Operating out of a small 450 sq. ft store, with a modest show window and shelves stacked neatly with saris, Sagrika Rai has been bringing the grandeur of Banarasi textiles to Mumbai’s women for two decades. On 21 March, she opened a new store, Warp ’n Weft, adjacent to this one in Mumbai’s Marine Lines area. A native of Varanasi who moved to the city in the early 1990s, Rai found herself searching the markets and finding none of the staples she had grown up with. Later in that decade, she went back to weavers and traders in her home town and curated a collection for the city. It sold out.“When I first moved here, every other lady I would meet at theatres or at parties would be wearing shades of white or beige. I needed to introduce a mindset for a Banarasi slowly. We did subtle whites and silvers, whites and gold, then progressed to lighter hues like lilacs, powder blues, pistachios. And finally introduced gulabi, the deep hot pinks, followed by reds, violets, emerald greens; all those jewel tones that one would associate the Banarasi with,” says Rai.
Dressed in a silk sari with jamuni angoor jaal and minakari, Rai walks around her new store with pride. The store is almost three times the size of the old store, which is now under renovation. For the new, spacious two-floor setting, Rai roped in interior designer Ajit Shilpi to create a modern, muted backdrop for the colourful textiles. Rai has filled it with object-details that are reminiscent of Varanasi. For instance, a Shiva Over The Ghats painting makes an instant connect with the city’s ancient name, Kashi. Traditionally enamelled craft objects sit on windowsills and an intricately woven Shikargah carpet with its peacocks, deers and parrot motifs is spread out on the second floor. The showstopper, however, is a majestic chandelier that hangs from the double-height ceiling, an heirloom that Rai inherited. “Years ago the royal family of Banaras was selling things in the market, and my father bought this jhumar piece by piece and restored it to its original glory. Just a few years ago, my mother told me one day, it goes to you, and here it hangs in Warp ’n Weft and I’m particularly sentimental about it,” says Rai.
Rai’s journey of working with Banarasis predates a lot of the fashion fraternity’s recent interest and work in updating Banarasi to the taste of the current moment. “There’s always a story of revival in Banaras, of people coming in and dipping into the sea of Banarasi textiles. But I don’t think Banarasi itself ever needed revival. People needed revival. Mindsets needed revival. Having said that, there is a movement I sense in Banaras. It is on a larger spectrum today, there’s more scope for business, and, reassuringly, weavers’ children are showing interest in their family craft and wanting to take over the business,” says Rai.
Rai’s loyalty to the authentic Banarasi is evident in her collection of saris. Going through the shelves and hangers in the store, with its spectrum of textures and colours, is not just a pleasure trip, it’s a kind of museum walk through the visual landscape of Banarasi textiles. There are simple butis, ornate Shikargahs, the intricate details of an old Jamewar, “which you would not find anywhere else today and we are proud to still make it”, meenakari jaals, guldawari lehngas with their chrysanthemum floral forms, the khinkhwab style with its etymology in Persian referring to an adaptation of dreams. Initially she worked with retailers, gradually beginning work with her own cluster of weavers. “This is what I want to showcase. This is what I want to be known for: Banarasi in its absolute banarsi-pana. Not a Banarasi that looks bohemian. I want customers to wear Banarasi in all its grandeur.”