Seven years ago, Hyderabad-based designer Gaurang Shah recreated the paintings of Laxman Aelay on saris using Jamdani. “One of the customers was Lavina Baldota, from Baldota (Abheraj) Foundation," he recalls. “She liked my work and suggested we collaborate in the future." In 2017, Baldota introduced Shah to the Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation with the aim of recreating Varma’s works on Khadi saris as a dual homage to the artist, and M.K. Gandhi who revolutionized the use of Khadi. Gandhi’s birth anniversary coincides with Varma’s death anniversary—a connection that led the collaborators to announce Khadi, A Canvas, a forthcoming exhibition on 2 October.

A year-long project, Khadi, A Canvas involves a meticulous replication of Varma’s most well-known works of art woven on to the pallu of the sari, using the Srikakulam Jamdani technique. Shah’s team has created 600 shades of natural dye to recreate the same colours as on the portraits, and dyed over 200kg of yarn. The Srikakulam Jamdani technique makes it possible to create the entire pattern without repetitions—unlike other weaving techniques like Banarasi, Paithani or even the Bengal Jamdani, the Srikakulam technique involves placing 6m of drawing paper under the fabric which the weaver references to create the design. “Every inch can be a different design," says Shah, adding that a number of artisans engaged in the project are rural women who left farming and manual labour to join Shah’s weaving team and trained over the last couple of years.

Of the 30 saris that will comprise the collection, five were ready by the end of 2018. Shah hopes to complete the other saris well before they are scheduled to go on display. Shah hopes that the project will shine a bigger spotlight on his weaves. Since he showed his first collection at the Lakmé Fashion Week in 2012, the designer has opened stores across the country, become a regular fixture at fashion shows, exhibited around the world and garnered a clientele that ranges from Bollywood actors to members of Parliament. Now he’s dreaming bigger. “For a few years now, I’ve wanted my saris to go into museums," he says. “My saris are masterpieces—some take weeks to make, others take two-three years."

In December, Shah took his first step towards showcasing his saris in a museum-like display. He unveiled a new collection of Jamdani saris with a three-day multimedia exhibition in Delhi’s Bikaner House titled Interlace, where the woven saris were featured alongside a film, live weaving sessions, installations of semi-warp looms from across India, and a fashion show. Shah feels that exhibits like these can educate clients about handlooms and, in particular, the Jamdani weave. “If you ask someone what Jamdani is, they will say Bangladesh or Bengal," he says. “They will never say Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh or Maharashtra. For them, Jamdani is a sari, but it is actually a weaving technique."

Shah’s saris expand the repertoire of Jamdani as we know it—inspired by not just the Dhaka weave, but also the Srikakulam Jamdani, Kota, Paithani, Uppada and Venkatgiri techniques combined with motifs and patterns from Kashmir, Turkish tiles and Mughal architecture. The new collaboration with Raja Ravi Varma Foundation will, the designer hopes, showcase the true potential of Jamdani.

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