India’s “Save our textiles” era, the one that we are in the midst of will slowly open towards draconian questions asking what did we actually save. When it does, designer and textile conservationist Ritu Kumar’s reiterations will gain serious significance. For those who track fashion, textile history and its many complex and current movements, this is one designer we may want to listen to. While a number of experienced crafts experts are trying hard to convince an earnest Ministry of Textiles that fashion is certainly not the first way to change the fortunes of weavers in impoverished handloom sectors of India which have their own specific needs, Kumar, because she is a designer was able to recently show exactly what this means.
On the handloom and textile day of Lakme Fashion Week’s (LFW) Winter/Festive 2015 edition last week in Mumbai, Kumar showed a collection called Varanasi Weaves. A capsule of white on white Banarasi cutwork on the one hand and some classical looking but newly woven saris that walked the ramp made devoted followers of textile interpretations sit up. The intrinsic beauty and styling of these garments was fabulous. But let’s say that you can expect that much from the matriarch of Indian fashion anyway. Even so, what was extraordinary was her attempt at bringing back what she calls the lost weaves in the Varanasi vocabulary: rich, opulent, dexterously layered with weaving attention on pattern and colour.
At a panel discussion that day, Kumar had made some firm and calm observations, directed at the audience at large but primarily at Alok Kumar, the Development Commissioner of Handlooms from the Ministry of Textiles. I moderated that discussion and found Kumar’s advice that the government should certainly not get into branding of textile fabrics or get into designing for which it had no expertise very valid. Kumar, who was decorated with a Padma Shri a couple of years back later told me that it was too late in life to mince words and she wanted to call a spade a spade. She meant that if work had to be done with the largesse, intensity, texture, breadth and bandwidth of the Vishvakarma exhibitions of Indian Handlooms in the 80s that had revitalized pathways needed to stay in consonance with indigenous artisans and their creations, this was not the way forward. “Bringing back livelihood to the weavers requires serious work by senior experts on the field. Otherwise we are just engaging with a popular idea. Whatever resources we have we must use them effectively,” she said adding that it just looked like a lot of work is being done.
Kumar’s view is shared by a number of crafts and textile veterans who seem to be looking at the government’s frenzy around Varanasi both with amusement and dismay.
For a story that I reported on the Banaras conundrum last week for Mint Lounge, Kumar had made one another point on pricing that may help many of India’s textile brigade understand why quick, trendy products created from Varanasi as modern pret and global fashion are so antithetical to what the weavers of that city are known for. “It should be priced like couture,” she said simply. “Varanasi brocades were never meant for common consumption, they always were created as a response for higher patronage for them,” she said.
This argument may be a great and timely clue for those on the bandwagon. It will help elevate Varanasi above seasonal creations and give it the status it deserves. So that the commercial gains of promotional storms are in tandem. “I am keeping my fingers crossed but believe me I am seriously worried that it is going to be difficult to save Varanasi’s authenticity,” says Kumar.
Wise words especially as the drums around Varanasi will beat soon again at Amazon India Fashion Week in October. A select list of designers has been asked to make four garments each “inspired by Varanasi” for the finale.
How many new clothes would The Emperor really need?