The 5-hour car ride from Kolkata to Chowk village in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district on a bumpy, broken road is sure to leave you with a sore back. This journey is probably why the region has escaped the attention of potential handloom buyers, who flock to more accessible hubs in the state.
Wheel of life: (top) Weavers in Islampur; and Mondal at Chandrakant Lalitmohan Resham Khadi Samity, from where he sources fabric. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
But 29-year-old Kolkata-based designer Soumitra Mondal is willing to make the trip once every two months to nurture his camaraderie with the local weavers and reassure them that their craft is still valued.
Silk weaving is the main cottage industry in Murshidabad. Around 16,000 families in Chowk, in the Islampur area, and 30 neighbouring villages are engaged at various points of the process of silk production—from separating silk threads from cocoons and spinning the yarn to weaving them into cloth. Walk down the dusty roads of Chowk and the air hums with the rattle of the taant(the indigenous wooden loom on which the cloth is woven). The brick-and-mortar houses indicate that the village is relatively more prosperous than other parts of the poor district.
The looms date back to the 1950s, when the craft took root in the area, and have been handed down from one generation to the next.
There has been little impetus from the government to modernize the fabric and make it popular among the general public. But now, hope has come in the form of Indian fashion designers who are willing to experiment. Designers such as Ritu Kumar, Rohit Bal, Raghavendra Rathore and Anamika Khanna have used khadi in their creations, and newer labels such as Gaba are now doing so.
Mondal is currently working on a line of autumn/winter clothes for daily wear for his fashion label, Marg. He says this collection—in earthy tones of brown, yellow ochre, green and maroon—will be crafted with just cotton and silk handloom and khadi, and adorned with thread embroidery.
“Khadi can be given a soft texture that breathes well, and with the infusion of vibrant colours and modern designs, it can be very chic,” Mondal says.
We visited Chowk with the designer, who was there to take delivery of a consignment of bleached white “linen silk”, an innovative combination of handmade silk and linen yarn that he has conceptualized. Having extensively researched khadi (he began experimenting with the fabric in 1999, while he was interning with designer Rahul Gupta), Mondal has been working with the artisans of the Islampur area to procure fabric for his collections. His linen silk dresses were well-received at Lakme Fashion Week in Spring/Summer 2008.
Khadi’s bright hues: Models showing Mondal’s Spring/Summer 2009 collection at Lakme Fashion Week; the outfits are now available at fashion stores in Mumbai. Lakme Fashion Week
That was the first time Mondal presented a collection using khadi silk. He went a step further with his Spring/Summer 2009 collection (currently selling at Aza and The Oak Tree in Mumbai; prices start at Rs1,200), which was crafted entirely from khadi silk and included a few linen silk garments. The collection received an overwhelming response at Lakme Fashion Week in October. The look and feel of the lightweight and translucent linen silk was a hit.
“This kind of innovation is required not only to popularize khadi, but also to make sure that the artisans are given new challenges to make the job more exciting. The only way an art or a profession can survive is when there is a demand for it,” he says. “If I am successful in popularizing khadi as a niche material in India and abroad, I could support a hundred families in this area involved in the production of khadi.”
There is a long way to go. With khadi generally relegated to being a dull and coarse fabric without mass appeal, the fortunes of around one million artisans involved in the production of khadi across India have been dwindling.
Though much of Mondal’s production work is done in Phulia (the more famous handloom hub in the state), he delegates a substantial portion of it to Islampur since it is the only area in the state, according to him, where the entire process takes place—from the cultivation of silkworms to the separation of the thread and the weaving of the cloth.
Moreover, since Phulia is only a 2-hour drive from Kolkata, the artisans there have more than enough work and are, therefore, often hard-pressed to deliver consignments on time, says Mondal. “Since Islampur is far less accessible and further away from Kolkata, it has not yet been explored by potential buyers. So the commitment and excitement among the weavers of this area is far greater.” Procuring the material directly from weavers also gives him a cost advantage.
Mondal is planning to give linen silk a popular platform by incorporating it in designs meant for apparel stores such as the Linen Club, promoted by the Aditya Birla Group. He has also been in talks with Fabindia, which is interested in exploring the idea of stocking dresses made of khadi silk with traditional ikkat work. If the deal is clinched, it would mean more work for the artisans of Chowk.