India's Handloom Story: Revival of Weaves, Embroideries, Crafts

Fashionistas are questioning. Designers are researching. Artisans are weaving. Fashion in India is going through a revolution. Indian designers are conscientiously bringing back Indian crafts and handlooms by working with rural artisans. Here are a few of them

By: Akanksha Maker

Posted on: May 8, 2019

Jamdani weaving in Bengal Sayali Goyal

In a world swayed by modernity and minimalism, it’s hard to find fashion that stays true to its roots. There is no argument about the richness of Indian heritage and its craftsmanship. From ikat to chikankari, various parts of India have quintessential cultural identities that pride themselves with artisanship passed on through generations. 

In the past few decades, that need for a well-made sari had waned. With globalization came a hunger for more contemporary, faster fashion statement. And with social media came the requirement to have quantitative fashion. However, that era is passing on. Those millennials that needed quick wardrobe changes has matured, making demands for timeless, exquisite, yet modern fashion designs. 

Kantha embroidery in Bengal Sayali Goyal

Sayali Goyal, founder of an independent culture magazine Cocoa & Jasmine, recently organized a textile installation and photo exhibition titled ‘Safed’ (white), which documented crafts such as natural dyeing, kalamkari, kantha, jamdani weaving, block printing and Maheshwari weaving, for which they met local craftsmen who create fabrics and designs at the proletarian level. “We need to preserve our culture and evolve and give it a new meaning with the current culture...When I wear a Jamdani dress, I am aware of where it was made, and about the artisan and his story. Yet I have a functional and contemporary piece of fashion. It is almost giving birth to the modern Indian aesthetic. Secondly, when we revive handloom, we are not only increasing the demand for textiles that are handmade (thus giving more work to our skilled artisans), but also being sustainable culturally and environmentally. The environmental hazards of fast fashion are no new news. The concept of slow fashion promotes handloom revival as once the consumer is aware of the fact that we need to consume less, we will buy something of quality (i.e made skillfully) with added cultural value. I think handloom revival will also raise awareness of fair trade, as the artisan also becomes more aware of his own skill and talent,” she said.

Making Local International

Understanding these very aspects, there are select few Indian designers that have made conscious efforts to infuse their design with Indian handlooms and crafts. By working with rural handicraftsmen, they have not only helped provide them with livelihood but have also introduced the contemporary global audience with garments that withhold the spirit of India.

Raw Mango Spring 2019 sari collection

In 2017, New York’s Museum of Modern Art showcased an exhibition titled “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” that featured designer Sanjay Garg’s creations under the brand name Raw Mango. His silk and organza saris have also been a permanent fixture at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum since 2012. Mr. Garg’s journey from the quaint town of Mubarikpur in the Alwar district of Rajasthan to the acclaimed V&A museum is surely an interesting one. A stint with the National Institute of Fashion technology (NIFT), Delhi widened his horizons and encouraged him to translate his love for Indian textile into recognised fashion. For Mr. Garg, the sari has always been the epitome of female beauty. He believes that if an Italian made shoe can grab attention and command a high price, why can’t the ethereal Indian handloom sari? 

Sanjay Garg’s love for minimalism and simplicity reflects articulately in his uniquely titled brand. Birthed in 2008 with the idea of romanticising the sari, Raw Mango puts Indian handloom and craftsmanship at the centre of the label. His bold but clean designs have catalysed the revival of many Indian textiles such as chanderi, brocade, and chikankari. The brand works closely with artisans and weavers from across the country to create its unconventionally timeless pieces that embody the forgotten glory of Indian heritage. With roots imbedded in community and art, Raw Mango’s karigars are based in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Varanasi.

Anita Dongre GrassrootAnother brand that’s created headlines with its connection with Indian craft is Anita Dongre’s Grassroot. Conceived out of the need to narrate India’s craft story and make it relevant to the urban global audience, Grassroot by Anita Dongre works with artisan clusters across India. The brand works intimately with NGOs and other organisations like Self Employed Women’s Association, a trade union, for its creations.

A “design intervention” as per the fashion mogul, Grassroot helps artisans create modern garments with their traditional crafts. Their priceless skills are meticulously used to recreate designs and unique colour combinations that appeal to the intercontinental audience. The brand, born 12 years ago, opened its first retail store only five years ago. Ms. Dongre opened a flagship store in New York City, exemplifying the importance of the country’s crafts on an international level.

