The Banaras tribe

India’s oldest weaving tradition took centre stage at a show organized by the Ministry of External Affairs for the visiting first ladies of Africa


Threads of Banaras
Threads of Banaras

What would you choose to conjure up the magic and textile heritage of India before a delegation from abroad? Till even a year back, this question would have led to more than a few relevant and plausible options from the varied textiles of India. Today, it is a bygone conclusion that the answer is Banaras. The government’s much ado about Varanasi textiles has not only turned India’s oldest weaving legacy into a showstopper of sorts but opened a busy bridge between textile sustenance and mainstream fashion.

Little surprise then, that when the Ministry of External Affairs decided to organize a fashion show in honour of the First Ladies of Africa on the occasion of the India-Africa Forum Summit III, it found it easy to be politically correct and fashionably au courant. Threads of Banaras, mounted in collaboration with the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) and Ekaya, the house of Banarasi fabrics and saris headquartered in Varanasi, with stores in Delhi and Ahmedabad was staged today at Delhi’s The Leela Palace hotel. Aimed towards a small handpicked audience to give company to less than twenty First Ladies of Africa, this show, however predictable in its thematic promise, surpassed all expectations in choreography, styling, quality and fashion. It created sound without noise, it was engaging without hoopla, it displayed clothes that were beautiful to behold yet stopped short of becoming a blur of hair-raising bling that Varanasi fabrics can easily become.

Sufi singer Rene Singh sang soulfully and sonorously in the background mixing lyrical bhajans, an ode to the river Ganga, the song Piya tose naina laage re from the 1955 film Guide and the peppy ghazal Chhap Tilak Sab Chhini re Mose Naina milaike..

Choreographed by fashion industry veteran Harmeet Bajaj with inputs from FDCI president Sunil Sethi, Threads of Banaras showed fine weaves from Ekaya. The selection of garments—saris, lehngas, long skirts, anti-fit cholis and tops and assorted ethnic wear gave precedence to traditional styling instead of “fusion gimmickry”. It started with a stunning capsule of gold and beige brocades, followed by blacks and other deeper shades till it burst into an explosion of multi hued woven Banarasi textiles woven with gold and silver zari yarn. The garments included a new line of ethnic wear to be launched next week called Ekaya-Leela for which Bajaj is the creative director as well as pieces from the store’s collaborations with the quirky design brand Play Clan and designers Ashdeen as well as Archana Rao.

With Banaras so much on the boil, designers and stores working with this weaving vocabulary have a tight rope walk to master. They could easily slip and get lost in the burgeoning Banarasi market. But if this show is anything to go by, Ekaya seems to have got its design strategy right with a mix of designer-led collaborations balanced with its own ethnic wear line. Just as the Ekaya-Leela capsule of gold and beige brocades was memorable for its elegance, the Play Clan capsule stood out for its audaciously attractive patterns.

Yet, Varanasi’s historical aesthetic stood out—loud and clear. That was the show’s triumph. It may also be relevant to point out that Indian textiles look the best when presented with a prominently traditional approach that includes some modern interpretations instead of cutting fabrics in a hundred ways to laboriously create “modern” outfits from them. Banarasi textiles particularly resist Westernization, they lose their grace. As a case in point, there were only a couple of Western outfits in this show—one had the semblance of a bomber jacket—these were the weakest pieces of the collection when compared to saris where pallus were allowed to find their flow or lehnga-skirts and tops with chunis which said I-am-so-happy-being-an-authentic-Indian.

African First Ladies who were treated to a delicious multi-course meal after the show with a live demonstration on how to make an Indian paratha by The Leela chef Kunal Kapoor were all agog and full of praise. But obviously.

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