structural quality as well—it gave draped garments a certain fluidity when worn, as well as strength. For instance, in some of the oldest cotton drapes for women, zari appeared in the palla, since it took the entire weight of the six- or nine-yard fabric to make it fall elegantly. In the Deccan region, the Maratha court textiles for women carried chequered patterns—a very distinguishing feature—which balanced the weight of the textile, since the silk fibre used otherwise was very light.

Could you walk us through the concept behind the exhibition display?

It’s a very simple display—I did not want the design of the exhibition to speak more than the textiles. In terms of presentation, I’ve created a stark gallery where the carpets and walls are entirely black, against which I hope the metallic brocades that are on display shine like jewels. We’ve showcased about 50 textiles, which are a combination of vintage pieces sourced from private collections and one-of-a-kind editions by the Swati & Sunaina Gold line.

I’ve also focused on juxtaposing timelines—for instance, a vintage piece with a Paithani border will be placed alongside Swati & Sunaina’s Paithani-inspired Banarasi saris. The attempt is to make a connect between the past and the present, as a way to reaffirm that the historical level of craftsmanship still exists today.

Gold—The Art Of Zari is on till 27 September at Bikaner House, New Delhi.

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