While Anita Dongre’s eponymous label prides itself on bridal couture, Grassroot’s business model is quite different. Its essential aim is to provide work to the local artisans of the country. Her design team sketches out ideas personally with the artisans to create garments that are the perfect marriage between their skills and a contemporary perspective. Some of the common techniques used in Grassroot’s designs are weaving, embroidery, and bandhani tie and dye. Each season of Grassroot features collections that are inspired by the versatility of Indian states. 

The Runway Story

Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla Shweta Bachchan NandaThe trend of weaving Indian handlooms and crafts into fashion has transcended onto the runway too. Designer duo Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla participated in a fashion show to celebrate 50 years of The Cancer Patients Aid Association. Titled “Inheritance”, the collection paid tribute to textiles and embroidery from across the country. Featuring textiles like bandhani tie and dye, Banarasi tissues, jamdanis, khadi, Assam weaves and Kanjeevaram silks, the collection has intermingled a range of techniques including chikankari, zardozi, gota and resham to create the garments. “We have sourced the most exquisite fabrics and textiles from across India, from leading weavers and companies. Each an expert in a particular weave. These fabrics form the DNA of this collection. Our flight of fantasy to take our inheritance and create beauty,” said the designers. 

Showcased at Lakmé Fashion Week earlier this year, designer Rohit Bal’s The Kashmir Collection created for the Usha Silai label is another example of how handlooms are making a comeback into the industry. Usha Silai started off as schools that taught women to stitch, tailor and repair machines and graduated into a fashion initiative that empowers women by encouraging the art of stitching and sewing. Launched at Lakmé Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2018, the Usha Silai initiative works in partnership with designers to provide artisans from rural areas with employment, while helping them translate their skills into fashion forward garments. The Kashmir Collection by Rohit Bal encapsulates the intricacy of Kashmiri embroidery. The creations have been exclusively stitched by the women at Usha Silai in Kashmir. Mr. Bal has used organic fabrics like cotton, silk blends, chanderis, silk organzas and velvets with motifs of vibrant flowers showcasing the region’s craft.

Ms. Goyal observes a huge, positive change in the way artisans are coming to the fore. “I see enthusiasm about their [artisans’] craft and open-mindedness to innovate which are key to designer-maker collaborations. Some artisans are already working with mass retail stores, some with boutique independent ones, which reinforces the demand of these crafts. I see collaboration between different states, e.g., jamdani weavers making something with Maheshwari weavers. However, we still have some challenges. Fair trade is not seen in all communities. Not all artisans are given equal creative credit and this probably can happen with digital education for the artisan,” she explains.

From Royals to Celebrities

Advaya by House of AngadiAnother label that is passionately bearing the torch for the revival of Indian crafts and handloom is The House of Angadi. The brand is promoted by a family that began their textile journey as court weavers to the Saraboji Maharaja of Tanjore. Their 600-year old legacy is steered by K. Radharaman, the design head and CEO of Advaya — the limited edition sari label by the house.

If you already don’t know, Indian actress Deepika Padukone wore an exquisite sari made with pure gold zari Kanjeevaram brocade silk, with two-headed bird motif, for her Konkani wedding with actor Ranveer Singh. Creating a story, she donned another gold zari Kanjeevaram silk sari for her reception, catapulting the brand, its work and heritage into modern consciousness. Simply put, the essence of the label is “innovation in hand-woven textiles”. 

Depending on the genre of textile they are working on, Advaya works with artisans and weavers from across the length and breadth of the country. “At present, I am working with weavers from Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu, artisans from Kota in Rajasthan, embroidery craftsman from West Bengal for kantha and weavers from Benares for Banarasi jamdani,” says Mr. Radharaman. 

The Bengaluru-based CEO lends an interesting opinion on the matter at hand; he believes that it is a misnomer to say that Indian crafts are being revived now. “The fact is they have always been around – for hundreds of thousands of years. The revival that we are actually witnessing is in consumer interest and media attention. We have a unique legacy of crafts in this country that is unrivalled and unsurpassable anywhere in the world. These crafts have withstood the test of time and many foreign influences. They have been modernised and repurposed now again in recent times. Businesses associated with crafts did suffer a setback at the turn of the century – but today they are more vibrant than ever. I have little doubt that traditional crafts shall not only survive but thrive in days to come,” he adds. 

The revival of Indian handloom and crafts is hopefully not a temporary one. All concur that it’s not a trend, but an evolution. It’s surely exciting to see what’s next in this sartorial journey that’s inspired by the heritage and artisanship of one of the most versatile countries in the world. 

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